Key Senator Urges Pentagon to Finish F-35’s Combat Tests Quickly

The head of the Senate panel that authorizes military programs said he’s impatient for the Pentagon to finish rigorous combat simulation testing of the F-35 and provide an assessment of the stealthy fighter jet’s effectiveness.

“We’ve been building it” for years “and 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,” Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview this week.

“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,” the Rhode Island lawmaker added.

Reed will have to wait a while longer.

The Pentagon’s program office is waiting for the results of an assessment by university software experts as to when the final -- and often delayed -- rigorous combat simulation phase will even begin. The testing was supposed to have occurred in December, the latest date for an exercise once planned for 2017.

The next-generation F-35 from Lockheed Martin Corp. is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system, costing $398 billion to develop and build the fleet. Fully assembled, it’s a flying computer, with more than 8 million lines of computer code. Along with a range of hardware issues, the jet has been plagued by software problems even as the U.S. and allied nations deploy the fighter.

An independent technical assessment is being executed by experts from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute and the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The Pentagon’s F-35 program office says the assessment is expected by Feb. 28.

The review team is assessing the status of all the elements necessary to start the combat testing in a highly sophisticated simulator to evaluate how the F-35 -- and future aircraft and electronic warfare systems -- would perform against the most advanced Russian and Chinese aircraft and air defenses.

But the F-35 program office said in a statement Tuesday that the independent assessment team’s findings won’t be publicly released. Instead, they will be incorporated by program officials into their revision of the test schedule and other milestones that will be formalized at some point in a decision memo.

$1.2 Trillion

Even after the one-month test occurs, 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 portion of the contract for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin -- can be made.

Aside from the test report, Reed indicated he’ll be examining with more rigor the F-35’s long-term sustainment cost, which Pentagon analysts have pegged at $1.2 trillion over decades.

The cost to operate and maintain the fleet “to me, is very significant,” Reed said. Congress has traditionally focused on the price tag of a program but “not as much on sustainment, and I think the F-35 is going to force us to be much more conscious of sustainment -- on how those costs can be lowered, on how we have to look at those systems in terms of their life-cycles, not just how much it costs to build it.”

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