F-35B IOC - What Does it Mean?

Remember when we reported the success of the USMC's Initial Operational test aboard the USS Wasp last May? It turns out that that announcement of success may have been a little bit premature!

According to an article from the Project on Government Oversight's website, a memo obtained by POGO.org from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation(DOT&E) at the Pentagon shows that the Operational Test was more of a public relations stunt than an impartial evaluation of a new and complex weapons system.

Although the Marines called this an Operational Test, the DOT&E report found that this was not even close to the truth. According to the memo "testing would have to have been conducted under conditions that were much more representative of real-world operations than those that were used during this deployment" to be labeled an actual Operational Test. Some of the corners cut by the USMC include:

  • There were only the 6 F-35s and 3 Search and Rescue helicopters aboard the USS Wasp at any given time - in actuality over 20 additional aircraft would be present.
  • Many electronic combat systems weren't cleared for use or weren't installed. Additionally, combat systems that degraded during the tests were not fixed unless they were necessary for the specific (and limited) objectives of the test.
  • Maintenance assistance was provided by Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce while aboard the USS Wasp. In total, about 80 contractors were used to provide "significant assistance".
  • In addition, several MV-22 aircraft were placed on standby to specifically support these tests, making long distance runs across the country for parts that were unavailable locally. The DOT&E report points out that even with this extra help, "it was difficult for the Marines to keep more than two to three of the six embarked jets in a flyable status on any given day."
  • The aircraft were not able to carry or fire live ordnance.

The testing plan by the USMC had just shy of 99 hours of flight between all 6 F-35s, while only completing 69 hours. This was due to a large number of maintenance issues grounding several of the F-35s at a time. On the fifth day of testing, for example, 4 of the 6 aircraft were grounded for maintenance issues. The next day two missions were cancelled in order to give maintenance crews additional time to complete their repairs. All this despite the fact that Lockheed had placed contractors around the country to move parts as quickly as possible, and the USS Wasp was only a short distance off of the eastern US coast. An overall readiness rating of 80% would be needed by a squadron of 6 aircraft - the F-35, in this limited testing, barely achieved 50%.

The final paragraph of POGO's report sums it up quite nicely (emphasis mine):

Traditionally, declaring [Initial Operational Capability] has depended upon completing combat-realistic testing, as was the criteria for the F-22’s IOC declaration in 2005. The Marine Corps admits the “initial” deployments are several years down the road. F-35Bs will not be deployed to Okinawa until 2017 at the earliest, and won’t be deployed on amphibious assault ships until 2018. It’s clear that the F-35B’s IOC declaration does not establish that any necessary combat capabilities have actually been achieved. It simply establishes that the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office and the Marine Corps were doggedly determined to reap the public relations benefits of meeting their artificial IOC deadline—even if in name only—no matter what.

You can read the DOT&E's full report (including a breakdown of each day's testing) right here (.pdf file).

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