Pentagon weapons tester casts new doubts on F-35 progress

F-35s moving down the assembly line at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth.
F-35s moving down the assembly line at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

Pentagon officials have been preparing a misleading assessment of progress on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, the Defense Department’s chief tester warned.

“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.

Gilmore’s memo is the latest example of his vocal doubts about the F-35’s performance in key tests. His critiques are at odds with the Pentagon’s narrative that the program is on course after earlier problems. President-elect Donald Trump and his defense secretary — he’s nominating retired General James Mattis — will have to decide next year whether to increase F-35 production to 70 in fiscal 2018 from 63 this year, as requested by the Defense Department.

Trump, who on Tuesday complained that the cost of the new Air Force One being developed by Boeing “is totally out of control,” has also raised questions in the past about the F-35. In an October 2015 interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump criticized the fighter’s cost and said he heard “that it’s not very good” and that “existing planes are better.”

The F-35 is being built by Lockheed Martin in west Fort Worth, where the defense manufacturer has been spending $1.2 billion to upgrade the complex for increased production of the stealth fighter. Lockheed officials have said they plans to add as many as 1,000 assembly jobs in Fort Worth as production is increased.

In a Nov. 3 letter to departing Defense Secretary Ash Carter, McCain said he was “extremely disappointed to learn of another delay” in the $57 billion development and demonstration phase of the F-35 “with an associated cost overrun that may be upwards of $1 billion.”

Several of the answers in the draft response to McCain “ignore acknowledged facts, are ambiguous and misleading and if signed and sent as-is” could “generate substantial issues with the Congress,” Gilmore wrote to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, in the Nov. 28 memo obtained by Bloomberg News.

▪ The F-35’s development phase is due to end in “early 2018.” Gilmore said the department should “state clearly that development flight testing will not complete — at the earliest” — until mid-2018.

▪ Operational combat testing, which all weapons systems must pass, will start in mid-2018 and be completed a year later. Gilmore labeled that as false. Instead, he said the tests will commence “no sooner than late 2018, or, more likely, in early 2019 but could be as late as 2020.”

▪ An Air Force certification to lawmakers that F-35s delivered in fiscal 2018 will have full combat capability remains “valid.” Gilmore said that is “highly unlikely” because of delays in testing the critical final version of the plane’s software and correcting 276 pending deficiencies.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 program office, said

the program office and Lockheed continue “to drive toward the completion of the test program, including solutions” for the issues cited by Gilmore. The program intends to complete all the flight-testing of the most capable software by late 2017, with delivery of the capability to deployed aircraft from late 2017 to spring 2018, he said, although the schedule could slip about three months.