F-35 Tests Productive as Challenges With Software Persist

The Pentagon’s ground and flight testing of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jets has been productive in the past year even as software poses continuing challenges, according to the military’s top testing official.

“Problems revealed by ongoing testing,” particularly of systems needed for combat missions, such as sensors and navigation, “have required additional time and effort to resolve,” Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, said in testimony prepared for a Senate appropriations defense subcommittee today.

The Pentagon estimates that 2,443 F-35s will cost $391.2 billion, a 68 percent increase since the Defense Department signed its initial contract for the fighter with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed in 2001. Still, the F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons system, has made progress this year, according to Pentagon officials.

They cite a 1.1 percent decline in its overall cost and $500 million decrease in estimates of the price tag to retrofit aircraft for a plane that’s being built even as it’s still in development. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said last week that he favors increasing production to 42 planes in fiscal 2015 and 62 in fiscal 2016, up from the 29 a year planned for this year and next year.

Durbin’s View

“Obviously, the program is in better shape today than it’s been,” with “serious problems in the past,” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who heads the subcommittee, said in an interview after the hearing, the first he convened on the subject since becoming chairman this year.

“The cost-overrun situation is dramatic and we clearly must complete the program and do it in the most efficient way,” said Durbin, whose panel hasn’t yet acted on the Pentagon’s request for 29 additional aircraft in fiscal 2014.

The three other congressional defense panels have approved the request.

“Now we are faced with a dilemma,” said Durbin. In a time of reduced Pentagon budgets, “what choices do we make in terms of the number of aircraft that will be produced and what impact will that have on our allies?”

In an exchange with Kendall during the hearing, Durbin asked whether the F-35 has become “too big to cancel” and “had to continue apace because of international partners.”

“I don’t think any program in the department is too big to fail,” Kendall said.“ Just as a matter of principle. As a practical matter for the F-35, we are not at a place where we would consider stopping the program.”

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