Pentagon's F-35 office eyes possible change in testing approach

Andrea Shalal-Esa

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Wednesday said it is examining the possibility of saving time and money by more closely integrating developmental and operational testing of the new F-35 radar-evading fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

Kyra Hawn, spokeswoman for the $392 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, said discussions were under way with the Pentagon's "testing community" but no decisions had been made.

"It's trying to do what makes sense and is efficient, without up-ending the intent of having these separate and distinct review processes," Hawn said.

Pentagon officials have said they hope to protect the F-35, the military's most expensive new weapons program, but mounting budget pressures have forced officials to look for efficiencies and cost savings across the board.

Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational testing and evaluation, has been critical of past efforts to reduce F-35 developmental testing, arguing that it could lead to significant discoveries during operational testing later.

Gilmore had also warned against starting pilot training before more developmental testing had been completed, but the services decided to press ahead with training programs.

But Gilmore's spokeswoman Jenn Elzea said he would consider a more integrated testing approach, if structured properly.

"The Director of Operational Test & Evaluation is always open to considering the use of integrated testing, which uses developmental tests conducted under appropriate conditions to collect data for use in our operational evaluations," she said.

Traditionally, U.S. weapons programs have gone through developmental testing to flesh out any design flaws and then rigorous operational tests before the weapons are fielded.

But the F-35 program was designed to move into production while developmental testing was still in progress, an approach called "concurrency" that Frank Kendall, now the Pentagon's chief arms buyer, has described as "acquisition malpractice."

The F-35 program has been restructured to add time and money to the development program, which is nearing completion after more than decade, and to slow a planned increase in production. Officials told reporters last month that developmental testing was about 40 percent complete.

Kendall this week said the F-35 program had made sufficient progress to plan for higher production in fiscal year 2015, but he remained concerned about the jet's software, reliability and a computer-based logistics system.

Current plans call for the Marine Corps to start using the new planes operationally from mid-2015, followed by the other services in subsequent years, while operational testing is not due to begin until 2018.

In an "acquisition decision memorandum" dated Monday, Kendall ordered the Air Force general who runs the program to submit a reworked plan by November 15 for funding the development program that reflected the program's experience.

Hawn said that new plans would reflect changes made to the developmental program, such as earlier testing of the jet's ability to function during lightning storms, and changes linked to the government shutdown and earlier furloughs.

But she said the new plan could also include changes in the current testing plan, if agreements are reached with Gilmore's office and officials in charge of developmental testing.

Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations, welcomed efforts to better integrate testing and speed up the process of buying and fielding new weapons.

He said he would never put U.S. military personnel in an unsafe position, but thought the current level of testing required for new weapons had "gone way overboard."

"Time is money. We really need to look at how we get things to market faster and more efficiently," Roughead, a fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told Reuters.

"How we test, how we learn, and how we make improvements has become overtaken by a slavish adherence to an ever increasing process," he said.

The Pentagon on Wednesday announced some recent successful weapons testing by the F-35, including the plane's first firing of a guided weapon at a ground target.

Lockheed is developing three models of the new radar-evading warplane for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Norway, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands. Israel and Japan have also placed orders for the jet.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)