Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT:US)’s F-35 fell short of meeting testing goals last year even as the fighter jet made 18 percent more flights than planned, according to the Pentagon’s testing office.
“The lag in accomplishing the intended 2012 flight testing content” will “contribute to the program delivering less capability in production aircraft in the near term,” Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s testing director, said in an annual report to Congress on the Pentagon’s costliest weapons system.
Development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been marked by delays and cost increases. The Pentagon estimates the total cost for development and production of 2,443 F-35s will be $395.7 billion, a 70 percent increase since the initial contract with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin was signed in 2001.
While the 1,092 test flights tallied last year through November exceeded the planned rate, the aircraft met 4,711 of the specific goals set for 2012. It fell about 28 percent short of completing those “test points,” according to Gilmore’s report sent to Congress on Jan. 11.
“Certain test conditions were unachievable due to unresolved problems and new discoveries,” Gilmore said in the report. The need for repeat testing of fixes on the aircraft “displaced opportunities to meet flight test objectives.”
Gilmore said the F-35 met 8,750 test points last year if the tally includes those achieved ahead of time for this year and beyond.
Gilmore’s annual report and a separate one by the U.S. Government Accountability Office are the primary independent assessments to evaluate progress of the F-35. The most recent GAO report was published in March.
With 34 percent of planned flight testing on the F-35 completed, “the program made limited progress in 2012 in fielding capability despite relatively high sorties and test point completion rates,” Gilmore said.
The Marine Corps in November set up its first operational squadron in Yuma, Arizona, and the Air Force last month declared the aircraft advanced enough to accelerate the training of student pilots.
The F-35 is being produced while it’s still being developed, an approach called concurrency that was intended to deliver new weapons faster and save money. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, last year called the dual-track approach “acquisition malpractice.”
Scrutiny of the F-35’s performance and readiness may heighten as the number of planes produced is scheduled to increase from 29 in fiscal 2014 to 44 in 2015 and 66 by 2016.
The Pentagon’s current plan calls for spending $69 billion by the time flight-testing ends in 2017, buying 365 aircraft, or about 15 percent of the planned U.S. total, according to the GAO report last year.
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 program office, didn’t respond to a request for comment on Gilmore’s report.
For the third consecutive year, Lockheed Martin is meeting goals set down in the Pentagon’s Technical Baseline Review, which revamped the F-35 program, company spokesman Michael Rein said in an e-mailed statement.
“Lockheed Martin believes the program is demonstrating exceptional stability, certainly significantly greater than any legacy aircraft development program, which is a primary measure for” the development test and evaluation phase, he said.
Each year, as issues are discovered in testing, “our flight test team identifies additional test objectives that can be accomplished while we resolve the issues discovered,” Rein said. “While we remain diligent to ensure deferred test objectives are ultimately completed, the aggregate plan remains on track.”
Among challenges facing the F-35 is that the aircraft is close to its planned maximum weight, leaving little room to install additional parts to improve reliability and performance, Gilmore said.
The complicated Marine Corps version, which must withstand short takeoffs and landings on carriers and amphibious warfare vessels, is within 231 pounds (105 kilograms) of its planned maximum weight of 32,577 pounds, according to the report.
“Managing weight growth with such small margins will continue to be a significant program challenge,” it said.
Gilmore’s report also disclosed that durability testing on the Marine version, the F-35B, was halted last month after “multiple” cracks were discovered.
Rein said “we have implemented the fixes” and “expect to resume static testing shortly, as early as” later this week.
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