So there’s been much fretting lately (well for years, actually) about the prospect of increased cost growth and schedule delays for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program despite the definite up-tick in its flight testing. The plane’s initial operating capability dates which basically dictate when the jet will be able to perform basic combat missions have been pushed more than two years to beyond 2016 for the Navy and Air Force. This delay causes a host of headaches that we won’t get into here, but lets just say a lot of people were planning on having the F-35 replace their aging jets before 2016, now they’ve got to figure out how to keep those planes flying; in some cases, past their service lives, an ever more expensive task.
One of the key features for the Navy and Air Force in determining the jet’s ability to execute missions is the integration of the Block 3 operating software which contains thousands of lines of code for mostly classified combat capabilities. Now, Air Force and Navy officials are saying that they may deploy the jets in combat before that software is installed.
From Defense News:
“If the combatant commander said, ‘bring me this capability,’ then we clearly would provide it,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
The Navy’s director of warfare integration, Rear Adm. David Philman, who was also testifying, concurred.
“I don’t see any reason we wouldn’t be able to be told to go into theater, assuming all the safety considerations have been taken care of,” he said.
Both the Navy and the Air Force would have some number of the aircraft prior to any IOC date, but the specifics of how many planes would be available is not yet known.
“We will have a number, probably on the order of a 100, airplanes delivered to operational units before we declare Initial Operational Capability,” Carlisle said. “Clearly, although we may not declare IOC, we’ll be training, we’ll be doing the tactics, training and procedures with the Block 2.”
Keep in mind, the Marines planned on declaring IOC with their F-35Bs (and now Cs, too) with Block 2 software since the jet will still be a very potent fighter compared to many existing planes. The Corps’ IOC date has been bumped two to three years to 2014 or 2015.
This means the planes won’t formally have all their combat capability but they’ll still be flying missions around the world and potentially seeing combat. This means the pilots and ground crews will be gaining valuable experience operating the jets and Lockheed’s customers can start retiring their older fighters. As one of the last paragraph in the Defense News story says, maintaining the IOC dates based on the Block 3 software’s readiness may simply be a tactic to keep Lockheed hustling, not necessarily a reflection of the jet’s ability to perform in combat.
Insisting on the Block 3 configuration allows the Pentagon to keep the pressure on Lockheed Martin, the contractor that builds the F-35.
“I’ll be perfectly frank: In a lot of cases, if you delay an IOC, you can maintain pressure on a contractor,” Carlisle said.
Still, I’d like to know more about the safety considerations the Rear Adm. Philman was talking about. Was he talking about basic maintenance and flight procedures or was he talking about enemy threats to the stealthy jet?