AT THE time of writing, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) is planning to complete the F-35’s developmental flight-testing by the end of February 2018. This milestone was previously scheduled for October 2017, and once complete will permit the conclusion of the F-35’s longrunning the System Development and Demonstration phase, and the start of the next phase; the F-35’s initial operational testing and evaluation (IOT&E).
According to the FY2017 report by the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), F-35 IOT&E will be able to start at Edwards Air Force Base, California by late 2018 and is expected to be complete by late 2019. The DOT&E had previously stated that it anticipated the F-35 IOT&E would not be able to start until 2020.
The FY2017 DOT&E report stated the F-35 programme had made “significant effort and progress” over the past year, including two JPO reviews of testing. While the F-35’s Joint Simulator Environment (JSE), with its man-in-the-loop capabilities, will not come on line until 2019, the report stated the JSE is not required for the F-35 to start IOT&E.
A major 2018 milestone for the F-35 programme will be final certification for the Block 3F software that provides full operational capability. This was scheduled to take place before the end of February, having been postponed from November 2017.
However, delays arising from the need to upgrade the Block 3F software and to install it fleet wide in the light of the 1,000-plus deficiencies identified in the testing process will run through 2018. The installation of patches and upgrades to the Block 3F software is now scheduled to be completed in 2019. F-35s assigned to the various squadrons assigned to the Joint Operational Test Team must all have operational software for IOT&E to begin.
With F-35A and F-35B versions both operational, weapons integration – involving more types and capabilities – has emerged as an increasingly important objective for the programme. The FY2017 DOT&E report identified accuracy problems with both the F-35A’s internal 25mm GAU-22/A four-barrelled cannon and the F-35B and F-35C variants’ podmounted 25mm GAU-12 cannon.
The external cannon on fitted on F-35Bs did better in strafing tests than the internal gun on F-35As, which demonstrated an aim-point bias issue. The Block 3F software will be modified to fix the problem.
The US Navy has started development of the Advanced Anti- Radiation Guided Missile – Extended Range (AARGM-ER) intended to be carried in the F-35’s internal weapon bays. A contract was issued to Orbital-ATK on January 24. The AARGM-ER will be based on the AGM-88E AARGM, currently in full rate production, and will integrate its electronics and forward section design with a new upgraded dualpulse rocket motor, tail section and control system. The AARGM-ER has been estimated to have a range of 210–300 nautical miles (390–555km), a 20-50% greater range than the 150 nautical miles (280km) reported for the AARGM.
Vital to future F-35 sustainment is the availability of ALIS 3.0, the third major iteration of the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which has completed ground testing ahead of schedule and is currently finishing its support to flight-testing at Edwards.
It was expected to be approved for operational validation as early as February 2018. ALIS 3.0 is intended to address issues identified in previous versions, including false-positives in the aircraft’s diagnostic systems that resulted in parts being removed unnecessarily from aircraft.
Continued concern over F-35 sustainment will lead to an Air Force deep dive review of the Lightning II’s sustainment costs, promised in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 18, 2018, by Will Roper, who currently runs the US Air Force’s Strategic Capabilities Office. Roper is nominated to be the service’s next head of acquisitions. This review will reportedly be carried out in parallel with a similar review initiated by the Department of Defense in late 2017. Roper said: “I am deeply concerned about the sustainment issues of the F-35. If I get confirmed [in the role of head of acquisitions], one of the first things I want to look at is the sustainment plan.”
As more operational F-35As become available, the US Air Force has selected Truax Field Air National Guard Base, Wisconsin, and Dannelly Field, Alabama, as the preferred locations for the second and third Air National Guard F-35A squadrons. The decision cannot be confirmed until the results of a thorough environmental impact statement are known, and the Secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson gives her approval. In both cases, Lightning IIs will replace F-16Cs. Lightning IIs will begin arriving at Truax Field in early 2023 and at Dannelly Field later that year.
The Air Force also identified the preferred location of the first Air Force Reserve Command F-35A unit, the 301st Fighter Wing at Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas, also currently an F-16C unit.
US Marine Corps
The third US Marine Corps F-35B squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 (VMFA-122) ‘Werewolves’, is scheduled to be declared operational at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Arizona in the first quarter of 2018. It will join the two 16-aircraft F-35B squadrons already operational, VMFA-121 at Iwakuni, Japan and VMFA-211 at Yuma, plus VMAT-501, the training squadron at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. The amphibious warfare ship USS Wasp (LHD 1), the first warship to be modified to operate F-35Bs, arrived in Japan on January 14. Wasp, which will be homeported in Sasebo, will make its first deployment with VMFA-121 F-35Bs later this year.