Is. Isn’t. That about sums up the latest kerfuffle between the Pentagon’s top operational tester — who Congress watches very closely — the Air Force and and the program office overseeing the plane’s development, known as The Joint Program Office.
“Little can be learned from evaluating training in a system this immature,” Michael Gilmore, director of Operational test and Evaluation wrote in “F-35A Joint Strike Fighter: Readiness for Training Operational Utility Evaluation,” a Feb 15 report, one which had at least one Pentagon source sputtering with indignation and a touch of exasperation.
On the other hand, the JPO issued this statement:
“The U.S. Air Force conducted the operational utility evaluation for its F-35As and determined its training systems were ready-for-training. F-35 operational and maintenance procedures will continue to mature as the training tempo accelerates. The DOT&E report is based upon the Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team report which found no effectiveness, suitability or safety response that would prohibit continuation of transitioning experienced pilots in the F-35A Block 1A.1 transition and instructor pilot syllabus.”
So, someone would appear to be wrong here. Or we just have different organizations seeing the same data and coming to very different conclusions.
The next bit of the JPO statement would seem to indicate the different conclusion hypothesis is sound. “There are no issues identified in the DOT&E report that the Air Force and the F-35 Joint Program Office didn’t already know about, and are working to resolve. There is a deliberate process in place to validate the training system’s effectiveness through advancing training blocks as they are made available to the warfighter.”
And the Air Force has clearly concluded that Gilmore just isn’t right. In an August 27 letter to Gilmore, Air Force Secretary Mike Donley literally says “thank you” to Gilmore, tells him he agrees with the data he presents and then goes on to detail just why the Air Force is going ahead anyway. [Click on the PDF link at the top left of the page to read the letter.]
If you read Donley’s letter carefully, you’ll see that he sort of defends concurrency, the much-maligned process by which Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon build and test the airplane as they go. “…Concurrent tresting and a graduate training program towards full combat capability remain necessary to meet F-35 initial operational capability and force structure requirements,” Donley writes.
One of the F-35’s most persistent –and effective — critics obtained and shared Gilmore’s 47-page report and lambasted the program using the information in it: Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight, one of the best informed defense budget analysts around.
The Gilmore report did include one bit of information close students of the program may not have seen before: the all-important AESA radar system is suffering some problems.
“The radar system exhibited shortfalls that – if not corrected – may significantly degrade the ability to train and fly safely under a typical transition training syllabus, where an operational radar is required. The radar performance shortfalls ranged from the radar being completely inoperative on two sorties to failing to display targets on one sortie, inexplicably dropping targets on another sortie, and taking excessive time to develop a track on near co-speed targets on yet another sortie,” Gilmore wrote.
Since the radar is mostly software, and the software is the part of the plane that is lagging most appreciably right now, that would seem to offer hope that fixes can be found. And Gilmore did not indicate that he believed there were any systemic problems with the radar.
This is not Gilmore’s first criticism of the program. And it is not the first time he bas been ignored or overuled by a service or the JPO, as AOL D readers know. We’ll have to see how Congress reacts to this.