US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has put the JSF program on notice during a media briefing at the Pentagon.
Gates has said while testing and development of the F-35A CTOL and F-35C CV variants “are proceeding satisfactorily,” the F-35B STOVL version “is experiencing significant testing problems.”
He added that, “These issues may lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion – changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb more of either. As a result, I am placing the STOVL variant on the equivalent of a two-year probation. If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame and get it back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be cancelled.”
The F-35B flight test campaign fell 15 per cent short of its planned flight test points in 2010, due to reliability problems and the discovery of aerodynamic issues with the aircraft’s auxiliary engine inlet doors located on top of the centre fuselage. Cracking was also found in a fuselage bulkhead of an F-35B ground test article well before the expected fatigue life had been reached, indicating there may be a structural weakness in the design.
The F-35B, once the lead element in the development of the three designs, will now be moved to the back of the development sequence, indicating the US Marine Corps’ goal of achieving a 2012 IOC is now highly unlikely to be achieved. Further, the number of F-35s to be built in the Lot 5 Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) batch which is currently under negotiation will be reduced from 42 aircraft to 32, adding risk to Lockheed Martin’s plans to ramp up its production rates, to achieve planned in service dates, and to get the per unit cost of the aircraft down to target levels.
While Gates didn’t reveal plans for a re-scheduling of the JSF program which is expected to be announced in February, he did reveal the US Navy would buy an additional 41 F/A-18E/Fs and refurbish more F/A-18A-D classic Hornets to “fill the gap created from the slip in the JSF production schedule.”