Pentagon Memo: F-35 Capabilities in Jeopardy
By: Dan Grazier | November 16, 2016
When F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots take to the air in coming years, not
only will their plane not be suitable for combat, it won’t even be fully
developed. Indeed, performance in multiple essential mission areas will be
“unacceptable,” according to the Pentagon’s top weapon testing official.
In a memo obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, Dr. Michael
Gilmore, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), warns that the
Joint Strike Fighter Program Office (JPO) has decided to cut short the F-35’s
development phase in order to pretend that schedule and cost goals are being
Truncating Development Breeds Further Cost Overruns
Contractors, the JPO, and Pentagon acquisition officials have failed for
years to deliver on their grandiose promises of program success. Now the
program appears to be out of money, with lots of development testing and
re-engineering left to be done. Instead of admitting to these failures, F-35
program officials are kicking the development can into the future by
arbitrarily cutting short this process now with the intention of eating into
funds set aside for operational testing and production later.
Taking incompletely developed F-35s into combat will, Dr. Gilmore says,
place pilots at “significant risk.”
The F-35 Program Office is now belatedly asking for some additional funds to
complete development while simultaneously asking Congress to approve its
plans to buy increasing numbers of new, incompletely-developed production
aircraft they know will require extensive and expensive modifications. The
current block buy plan of 410 aircraft could cost between $34 billion and
$54 billion, depending on whether you believe the optimistic public
statements of Pentagon officials or the figures released in more subdued
We now know that there is every possibility the F-35 will not be fully
designed before it is placed in active service. Taking incompletely
developed F-35s into combat will, Dr. Gilmore says, place pilots at
He also warns that if the Joint Program Office persists in its current plan,
there is a high risk the F-35 will fail operational testing. If the F-35
fails, this will require an expensive correction process followed by a
repeat of the entire operational test program. The test rerun alone would
cost taxpayers an extra $300 million. Engineering the fixes and installing
them on all the production aircraft would cost vastly more.
Following an article on the Gilmore memo published on Bloomberg, Senate
Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) sent a letter to
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter raising concerns that Pentagon officials had
misled the committee about the progress of the program. He specifically
challenged statements from F-35 Program Manager Lieutenant General
Christopher Bogdan that development would be finished in late 2017. He also
questioned Air Force Secretary Deborah James certifying that the program had
the funds necessary to complete development on time, since it was clearly
refuted by the testing memo. Given “the troubled performance, continued
delays, and persistent cost overruns of this program,” Senator McCain
disputed the Department of Defense’s insistence that the current requirement
for 2,433 F-35s was realistic and affordable and recommended the Department
adjust its buy quantity based on actual costs and schedule.
Rather than completing the development phase, let alone the highly critical
combat-realistic operational tests (OT), F-35 advocates on Capitol Hill and
in the Pentagon seem to place the survival of their too-big-to-fail program
ahead of building a warplane that works in combat. The current Congressional
authorization and appropriations bills have increased the F-35 buy beyond
the Pentagon’s request. Not satisfied with this add-on, 70 House members
want to fund an additional 11 aircraft.
Mission Software Woes Top the List
Though problems in the plane’s structure, aerodynamics, engine, and
reliability also abound, the latest schedule delays are largely due to
continuing problems in developing F-35 mission system software. The mission
software controls every input the pilot receives regarding threats, targets,
weapons, and the mission profile to be flown.
As the Air Force has claimed repeatedly, the mission software (if and when
it works) is, together with stealth, intended to be the most important
advantage of the F-35 over all current fighters. The early, rudimentary
versions of the software now installed in the operational fleet—Block 2B and
3i—enable the F-35 to conduct only basic flight and to fire one radar
missile model and one type of guided bomb. Yet even this rudimentary system
software has repeatedly failed developmental tests—and is too limited in
combat capability at this point to even enter combat-realistic operational
The new mission systems software needed to perform the plane’s real combat
functions—close support of troops, deep strike bombing and air-to-air
fighting—is being released in an alphabet soup of software upgrades,
increments and block packages. Each version adds a few extra capabilities
and attempts to fix the failures in earlier versions. The version currently
in development test, Block 3F Revision5 (3FR5), added a few weapons and was
supposed to reduce the frequent computer crashes of the previous version.
These crashes, Dr. Gilmore wrote, forced the pilot to shut down and restart
the radar in mid-mission. Developmental Revision 5 will still fall short of
the minimum range of combat capabilities the F-35 needs to even begin
realistic operational testing. To start those crucial tests, the F-35 needs
another upgraded software version, Block 3FR6, which has yet to be
Developmental testing of earlier Block 3F versions found capabilities for
Close Air Support, Destruction/Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, Offensive
and Defensive Counter-Air, Air Interdiction, and Surface Warfare missions
were all “unacceptable overall, with significant deficiencies in
capabilities and or/performance shortfalls.”
