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F-35 Showed ‘Mixed Results’ in Tests, Pentagon Report Says

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter, the U.S.’s top weapons program, had “mixed results” in tests last year of its flight characteristics and combat systems, according to a Pentagon report.

Director of Operation Test and Evaluation Michael Gilmore wrote in the report that the three versions of the aircraft in 2011 matched or exceeded the program’s restructured plan for tests designed to evaluate flying qualities. The jet in 2010 met most test goals after falling behind in 2009.

Flights designed to accomplish discrete events to demonstrate the aircraft’s war-fighting systems, such as navigation, enemy identification and targeting, fell behind 11 percent for the Air Force and 9 percent for the Marine Corps versions. The Navy’s aircraft carrier version is 32 percent ahead of schedule, the tester says.

“Development, integration and flight testing of the most complex elements of mission systems lie ahead,” Gilmore wrote.

The $382 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s largest program. It plans to buy 2,443 jets for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Production funding is estimated by the Pentagon to increase from the requested $6.9 billion this year to $14.2 billion in fiscal 2016.

Gilmore’s 13-page assessment is contained in his annual report on weapons testing that the Pentagon released today. Bloomberg News obtained a copy in advance.

Lockheed’s Response

“The report recognizes the numerous accomplishments of the F-35 program in 2011 such as the outstanding results from F-35 ship trials, completion of F-35C structural testing and the fact flight sciences and flight testing either matched or exceeded plan in 2011,” Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said today in an e-mailed statement.

Flight tests in the report covered only the period through November, he said. Through December, “the flight test team completed 7,823 test points, an increase of 1,744 test points over the number published.”

The F-35 flight-test plan for last year called for the accomplishing 6,622 test points, Rein said.

Whether to Delay

The report outlines numerous challenges the test program faces as the Pentagon decides whether to delay purchasing 100 to 150 aircraft after 2017, the last year in the military’s five-year defense plan.

The report provides a neutral assessment of Lockheed Martin test progress that will be reviewed by lawmakers and the public throughout the fiscal 2013 budget process.

The short-takeoff and vertical landing Marine Corps model was placed on “probation” last year by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates because of reliability and other problems. It’s the most complex model of the three versions.

The Marine Corps version in October successfully conducted initial trials from a ship at sea.

“However, significant work and flight tests remain to verify and incorporate modifications to aircraft required to correct known deficiencies and prepare the system for operational use,” Gilmore wrote.

“A significant amount of flight test and development remains to be accomplished” with some troubled components, including the propulsion system’s drive shaft, clutch and an actuator, he said.

Mixed Progress

The three variants exceeded by 105 the 812 test flights planned for last year. The flight program exceeded by 570 the number of planned test “points,” or planned flying events. It exceeded by 56 the 133 flights devoted to testing mission systems. Gilmore wrote.

“Overall, the program has demonstrated very little missions systems capability thus far in flight test,” Gilmore wrote. “In fact, the program has not delivered some of its intended initial training capability, such as effective and consistent radar performance.”

Gilmore said the 63 aircraft produced under Lockheed’s first four initial production contracts “will require significant numbers of structural modifications and upgrades to attain the planned service life” and full combat capability.

Rein said “the individual technical issues cited in the report are known issues that have engineering solutions either identified, in work or are currently in flight test.”

The assessment follows a team of Pentagon test, systems engineering and structural experts who concluded in a Nov. 29 report that “no fundamental design risks” would preclude production of the jet for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

It identified 13 current or likely test issues of varying severity, the combined effect of which “results in a lack of confidence” in the aircraft’s “design stability.” The issues include the Navy version’s tailhook for aircraft carrier landings, the system for dumping extra fuel before landing and excessive aircraft shaking during flight.

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