Doubts Persist About “Combat-Capable” F-35 Fighters

Of all the issues surrounding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, perhaps the most hotly contested is the criteria the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy are using to judge when the jets will be ready for combat and whether certain milestones accurately reflect the stealth fighter’s capabilities. The Air Force has now reignited this debate by stating that it will have "fully combat capable" F-35As by the end of September 2017 even though the jet hasn't even started independent operational test and evaluation trials.

On Aug. 25, 2017, Aviation Week reported that the Air Force would begin receiving A model aircraft able to “employ its full suite of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons,” including its internal 25mm cannon. To achieve this milestone, the new aircraft would come with a critical new software update, which the service referred to simply as Block 3F. In September 2016, the service announced this would occur by the beginning of the 2018 fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1, 2017.

“We now just passed 100,000 flying hours with the F-35, and it is doing very well,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson told reporters during a press conference, also on Aug. 25, 2017. “In any contingency, if there were a problem, they’re ready to go – ready to go to combat.”


Still, it’s not entirely clear how the Air Force is defining “fully combat capable” in this case. None of the three F-35 variants have even begun the mandatory testing process run by the Pentagon's Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), which is independent of the individual services.

What is clear is that this is not the same, nor is the service claiming it is, as a formal declaration of “full operational capability,” or FOC. The Pentagon-standard definition for FOC is when every unit that is supposed to receive a certain weapon system has gotten that piece of equipment and can both operate and maintain it. This announcement is generally only supposed to come after the system passes DOT&E's rigorous independent testing regime.

The Air Force had already added confusion to this process by declaring initial operational capability (IOC), which is supposed to reflect a basic operational capability, for the F-35A before the end of developmental testing and without any operational evaluations. The service seems to be again obfuscating the situation, intentionally or unintentionally, by using a term that sounds similar to FOC, but isn't, which has already led to confusion in the media about what this new announcement realistically means.

"This may very well be an effort to undermine the operational testing process," Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog that has been highly critical of the F-35 program, told The War Zone by Email. "All the services have been hostile to the idea of having an outside testing official evaluating their work. I see this as an attempt to marginalize DOT&E's role in the acquisition process." (end of excerpt)

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Doubts Persist About “Combat-Capable” F-35 Fighters Doubts Persist About “Combat-Capable” F-35 Fighters Reviewed by Unknown on 04:48:00 Rating: 5

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