WASHINGTON — The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will receive a slate of hardware and software upgrades known as Technology Refresh 3 a year later than originally expected, the three-star general in charge of the program told lawmakers Wednesday.
The F-35 Joint Program Office now estimates TR-3 — intended to load the jet with improved displays, computer memory and processing power — will arrive in April 2024, Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, the F-35′s program executive officer, said during a March 30 hearing before a House Armed Services Committee subpanel.
That would be a year later than the original due date of April 2023, said the chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.
The “F-35 is currently planning to achieve full operational capability status after the full TR-3 and block 4 capabilities of the aircraft are fielded in 2028 — 27 years after the program began,” Wittman said. “That is by any measure unacceptable.”
Schmidt said Lockheed Martin, the F-35′s primary manufacturer, believes TR-3 will arrive this December, and he suggested the actual arrival of TR-3 could fall in the “window” between those two dates.
The F-35 needs the TR-3 improvements — which will allow the fighter to store and process more data as well as run advanced software — before it can receive a modernization known as block 4, which will include new sensors, the ability to carry more long-range precision weapons, more powerful data fusion, increased interoperability with other platforms and advanced electronic warfare capabilities.
Wittman criticized the F-35 program for delays and for TR-3 running about $700 million over budget, saying “the program has to do better.”
The delayed delivery of TR-3 is starting to hit existing fighter squadrons that are retiring older legacy fighters, Wittman said. Those squadrons won’t receive F-35As with the capabilities they need in time to avoid gaps in aircraft after their older planes are retired.
“We currently are paying for a great capability, but we’re currently only getting a good capability fielded,” Wittman said, quoting an unnamed Air Force official.
Schmidt acknowledged to lawmakers that “we are behind.”
Driving up costs
The hardware’s development lagged and initial production was slow, Schmidt said, but the hardware has now matured to the point where it is proving reliable and passing flight safety requirements.
Schmidt said software integration also proved to be a challenge and got off to a late start.
The Government Accountability Office in 2022 said the greater-than-expected complexity of TR-3 was driving up the costs of the block 4 modernization effort.
The Air Force conducted the first test flight of an F-35 with some TR-3 capabilities at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Jan. 6, and Schmidt said it has now flown 25 times.
The next software drop will come in about a month, Schmidt added, and will be a critical update that “unleashes most of the tactical capabilities in there” so the military can do more thorough flight tests.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.