Kicking The Can Down The Road And Increasing Concurrency
With a mountain of development test failures, costly fixes and retests
staring them in the face, the JPO decided to arbitrarily truncate the
developmental test phase and to defer all the unfinished development tests
and retests to later operational test phase. Those developmental tests and
retests will be funded by operational test budgets, which don’t yet include
money for such testing.
Repeatedly stopping operational tests to fix basic design problems that
should have been completed during development will wreck the carefully
crafted operational test plan and schedule that have been in place for more
than four years, as agreed to by the services and DOT&E. – Dr. Michael
Dr. Gilmore’s memo warns that this is a highly risky proposition. In useful
and realistic operational tests, fully developed weapons systems that have
passed their development tests and met their design specifications are put
through their paces performing missions in realistic combat conditions. To
begin combat testing a weapon system that still needs engineering
development fixes and retests–and to conduct these engineering tests in the
middle of the operational test schedule—is courting disaster.
Incompletely developed F-35s undergoing rigorous combat tests will certainly
experience new design failures. These must be corrected and tested again, a
potentially lengthy process. Repeatedly stopping operational tests to fix
basic design problems that should have been completed during development
will wreck the carefully crafted operational test plan and schedule that
have been in place for more than four years, as agreed to by the services
and DOT&E. The result will be more delays and increased costs, exactly what
critics of Dr. Gilmore and defenders of the F-35 say they want to avoid.
When the Pentagon restructured the F-35 program in 2012 it postponed
production in order to decrease concurrency in the program, which is
overlapping production before development and operational testing is
complete, violating the principle of “fly before you buy.” The JPO’s
truncation of development is a deliberate increase in the F-35’s
The stated purpose of concurrency is to speed up the schedule and save
money, but the real motive is to protect an increasing flow of procurement
funds against any possibility of slowdown or cancellation due to failure in
testing—a practice that has rightly been called “acquisition malpractice.”
Moreover, history has repeatedly shown us that it actually delays programs
and adds to costs.
The F-35 Still Doesn’t Have a Gun
The F-35A’s internal cannon, a critical weapon both for close support and
dogfighting, remains problem-ridden and needs further development. When the
cannon’s stealth-preserving door opens, the extra drag on one side turns the
plane’s nose enough to spoil gun-aiming. Engineers hope that flight control
software changes can cure the problem, but that remains to be tested.
Far more serious is the fact that the only sight for aiming the gun is the
$600,000 Helmet Mounted Display. The very first shooting accuracy tests with
the helmet, scheduled for October 2016, have been delayed until 2017 due to
the software delays. There are strong engineering reasons to believe that
the helmet sight is incapable of meeting the plane’s gun accuracy design
specifications. Pilots have reported that the helmet’s displayed symbols can
lag behind their eye’s movement while they are flying through turbulence or
being buffeted during hard maneuvering. Whether the gun is actually combat
suitable or not will not be known until realistic operational test results
become available in 2020–at the earliest.
The Navy and Marine Corps F-35 variants will have even more serious gun
accuracy problems because both use an external gun pod with an unavoidably
less rigid mounting than the internal cannon. Firing this pod creates recoil
forces that pull the plane’s nose down, potentially creating worse effects
on accuracy than the F-35A’s muzzle door. A software solution has yet to be
Even if these serious airframe and helmet sight accuracy impediments are
overcome, the cannon may still not be able to meet its original design
requirements for hitting and destroying targets due to a change in the 25mm
ammunition. The F-35A will now fire a new, non-explosive fragmenting round
of untested accuracy and lethality while the F-35B and F-35C will use the
older Navy-developed Semi-Armor Piercing High Explosive Incendiary-Tracer
rounds. The program office “determined that the specification requirements
for gun accuracy could not be met with the new ammunition planned to be
As reported by DOT&E, the JPO is addressing these concerns by deleting all
cannon lethality and accuracy requirements from the program’s contractual
Operational Requirements Document—without formal approval from either the
services or OSD. The contractor now has no contractual responsibility for
air-to-air or air-to-ground accuracy and lethality. Should the F-35 cannon
prove incapable of hitting or destroying targets, in test or in combat, no
one can be held accountable nor can the program be stopped until a fix is
Weapons Delivery Accuracy Tests Delays Jeopardize Operational Testing
Before proceeding to combat-realistic operational testing of the F-35’s
weapons capabilities, the developmental weapons delivery accuracy tests must
establish, for each air-to-air and air-to-ground weapon, that the F-35 can
accomplish its “find-fix-identify-track-target-engage and-assess” functions
according to specification. Only after these functions are verified can more
stressful and combat-realistic testing of the same “kill chain” be
operationally tested. It is pointless to do these complex, expensive
operational tests with a weapon that fails to see and or hit targets under
benign engineering test conditions.
