The scheduled completion of the F-35 Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) in July 2019 is reportedly at risk after a recent fleet-wide grounding.
While about 80 per cent of the global F-35 fleet had returned to flying status, the planned November 13 commencement of IOT&E is reported to have slipped as much as two months according to a report in DefenseNews.
The grounding was prompted by a suspected faulty fuel tube pipe found after the recent crash of a USMC F-35B near Beaufort, North Carolina. Despite only losing a few days, some aircraft will require repairing. With the program already suffering from readiness issues due to low aircraft availability across its early-build test fleet of aircraft, a presentation by JSF Program Office officials suggests additional risk will need to be accepted in order to meet the IOT&E completion deadline.
While November 13 is the current planned start date, it was originally expected to commence in September but was delayed so the latest Block 30R02.03 could be delivered to the test fleet.
The completion of IOT&E is required in order for the program to move beyond low rate initial production LRIP) and for full-rate or multi-year production (MYP) to be approved. Only once MYP is underway are the program’s long-anticipated cost-savings and the US$80m (A$107m) cost per F-35A expected to be realised.
JPO spokesman Joe Dellavedova told DefenseNews that November 13 remains the projected IOT&E start date “pending completion of the remaining readiness actions,” but added, “impacts from a mandatory fuel system inspection are being assessed.
“Operational testing will be executed in the most expeditious and efficient manner possible, while ensuring test adequacy is met, with continuous assessments of progress toward test objectives based on collected data,” DellaVedova added.
Any delays to IOT&E are not expected to effect the RAAF’s planned service introduction schedule, although if the move to MYP is delayed that may have implications for its aircraft acquisition costs.