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  • JSF - Mid Year Check
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 3:06 PM on Mar 01, 2010

    If February was a bad news month for the Joint Strike Fighter, with the program boss fired, a 13-month delay in test and a two-year slip in Air Force initial operational capability, look out for March. A Government Accountability Office report is rolling down the tracks, along with a Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) which, as we told you in Defense Technology International a month ago, is almost certainly going to record a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach.

    Meanwhile, the flight test program continues to log an all-time slow record. In the first half of FY2010, as of Friday, the JSF program logged 35 sorties, and progress to date looks like this. (Thanks, JoBo.)

    blog post photo

    That's a small improvement over the 51 flights in the whole of FY2009, but hardly encouraging in view of the 5,000-plus test missions yet to be flown. In its March 2009 report - based on data that's now a year old - the GAO noted that 1,243 test flights were planned for FY2010. (At that time, we accurately predicted that the program was not going to hit its FY2009 goal.)

    The total sorties flown now stand at 155 - and almost two-thirds of those were performed by AA-1, the non-representative and now retired first prototype.

    The core of the problem could be what Lockheed Martin says it is:  simply delays in building aircraft. Bob Cox of the Fort Worth Star Telegram has a detailed story based on Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) reports.

    They portray a manufacturing disaster, with tasks running months behind schedule and suppliers unable to meet deadlines because they were not given final designs in time. To get airplanes in the air, parts were removed from airframes further back on the production line - which in turn have to be repaired in the same time-consuming out-of-sequence manner. And the delays are already rippling into low rate initial production, with the first two deliveries slipped into the last quarter.

    The DCMA reports also confirm comments here a few weeks ago. 

    Lockheed Martin says things are getting better -  but then a lot of people, apparently including Defense Secretary Gates, are beginning to take the program's official pronouncements with this:

    blog post photo

    After all, for every month's litany of problems in the program, you'll find a Lockheed Martin or government program boss assuring the customers, Congress and the taxpayers that everything is going fine. "On track", as they like to put it.

    Remember this distinction:  The Donner Party was on track. They were not on schedule.

    But the trouble with the "it's all late deliveries" argument is that the program has accomplished so little with the aircraft that it has managed to complete.

    Comparison 1:  Three years after starting flight tests, the F-22 - in most ways a more challenging design than the F-35, had supercruised and flown to high angles of attack and zero airspeed, performing throttle snaps throughout the envelope. It had logged 830 hours. (High-alpha testing on the F-35 won't happen until late 2011.)

    Comparison 2: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - towards the end of 1995 - the Eurofighter EF2000, as some Pollyanna had named it, had notched up 81 flights in 18 months of testing, about the same rate as JSF today.

    That was when I started hearing reports about show-stopper problems with the so-called "carefree-handling" jet:  it could get itself into flight conditions that took a lot of time and altitude to get out of. I was talking to people who knew that the in-service date was going to be 2005 at the earliest.

    I was working with the BBC's Panorama news show on the story. BAE Systems was very far from gruntled, and sicced one of London's top libel lawyers on us. Our sources went to ground and the story that emerged was milder than what we knew to be happening.

    The Typhoon did enter service in 2005, after the very difficult qualification of the automatic low speed recovery system.

    So, the last time that a major program moved as slowly as this, there was at least one show-stopper problem that nobody knew how to solve, and that had been swept under the rug successfully and at great expense. And it involved more than forgings and bolts.

    Tags: ar99, jsf, testing

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