The F-35 has had occasional successes in developmental accuracy tests so
far, but according to DOT&E the overall results are not promising. During
several events, testing officials had to resort to “control room
intervention” to make tests appear successful. As an example, the memo
describes how a recent test of the long-range AIM-120 radar air-to-air
missile required the controllers on the ground to tell the pilot when to
fire because the F-35’s radar and computer system failed to display any
enemy target cues.
Moreover, 13 of the scheduled developmental weapons accuracy tests have yet
to be performed. JPO has not stated whether these will be ignored, completed
during the development phase, or kicked down the road into the operational
testing phase. These incomplete weapons tests could not be flown because
program managers had to fix and retest numerous failures uncovered in
earlier tests, thereby using up the available test range time and money. Dr.
Gilmore warns that unless these weapons accuracy tests are rescheduled,
funded, and completed during the F-35’s development phase, they will have a
major disruptive effect on the operational test phase. This would result in
more schedule slippages, cost overruns, and possibly even jeopardize any
ability to assess the combat suitability of the F-35.
Simply following the agreed test master plan to complete all weapons
developmental testing before operational testing starts is, technically and
ethically, clearly the right thing to do. Unfortunately, that requires JPO
and OSD official to admit to more cost and schedule growth, refuting their
ongoing narrative that all problems are being solved, the program is on
track, costs are going down, and the concurrent production of scores more
F-35s should not just continue but accelerate.
Truncating Testing and Declaring Success
As we reported earlier this year, the current F-35 program is at significant
risk of never being ready for combat. That assessment was based on an
official Air Force internal review of their own testing data.
On the day the Air Force declared the F-35 ready for combat, Chief of Staff
General David Goldfein said, “Today’s declaration of IOC is an important
milestone on the road to achieving full warfighting capability for the
He said that at the precise moment when the testing process was falling
further and further behind. According to the latest DOT&E memo, as of the
end of September 2016 the program had only completed 65 percent of the
scheduled flight test points, 1,120 short of the 3,189 planned.
Rather than redoubling their testing efforts to catch up, the JPO decided to
terminate flight testing scheduled for early 2017, arbitrarily declaring
development of the Block 3F software to be finished by then. A number of the
combat capabilities that were expected to be completed for the F-35A’s
August IOC date have only recently entered developmental flight testing.
Others haven’t even made it that far, thereby rendering the planned 2017
date for startup of operational flight testing wildly premature.
Dr. Gilmore warned that JPO officials, perhaps deliberately, have not
scheduled and funded enough operational test-ready aircraft to conduct the
planned combat tests.
Inadequate Preparations for IOT&E
An immature design is not the only factor imperiling useful operational
testing of the F-35’s combat suitability. Dr. Gilmore warned that JPO
officials, perhaps deliberately, have not scheduled and funded enough
operational test-ready aircraft to conduct the planned combat tests.
The number of operationally typical, production representative F-35s
required is one of the key criteria for starting operational testing. The
Test and Evaluation Master Plan agreed to by both DOT&E and the F-35 Joint
Program Office requires 18 aircraft, each with the necessary flight test
instrumentation installed and tested, were needed to begin the testing
But the F-35 Program Office is not even pretending to go through the motions
of executing the operational test program they agreed to. F-35 program
officials have yet to plan or contract for the necessary test aircraft,
despite knowing for 7 years they were required to do so. In contrast, they
have been diligent indeed in making sure taxpayers were on the hook for $6.1
billion to buy more incomplete, untested F-35s.
The Program Office has repeated that same pattern of neglect in managing the
other essentials for completing the thorough operational testing of the
F-35, including verified, fully realistic, man-in-the-loop mission scenario
simulators and fully tested threat electronics simulators for the test
ranges. Without these essentials, it is impossible to test the full
capabilities of the F-35. As an example, no one is going to fire a missile
at an F-35 during testing to see if the stealth capabilities and
counter-measures will work. The only way to test many of the F-35’s
capabilities is in a virtual simulated environment because the test ranges
cannot accurately replicate the full spectrum and quantity of threats the
jets would confront.
It is on this point of neglecting to acquire the planes needed to start
operational testing that Dr. Gilmore issues his most stinging rebuke of the
F-35 Joint Program Office:
“Expecting DOT&E to allow IOT&E to start without a full complement of fully
production representative aircraft, as agreed to and documented for years,
is a recipe for a failed test, especially in light of the aircraft
availability issues mentioned later. Failure to meet the TEMP entrance
criteria means not only that the program is unready for operational test -
it means JSF is not ready for combat and, therefore, certainly not ready for
a Block (i.e., Multi-Year) Buy or full-rate production.”
