As we've noted here before, the Joint Strike Fighter team has to climb a steep ramp-up in flight testing rates if the 5,100-sortie program is to be completed on time, even with the new mid-2014 target for the end of operational testing.
Achieving this goal is particularly important because the program's economics are underpinned by an equally rapid ramp-up in production. Indeed, in the fifth year of low-rate initial production, the US will build more JSFs than any other fighter. In all, 362 jets are planned during LRIP and all of them will be on contract before developmental testing is completed.
Concurrency is a high-stakes gamble. Reducing concurrency expends time and money. But high concurrency runs a risk: design changes that result from lessons learned in DT have to be retrofitted to the aircraft that are already complete or under construction, which is an expensive exercise in managed chaos at the best of times.
Then there's the still unchanged IOC dates for the Marines and USAF (mid-2012 and mid-2013) respectively. Even with very basic Block 1 or Block 2 configurations, this is a challenge. IOC does not mean, for example, that the program delivers ten jets to the Marines in mid-2012. The critical path is training: "Operational" means that the jets are flown and maintained by operational crews, trained by the first cadre of instructors, who in turn have learned at the feet of the test force. To get to IOC, the Marines expect their first training aircraft in 2010 and to fill the fleet readiness squadron during 2011.
In most recent programs, there have been two pacing items in reaching IOC - integrating the avionics and training the crews. It's been found rather consistently that the electronics work one way on the bench, another way in the flight test bed, and yet another way when stuffed into a small, hot, noisy tube.
The complex and integrated nature of mission systems represents a training challenge: I will not soon forget a Eurofighter press tour in 2004, which took us to Laage air force base in Germany, where we were confronted by an obviously frustrated Luftwaffe Oberst and shown lots of empty buildings where the simulators should have been, but weren't - because you couldn't finish the sims until you'd done the same with the airplanes. The aircraft were ready but the sims were still in test.
With that in mind, let's look at three milestones in the JSF program. First is the start of testing with the CATBird flying laboratory, with mission systems installed. So far, it has flown with communications and navigation gear, but not with radar, other sensors and a mock cockpit. According to Ed Phillips' report from May, this is due to start happening before the end of 2008. At first it will have radar, the EW and electro-optical systems to be added later. The complete suite should fly in the fall of 2009, according to Northrop Grumman.
Second is the first flight of a JSF with mission systems, which (as of May) was due in the May 2009. It will be BF-4, the fourth STOVL version, and like the initial CATBird configuration will not have the EO sensors on board. The first F-35C - CF-1, to fly in the second half of 2009 - will have the full suite.
The third milestone is the start of actual mission systems testing. During much of 2009, the focus of testing will be on STOVL at Patuxent River - but the Navy does not do most of its sensor and weapons testing at Pax, but at China Lake, which like Edwards has overland military operating areas nearby. According to Guy Norris and Amy Butler, mission systems tests will pick up pace in early 2010 as avionics aircraft (BF-4, BF-5 and AF-3) arrive at Edwards and join the CATBird. The Marines are expecting training-ready aircraft later in the year, as noted above...
So, if you're heavily invested in JSF, the items to watch are the first flight of the CATBird with sensors on board, the first flight of a mission-systems JSF, and the start of mission-systems testing. Above all - and assuming that no major nasties emerge from the woodshed in next year's STOVL trials - these will point to the health of the program in terms of reaching operational status.