The F-35 Lightning II’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) has been put on hold as Edwards Air Force Base closes its gates “indefinitely” to all nonessential personnel and residents.
The California air base announced the policy on Friday, and the following day, it recorded its first confirmed case of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, fear of which had prompted its closure in the first place.
The closure has put the F-35’s evaluations on hold, possibly including development of its Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), a high-tech combat flight simulator that must become operational before the Pentagon will certify the aircraft for full production, which is expected in 2021. Pentagon testers call it the “F-35 in a Box.”
“The F-35 Test Enterprise is experiencing impacts across most major verification venues as various organizations respond to federal, state, and local COVID-19 restrictions,” Brandi Schiff, a spokesperson for the F-35 joint program office, told Defense News Wednesday.
“As of today, F-35 flight test organizations have ceased flight operations, but organizations that can continue verification activities via telework are continuing to do so,” she noted. “Additionally, select lab and ground test activities are ongoing, and aircraft limited maintenance activities are ongoing to maintain fleet readiness.”
Schiff further noted that “although certain developmental and fielding activities will likely experience delays, the F-35 teams continue to assess ways of furthering efforts while protecting and preserving our workforce’s health and safety.”
It’s unclear if the JSE, which is being built across the country at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, will be affected by the Edwards closure. Only a handful of cases of the novel coronavirus have been found in St. Mary’s County, where the Pax River station is located, and none on the base itself; aside from basic social distancing, few changes in service and access have been announced at the base, according to a Monday Navy news release.
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord didn’t know either, telling reporters on Wednesday simply that the program was pushing ahead.
“We have a number of areas where we have to pause across the department in terms of what we’re doing either in research and development or in testing and operations,” she said, according to Defense News. “Right now I can’t comment on the full rate production decision, what I will tell you is we are moving forward. While we have COVID-19 we still have normal operations executing on our programs.”
Already under low-rate production, during which the Pentagon has bought numerous small batches of aircraft, more than 500 F-35s have been built, comprising various numbers of its three varieties.