F-35B Declared Combat Ready, but More Development Remains

By Stew Magnuson
The last day of July was momentous for the Marine Corps as it declared that a squadron of F-35B joint strike fighters was ready for combat.

It was the first of the joint strike fighter models to reach initial operating capability.

“The U.S. Marine Corps decision to make the F-35B ready for combat is a significant event for the F-35 program. The weapons system is now in the warfighters’ hands and can be called upon to do its mission,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program manager, said in a July 31 statement.

After 14 years of development, the program has plenty of critics along with a few fans. Analysts warned that there is a lot of work remaining for the Marines before the aircraft reaches its full potential.

Bogdan said the service now has a stealth fighter that can fly faster than the speed of sound, carry its weapons internally, conduct short take offs and vertical landings, and be deployed from amphibious ships and austere bases.

Ten F-35Bs stationed at Marine Corps Station Yuma, Arizona, were the first to reach IOC.

Among the congratulatory messages were some warnings. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the announcement was “also a reminder that we still have work ahead to deliver the full warfighting capability required by all three services and our partners while we continue our successful efforts to drive cost out of the program.”

One of the most expensive and problematic components of the jet fighter has been the software. The F-35B has three tranches of software, but only two have been completed, block 1 and block 2B. The completion of block 2B was required to reach IOC, according to an April 2015 Government Accountability Office report, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Assessment Needed to Address Affordability Challenges.”

There are two more blocks remaining called 3i and 3F. The aircraft will not have a full suite of warfighting capabilities until they are completed, GAO said.

“We anticipate the completion of the installation of Block 3F software on all Marine Corps F-35Bs in 2017,” Maj. Paul L. Greenberg, a Marine Corps public affairs officer, said in an email to National Defense.

Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, said IOC, which includes the 2B software block, allows the aircraft to conduct close-air support, air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, offensive counter air and defensive counter air. This includes live ordnance deliveries, he added.

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Project on Government Oversight’s Straus military reform project, said the biggest challenge for the program going forward will be integrating the 30 million lines of code in the software and having all the systems work together.

Some of the 2B software initially required for IOC was moved into the 3i and 3F blocks in order to ease the way for the Marine Corps to declare IOC, she said. POGO has been a consistent critic of the program in Washington.

“Two-B was supposed to be the first combat capable block and it is not, so they declared IOC without the [F-35B] actually being capable for combat,” she said.

“That’s why the Marine Corps won’t be deploying this to Okinawa until 2017. There are still a number of things that need to be worked out in the program,” Smithberger said.

Greenberg, in response to questions about the Block 2B software, said the “configuration with which the Marine Corps reached initial operational capability in July 2015 brings an immediate increase in combat capability compared to legacy aircraft.

“Most of the deficiencies we track are only considered deficiencies when compared to the F-35B’s full combat capability in 2017. The vast majority of testing we have done has verified expected capabilities: successful missile shots; successful steel-on-steel, air-to-ground deliveries; and three successful sea trials. The F-35B is able to target in real time, talk to forward air controllers over the radio and data-link, and put weapons on target,” Greenberg said.

Davis in his July 31 statement, said “if required, [the aircraft] could respond to a contingency, giving our nation its first sea-based 5th generation strike fighter capability.” But he also warned about aircraft availability. 

“If I have any concern at this point, it is that the spare parts available to extract maximum value from this exceptional warfighting asset will be shy of what we will truly need,” Davis said. 

Legacy aircraft achieve between 70 and 75 percent readiness, he noted. “I think we have that wrong, and I want to see if we can do better with this new platform,” he said. “Per the commandant’s guidance, I’ve asked my staff to see why we can’t resource this jet to achieve a significantly higher readiness rate.”

Reported spare parts shortages have been a cause of concern in the program.

When asked what was behind the part shortages and what specific steps were being taken to remedy the situation, Lockheed Martin spokesman Mark Johnson said in a statement: “We are working hand in hand with the USMC every day to alleviate this concern.” He offered no further details.

