WASHINGTON — As the F-35 program approaches operational testing, the number of critical technical deficiencies is slowly dwindling, dropping from 11 critical in January to seven in July.
However, the exact nature of these problems will remain unknown to the public, even when the deficiency itself is not classified. The F-35 Joint Program Office declined to describe the fighter’s seven remaining critical flaws, but said in a statement that it has identified and tested solutions to each problem.
“details [deficiencies] – even uncategorized [deficiencies] Not publicly released because the information is operationally sensitive, and its release could harm U.S. and international war fighters operating F-35s worldwide,” said F-35 JPO spokeswoman Laura Seal.
Seal noted that all remaining critical deficiencies are classified as Category 1B problems, which represent a “critical impact on mission readiness.” More serious Category 1A problems indicate a risk to the worker’s life.
Lockheed Martin also declined to release additional details about the shortcomings.
“We track all F-35 shortage reports. However, not all shortage reports represent contractual deficiencies, but instead may represent feedback or potential product improvements,” the company said in a statement.
In June 2019, Defense News published an investigation of the F-35 detailing all 13 Category 1 deficiencies in the books at the time — the first and only time a complete list of the F-35’s critical deficiencies has been made public.
The program office confirmed in April 2020 that the number of critical flaws had been reduced to seven, with only three shortcomings remaining from a previously released list of known issues:
- A technical issue with the F-35’s cockpit pressure-regulating system has led to several incidents of severe sinus pain, or barotrauma. In April 2020, the program office thought it would be able to fix the problem in 2021 after flight testing for repair.
- On nights with little ambient light, the night vision camera built into the F-35’s helmet can display horizontal green streaks that could make it difficult for pilots to land on ships. Japan’s FBI had planned to test a software update for the third-generation helmet to assess whether it could correct the problem, with the hope of announcing a fix for the shortfall in 2021.
- The F-35’s Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned radar meets the requirements, but the Navy wants to upgrade the system so that it can scan a wider area during naval search mode. In 2020, the program office stated that this issue will remain on the books until 2024, when the software will be updated for the aircraft’s avionics equipment.
The Japan office declined to comment on whether these specific flaws had been resolved. However, Sell noted that four of the seven critical defects are expected to be fixed by the end of October, and another shortfall is due to be fixed in early 2022 after ship tests.
Sell said the program did not set timelines for resolving the remaining two shortfalls, which are “work in progress pending test schedules.”
The Government Accountability Office has recommended that the program fix all critical deficiencies in the F-35 before the Pentagon approves full production, a measure that the watchdog said would reduce the potential for additional synchronization costs caused by continuing to produce the aircraft before testing is complete.”
While the Department of Defense approved this recommendation, the Milestone C decision timeline — which precedes full production — has faced significant delays.
Operational testing must be complete before the Pentagon can identify the third stage of the third phase. However, this testing is on hold while the program office finishes working in the joint simulation environment, a virtual environment that replicates hostile threats – including highly realistic versions of enemy aircraft and weapons – and is too complex to simulate in live training.
The Department of Defense had intended to complete F-35 simulation testing before a full production decision was made in 2019, but test officials discovered technical problems with the simulator and were unable to complete the 64 tests that required the combined simulation environment.
The Government Accountability Office said in a report released on July 13 that the program could release an updated simulated testing schedule as early as August. Until this happens, the full production date remains undetermined,” the Government Accountability Office said.
Regardless of the major Category 1 deficiencies, the program tracks 850 Category 2 deficiencies — minor issues that are “a potential barrier or obstacle to successfully completing the task,” Sell said.
Of the 850 minor releases, 165 are rated as “improvements,” meaning they do not represent a deviation from the software’s requirements like most reported shortcomings. Sell said these features are usually seen as proposed future upgrades.