WASHINGTON — The F-35 program has completed a long-delayed series of crucial tests, which could pave the way for a decision next year to officially move the advanced fighter jet into full-rate production.
The Joint Simulation Environment tests, known as “runs for score,” were finished Sept. 21, as was the initial trial validation, F-35 Joint Program Office spokesman Russell Goemaere said in an email to Defense News Friday.
The Pentagon’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, will now analyze the data collected in the tests, which were conducted through much of September. DOT&E’s report on the F-35′s performance in the JSE tests could be delivered to Pentagon leaders by the end of December.
The Joint Simulation Environment’s 64 test trials at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland were designed to put all three versions of the F-35 through a variety of in-depth scenarios, similar to situations they would likely encounter in real-world combat.
DOT&E said in a report released in January that those scenarios would include defensive counter-air, cruise missile defense, and combined offensive counter-air, air interdiction and destruction of enemy air defense trials.
The completion of the JSE tests marks a crucial step for the program — one that is needed before the F-35′s initial operational test and evaluation phase can be closed, and the Pentagon can make a Milestone C decision that officially authorizes it to enter full rate production.
In an interview with Air and Space Forces Magazine this month, the head of the F-35 program, Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt said a Milestone C decision would likely be made in early 2024. But Schmidt acknowledged to the magazine that the fighter is already being built at nearly full capacity, muting the effect a full-rate production authorization would have. Lockheed Martin typically aims to build roughly 150 F-35s each year.
The watchdog Project on Government Oversight has criticized the Pentagon for producing F-35s as if it were already in full-rate production, before such crucial tests were completed. POGO analyst Dan Grazier told Defense News earlier this year that if the F-35′s testing finds problems with the fighter before a full-rate production decision is officially made, it would mean hundreds of fighters already built and in use could need extensive retrofitting.
The Pentagon originally hoped to make a Milestone C decision on the F-35 in December 2019, but the deadline repeatedly slipped as the setup of the Joint Simulation Environment fell further behind schedule.
Creating the simulation environment proved challenging for the department, and the Pentagon struggled with the verification, validation and accreditation process. The tests fell years behind schedule.
In a roundtable with reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air Space Cyber conference earlier this month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said he was confident the JSE would allow the F-35 to go through the tests it needs, and said it contained “a really remarkable set of capabilities.”
Kendall said many of the JSE test results would be classified.
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.