Lockheed's F-35 Wins Pentagon Approval for Full Combat Testing

(Bloomberg) -- Pentagon weapons buyer Ellen Lord has approved plans to begin full combat testing of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35, a major step toward full production of the fighter jet planned for next year.

Lord, the under secretary for acquisition, “certified readiness to enter operational testing after concurring” with the F-35 program manager’s recommendation to start in mid-November, her spokesman, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

Lockheed's F-35 Wins Pentagon Approval for Full Combat Testing

More than 320 F-35s are already operating from 15 bases worldwide, although the Pentagon and Lockheed continue to wrestle with resolving more than 900 deficiencies, including flaws in the plane’s complex software. That’s a result of the Defense Department’s strategy to start producing the plane while it’s still under development, a strategy that a chief Pentagon weapons buyer once called “acquisition malpractice.”

By law, the F-35 must undergo full combat testing to demonstrate that it’s “operationally effective and suitable” against the most sophisticated aviation and air defense threats before the Pentagon can buy the bulk of the planned 2,456 U.S. aircraft.

Lucrative for Lockheed

A successful test would result in the first full-rate production contract of as many as 168 jets in the 13th batch, up from 141 in the just-completed 11th award, Vice Admiral Mat Winter, the F-35 program manager, told reporters Monday. It will be the most lucrative phase for Lockheed, the top U.S. defense contractor.

The Marine Corps announced last week that its version of the F-35, which has been designated as having “initial combat capability,” was used in combat for the first time during a mission in Afghanistan supporting ground troops. The upcoming tests will evaluate the jet’s capabilities against the most challenging Russian, Syrian, Chinese, and Iranian aircraft and air defenses, such as the S-300 and S-400 systems.

Pentagon director of testing Robert Behler is reviewing the testing plan’s specifics and will have the final say on when test flights will begin. The tests were scheduled to have started in September but he recommended a delay, which Lord accepted, until Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed delivered the latest version of software intended to correct some deficiencies.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza, a spokeswoman for Behler, said he in a statement that he didn’t consider the delay of roughly two months a “setback,” as it was labeled by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

Software Flaws, Fixes

The latest software includes fixes Behler deemed necessary to ensure that air-to-air combat exercises can be effectively measured on test ranges. The improvements help “ensure both the relevance and adequacy of the data to inform both the Department and Congress” about the aircraft’s capability, Behler said.

Despite some improvements, the combat testing will start with a “large amount of unresolved” software and hardware deficiencies “that will likely have a cumulative effect on F-35 mission capability,” during the exercises, Behler said.

The current count is 917 deficiencies, down from 995 earlier this year, and are of varying severity, Behler said. The F-35 deficiency process managed by the military services categorizes deficiencies as either Category I, which have the potential to cause death, injury, major loss or critically restricted combat readiness. Others are in Category II, which include planned enhancements and improvements.

Of the 917 open deficiencies, 13 are Category I and 904 are Category II, Baldanza said.

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