In a setback for the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter program, the U.S. Department of Defense has formally decreed that a decision on full-rate production of the jet is on indefinite hold. The Milestone C decision on whether or not to ramp up the manufacture of Joint Strike Fighters had been due in or before March 2021, but has now been on hold pending completion of the final phase of operational testing of the F-35.
Bloomberg was first to report news of the verdict, which was made by Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment in the Trump administration. There had been previous suggestions that a delay was at least likely, before today’s official confirmation.
While more than 600 F-35s have been manufactured so far by the Joint Strike Fighter enterprise, including 123 examples delivered in 2020, wrapping up the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) is a formal requirement before the formal launch of full-rate production. Once that happens, it will signal that the Pentagon officially has confidence in the program’s maturity and that the jet is able to perform as required in all operational conditions. Ultimately, the manufacturing run of the F-35 could reach 3,200 aircraft, depending on different nations’ requirements and emerging new customers. The U.S. Air Force alone has a program of record to eventually buy 1,763 conventional takeoff and landing F-35As, 241 of which had been delivered as of last summer.
Furthermore, the production-related milestone is supposed to confirm that the F-35 meets maintenance requirements, which have fallen short in the past, and that the manufacturing effort is running efficiently. This year, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that fewer F-35s have been delivered than was originally planned.
The latest hiccup in the F-35 program is a result of delays to operational testing in the Joint Simulation Environment. The F-35 needs to prove itself in these trials in order to complete the IOT&E phase and kickstart the full-rate production review.
This a critical, roughly month-long testing phase was originally supposed to begin in 2017. That schedule subsequently slipped and there had been a hope that those trials would begin this month. Now, the F-35 is not likely to enter the Joint Simulation Environment until mid-to-late 2021.