WASHINGTON: The head of Operational Test and Evaluation tells the Joint Strike Fighter program in a memo that he will not approve a comprehensive testing plan for the aircraft, raising significant questions about the F-35′s progress. The memo may invite close congressional scrutiny as well.

Michael Gilmore wrote an Aug. 21 memo to Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Vice Adm. David Venlet, head of the JSF program office, and several other senior military testing officials. Gilmore’s office was created by Congress and professional staff pay close attention to anything coming from it.

Specifically, Gilmore said the F-35 program must specify exactly how they will test the plane’s vaunted electronic warfare capabilities. If they don’t, then, Gilmore writes, then he won’t approve the Test and Evaluation Master Plan (TEMP).

He also notes that the budget for JSF testing have “been reduced significantly” from earlier estimates. Until he receives the new budget in detail and reviews it, Gilmore writes, then he won’t approve the TEMP.

Finally, Gilmore says he remains concerned about “overlap of developmental testing with the start of operational test activity.” He concedes it may be possible to do some test certification
“during the spin-up periods. But, Gilmore writes, he won’t approve the TEMP if it “imposes unrealistic and unachievable schedule risk” on operational testing.

Although Gilmore’s memo sounds pretty tough, several DoD officials noted that he does not have authority to make programmatic decisions. Also, operational testing doesn’t really begin until 2016, one official noted, so there’s some time to make changes.

Most importantly, a Defense Acquisition Board meeting to review the program is set for September 7. “The DAB is pressing forward and this should not be a showstopper,” a program official said.

Perhaps the biggest impact this memo might have is on the program’s oft-maligned concurrency, the practice of building and testing and adapting the aircraft as you go, instead of the older practice of building test aircraft, testing the hell out of them and then building often very different production models of the aircraft.

Gilmore’s third point, that he doesn’t want to see “overlap of developmental testing with the start of operational test activity,” seems to strike at the heart of concurrency. Although Adm. Venlet is on the record with Breaking Defense saying that the program relied too much on concurrency, the program was designed around it. We’ll have to see whether Congress takes up Gilmore’s cause or he and the program office work things out before it gets to that point.