Software flaws on Marine F-35s no bar to combat, Pentagon says

AF-6 Flight 57, Pilot Mr. Mark Ward, January 18, 2012 Edwards AFB The first night flight for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

WASHINGTON — Five years after the first F-35s were supposed to be declared combat-ready, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer says the fighter jet’s operating software is ready to go “with some minor workarounds” that need to be remedied later.

“All but eight” of the 243 software capabilities anticipated for the declaration of “initial operational capability” are “on track to be completed and verified” before the Marine Corps announces the milestone for its version of the plane, Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, wrote in a report to Congress obtained by Bloomberg News.

The F-35, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is the most expensive U.S. weapons system ever, at a projected $391.1 billion for a planned fleet of 2,443 aircraft. It’s also a flying computer, with more than 8 million lines of software code in each plane.

Shortcomings, previously reported and cited by Kendall as among the eight issues still unresolved, involve software used in the fusion of data gathered from air and ground sensors, electronic warfare and air-to-air and air-to-ground data links.

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Kendall’s previously undisclosed report, dated June 22, said the Pentagon’s F-35 program office plans to resolve these issues during the testing of more capable software planned for deployment in late 2017.

“These shortcomings do not interfere with” the Marines’ intended missions, Kendall wrote in the report. The service “will still be able to meet” its declaration date “with requisite weapons and mission systems,” he wrote.

That assessment was questioned by Michael Sullivan of the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, who directs the agency’s annual report on the F-35 program.

“Some of the capabilities that will be questionable,” such as sensor fusion and electronic warfare,”are key components of the aircraft’s” advantage over current planes, Sullivan said in an email.

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“Sensor fusion has an impact on pilot workload, and the report is vague about addressing how difficult it will be for pilots to actually perform those ‘missions sets,’ or how effective the aircraft will actually be,” Sullivan said.

Maj. Paul Greenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman, said most of the issues being tracked “are only considered deficiencies when compared to the F-35B’s full combat capability in 2017.”

For close air support missions, Marine pilots “will be able to target in real time, talk to forward air controllers over the radio and data link, and put weapons on target,” Greenberg said in an e-mailed statement.

The five-year delay in declaring initial operational capability for the F-35, from an April 2010 goal that was set in 2001 when the program started, resulted in part from previous difficulties in reducing the plane’s weight and with its propulsion system.

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The Marines want to buy 353 of the F-35 version designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, the most complex of the three models Lockheed is making. So far, 37 of the planes have been delivered to the Marines. The U.K. and Italy also are buying this version, so the Marine Corps’ announcement is drawing international attention.

A Marine readiness inspection this week is reviewing the progress made by the 10 aircraft in squadron VMF-121 at Yuma, Arizona. The decision on declaring them combat-ready will be made by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Marine Corps commandant, who’s awaiting Senate confirmation as President Barack Obama’s nominee to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If the review is completed this week “and we are confident that the aircraft are ready for worldwide deployment,” it will be designated, Lieutenant General Jon Davis, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, said in an e-mail. If it takes until August, he said, “then it will be August. Bottom line is that we won’t rush this; we are doing this the right way.”