F-35 Software: DoD's Chief Tester Not Impressed

Last September, U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the then incoming director of the troubled  F-35 program, said that he was not optimistic that all the program's current problems—especially those related to software, which has long been a sore point (pdf)—would be fixed in time to meet the services’ planned initial operational capabilities, beginning with the Marine Cops in about 2 years. The 2012 Annual Report (pdf) on major defense acquisitions, by the Department of Defense's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, isn’t likely to increase Bogdan’s optimism any.

In his report, Gilmore states that in regards to operational suitability, the F-35 currently “demonstrates [a] lack of maturity… as a system in developmental testing and as a fielded system at the training center.” While Gilmore’s report details a host of other engineering-related issues as well, software remains a major area of concern.

For instance, the report states that, “Software delivery to flight test was behind schedule or not complete when delivered” and that, “Block 1 software has not been completed; approximately 20 percent of the planned capability has yet to be integrated and delivered to flight test.” Block 1 software, which provides initial training capability, was first flown in November 2010.

Block 2A software, which provides advanced training capability but no combat capability, and Block 2B software which provides limited combat capability, also have issues. The report states that, “The first version of Block 2A software was delivered four months late to flight test. In eight subsequent versions released to flight test, only a limited portion of the full, planned Block 2A capability (less than 50 percent) became available and delivered to production. … Block 2B software was planned to be delivered to flight test by the end of 2012, but less than 10 percent of the content was available for integration and testing as of the end of August. A very limited Block 1B software version was delivered to the Cooperative Avionics Test Bed aircraft in early November for integration testing.”

“The program made virtually no progress," Gilmore’s report says, "in the development, integration, and laboratory testing of any software beyond 2B.” In other words, forget about having a fully combat capable F-35 any time soon.

Gilmore points out that because of the concurrence of F-35 production and its testing, a practice that the DoD acquisition leadership admits was “acquisition malpractice,” the tide is not likely to turn in the software battle anytime soon. “Simultaneous development of new capabilities, associated with the next blocks of software, competes with the flight test resources needed to deliver the scheduled capability for the next lot of production aircraft,” Gilmore writes.

The problems extend beyond the plane itself. Gilmore also notes that software issues with its helmet continue. “Boresight alignment between the helmet and the aircraft is not consistent between aircraft and requires calibration for each pilot,” as do issues with the aircraft's Autonomic Logistics and Information System (ALIS), which the report states “Is immature and behind schedule.” Bogdan has said that without a functional ALIS, “the “airplane doesn’t work.”

Of course, the F-35’s program management knows of all the problems that Gilmore’s report highlights (and probably many more). It's only the Congress, the U.S. taxpayer, and the taxpayers of nine other countries who are helping underwrite the program who may not. Perhaps that's why the DoD felt free to buy two more lots of F-35s at a cost of $3.8 billion and $4.9 billion respectively last month. After all, these are seen as being just “normal teething problems" for an aircraft that has so much impressive combat capability, at least in the simulator.

Canada and Turkey recently announced that they were thinking hard about whether continue with future purchases of the F-35, as other partners and potential customers have already done. And astute aerospace followers will note that as Boeing is finding out on the commercial aircraft side as well, teething problems can be painful and costly for a long time. What's next, tantrums? And when will the Obama administration start administering some tough love?

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