The NeverEnding Story: Getting The F-35 Right

The saga of the F-35 seems to drag out with no real end in sight. Years of delays, gaffes, problems, cost overruns and sometimes just plain bad luck have plagued the project. And trying to get to the truth- at least what can be told publicly, can be very difficult.

Through it all, one voice has seemed fairly consistent in their assessment: Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). His job is to keep an eye on projects in the Department of Defense, and to report on a basically simple question: Is this project on track?

It’s no minor position. He reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, and is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The job doesn’t come easily.

As the F-35 has developed, I’ve observed that the Air Force seems to view the DOT&E as a bit of a nuisance. While the Air Force insists all is well with the F-35, and Lockheed Martin give a big thumbs up, DOT&E has consistently hammered on some basic points- timelines aren’t being met, and assessments have been far too rosy in light of the reality.

The latest news only confirms that the situation seems to have not changed at all.

On December 7th, 2016, Bloomberg reported a story detailing how a memo being prepared regarding the progress of the F-35 project did not accurately reflect the reality of the situation.

Quoting from the story,

“If not changed, the existing responses would at best be considered misleading and at worst, prevarications,” Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation, wrote in an internal memo criticizing the draft response to questions about F-35 testing from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.

That’s no trivial accusation. I’ll admit I had to look up “prevarication”. I understood it in context, but I wanted the precise meaning. Prevarication, according to vocabulary.com, is when someone tells a lie, especially in a sneaky way.

And the problems outlined in the story are not small. Not only do they include the timing of major milestones for being declared fully operational, but also smaller- but critical items, like problems with the Navy’s F-35C version not being able to carry Sidewinder missiles on its wingtips, especially crucial for short range engagements. Especially so since the naval version has no gun.

Another is “excessive F-35 vertical oscillations” on carrier launches, a phenomenon I’d noticed watching videos of the F-35 doing catapult launches. In one video, the pilots visor actually appeared to flop down on launch the oscillations were so violent.

And the past problems are still there. The Block 3F software still isn’t ready for full implementation. That will be the upgrade that brings all of the promised capabilities online. Other problems, ranging from weapons and sensor capabilities to things just catching fire, continue to plague the project.

The F-35 program is critical. It’s far, far past the stage to bow to “just cancel it”. It is the farm we’ve bet on. To have an airframe ready for 2030, you have to start in 2010. It’s way to far along to give up on it and find a replacement. It has to work.

And though he may seem like a thorn in the side to the Air Force and Navy, the DOT&E seems to be the only voice of truth in the whole sordid affair.

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