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Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics division has been awarded an $869.86 million contract modification to evaluate and expand the present capabilities of the F-35 fighter jet fleet.
On March 4, Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland, contracted the manufacturer to conduct functional reviews of the jet’s mission and weapons systems while focusing on capability development, including hardware for flight testing procedures. The new contract modification carries an inclusive scope, from system functional review to the completion of development testing on all three F-35 variants — the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model, the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing version, and the F-35C aircraft carrier variant.
Lockheed Martin will perform the majority of the work in Fort Worth, Texas, with additional contributions from workers in New Hampshire, Florida, Maryland, California, Missouri, and Arizona. Initial funding of $43.2 million will be contributed by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and non-DOD partners. The targeted completion date is December 2026.
The modifications covered by the agreement are expected to help the F-35 complete its multi-year Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase, which officially began in December 2018.
In its FY2021 report issued in January, the office of the U.S. Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) noted that while the F-35 program made some progress in 2021 towards completing IOT&E, delays in verifying and validating the fighter jet’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) are impeding progress. The JSE is a tool that will allow crews to virtually train against the world’s most advanced threats.
A total of 64 JSE trials must be completed, involving all three F-35 variants, before the aircraft can complete its IOT&E test plan.
However, DOT&E wrote that “significant work remains to complete the necessary verification and validation process, which compares JSE component and system-level performance to F-35 flight test data to accredit the JSE for operational test trials . . . As of December 2021, significant work is required to complete the development, validate the models, and accredit the simulation before scored trials can begin.”
In addition, DOT&E noted declining fleet availability since June 2021, citing a lack of spare parts and limited component repair capability as the driving factors. A shortage of functional Pratt & Whitney F135 engines has also “been exacerbated by a lack of depot repair capacity,” reads the report.
It concludes with 13 recommendations for the F-35 Joint Program Office, Lockheed Martin, and the services flying the jet, as appropriate.
Despite program delays, Lockheed Martin in January said the F-35 program had completed another successful year, with Switzerland and Finland selecting the aircraft for their fighter jet programs.
“The F-35’s operational performance remains strong,” said the OEM. “Some of the F-35A deployments and exercises demonstrated over 80 percent mission capable rates. As one of the most reliable aircraft in the U.S. fighter fleet, 93 percent of F-35 parts are performing better than predicted.”
However, in a July 2021 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while U.S. F-35 fleet readiness had improved, its full mission capable rate — the percentage of flight time where the aircraft can complete all of its tasked missions — was still falling short of warfighter requirements. In fiscal year 2020, for example, the GAO said the Air Force F-35A full mission capable rate was 54 percent, versus a 72 percent objective.
There are more than 750 F-35s operating from 30 bases and ships around the globe. All together, the fleet has flown around 470,000 flight hours.
Once the program achieves IOT&E, Lockheed Martin will be cleared for full-rate production of the fighter jet.