Pentagon: F-35 deployment on track

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Despite criticisms, the Pentagon’s Joint Program Office says the target date for having the F-35 ready for deployment is in sight.

A report from the Secretary of Defense’s senior weapons adviser indicates the Air Force is in jeopardy of missing its deadline for having the F-35 ready to deploy for combat. But the Pentagon office in charge of the F-35 program says the goal is still in sight.

The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation released its annual report to Congress last week, including a lengthy, 82-page assessment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. In it, J. Michael Gilmore, director of the office, writes that software performance issues could delay the Air Force Initial Operating Capability timeline for the jet.

IOC status is given when a weapons system reaches the minimum requirements for use in combat deployment.

The DTO&E report says in December 2015, the Air Force told the Joint Requirements Oversight Council that “Block 3i mission capability is at risk of not meeting IOC criteria.” Block 3i refers to a specific software suite associated with the jet that, along with another piece of software, provides for its initial warfighting capabilities. 

“The Air Force recently received its first Block 3i operational aircraft and is assessing the extent to which Block 3i will meet Air Force IOC requirements,” the report says. “This assessment will continue into mid-2016.”

Hill Air Force Base is home to the Air Force’s first operational F-35 unit.

The first two combat-coded F-35s arrived at Hill in September 2015 and more will continue to come in at a rate of one or two per month until 2019, when the base tops out at 72 jets. Pilots have been completing training sorties with the jet since late September, working to get the jet qualified for IOC, which has been targeted for August 2016.

Hill Air Force Base referred questions on the report to the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office.

Joe DellaVedova, F-35 JPO spokesman, said that despite what’s in the DOT&E report, the F-35 program is on track to deliver the Block 3i software to the Air Force by the 2016 IOC goal.

“Block 3i software has been continually improved throughout the development test and evaluation process,” DellaVedova said in an email. “Early versions of 3i software contained deficiencies (but) these issues were addressed and resolved in later increments of Block 3i software. Currently the latest version of 3i software is being flown by the operational test community with improved results.”

The JPO also released a “public response statement” to the report. 

The statement reiterates that the F-35 program “is still in its developmental phase,” so issues are still being discovered and fixed.

“While the development program is 80 percent complete, we recognize there are known deficiencies that must be corrected and there remains the potential for future findings,” the statement says. “Our commitment to overcoming challenges is unwavering. The Joint Program Office will continue to work with the F-35 enterprise to make corrections and improvements as quickly as possible.”