OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
1700 DEFENSE PENTAGON
WASHINGTON, DC 20301-1700
Operational Test & Evaluation
AUG 09 2016MEMORANDUM FOR UNDER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR ACQUISITION, TECHNOLOGY AND LOGISTICS
SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE
CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE AIR FORCE
Subject: Achieving Full Combat Capability with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is at Substantial Risk
While the Air Force recently declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with "basic" Block 3i capabilities, most of the limitations and deficiencies for the F-35A with Block 3i discussed in my FY15 Annual Report and Congressional testimonies remain and will adversely affect mission effectiveness and suitability. In fact, the program is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion by the scheduled end of System Development and Demonstration (SDD) in 2018. If Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) were conducted today on the aircraft in the Block 3i configuration - with which the Air Force recently declared IOC - the system would likely be evaluated as not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded threats. If used in combat, the F-35 in the Block 3i configuration, which is equivalent in capabilities to Block 2B, will need support to locate and avoid modem threats, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage available (i.e., two bombs and two air-to-air missiles). Unresolved Block 3i deficiencies in fusion, electronic warfare, and weapons employment continue to result in ambiguous threat displays, limited ability to effectively respond to threats, and, in some cases, a requirement for off-board sources to provide accurate coordinates for precision attack. Although the program recently addressed some of the Block 3i deficiencies, many significant deficiencies remain and more are being identified by operational test and fielded units, many of which must be corrected if the program is going to provide the expected "full warfighting capability" described in the Operational Requirements Document (ORD).
Whether the F-35 will achieve operational effectiveness and suitability relative to its full set of approved requirements will not be known until the IOT&E of the F-35 system, including properly modified test aircraft equipped with Block 3F software, the full complement of weapons, and the Autonomic Logistics Information System, is conducted, beginning sometime in 2018, at the earliest.
Block 3i is an interim set of capabilities, designed to run on newer “TR-2” processors in production F-35 aircraft beginning in Lots 6 and later, which is equivalent to the Block 2B set of capabilities fielded on earlier production lot aircraft. Block 3i also includes the newer Generation III (Gen III) Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS), which began deliveries with Lot 7 aircraft. The Gen III HMDS was designed to address significant deficiencies in the Gen II HMDS fielded with earlier lot aircraft. F-35 aircraft in the Block 3i configuration can carry a combination of two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and either two GBU-12 laser guided bombs or two GBU-31 (on the F-35A/C) or GBU-32 (on the F-35B) Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM).
Pentagon's top weapons tester doubts F-35A capabilities
As of the end of July, the Air Force had accepted 48 aircraft in the Block 3i configuration, which are in addition to the 44 aircraft delivered in the earlier Block 2B configuration. The Air Force will accept another 35 aircraft in the Block 3i configuration before the program plans to start delivering aircraft in the Block 3F configuration in Lot 10, starting in January 2018.Assessment of Block 3i Capabilities
Because Block 3i is an interim capability based on Block 2B, it has numerous inherent limitations that will reduce operational effectiveness and require workarounds if the F-35A in the Block 3i configuration is used in combat. These limitations, which were also a factor during the Air Force IRA, affect the following mission areas discussed below.Close Air Support (CAS).
The F-35A in the Block 3i configuration has numerous limitations which make it less effective overall at CAS than most currently-fielded fighter aircraft like the F-15E, F-16, F-18 and A-10 in a permissive or low-threat environment, which is where CAS is normally conducted. The following observations are consistent with the Air Force IRA report:
- The limited weapons load of two bombs (along with two missiles for self-defense) constrains the effectiveness of the Block 3i F-35A for many CAS missions. Compared to a legacy fighter with multiple weapons on racks, and multiple weapons types per aircraft, the limited Block 3i load means that only a limited number and type of targets can be effectively attacked.Other mission areas.
- No gun capability. An aircraft-mounted gun is a key weapon for some CAS scenarios when a bomb cannot be used due to collateral damage concerns or when the enemy is “danger close” to friendly troops. The gun can also be an effective weapon for attacking moving targets. However, even though an internal gun is installed in the Block 3i F-35A, it cannot be used until significant modifications to both the gun system and aircraft are completed, along with a version of Block 3F software that supports weapons delivery accuracy (WDA) testing with the gun. For these reasons, gun WDA testing, with the required modifications and software, has slipped to the fall of 2016, at the soonest.
- Limited capability to engage moving targets. Even though the Block 3i F-35A does not have a functioning gun, it can carry the GBU-12 laser guided bomb which can be used against moving targets. However, Block 3i does not have an automated targeting function with lead-laser guidance (i.e., automatically computing and positioning the laser spot proportionately in front of the moving target to increase the likelihood of hitting the target) to engage moving targets with the GBU-12, like most legacy aircraft that currently fly CAS missions. Lead-laser guidance is currently not planned for Block 3F. Instead, F-35 pilots can only use basic rules-of-thumb when attempting to engage moving targets with the GBU-12, resulting in very limited effectiveness. Also, limitations with cockpit controls and displays have caused the pilots to primarily use two-ship “buddy lasing” for GBU-12 employment, which isn’t always possible during extended CAS engagements when one of the aircraft has to leave to refuel on a tanker.
- Voice communications are sometimes required to validate digital communications. Problems with Variable Message Format (VMF) and Link-16 data link messaging – including dropped/hidden information or incorrect formats – sometimes require pilots to use work-arounds by validating or “reading back” information over the radio that prevent them from conducting digital (only) CAS, a capability that is common in most legacy CAS aircraft.