Smithberger said there are a high number of false positives when it comes to the logistics system, which indicates that there is something wrong with the aircraft when there really isn’t.

“If you can’t get accurate numbers of spares and be ready to deploy … you’re not going to be as ready as they want to be,” she said.

Richard Aboulafia, senior vice president at the Teal Group, said the part shortages were the result of bad budgeting, the fact that purchases are being carried out along with the development of the aircraft — concurrency — and a logistics system that is not yet ready to tell mechanics when new parts are needed.

The F-35’s Autonomic Logistics System, like the aircraft itself, has been plagued by developmental issues. The Pentagon’s office of the director of operational test and evaluation gave the system low marks in a 2014 report, and program managers said they are continuing to improve it.

“Initial operating capability” has always been a squishy term in the military, Aboulafia noted. When the Army fielded its first version of the doomed Comanche aircraft, it was called “early operating capability.” But they were little more than flying prototypes. That was an extreme case, he said. The F-35Bs are better off than that, but they are “borderline” when it comes to being truly combat ready, he said.

“I hope it’s not put to the test,” he said. The Marines will now be able to test in real-word conditions and deploy a squadron and see what its needs are, he added.

“This is something that is going to mature slowly, as it has been for years now,” Aboulafia said.

As far as some of the criticisms that have emerged from POGO and others about the F-35B not being a perfect aircraft for the Marine Corps, Aboulafia said “it’s not a perfect aircraft for anybody.”

A POGO report said the Defense Department is simply going along with the “too big to fail” procurement plan.

That “means acquiescing to shrinking air forces, growing defense budget shortages, and the likelihood of disastrous failures in combat — failures that will come with a high cost in the lives of American warfighters in the air and on the ground,” it said in one of its reports.

Smithberger said the budgetary risks come in the form of the computer coding problems the program is encountering. No one really knows how much money it will take to fix the bugs.

Aboulafia said there are budget and procurement risks for the Navy and Air Force when it comes to their F-35 variants, but as far as the Marines, there are “none.”

The fact is that the service would have never been able to develop and procure its own dedicated vertical take-off and landing aircraft to replace the aging AV-8B Harriers, he said. It is in the “nowhere else to turn camp.”

The F-35Bs will deploy off amphibious assault carriers, which are designed to support a battalion of Marines and their equipment in landing operations. If the Harriers, which are no longer being produced, came to the end of their service lives with no replacement, then the Marines would have been stuck with almost a dozen useless ships, Aboulafia said.

“In a lot of ways, this aircraft is the single biggest determinate of whether [the Marines] can exceed their ambitions, which is basically being their own joint force,” Aboulafia said.

Greenberg said “As the Marine Corps’ F-35 program matures, the aircraft’s unique combination of stealth, cutting edge radar and sensor technology, electronic warfare and internal weapons carriage will increasingly equip pilots with the critical advantage of first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability.”

The Marines plan to buy 340 F-35Bs. Fifty are on order and 46 of them had been delivered as of March, according to a Teal Group report on the program.

Italy and the United Kingdom are the two other customers for the B-variant with 30 and 138 planned purchases, respectively. They cost $139 million each, the report said.

Greenberg said plans to outfit other squadrons include Marine Attack Squadron 21, an AV-8B squadron, based in Yuma, Arizona, which will begin its transition in 2016, and will have 16 F-35Bs by 2018.

In 2018, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122, an F/A-18 squadron, will begin its transition to the F-35. By 2020, it is scheduled to have 16 F-35Bs.

Aboulafia said he is somewhere in between the harsh critics such as POGO and fans such as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank, who recently declared in a Forbes Magazine article that the F-35 would be a “smashing success.”

“The idea that the F-35 is a useless boondoggle: No. And the idea that it is going to revolutionize warfare — probably not so much,” Aboulafia said.

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter

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