Flawed software will hobble the first of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighters to be called combat-ready, limiting the plane’s ability to drop bombs, share data with other aircraft and track enemy radar, the Defense Department’s chief weapons tester found.
The Marine Corps plans to declare its version of the F-35, being built in Fort Worth, ready for limited combat as soon as July. Software essential to delivering on the plane’s promised capabilities may complete flight testing next month, about four months late.
The plane “will finish with deficiencies remaining that will affect operational units,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of combat testing, said in an annual report on major weapons that was sent to Congress on Friday and obtained before its public release.
The testing report will set the stage for oversight of the $398.6 billion F-35 program by U.S. lawmakers and by allies seeking to justify the increasing cost of buying the plane. The Pentagon plans to request funding for 57 F-35s in fiscal 2016, up from 38 approved by Congress for this year.
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Each of the joint strike fighters made by Lockheed will have more than 8 million lines of code once fully deployed, more than any previous U.S. or allied jet.
“Serious deficiencies with hardware and software used to develop data files” in the plane’s computers are “more numerous and serious” than those first identified in 2012, Gilmore said in a cover letter to lawmakers. The files are needed to identify enemy radar and “are essential to conducting effective combat operations against advanced enemy air defenses, a key reason” for developing the F-35, he wrote.
Gilmore warned that unless “immediate action is taken to remedy these deficiencies,” the aircraft’s ability to “be effective in combat is at substantial risk.”
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 office, declined to comment on the report until it’s made public. But he said the program continues to follow “the same disciplined approach with software development — we test, and when we find an issue, we solve it and move on. The F-35 will do what it was designed to do: defeat today’s and tomorrow’s threats.”
While Air Force and Navy versions of the F-35 also are being developed, the Marine fighter is the most complex because it must execute short takeoffs and vertical landings on fields and amphibious warships.
Mark Johnson, a spokesman with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, said in an e-mail that it would inappropriate to comment on the unreleased report, “but 2014 was a year of great momentum for the JSF program on all fronts.”