WASHINGTON — Testing delays will push a decision on whether to transition the F-35 into full-rate production in late fiscal year 2023 — and possibly into fiscal year 2024.
In a roundtable with reporters on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, program director for the F-35 Joint Program Office, said critical testing of the F-35 Joint Simulation Environment, which must take place before the initial operational test of the aircraft. and the evaluation phase can be closed, now expected to take place in early spring or summer 2023.
Before a Stage C decision can be reached on full-rate production of the F-35, the results of these simulation tests must be validated and used to help create a report needed for the review.
Asked if the tight schedule actually makes a decision on full-rate production in fiscal year 2023 impossible, Fick said, “I don’t think that rules it out.”
“But in the event that our [testing was] to slip by an appreciable margin, there isn’t much margin between the end of the summer, the generation of the report and the possibility of having a milestone [C] decision,” he said.
The Department of Defense originally planned a full-rate production decision for the F-35 in December 2019, but it repeatedly slipped due to joint simulation environment delays.
The Joint Simulation Environment will create high-end threat scenarios to test the F-35’s ability to react in the most dangerous situations. The scenarios the F-35 will face will include different threat densities, different aircraft mixes and a variety of ground threats in the simulations, including possible threats the fighter could face in the future, Fick said. .
Fick said the Department of Defense was working “aggressively” on validating, verifying and accrediting components of the simulation. About half of the 88 packages needed for this stage have been completed, he said, and the program expects that to be done around May 2022.
Once that’s done, Fick said, the program moves on to system validation verification — bringing components together in larger scenarios for their own validation, verification and accreditation. It should be done by September, he said.
The one-week test period, during which 64 test events will be held, will follow next year.
Fick said that although the JSE is not yet complete, “we are very confident” in the F-35’s ability to fight if it were to engage in combat in Europe.
F-35s already deployed overseas – including six from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, which deployed to NATO’s eastern flank after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia – have the most up-to-date mission data files they need to fight, he says.
“The JSE is a tool … to verify the performance of the F-35 against a range of threats that we cannot achieve in the open, short of actual combat,” Fick said. “We understand the threats the F-35 faces today. We understand the threats that are widely propagated across Europe, and those are the threats the aircraft was developed for.
Stephen Losey is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special ops and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered Air Force leadership, personnel, and operations for Air Force Times.