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F-35 Joint Program Office Working Through Lingering Software Issues

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan (right), the Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, and U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant Aviation on May 20, 2015. US Marine Corps Photo

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan (right), the Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, and U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Deputy Commandant Aviation on May 20, 2015. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35’s logistics information system’s inability to integrate engine data with other vital information about the aircraft is causing a two-month delay in the Air Force reaching its initial operating capability and forcing Marines to use “lots of time-consuming work-arounds” to keep their F-35 Lightning II’s flying.

On Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program executive officer, said the difficulty of having the Pratt & Whitney engine software talk to the Lockheed-Martin aircraft software and integrate that data with the Air Force’s system is a challenge that his office “understands where the difficulties are” and is addressing.

In his assessment of the autonomic logistics information system’s performance with the Marine Corps, Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office, said there still is “too much reliance on sending parts back” to the manufacturer rather than fixing them on board ship or ashore that require too many contractors to be present. He said those maintenance conditions were “not acceptable in combat.”

The Pentagon’s top acquisition official, Frank Kendall agreed there is a “suite of a lot of things that have to happen” from integrating data not only from manufacturers but fusing data from other aircraft to be worked out.

Gilmore said the goal with the proposed upgrade of the sophisticated logistics system to be delivered soon will have an “impact not just now but through [the F-35’s] lifecycle.” As for fusing data from other aircraft to better assist pilots in combat, he added, “It will require a lot of reiterative testing, fix, test.”

Michael Sullivan, from the General Accountability Office, said even with the changes in the program being made, the aircraft still poses “affordability challenges” well into the future.

In two reports and observations released 14 April, the GAO projects that to buy the more than 2,400 aircraft now planned for the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force the United States will be spending $13 billion annually for the next 22 years. That will be happening at the same time as new aircraft carriers and the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being built, and the Air Force replaces its long-range bomber and existing tanker fleets.

Kendall said since the F-35 program was re-baselined four years ago, production costs have been coming down with an estimate per unit price expected to fall to $85 million when production lines are operating at full capacity, reliability is increasing and expected sustainability costs have dropped by 10 percent. On sustainment over the long term, he said changes in approach will “introduce competition” and the department and industry will “look for creative ways of working together.”

One senator estimated the sustainability cost of the program at $1 trillion over the aircraft’s lifecycle of 30 years.

While reluctant to talk in open session about potential cyber vulnerabilities, Gilmore said that so far testing has been confined to surrogate or lab systems. Earlier, he said those vulnerabilities “are significant.”

Bogdan said the need for a fifth-generation fighter was pressing. “Our adversaries today are full speed ahead [and accelerating].” He added that it was no surprise that new fighters developed by Russia and China look very much like American models, but the difference comes with what’s inside the airframe and “the weapons we employ.”

One way future F-35 costs will be contained is through foreign military sales, a path not open when the F-22 was being developed and fielded, Bogdan said. He said even the smallest order from a foreign nation comes to two F-35 squadrons. The first F-35 built in Italy rolled out in March 2015. He added that F-35s, built in the United Kingdom, and with the Marine Corps will be on display and fly at Farnborough Airshow this summer.

All the witnesses agreed with Sullivan’s assessment that the F-35 program at its outset set too optimistic goals and “you should not buy aircraft when you are developing them.” The term used at the start of the program was “concurrency” with an announced goal that it would be a joint aircraft with three-quarters of its parts the same. Kendall repeated his earlier description of that decision as “acquisition malpractice.” Gilmore added that the serial approach now being used to address shortfall “takes longer,” but “actually fixes problems” such as software stability, radar glitches, wing cracks on the Navy variant, etc.

Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), said, the program presented an “illusion of jointness” and provided “a textbook example of why” the committee has taken on acquisition reform, particularly since last fall, as the centerpiece of its oversight responsibility. He added the committee would not approve in the near term the retirement of legacy aircraft, such as the A-10, F-16 and FA-18 that the Defense Department included in its budget request.

Bogdan said to better handle large programs such as the F-35 there needed to be “continuity at the top for many years” in the Pentagon on both the civilian and uniformed side. To do that for the military, there would need to be a change in policy on assignments and law to ensure the possibility of promotion even if an officer stayed in the same position for four or five years.

“You must ensure risk between industry and government is balanced. We did not get that right” at the start of the F-35 program, he said.