NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The U.S. military’s frontline F-35 fighter jet continues to face problems with key software and related issues that are delaying operational deployment, according to the Pentagon’s senior weapons tester.
J. Michael Glimore, director of operational test and evaluation within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told a House hearing last week that the F-35 — which is being built in three different versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — is “at a critical time.”
“There are shortfalls in electronic warfare, electronic attack, shortfalls in the performance of distributed aperture system and other issues that are classified,” Mr. Gilmore said March 23. “With regard to mission assistance, stealth aircraft are not visible to achieve success against the modern stressing mobile threats. We’re relying on our $400 million investment in F-35 to provide mission systems [that] must work in some reasonable sense of that word.”
The F-35 program will spend $1.13 trillion to buy and service more than 2,400 aircraft until 2070. Each F-35 costs about $100 million. The jet is needed to replace older, less-capable warplanes.
The program has been plagued with development problems under the Obama administration since Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates killed the F-22 fighter bomber in 2009. The scrapping of the F-22 left the F-35 as the sole radar-evading stealth aircraft for the future.
Mr. Gilmore testified that the F-35 system remains “immature” and “provides limited combat capability,” despite the Marines declaring their F-35s as having initial operating capability and the Air Force planning to do so later this year.
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Flight tests of new software for the jet, known as Block 3i, revealed “many unresolved significant deficiencies,” he added.
The software “was so unstable that productive flight testing could not be accomplished,” Mr. Gilmore said, adding that the software is less stable than earlier software it replaced.
The software stability problem involves frequent timing errors between radar sensors and onboard computers during takeoff. The problem results in system restarts and subsequent difficulties for computers in regaining radar pictures several minutes after restarting.
The jet manufacturer Lockheed Martin is working to remedy the problem within the software’s 8 million lines of code.
Earlier software problems prevented testing weapons’ delivery accuracy until better software for the avionics was installed.
“A recent example is an attempted four-ship electronic warfare ‘Super Scenario’ mission with Block 3F software that resulted in only two aircraft arriving at the range because the other two aircraft ground-aborted due to avionics stability problems during startup,” Mr. Gilmore said.
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Additionally, when the F-35 was flown against a dense and realistic electronic warfare airspace, the avionics were unable to detect targets and had difficulty applying sensor information.
As of the end of January, the testers found 931 software program deficiencies, including 158 considered so severe that the glitches could “cause death, severe injury, or . [that] may cause loss of or major damage to a weapon system; [or] critically restricts combat readiness capabilities,” Mr. Gilmore said.
The aircraft is also vulnerable to cyberattacks.
“The limited and incomplete F-35 cybersecurity testing accomplished to date has nonetheless revealed deficiencies that cannot be ignored,” Mr. Gilmore said.
Another major problem involves difficulties in loading threat data into F-35 computers. The data are needed to locate or avoid increasingly advanced and lethal enemy air defenses and other high-technology weapons.
Unless the data-loading problem is fixed, “U.S. F-35 forces will be at substantial risk of failure if used in combat against these threats,” Mr. Gilmore said.
Mr. Gilmore concluded that the plans to begin combat testing of the aircraft in August must be delayed until 2018 at the earliest.
Tests at that point will include close air support, surface attack, destruction of enemy air defenses, defensive and offensive air warfare, and aerial reconnaissance.
Weapons the jet will carry include six GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, four air-to-air missiles, two AIM-120Cs, two AIM-9Xs and a 25-millimeter cannon.
Air Force and Navy officials have defended the F-35 from critics, arguing that much of its capabilities are secret and that the jet is urgently needed to provide air superiority and dominance for the military in the future.
“We will continue to have a mixed fleet at least through the mid-2030s, but we cannot enter high-end fights without the fifth-generation capability that the [Joint Strike Fighter] brings,” Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley said at the same hearing. “And that’s why we’re so committed to this capability.”
CARTER’S CHINA VISIT PUT OFF
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was scheduled to travel to China next week, but the visit was put off, according to defense officials.
Instead, he will visit India, where closer defense relations are developing amid growing regional tensions in Asia over Chinese military activities.
The postponement is the second time this month the defense secretary was snubbed by the Chinese and a sign of increasing strains in ties with Beijing.
An earlier meeting at the Pentagon that was scheduled between Mr. Carter and visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was canceled over what the Pentagon said at the time was a “scheduling conflict.”
However, the real reason appears to be China’s pique over comments by Mr. Carter, who in recent weeks has criticized Chinese militarization of disputed South China Sea islands.
Mr. Wang apparently did not want to discuss Pentagon concerns about the deployment of HQ-9 air defense missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels that is claimed by China, Vietnam and several other regional states. The missiles were disclosed in satellite photos the week before the Wang visit.
Instead, the Chinese foreign minister met with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who diplomatically questioned the foreign minister about Chinese missile deployments on disputed South China Sea islands but did not press the issue.
The Pentagon announced in November that Mr. Carter would visit China in the spring at the invitation of Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping.
A Pentagon spokesman said the secretary may still visit China later in the spring, but no schedule has been worked out.
At a speech in San Francisco March 1, Mr. Carter warned China against “aggressive” action in the South China Sea and said militarization of the islands would produce “specific consequences” he did not specify.
Later during congressional testimony, Mr. Carter outlined China as one of five major national security threats facing the U.S. He noted that “China is rising, which is fine, but behaving aggressively, which is not.”
LOS ALAMOS EYING N. KOREA NUKE TEST
The nation’s premier nuclear blast center, Los Alamos National Laboratory, revealed in its newsletter that the Jan. 6 underground nuclear test by North Korea is still being studied.
North Korean state media announced that the test was its first of a hydrogen bomb, which uses nuclear fusion to create a blast and is more than 500 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan during World War II.
“Does North Korea really have the capabilities to develop and test such a powerful weapon? Is its claim valid? Immediately upon receiving news of the explosion, Los Alamos scientists began working — and they continue to work — to determine information about the bomb tested,” the laboratory stated in its latest newsletter, National Security Science.
Los Alamos has some 70 experts in teams that are devoted to assessing foreign weapons tests and programs.
“In the case of the Jan. 6 test, Los Alamos seismologists began calculating the event location and yield by using data from seismic stations around the globe,” the newsletter stated. “Using techniques they’ve developed to study nuclear (and conventional explosives) tests, lab scientists analyze data as they receive them to develop a more complete understanding of the nature of the explosion.”
“When it hits the fan, the government is counting on us — and we deliver,” said Los Alamos’ senior intelligence official, Terry Wallace.
However, critics have said that despite the experts and a worldwide network of monitoring systems, the U.S. intelligence community’s record of assessing nuclear tests remains spotty, including details of the Jan. 6 underground test.
Defense officials have said the small size of the test blast indicates it almost certainly was not a hydrogen bomb.
However, one theory is that the test blast may have been the primary explosion for a larger thermonuclear bomb.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.