Crucial F-35 Combat Test Risks a Delay to 2022, Five Years Late

The stealthy F-35 jet may not complete its most critical stage of combat testing until about September 2022, the latest in a series of delays that has set America’s most expensive weapons program back by years, Pentagon officials were told last month.

The rigorous testing in the $398 billion program that was once planned for 2017 was most recently scheduled for December. But the Defense Department’s F-35 program office has now projected the target date for the monthlong simulator testing as August 2022, according to a briefing chart used in a mid-March review.

The delay means lawmakers will likely find themselves authorizing the Pentagon to keep buying the next-generation fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. in fiscal 2022 and 2023 without having a complete picture of the aircraft’s true capabilities. The Pentagon’s current five-year plan calls for requesting 85 F-35s in the 2022 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, up from 79 this year. That figure rises to 94 in fiscal 2023.

Crucial F-35 Combat Test Risks a Delay to 2022, Five Years Late

“We hope that the answer is delivered soon about the effectiveness of the F-35 and the justification for its billing as the ‘premier’ fighter aircraft of the world,” Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said in February. “It’s still in operational testing and evaluation, and once that’s finished -- and we hope it’s finished promptly -- then we can make a much more thorough assessment of the system.”

The simulator testing is meant to determine how the fighter will perform against the most advanced Russian and Chinese aircraft and air defenses. It’s a key benchmark in a program that’s been a work in progress for two decades.

Cockpit Replica

In it’s presentation last month, the F-35 program office outlined a series of steps needed over the next 18 months to get the testing completed. That includes fixes to the simulator and numerous cross-checks to verify and validate that it matches the fighter jet’s demonstrated flight performance. These steps would lead to a “test the test” event in March 2022 that would be assessed by a panel of experts certifying all the prior activity before authorizing a full-throttle exercise tentatively scheduled for August-September 2022.

Crucial F-35 Combat Test Risks a Delay to 2022, Five Years Late

That 64-sortie exercise will use a full replica of the F-35 cockpit rigged up with combat sensors and electronics. Pilots from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland will operate in a fully functioning simulator with a 360-degree view that depicts classified air and ground threats and incorporates allied aircraft as well. Other pilots will fly simulators of Russian or Chinese aircraft while foreign air defense systems will be replicated.

After the test, it will take an additional two to three months to transfer and analyze the data and then draft a final report for delivery to Pentagon leaders and Congress. The report is mandated by law before a decision on whether to move into full-rate production -- the most lucrative phase of the contract for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed -- can be made.

Congressional Hearing

Brittany Dickerson, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command organization that’s managing the simulation, referred all questions to the F-35 Joint Program Office.

The program office said in a statement Monday that “the information you’ve provided is pre-decisional. A status update will be formally released in the public domain once the revised” simulation timeline “has been reviewed and confirmed by the” Pentagon’s top acquisition executive.

Two House Armed Services committee subcommittees have scheduled a F-35 hearing for April 22 where program officials will testify and discuss the test schedule.

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