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Software Issues Derail F-35 Testing Schedule

Problems lingering in the F-35’s software systems have delayed a series of tests designed to ensure the aircraft can perform a full range of operationally relevant missions.

An internal memo signed by Robert Behler, the US Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation, has pushed backed the "initial test and evaluation" (IOT&E) of the aircraft by at least two months. The memo, dated August 24, was obtained by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and published September 12.

The "currently fielded operationally-representative software version 30R00, which I approved for Pre-IOT&E Increment 2 test activities, was adequate and relevant to conduct the evaluation of two-ship missions involving lower-end threats," Behler wrote.

However, in order to conduct testing against higher end-threats, the aircraft needs software version 30R02, "which is fielding within the next two months," the memo states.

Once 30R02 is locked in and ready to go, the Pentagon official wrote, the testing office requires Level 4 mission data files, Autonomous Logistics Information System software version 3.0 and "the same Air-to-Air Infrastructure (AARI) software version" to be in place before formal IOT&E starts. ALIS is the "much-troubled" digital network that fuses aircraft diagnostic functions, supply chain management and "maintenance guidance," according to POGO.

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When all is said and done, the software "should add the capabilities of the aircraft to perform several key combat missions including strategic attack, air interdiction, offensive counter air and electronic attack," POGO reports, before the jet can go through formal IOT&E.

The testing delay is important because, according to the Defense Acquisition Guidebook, "the fundamental purpose of test and evaluation (T&E) is to enable the DoD to acquire systems that work." If the aircraft is not ready to go into formal IOT&E, it means the Pentagon isn't ready to say that all the systems on the F-35 actually work. In fact, the T&E itself may expose new vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

The F-35 is on track to be the most expensive weapons program in US history: the lifecycle cost of the F-35 program — including aircraft acquisition costs plus estimated operational and maintenance expenses — projects to be well over $1.5 trillion, The Conversation reported last year in an article published by Scientific American.

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