Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) are conducting extensive testing toward the program’s main milestone – declaring Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma – the first Marine Corps F-35 unit ‘operational ready’ by the end of July 2015. Part of the tests are demonstrating how the ‘Lightning II’ can communicate with other aircraft, including coalition fighters, as well as with ground forces, using Link 16 and combat networks using legacy SINCGARS radios.
The effort is shared by elements training, testing and supporting the aircraft and its equipment, with the Marine Corps, Air Force and navy. Although only the USMC unit flying F-35B is due for this clearance, some of the testings are done on the Air Force’s F-35A and Navy F-35Cs, since many of elements of the different variants, particularly the software versions – are identical.
This procedure was recently highlighted by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) in his annual report. “Rather than carrying out a full Operational Utility Evaluation (OUE), JPO is conducting ‘limited assessments’ of Block 2B capability, using F-35A operational test aircraft at Edwards AFB, California. Adhering to OUE testing with F-35B with Block 2B capability would have delayed the start of the evaluation into late 2016. This in turn threatened to delay the development of Block 3F software.
Developmental testing of the Block 2B software is expected to be complete in february 2015, earlier than the DOT&E predicted in its 2013 report (May to November 2015). Moreover, the consolidation of test points from earlier blocks into 2B testing has accelerated the process, eliminating 840 test points, equivalent to four months of testing.
The review highlight concern about the ability of the aircraft to identify hostile radars, creating ‘significant operational risk to fielded unit’ the report stated that the necessary software updates will not be available until November 2015. Other concerns are with the aircraft unique ‘Distributed Aperture System’ (DAS), providing the pilot a panoramic view of the aircraft surroundings and automatic threat warning and identification. The report said DAS still “exhibit high false-alarm rates and false target tracks, and poor stability performance, even in later versions of software.”