Software Testing Problems Continue to Plague F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week released its fifth annual report on the state of the F-35 Lightning II, aka the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), aka the “most costly and ambitious” acquisition program ever. What the GAO found was foretold by a report earlier this year by the Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. The upshot: the F-35 operational and support software development continues to be the major obstacle to the program's success.

In addition, the GAO report states that the projected cost of acquiring the planned 2443 F-35 aircraft (which comes in three flavors) threatens to consume some 20- to 25 percent of annual defense program acquisition funds for the next twenty years or so. The GAO doesn’t explicitly say so, but the operations and maintenance costs of the program—currently estimated to be between $800 billion and $1 trillion dollars or more over the next 50 years—will also consume a significant chunk of DoD’s annual weapon-system related O&M budget as well.

The GAO report states that, “Challenges in development and testing of mission systems software continued through 2013, due largely to delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered, and the need to fix problems and retest multiple software versions.”  Further, the GAO notes that the F-35 program continues to “encounter slower than expected progress in developing the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS),” which is the F-35’s advanced integrated maintenance and support system (pdf). In the latter case, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 Program Executive Officer, conceded last month that the ALIS system was “way behind” where it should be and was “in catch-up mode.” This, the GAO indicates, was apparently at least partly because of a lack of testing facilities that remains a problem years after ALIS development began.

The GAO notes that as a result of the on-going software problems with the aircraft's mission and support systems, F-35 program officials and contractors alike believe that software development will continue to be the F-35 program’s “most significant risk area.”

Software-testing related issues involving the development and fielding mission systems were the main thrust of this year’s GAO report.  The F-35, you may recall, is delivering its mission capabilities in a series of  incremental “software blocks,” designated as Block 1A/B, Block 2A, Block 2B, Block 3i, and Block 3F.  Each block builds on the mission capability developed in the preceding block. As described by the report, “Blocks 1 and 2A provide training capabilities and are essentially complete, with some final development and testing still underway. Blocks 2B and 3i provide initial warfighting capabilities and are needed by the Marine Corps and Air Force, respectively, to achieve initial operational capability. Block 3F is expected to provide the full suite of warfighting capabilities, and is the block the Navy expects to have to achieve its initial operational capability.” According to Flightglobal, a software Block 4 is being planned as an eventual mission capability upgrade for which development will begin late this year or more likely early next.

However, the GAO report states that, “Developmental testing of Block 2B software is behind schedule and will likely delay the delivery of expected warfighting capabilities,” required by the Marines for their variant of the F-35  (the F-35B) that is scheduled for delivery by July 2015. As of January of this year, “the program planned to have verified the functionality of 27 percent of the software’s capability on-board the aircraft, but had only been able to verify 13 percent,” says the GAO report. In more than a bit of an understatement, the GAO says that, “This leaves a significant amount of work to be done before October 2014, which is when the program expects to complete developmental flight testing of this software block.”

The GAO notes—and seems to agree with—the Operational Test and Evaluation Director's view that a more realistic estimate for when Block 2B’s software functional verification will be completed is sometime closer to November 2015. The report also notes that such a delay would create a knock-on effect to the subsequent F-35 software blocks as well, increasing the cost of the acquisition, not to mention delaying the planned initial operational capability (IOC) of the aircraft (2016 for the Air Force F-35As, and 2018 for the Navy F-35Cs).

Yet, despite everything it saw, the GAO indicates that the F-35 program office and contractors, and especially the Marines, seem to be all whistling along to Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The GAO states that, “Program and contractor officials have stated that while they recognize that the program faces software risks, they still expect to deliver all of the planned F-35 software capabilities to the military services as currently scheduled.” Why do they think so? Why, they are now going to introduce new approaches to gain “testing efficiency.” The plan: mainly by using “test results from one F-35 variant to close out test points for the other two variants in instances in which the variants have common functions.”  However, Bloomberg News quoted a recent RAND assessment of the F-35 program as stating that, “As of this writing, it is not clear how common the mission systems, avionics, software and engine will be among the three service variants,” so how much efficiency will in reality be gained remains to be seen.

In fact, in testimony before Congress yesterday, Lt. Gen Bogdan was reported by Reuters as saying he was “pretty confident” that Block 2B software would be delivered within 30 days of its current target date to allow the Marines to get to initial operational capability by July next year, as the software is “80 percent complete.” However, Bogdan also indicated that he was not as confident that even ten Marine F-35Bs would be IOC ready given that most of the 40-plus Marine F-35Bs will require some 96 engineering modifications by then.

Lt. Gen. Bogdan also disclosed at the hearing that “Block 3F [software] is dependent upon the timely release of Block 2B and 3I, and at present, 3F is tracking approximately four to six months late without taking steps to mitigate that delay.”

One does hope the program’s Block 2B software testing efficiency strategy is successful, since the GAO indicates the F-35 is scheduled to undergo operational testing in June of next year, “to determine that the aircraft variants can effectively perform their intended missions in a realistic threat environment.” If the new testing strategy is not successful, the GAO's view is that the cost of the F-35 acquisition and its future sustainment costs will just keep on escalating.

In response to the GAO report, the F-35 program office has agreed to deliver to Congress an assessment of the “risks of delivering required capabilities within the stated initial operational capability windows for each military service.” The GAO wants that assessment completed and the risks reported by July 2015, but the program hasn’t committed itself to any specific timetable to deliver a detailed assessment. As a Marine Corps Times article seems to suggest, future disclosures on the part of the program office concerning the risks of possible program schedule slips or cost increases will more than likely happen only in piecemeal fashion and by accident.

Of course, even if the F-35 Block 2B software is late—or one or more of the other software blocks are delayed for that matter—it really presages very little change in the general future direction of the program. Why? Well, in a CBS News 60 Minutes interview in February, Lt. Gen. Bogdan was asked, “Has the F-35 program passed the point of no return?” to which he replied, “I don't see any scenario where we're walking back away from this program.”

The GAO is officially scheduled to conduct one more annual review of the F-35 acquisition. The only purpose of it that I can see is merely to warn current and future U.S. taxpayers, many who are not yet born, how much more money they will have to shell out for the next 50 years or more.

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

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