Delays in testing critical software for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet are threatening to delay the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon program and boost development costs, according to congressional investigators.
“Persistent software problems” have slowed testing to demonstrate the aircraft’s war-fighting, navigation, targeting and reconnaissance systems, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The fighter jet is being developed and built at Lockheed’s aeronautics complex in west Fort Worth.
The Marine Corps F-35 version, designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, has a key milestone next year. While the Marines want the plane to be deemed ready for combat in mid-2015, tests on some of its software might not be completed on time, and possibly 13 months late.
“Delays of this magnitude would mean that the Marine Corps will not likely have all of the capabilities it expects in July 2015,” according to a draft of a GAO report obtained by Bloomberg News. “The effects of these delays compound as they also put the timely delivery of Air Force and Navy initial operating capabilities at risk.”
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The Air Force’s F-35 version is supposed to meet a similar deadline in 2016, and the Navy model in 2018. Italy and the U.K. are buying the Marine Corps model.
While Lockheed Martin officials haven’t yet seen the GAO report, they are “confident we will complete flight testing of the software required for Marine Corps initial operational capability this year,” said spokeswoman Laura Siebert.
The company plans to release the required software for the Marine version “no later than July 2015,” she said. “This software will enable the Marines to identify, target and engage the opposition.”
Since the program completed a major reorganization in March 2012, “acquisition cost and schedule estimates have remained relatively stable, and progress has been made in key areas,” the GAO said.
Lockheed Martin is improving its production processes and reduced problems with its pilot helmet; the Navy F-35’s tailhook, which enables the plane to land on aircraft carriers; and an automatic diagnostic system.
The company and the Pentagon program office also made progress in 2013 toward reducing the cost of the Navy and Air Force models, though not the Marine Corps version, the GAO said.
A final version of the GAO report will be featured Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that’s set to include testimony from the GAO’s top F-35 official.
Separately, the Pentagon is withholding as much as $231 million from Lockheed Martin until it completes modifications to F-35 aircraft already delivered, including improved protection against lightning strikes.
According to the Defense Contract Management Agency, Lockheed needs to correct “major variances” in at least five areas to collect its funds. The agency said the major fixes include modifying an on-board safety system intended to prevent explosions after a fuel tank is hit by a bullet or fragment and to minimize fires caused by lightning strikes.
Other fixes include modifying electrical components to protect against lightning and electromagnetic interference and completing the redesign, testing and installation of the auxiliary air inlet door of the propulsion system on the Marine Corps version.