Plagued by a delayed delivery of crucial software and shortfalls with its automated maintenance system, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will begin initial operational test and evaluation more than a year after its planned August 2017 date.

In his last scathing report on the F-35, outgoing top Pentagon weapon tester Michael Gilmore gave early 2019 as an optimistic target date for initial operational test and evaluation. Even as the F-35 Joint Programme Office plans to reduce time in developmental testing in order to move ahead with IOT&E, Gilmore warns that hundreds of deficiencies will push full combat tests to late 2018 or early 2019 at the earliest.

Flight sciences testing identified more issues that will delay IOT&E, such as excessive and violent vertical oscillations experienced on the F-35C during catapult launches. The Navy considers the issue a “must fix” and directed the JPO should address it before IOT&E.

“Fleet pilots reported that the oscillations were so severe that they could not read flight critical data,” Gilmore writes. “Most of the pilots locked their harness during the catapult shot which made emergency switches hard to reach, again creating, in their opinion, an unacceptable and it unsafe situation.”

It’s clear given the numerous issues on the aircraft, including 270 high-priority deficiencies in Block 3F performance identified in a recent review, that Lot 10 will be delivered without the full Block 3F capability, Gilmore writes. Block 3F will bring the F-35 to its full combat capability, allowing 9g manoeuvres versus 7g loads with current Block 3i software and support for gun testing. Other critical 3F capabilities have fallen behind including Small Diameter Bomb integration, MADL capability to share imagery and basic Link 16 that allows the aircraft to transmit and receive messages.

When the US Air Force announced initial operational capability for the F-35A last August, the USAF’s chief of Air Combat Command Gen Herbert Carlisle told reporters blocks 3F and 4 would not be available until 2018 and 2021, respectively. Despite challenges during an interim readiness assessment, Carlisle assured the Block 3F software would ameliorate earlier issues on the aircraft.

In an August memo, Gilmore doubted the F-35A’s initial combat ready status. The Block 3i configuration, which carries weapons limited to Block 2B, would need support to locate and avoid modern threats, acquire targets and engage enemy aircraft he wrote. Gilmore echoed those criticisms in his last report, saying the F-35 with Block 3i software could not even match up in a permissive environment to some legacy aircraft, such as the F-18 and A-10. He also asserts pilots report the F-35’s electro-optical targeting system’s ability to identify targets is worse than those fielded on legacy aircraft.

“Environmental effects, such as high humidity, often forced pilots to fly closer to the target than desired in order to discern target features and then engage for weapon employment, much closer than needed with legacy systems, potentially alerting the enemy, exposing the F-35 to threats around the target area or requiring delays to regain adequate spacing to set up an attack,” he says.

The latest version of the F-35’s maintenance system will not be completed by the end of the system development and demonstration phase. ALIS 3.0 will not be delivered until mid-2018 and even then, several capabilities from that version will be deferred until later that summer, according to Gilmore.

Mission data loads, a compilation of mission data files which help identify enemy and friendly radar signals, for specific geographic regions will not be verified until 2019 at the earliest. Once delivered, the mission data loads will not be ready to face threats in testing, let alone combat, Gilmore writes.

Gilmore also pushed back on the JPO’s recent assertion that cost overruns from SDD could be recouped with existing program funding. The aircraft’s deficiencies will increase the SDD cost more than expected and the JPO must look within their existing budget or at funding set aside for follow-on modernisation, he says.

By continuing their pursuit of a block buy for lots 12 through 14 before completing IOT&E, Gilmore argues the JPO is flouting the “fly before you buy” approach. The block buy would deliver 452 aircraft in addition to the 490 procured under lots 1 through 11, a hefty procurement before full-rate production.