Lockheed F-35’s Reliability Found Wanting in Shipboard Testing

F-35B
An F-35B fighter jet, the U.S. Marine Corps variant of the F-35. Photographer: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

The Marine Corps’ version of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter demonstrated poor reliability in a 12-day exercise at sea, according to the U.S. military’s top testing officer.

Six F-35Bs, the most complex version of the Pentagon’s costliest weapons system, were available for flights only half of the time needed, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational testing, said in a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. A Marine Corps spokesman said the readiness rate was more than 65 percent.

While the exercise on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp resulted in useful training for Marines and Navy personnel, Gilmore wrote in the assessment dated July 22, it also documented that “shipboard reliability” and maintenance “were likely to present significant near-term challenges.”

In the assessment submitted to Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Gilmore said “Marine maintainers had rapid, ready access to spare parts from shore” and “received significant assistance” from Lockheed and subcontractor personnel.

Even with these advantages, “aircraft reliability was poor enough that it was difficult for the Marines to keep more than two or three of the six embarked jets in a flyable status on any given day,” he wrote.

The challenges to keeping the aircraft flying “will be substantially tougher when the aircraft first deploys” on an operational mission under more trying conditions, he said.

New Concerns

That assessment raises new concerns as General Joseph Dunford, the Marine Corps commandant, is poised to decide as soon as this week whether to declare the plane ready for limited combat operations. The Marine version must make short takeoffs from ships and vertical landings like a helicopter.

Major Paul Greenberg, a Marine Corps spokesman, offered the estimate of 65 percent reliability and said Gilmore’s “review and assessment was done with our full cooperation.”

“Although some the report is factually accurate, the Marine Corps does not agree with all of the conclusions and opinions,” Greenberg said in an e-mail. “In some instances, the report contains statements that do not provide proper context or qualifying information, possibly leading readers to form inaccurate conclusions.”

The declaration of “initial operational capability” is five years behind the original projected date of April 2010 that was set in 2001, when the F-35 program began. Earlier delays resulted from difficulties in reducing the plane’s weight, with its propulsion system and with reliability.

Foreign Buyers

Defense Secretary Robert Gates placed the F-35 on probation in January 2011 over reliability concerns. That was lifted a year later as the aircraft’s performance improved, but Gilmore’s assessment may resurrect the earlier questions.

The Marine Corps’ B model is being watched as a bellwether for the F-35 program, projected to cost $391.1 billion for a planned fleet of 2,443 aircraft. The Marines plan to buy about 353 F-35Bs. The U.K. and Italy also are buying the model.

A declaration by Dunford that the plane is ready for limited combat operations would provide for a 10-aircraft squadron at Yuma, Arizona, to take on some combat missions until software giving the F-35 its full capability is available by late 2017.

Four of those aircraft were on the Wasp. One had “multiple maintenance issues” that kept it from flying for consecutive days from May 19 through May 23, according to Gilmore’s report. The exercise also was hampered by flaws with the aircraft’s fuel systems, which experienced two major component failures, he said.

Readiness Rate

Gilmore said a readiness rate of 80 percent would be needed to support a six-aircraft unit for combat operations. Lieutenant General Jon Davis, the head of Marine Corps aviation, told reporters on Monday that the service wants to achieve that rate eventually, but doing so depends on how much funding is provided for spare parts.

The Wasp exercise demonstrated that production model aircraft could be operated and supported off an amphibious warship, he said.

Ten U.S. Marine Corps pilots received F-35B aircraft carrier qualifications and flew 11 night missions in addition to flying more than 76 hours and executing 106 sorties, Greenberg said. The sorties included 100 short takeoffs and vertical landings.

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