The Pentagon’s top weapons tester intends to approve limited testing on the Lockheed Martin F-35 while the programme office waits for modifications needed to begin the fighter’s full initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E).

Recent reports stated that the Defense Department’s office of the Director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) had approved some IOT&E testing that would include close air support and reconnaissance missions, a major shift from the office’s previous position that warned against testing without completing modifications to all 23 test aircraft.

This week, the US Air Force clarified DOT&E intends to approve select “pre-IOT&E” events such as cold weather or ship suitability testing. DOT&E expects to approve as many pre-IOT&E events as possible without interrupting ongoing modifications on the 23 test aircraft that will allow formal testing to begin, the service says in an email to FlightGlobal.

DOT&E has not approved any plans that would allow the start of F-35 IOT&E before all test aircraft are configured with required modifications, a Pentagon spokesman tells FlightGlobal.

In its 2016 report on the F-35, DOT&E director Michael Gilmore highlighted the “extensive and time-consuming modifications” still required for the test fleet. Due to the ongoing delays, Gilmore projected the fleet would likely not be able to start formal testing until 2019. At the time of the report, Gilmore cited 155 different modifications needed across all variants and lots, though no single aircraft required all 155 fixes.

“In fact, IOT&E could be delayed to as late as (calendar year 2020), depending on the completion of required modifications to the IOT&E aircraft,” the report states.

Beginning formal testing before the 23 aircraft are production ready would mark a stark departure from DOT&E’s previous recommendations, though former Joint Programme Office executive officer Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan had suggested a similar plan advocating piecemeal testing. But with new leadership at the office under the Trump administration, the recent move toward some early testing could signal a policy shift.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon may be aggravating the issue as the department continues to purchase new F-35s even as its existing inventory is not yet combat capable.

“The fact that the programme has not even contracted for all the testing aircraft and has been favoring purchasing new aircraft is telling that they’re not taking the testing process very seriously,” says Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.