Air Force Trains on F-35s With Balky Radar, Limited Views

Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighters being used for training at a Florida Air Force base have radar that functions intermittently, a helmet displaying flickering images, limited cockpit visibility and prohibitions on flying at night or in bad weather, according to the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester.

A 47-page report by Pentagon tester Michael Gilmore provides a snapshot of improvements needed before the aircraft can be declared effective and reliable for combat and suitable for full production, a multi-billion-dollar decision for Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s costliest weapon system, and the estimated cost for a fleet of 2,443 of the fighters has climbed to $395.7 billion, a 70 percent increase since 2001.

The rigorous combat testing that’s intended to assess the aircraft’s capability won’t start for several years and isn’t scheduled to be complete until 2019, or about seven years later than planned. Full production could be further delayed if the testing reveals additional problems.

The aircraft’s demonstrated reliability today is “significantly below” the target it should be demonstrating after the 2,500 hours of flying it has logged, Gilmore said.

Gilmore’s report is the latest from his office on the Air Force’s practice of proceeding with limited training while new aircraft are still in development.

‘Acquisition Malpractice’

Frank Kendall, who is now the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, last year criticized the concurrent development and testing of the F-35 as “acquisition malpractice.”

Gilmore said in a July 20 memo that “initiating training with an immature, non-combat-capable version of a fighter aircraft is unprecedented among prior analogous systems, and is not now supported by the need for trained pilots.”

“I recommend strongly” that the test phase be delayed until the F-35 has “actual combat capability,” Gilmore said.

What’s more, Gilmore said in the new report, the 65-day preliminary test phase the Air Force completed in November was of limited value. “Little can be learned from evaluating training in a system this immature,” Gilmore wrote in the Feb. 15 report.

In feedback surveys, the pilots cited a a range of issues with the F-35 helmet, such as “stability, jitter, latency and brightness” and “flickering displays,” according to Gilmore. While none of those flaws had “any significant adverse impacts” on training, they must be remedied, Gilmore wrote.

Difficulty Seeing

The pilots also complained about difficulty seeing outside the cockpit canopy when wearing the helmet. One pilot said the cockpit layout makes it “nearly impossible” for pilots to check “their six o’clock” position -- behind them --in high-stress maneuvers, according to the report.

Another pilot said limitations on such “aft visibility” during close combat “will get the pilot gunned down every time.”

This “could turn out to be a significant problem for all F-35 pilots,” Gilmore said, “especially in more tactical combat training” such as basic fighter maneuvering.

While the F-35’s radar wasn’t needed during the 65-day evaluation, its flaws, if not corrected, “may significantly degrade the ability to train and fly safely” under scenarios where a radar is required, Gilmore said.

The radar at times was completely inoperative, failed to display targets or dropped them off the screen.

‘Limited Set’

The limitations and restrictions are typical of an aircraft still in development testing, “but very atypical of a fighter aircraft used for student training,” Gilmore wrote in his report. “Only a very limited set of full mission systems capability are working,” he wrote.

Lockheed agrees with the Air Education and Training Command’s decision in late December to start training on the F-35A, the Air Force’s version of the Joint Strike Fighter, Michael Rein, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based company, said in an e-mail.

“Lockheed Martin continues to mature operational and maintenance procedures while refining standard operating and tactical procedures for flying the aircraft,” Rein said. “This training is also building a cadre of instructors and line pilots.”

The F-35 is being produced in partnership with other countries. Norway, Canada, the U.K., Australia, Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and the U.S. agreed in 2006 to cooperatively produce and sustain the fighters. Israel and Japan later signed on to purchase jets and take part in their development.

Canada Questions

In Canada, opposition parties yesterday urged the government to drop the F-35 as a possible replacement for the country’s 1980s-era CF-18 Hornet jets after learning of the latest Pentagon report, according to the Canadian Press. Canada announced in July 2010 it would buy 65 of the F-35s, a plan later faulted by the country’s top auditor.

The U.S. Air Education and Training Command declared the aircraft ready for sustained training based on the 65-day exercise. It anticipates that 36 pilots will undergo training this year at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The training center’s commander “is satisfied that the F-35A training system, in its current state, is adequately performing assigned tasks and is at a sufficient level of maturity to continue training the programmed number and type of pilots,” spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Richard Johnson said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Deliberate Process’

The command will use a “deliberate process” that “continues to validate the training system’s effectiveness through advancing training” capabilities as they are made available, Johnson said.

Eglin’s 58th Fighter Squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lee Kloos, said the four pilots who trained during the 65-day phase came away smiling, indicating “the jet was easy to fly,” according to a training command press release.

The Pentagon’s F-35 program office said in a statement that Gilmore’s report raised no issues that the office and the Air Force “didn’t already know about, and are working to resolve.”

“There is a deliberate process in place to validate the training system’s effectiveness,” spokesman Joe DellaVedova said in the e-mailed statement.