- Limited night vision capability. Although Lot 7 and later aircraft are fielded with the Gen III HMDS, which has shown improvement to the deficiencies with the earlier Gen II HMDS, limitations with night vision capability remain. Pilots using the Gen III helmet for night operations report that visual acuity is still less than that of the night vision goggles used in legacy aircraft, which makes identification of targets and detecting markers more difficult, if not impossible. Also, “green glow” – a condition where light leakage around the edge of the display during low-light conditions makes reading the projected information difficult – is improved over the Gen II HMDS, but is still a concern during low ambient illumination conditions. Finally, accuracy testing of the gun with the HMDS has not yet been completed, although the testing is planned for late CY16. Hence, the aiming accuracy of the combined HMDS and windscreen are still unproven for both air-to-air and air-to-ground gun employment.
- Lack of marking capability – a key capability for both Forward Air Controller-Airborne (FAC-A) and CAS missions. Legacy CAS platforms can mark targets with rockets, flares, and/or infrared (IR) pointers, none of which are currently available on the F-35. The F-35 has a laser designator as part of its Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), but the laser is used for targeting from ownship when using the GBU-12 laser guided bomb or to “buddy-guide” a weapon from another aircraft. This limitation is not planned to be fixed during SDD.
- Reduced on-station time and greater reliance on tanker aircraft. Although this limitation is not unique to the Block 3i configuration, the F-35 has high fuel burn rates and slow air refueling rates that extend air refueling times and decrease overall on-station time which may impact mission effectiveness.
- The Air Force IRA had similar observations on CAS limitations and concluded that the Block 3i F-35A does not yet demonstrate equivalent CAS capabilities to those of 4th generation aircraft.
In addition to the Block 3i limitations listed above that affect the CAS mission area, the following inherent Block 3i limitations will also affect the capability of the F-35A in other mission areas:
- Poor geolocation capability against certain types of emitters and threat laydowns.
- No standoff weapon. With only direct attack bombs, the F-35 in the Block 3i configuration will be forced to fly much closer to engage ground targets and, depending on the threat level of enemy air defenses and acceptable mission risk, it may be limited to engaging ground targets that are defended by short-range air defenses or none at all.
- The limited weapons loadout of the Block 3i F-35 makes effective prosecution of many expected types of targets in a typical theater a challenge.
- Pilots report that inadequacies in Pilot Vehicle Interfaces (PVI) and deficiencies in the Tactical Situation Display (TSD) continue to degrade battlespace awareness and increase pilot workload. Workarounds to these deficiencies are time-consuming and detract from the efficiency and effectiveness of mission execution.
A recent memo from the Pentagon’s top weapons tester throws cold water on the US Air Force’s initial operational capability announcement earlier this month, which declared the Lockheed Martin F-35A equipped with Block 3i software could provide basic capabilities.
Instead, the director of Operational Test and Evaluation argues in a scathing 9 August memo that many significant limitations remain on the aircraft.
“The program is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion by the scheduled end of System Development and Demonstration (SDD) in 2018,” Michael Gilmore writes. “If used in combat, the F-35 in the Block 3i configuration, which is equivalent in capabilities to Block 2B, will need support to locate and avoid modem threats, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage available.”
With the current Block 3i software, the F-35 has the capability of many legacy close air support platforms and may even be less effective than the current F-15E, F-16, F-18 and A-10 in a permissive environment, DOT&E states. If deployed to a combat zone today, the F-35A would require numerous workarounds. Due to issues with the aircraft’s Link-16 data-link messaging, some pilots reverted to voice communications over a radio to validate digital communications.
The F-35A is not able to use the 25mm GAU-22 internal cannon, for example, with Block 3i software. The next software upgrade, dubbed Block 3F, will provide softwarae to support gun testing. Unlike the fighters the F-35A replaces, the stealth fighter with Block 3i software lacks an automated targeting for tracking and targeting moving vehicles.
The programme is running out of time and money to deliver Block 3F before SDD concludes and new discoveries are only furthering the program’s Block 3F flight testing schedule, the memo states. Funding and maintenance personnel to support testing are also tenuous. A number of Block 3F capabilities have fallen behind including Small Diameter Bomb integration, MADL capability to share imagery and basic Link 16 that allows the aircraft to transmit and receive messages.
In the memo, DOT&E detailed over a dozen deficiencies that must still be addressed on Block 3i, but referred to hundreds of capability shortfalls that still remain in Block 3F, which is needed to reach full operational capability, according to the memo.
The F-35A's sensor fusion system is designed to blend inputs from multiple onboard and offboard sensors into a single picture presented to the pilot, but it still isn't working. Tracks on single airborne targets are "splitting" on the displays, as the fusion algorithms confuse single tracks with multiple targets. Some airborne tracks simply disappeared from the pilots' displays and could not be recalled, the memo states. The air force also identified other fusion issues in Block 3i including inconsistent or ineffective electronic warfare capabilities.
Earlier this week, Lockheed lauded the recent completion of 12weapons delivery accuracy events, which were aided by the test fleet's new Block 3F software. But the Block 3F mission systems software required multiple corrections before delivery accuracy testing could begin, DOT&E notes.
“Despite DOT&E asking the program office for information on the extent to which these deficiencies exist in Block 3i, this information is apparently still unknown,” the memo states.