The F-35 Still Isn't Actually 'Done'

·4-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, which is already more than six years late, might not enter into full production until next spring.

  • The jet program, the most complicated and expensive in history, has experienced a dizzying array of development problems.

  • The F-35 must fly against critical threats in a high-tech simulator before the Pentagon will sign off on full production.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is already more than a half decade behind schedule, faces yet another new delay before the Pentagon will authorize the jet to go into full-scale production. The U.S. military wants the airplane, currently in low-rate production, to undergo a series of tests in a computer simulation before it will allow contractor Lockheed Martin to build as many jets as it wants.

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The F-35 Lightning II is the most complicated fighter program ever devised. The Pentagon designed the fighter to not only function as a dual-role fighter and bomber, but to also push the envelope of new technologies, including stealth, sensors, and battlefield networking. It was also developed in three versions: a “vanilla” conventional takeoff and landing -A version for the Air Force, a vertical takeoff and landing -B version for the Marine Corps, and a carrier takeoff and landing -C version for the Navy.

Today, 20 years after the F-35 program launched and with 500 airplanes delivered, an outside observer would be forgiven for thinking the F-35 was already in full production. But that’s not exactly true: the aircraft is actually in low-rate initial production (LRIP).

Under a system known as concurrency, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. military agreed to order smaller batches of jets while still finalizing the design. Once the F-35 is considered “done,” the company will—ideally—go back and upgrade all of the older jets to the new standard. The idea was to get planes into the hands of pilots as early as possible.

Photo credit: Sgt AaronJames Vinculado/DVIDS
Photo credit: Sgt AaronJames Vinculado/DVIDS

The F-35 should be in full-rate production right now, a status that would allow the manufacturer to ramp up production and offer the plane at a lower price. Unfortunately, development issues have caused the plane to run more than 6 years behind schedule, keeping prices high and orders relatively small.

Now the Pentagon, according to Bloomberg, is pushing back a key test before it okays full-rate production. The tests, using a sim known as the Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), are being delayed from December 2020 to sometime in 2021.

Photo credit: NAVAIR
Photo credit: NAVAIR

The F-35 must perform well in the JSE, a multi-cockpit networked simulator designed to replicate the most advanced threats the plane might face in combat. A U.S. Navy deck on the JSE says “a significant percentage of the operational test points are not executable on the open air ranges,” and “the nature of modern system-of-systems capabilities makes testing prohibitively expensive.”

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The Pentagon must also test in a sim because it lacks real-world copies of the most advanced weapons systems the F-35 might be forced to fight on the battlefield, like Russia's S-400 long range air defense system and China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.

These weapons can be replicated in a high-fidelity computer simulation, giving the military some idea how the F-35 would fare against the best Russia and China have to offer.

Photo credit: NAVAIR
Photo credit: NAVAIR

JSE involves up to 14 interlinked simulated cockpits, each representing a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, flying under realistic weather, sun/moon settings, and with friendly and adversary planes, ships, submarines, and ground units fleshing out the environment. It’s also likely to be cheaper than flying real-world tests; 14 F-35s flying at $45,000 an hour would cost approximately $630,000 an hour.

Once tests like the JSE are out of the way, the Pentagon will clear the F-35 for full-rate production. The U.S. military plans to buy approximately 2,600 F-35s, with the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Korea, Italy, Poland, and Israel set to buy hundreds more.

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