Enhancing the Political Effectiveness of the F-35
Politics, particularly election year politics, is always a factor in any
large weapons program. The F-35 is certainly no exception. From the very
beginning, the plane’s program managers have diligently worked to ensure the
F-35 is bullet-proof—or, more accurately, that its funding is bullet-proof.
Components of the aircraft are built in 45 states. By evenly spreading F-35
subcontracts across the United States, the defense industry has ensured the
F-35 has plenty of friends on Capitol Hill.
With members of Congress serving as boosters for the F-35, there is little
doubt that program officials in the Pentagon are feeling the pressure to
keep the F-35 budgets growing as rapidly as possible.
Many of these friends banded together recently to convince their colleagues
of the need to buy more F-35s. A letter, signed by 70 members of the House
Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, urged members of the House Defense
Appropriations Subcommittee to support the Senate’s plan to add $100 million
for advanced F-35 procurement. The advanced procurement funds would allow
the Air Force to buy some of the parts for new F-35s in 2017 so they can be
built and delivered in 2018. This spreads out the cost of these F-35s over
at least two years. It would also conveniently commit taxpayers to buying
these planes now, long before the operational tests have a chance to
determine whether or not the F-35 is effective in combat. This fact was
somehow omitted from the lawmakers’ letter.
Not surprisingly, an analysis of campaign donation data by the Center for
Responsive Politics shows most of the letter’s signers benefited from
defense industry campaign contributions in the 2016 election cycle. The
co-chairs of the Caucus, Representatives Kay ranger (R-TX) and John Larson
(D-CT) received $144,300 and $43,150 each, respectively, in contributions
from major contractors and unions with a stake in the program.
With members of Congress serving as boosters for the F-35, there is little
doubt that program officials in the Pentagon are feeling the pressure to
keep the F-35 budgets growing as rapidly as possible.
Digging a Deeper Hole
Despite the desperate state of F-35 development and testing now and for the
foreseeable future, the JPO is planning to award contracts to develop the
expanded and presumably more expensive Block 4 “full capability” aircraft in
2018. The specifics of Block 4 remain undefined, and these contracts for new
planes may well be signed before the currently planned IOT&E of Block 3
planes has even begun.
There is no telling how many new F-35 problems will be discovered as the
program limps to the initial operational test finish line. The JPO and its
co-advocates throughout the Pentagon and Congress steadfastly defend staying
with the present unworkable schedule in order to buy more F-35s guaranteed
to have a plethora of known and yet-to-be-discovered-deficiencies.
Attempting to design and produce a large number of Block 4 F-35s now, when
the program management avoids completing or testing the Block 3 F-35s, is
the aeronautical equivalent of a construction company deliberately building
an inadequate foundation yet continuing to build a skyscraper on top of it.
The F-35 program has been a fifteen-year saga of performance failures,
schedule delays, and cost overruns. When Lockheed Martin won the contract to
develop the aircraft just weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist
attacks, they promised the Air Force and Marine Corps would be flying brand
new fully capable new fighter jets in 2008, with the Navy following suit in
2010. They planned for 2,866 F-35s for just under $200 billion.
But here we are in 2016 with the revised plan of 2,457 aircraft for just
under $390 billion, which means we are paying double the unit cost,
ultimately adding up to almost $200 billion more for 409 fewer aircraft.
Frank Kendall, the current Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition,
Technology, and Logistics famously described the practice of buying F-35s
before the aircraft has been fully developed as “acquisition malpractice.”
He was certainly right in 2012 when he said that, but since then has taken
few steps to lessen, much less end, that malpractice.
Dr. Gilmore’s message is very clear. The F-35 will not be effective in
combat and will place American military lives in danger unless drastic
measures are taken now.
By proceeding with their current plan to truncate F-35 development testing
and to not fund (or underfund) the operational test aircraft, instruments,
mission simulators, and urgently needed threat simulators, they are in
effect sabotaging any realistic testing of the combat suitability or
unsuitability of the F-35. Underfunding these efforts increases the
likelihood of failing to identify and correct preventable problems in
testing and leaves pilots having to address deficiencies in combat.
The new President, new Congress and new Secretary of Defense need to
exercise the oversight necessary to stop this bureaucratic sabotage. As a
first step, they need to stop expanding the annual F-35 buy. Those savings
should be transferred to finish F-35 development and development testing as
originally planned. Thorough, truly realistic operational testing of the
F-35 must be fully funded and overseen by a Director of Operation Test and
Evaluation tough and honest enough to get that difficult job done.
The men and women who will risk their lives taking these fighter jets into
combat deserve nothing less.
By: Dan Grazier, Jack Shanahan Fellow
Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government