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Bombs away: Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can’t escape software problems

Published time: January 24, 2014 10:42
F-35 fighter jet (AFP Photo / HO)

F-35 fighter jet (AFP Photo / HO)

The US Defense Department has warned of reoccurring technical problems with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter, the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program that has already come under heavy criticism.

The Pentagon's chief weapons tester, Michael Gilmore, provided an in-depth look at the F-35's technical features, emphasizing what he calls the "unacceptable" characteristics of the aircraft's software, according to a draft obtained by Reuters.

The 25-page report, scheduled to be delivered to Congress this week, provided a disturbing glimpse of the aircraft’s Block 2B software, which is currently not performing at the level of earlier expectations and could significantly delay deployment of the plane.

"Initial results with the new increment of Block 2B software indicate deficiencies still exist in fusion, radar, electronic warfare, navigation, electro-optical target system, distributed aperture system, helmet-mounted display system, and datalink," the report said.

The software issued too many “nuisance warnings” that resulted in “poor sensor performance,” the report said, adding that Lockheed Martin had delivered F-35 jets with 50 percent or less of the software capabilities as stipulated by its contract with the Pentagon.

Due to the high number of technical problems, the 2B software overhaul would not be finished until November 2015 - 13 months later than originally planned, the report forecast. This would delay release to the F-35 fleet until July 2016, a year after the Marine Corps anticipated using the aircraft.

The F-35, which is designed to be able to hover like a helicopter, is expected over the next decade to provide firepower to the US Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. Several members of NATO, the 28-member Western military bloc, have expressed interest in the fighter jet, including Australia, Britain and Canada.

Gilmore, who has been an outspoken critic of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's costliest weapons program with a price tag of $392 billion for 2,443 aircraft, said engineers were still grappling with the problem of integrating the jet's "mission systems," or avionics and weapons required for engaging the enemy.

The onboard logistics system known as ALIS – which is defined as the “information infrastructure for the F-35” on Lockheed’s website - was said to contain "serious deficiencies" and “failed to meet even basic requirements.” At the same time, the report said the aircraft’s heavy reliance on a vast web of electronics made it a target for not only enemy fire, but lightning as well.

Lockheed describes ALIS on its website as “the information infrastructure for the F-35, transmitting aircraft health and maintenance action information to the appropriate users on a globally-distributed network to technicians worldwide.”

Not everybody inside of the Defense Department, however, is so downbeat on the technical aspects and future prospects of the F-35 stealth fighter.

Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon's F-35 program chief, stood by the state-of the-art machine.

"The basic design of the F-35 is sound, and test results underscore our confidence in the ultimate performance that the United States and its international partners and allies value so highly," Bogdan told Reuters in a statement. "Of course, we recognize risks still exist in the program, but they are understood and manageable."

Bogdan, who believes the aircraft could enter service for the Marines next year as planned, pointed to a number of successful weapons tests late last year. According to the aircraft’s program chief, the F-35 conducted 1,153 flights and carried out more than 9,000 tests in 2013.

However, it is not just technical issues that have critics of the aircraft in an uproar.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which started in 2001, is 70 percent over initial cost estimates, and years behind schedule. And despite its fantastic price tag, the F-35 has even failed to generate the number of jobs its proponents had originally promised to Congress.

Earlier this week, the Center for International Policy said Lockheed had “greatly exaggerated” its claim that the F-35 program will sustain 125,000 American jobs in 46 US states in an effort to win support for the program.

In the latest bit of bad news for the US government’s largest contractor, shares in Lockheed Martin tumbled after its fourth-quarter profit plunged 14 percent amid US budget cuts.

Lockheed declined 3.9 percent on Thursday to close at $150.49. It was the biggest drop since August 10, 2011.

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