The Pentagon has postponed vital simulator testing required before full-rate production of the stealth aircraft can begin. This is another another setback for the F-35 programme.
In a roundtable with reporters on March 8, Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, a top officer with the F-35 Joint Program Office, revealed that critical joint simulation environment (JSE) testing is now expected to take place in early spring or summer of 2023.
Before the “Milestone C” decision – the green light for full-rate manufacturing – the JSE testing is required.
According to Defense News, the JSE work may have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is why the simulation test has been rescheduled. Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract for the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme in 2001.
The JSF programme was modified in 2010, with the SDD phase being extended by 13 months, postponing the full-rate production decision until November 2015. Since then, the programme has run into a number of roadblocks for a variety of reasons.
“I don’t think it rules it out,” Fick responded when asked if the tight time schedule essentially makes a decision on full-rate production in fiscal 2023 impossible. “However, if our [testing] were to slide by any significant margin, there wouldn’t be much time between the end of the summer, the development of the report, and the opportunity to make a milestone [C] decision,” he said.
The Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) is a specialised simulation facility at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where armament platforms can be operated in simulated scenarios.
The Simulation Test: Decoding
Up to 14 interconnected simulated cockpits, each representing an F-35 fighter, will be “flown” by pilots through 64 high-end threat scenarios of varying density under realistic weather, sun/moon settings for the F-35 programme.
The aircraft’s capabilities will be tested against a variety of aerial and ground-based threats, including the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter and Russian S-400 missile defence systems, among others.
These weapons can be copied in a highly accurate computer simulation, giving the military an idea of how the F-35 would do against the greatest Russian and Chinese weapons. Another benefit is that testing in a simulated environment is less expensive than flying real jets; 14 F-35s flying at $45,000 per hour would cost $630,000 per hour.
“The JSE is a tool… to verify the F-35’s performance against a succession of threats that we can’t get to in the open air,” Fick explained. The simulation software must be developed to correctly reproduce the real-world functioning of all of the F-35’s mission systems in order to conduct these tests. The simulation’s accuracy must be verified, which would entail flying real F-35s over test ranges to collect data on how the various mission systems react to a radar signal or other threats.
These replies are subsequently coded into simulation software, which brings the entire facility, in this case JSE, as close to reality as feasible. In last year’s report, the Department of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) stated that JSE would be available in mid to late 2021, while in the previous report, the department stated that JSE would be ready by summer 2020; however, neither of these estimations have come true.
Fick stated during the March 8 roundtable session that the Defense Department is working on the simulation’s validation, verification, and accreditation.
About half of the 88 packages required for this step have been completed, with the remaining packages expected to be completed by May. After that, the simulation components will be assembled into broad scenarios for their own validation, verification, and accreditation, which Fick estimates will be completed by September.
The JSE will then be ready for the testing, which could happen next year.
Meanwhile, production of the F-35 continues in the Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) phase, with the US military has purchased 753 aircraft as of 2021, while the FY2022 defence authorization bill has set aside $8.7 billion for 85 aircraft units, including 48 F-35As for the Air Force, 17 F-35Bs for the Marine Corps, and 20 F-35Cs for the Navy and Marines.
Despite the fact that the JSE has not yet been built, Fick told reporters that “we’re extremely confident” in the F-35’s ability to battle if it had to engage in combat in Europe – six of the fighter jets have been sent to NATO’s eastern flank following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When considered against the backdrop of a recent declaration by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which successfully employed its F-35I Adir aircraft to neutralise two Iranian drones last year, this confidence is not unfounded.