Center for Strategic Communication

An F-35 over Eglin Air Force base in 2009. Photo: Air Force

An F-35 over Eglin Air Force base in 2009. Photo: Air Force

The latest high-level Pentagon review of the trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program did not go well for the Lockheed Martin-built JSF. But don’t tell the Air Force that. The flying branch is racing ahead with its own JSF training and evaluation, regardless of the Defense Department’s hang-ups.

Last week’s Defense Acquisition Board review by senior Pentagon officials was meant to approve a comprehensive plan for completing the stealthy jet’s more than decade-long test effort, but in a “very painful” four hours, the officials could not agree on the plan, Reuters reported.

The impasse is bad news for the ambitious effort to replace essentially all of the tactical jets flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps with a family of broadly similar F-35 models costing no less than $400 billion to develop and purchase and hundreds of billions more to operate and repair. Since its inception in the late 1990s, the single-engine JSF has grown steadily heavier and more complex, has suffered frequent program delays and technical problems and isn’t slated to be fully combat ready until 2018, at the earliest. At least one aviation expert expects the military to slash its total buy of JSFs.

But the Air Force is seemingly unfazed by the turmoil up top. With a goal of purchasing 1,763 F-35As, the flying branch is by far the biggest JSF customer — and is counting on the new jet to replace hundreds of aging F-15s, F-16s and A-10s built in the 1970s and ’80s. The Air Force isn’t waiting on the Pentagon to address the testing-plan woes before the flying branch begins integrating the F-35 into its front-line force.

That overlap between testing and combat prep is called “concurrency.” As the JSF program was being initially structured in the early 2000s, concurrency was seen as a way of getting F-35s into combat a fast as possible. But now the Pentagon realizes that prepping jets for frontline service before testing is complete means that potentially hundreds of planes will have to be pulled from the combat squadrons for design changes identified late in the test program. The “overlap of developmental testing with the start of operational test activity … remains a concern,” Gilmore wrote.

Frank Kendall, the military’s top weapons buyer, was way harsher. “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice,” Kendall said. “It should not have been done, okay? But we did it, okay?”

The problem is, halting F-35 operations at this stage would mean mothballing new facilities, reassigning pilots and maintainers and putting expensive airplanes into storage. In a sense, it’s too late to totally reverse concurrency — and the Pentagon knows it. That’s why the Defense Department, for all its concerns, has not told the Air Force to stop training JSF pilots.

So the preparations for combat duty continue, despite worry in the Pentagon’s senior ranks. On Monday the Air Force, which possesses several dozen early-model F-35s at a facilities in California and Florida, began a 65-day Operational Utility Evaluation at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. The eval takes a hard look at classroom curricula, flight simulators, repair procedures and flight parameters and is meant to pave the way for full-scale training of potentially thousands of F-35 pilots. “The start of the OUE is another huge milestone,” said Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, the main JSF training unit.

Lt. Col. Lee Kloos, who commands the 58th Fighter Squadron, part of the 33rd Wing, has already been flying the deceptively bulky and heavy F-35A for five months. “It’s really an easy airplane to fly,” Kloos said. “It’s very stable and well balanced and it feels very light on its feet compared to how it appears.”

The Pentagon is more critical, perhaps fearing huge future bills to upgrade early-model F-35s that were rushed into service. The Defense Acquisition Board reportedly slammed Lockheed for failing to deliver on time a sophisticated new helmet for the JSF. The helmet is supposed to project fine-grain sensor data onto the visor, allowing the pilot to “see” through the cockpit floor. The problem is, it doesn’t work. “The data display has a distracting jitter, and the infrared night image suffers from latency — a time lag,” Air Force magazine reported last year.

“The helmet is a critical piece that needs to be solved,” Marine Gen. John Amos, who was not part of the board review, told Reuters.

The Pentagon is also worried about the F-35′s high-tech electronic warfare gear, which includes passive sensors for locating enemy radars and active systems for shutting them down. Last month Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s top weapons tester, penned a memo criticizing the JSF program managers for failing to plan for adequate electronic testing.

But the flying branch is busily prepping its new fighter force regardless of what the Pentagon thinks. Ultimately, it’s the Pentagon that has the final say. But the Defense Department doesn’t seem inclined to halt the Air Force’s F-35 work-up. It’s almost as though the military brass senses it has passed the point of no return with America’s new, and troubled, stealth fighter.