Marines ‘Absolutely Confident’ F-35B Will Get Off Probation
The Marine Corps commandant said he is “absolutely confident” the service’s version of the Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be taken off probation by the Defense Department.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January put the F-35B, a short-takeoff, vertical landing version, on what could be a two-year development probation to work out problems with its lift system.
Since that decision, “a lot’s happened,” General James Amos said today. “The metrics for determining how the airplane is flying and testing have improved dramatically. Not in every area, but in most areas, the airplane is ahead of schedule on test.”
Amos made his remarks after one of the five short-takeoff and landing models at the test site demonstrated its capabilities. It made a vertical landing -- about the 120th conducted this year, in contrast to 10 all of last year.
Through July 25, F-35Bs have flown 182 times this year compared with 154 flights planned, according to government test data.
“I’m absolutely confident it will get through probation,” Amos said. “It depends on when the secretary of defense likes what he sees,” Amos told reporters at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.
The criteria as to when the aircraft escapes probation “have not been established,” said Amos, who dubbed himself a “realistic cheerleader.”
Amos said he’s aware that the Lockheed Martin aircraft must show consistent reliability improvements without weight increases, meet software delivery schedules and successfully complete shipboard testing to commence in late October.
The F-35 program manager, Vice Admiral David Venlet, said in an interview that key steps to leaving probation next year include testing propulsion system clutch and driveshaft improvements and auxiliary air inlet door modifications. The door improvements are needed to solve what’s now a potential “unacceptable” safety risk, according to program data reviewed by Amos.
“Basic engineering” is being done on each of those, Venlet said. “We would like to demonstrate each successfully in flight test and then have that conversation with the secretary of defense.”
The Navy will be flight testing the different fixes by April or May 2012, he said.
The challenges “are not beyond the scope of what other airplane programs have seen,” Lockheed Martin Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Stevens said in an interview today.
“I want to get out of probation,” he said. “I get a daily report on F-35 performance -- each day, seven days a week,” he said.
Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, said in an e-mail statement today the Navy and Lockheed Martin have worked “extremely hard to fly ahead of the currently planned pace.”
The increased vertical landings are the result of flying five aircraft instead of just three as planned last year and successful modifications that enable more rapid flights, Gilmore said.
The program office created plans after the Gates announcement “requiring two years to execute the planned probation period,” Gilmore wrote.
This includes the resumption in early 2012 of durability testing suspended late last year after the discovery of fatigue cracks in an aft bulkhead, he said.
“It is our understanding that durability testing may begin in early 2012 after repairs to the bulkhead are completed,” Gilmore wrote. “Durability testing is an important piece of the information needed to review progress.”
The progress described at the demonstration today comes after key F-35 milestones have slipped by at least four years. Development and testing, originally to be finished in March 2012, won’t be done until April 2016. A decision to move the program into full production also has been delayed four years, from what was once an April 2012 target date.
Program officials were two years late in releasing the second of five progressively more complex software versions, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in March.
Program delays have forced the Marines Corps to scrap a December 2012 target to have its version ready for combat and isn’t setting a new date, Amos told reporters in December.
The Air Force has changed its first-unit combat date to April 2016 from a target of June 2011, and the Navy date also slipped to April 2016 from April 2012.
The Pentagon is developing three versions of the aircraft in the $382 billion F-35 program. Air Force and Navy variants are designed for conventional takeoffs and landings on fixed runways and aircraft carriers.
The Marine Corps’ vertical landing version would replace the 25-year-old AV-B Harrier for use from smaller amphibious warfare vessels and landings on improvised airstrips.
Reporters were flown today from the Pentagon in Textron Inc (TXT).- Boeing Co. (BA) MV-22 Ospreys that 10 years ago were also under probation and faced termination after two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 Marines.
An independent panel in 2001 concluded the Osprey needed improvement but had no inherent design flaws.
The program was approved for full-production in September 2005 after four years of additional development to demonstrate it overcame the host of deficiencies. The Osprey has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A V-22 flew the corpse of Osama Bin Laden to the USS Carl Vinson after he was killed in the May 2 raid.
Congress through December has approved spending $35 billion on the $53.2 billion V-22 program.
Amos said he monitors daily the F-35B’s status on a computer terminal in his Pentagon office. He showed reporters today how, with a mouse click, he can review a matrix of test metrics. Lockheed’s Stevens views the same data.
The aircraft by Sept. 30 will complete 1,552 individual “test points” of 2,272 scheduled for this year, according to data Amos tracks.
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