No time to relax

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 11 June issue of Flight International.

Things could finally be looking up for Lockheed Martin’s gargantuan tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. On the financial side, the latest Pentagon selected acquisition report shows that the jet’s overall programme price tag has dropped by $4.5 billion to about $390 billion. Operationally there is progress, too. The three US services have decided on the dates when they intend to declare initial operational capability (IOC) for the fighter. 

As might be expected, the US Marine Corps has set the most aggressive schedule. Its F-35B short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant is scheduled to become operational in 2015 with the interim Block 2B software configuration. The US Air Force – the largest customer for the stealthy fighter and once insistent that only the final Block 3F configuration would suffice for IOC – has advanced the F-35A’s operational timetable to 2016. Now it will use the Block 3i configuration, which is a rehosted version of Block 2B software, for its IOC declaration. The US Navy, the lone resister, will wait until late 2018 or early 2019 to declare its F-35C operational with the jet’s final Block 3F software.

The USAF’s move to bring forward its IOC date is a vote of confidence in the F-35 programme. However, there are those concerned about the wisdom of rushing the jet into service without completing flight testing. But USAF sources feel an operational test phase for the Block 2B software load should afford the service a sufficiently in-depth glimpse of its capabilities to hit its deadline. Elected officials have their concerns, too. Congress worries that the USAF – and particularly the Marines, with their very tight schedule – may have a hard time meeting those targets. However, they may be mollified by easily shifted IOC dates should further programme delays emerge.

More worrying for congressmen, though, is the pace of the JSF’s software development. The F-35′s software, with its oft-quoted 19.2 million lines of code, has been a huge concern for programme managers and service chiefs for several years. Even though the temptation is there to ease off the gas once the jet is operational in 2016, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin cannot relax.

With potential adversaries developing their own stealthy fifth-generation fighters and the continued proliferation of advanced air defence systems – such as the Russian-built S-300 – around the globe, the full capabilities of the F-35′s Block 3F configuration will be needed. It is in the Pentagon’s best interests to continue development of the F-35 at full throttle.

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