Completion of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Combat Trials Signals Progress Toward Full-Rate Production Approval

In a significant milestone for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, a series of long-awaited simulated combat trials, known as "runs-for-score," have finally concluded. These trials represent a crucial step towards wrapping up the fighter's initial operational testing phase and securing approval for full-rate production (FRP). This achievement follows years of delays due to technical challenges and pandemic-related issues affecting the program's virtual Joint Simulation Environment (JSE).

On September 21, the F-35 Joint Program Office confirmed the completion of these combat trials, marking a pivotal moment for the program's future. The trials have been eagerly anticipated as they provide a critical evaluation of the F-35's combat capabilities, and their results will play a vital role in determining the way forward for this advanced stealth fighter.

While over 900 F-35s have been manufactured, the program has remained stuck in its initial operational testing phase and low-rate initial production due to the extended duration of these trials. DOT&E officials are anxiously awaiting the trial results as they will furnish the essential data to support a decision on full-rate production. This decision, anticipated to rely on DOT&E's verification of the results, is a significant milestone, albeit one that may not directly influence the fighter's production rate.

The delays encountered during the trial process have been attributed to a combination of technical issues and the challenges posed by the pandemic on the JSE, which serves as the platform for these critical combat trials. These trials were initially scheduled to occur much earlier, following an original plan outlined in 2012. However, they formally entered the operational testing phase in 2018, over a year behind schedule, and the original goal of achieving FRP by the end of 2019 was not met.

The upcoming decision on FRP is eagerly awaited, but it is worth noting that it may not significantly affect the actual production rate of the F-35. Experts have already expressed concerns that the current production rate is insufficient to accommodate the backlog of orders.

Lockheed Martin, a key partner in the F-35 program, has emphasized the importance of the JSE in enabling operators to conduct tests under conditions that cannot be replicated in open-air ranges. Their role in integrating digital models of the F-35 into the JSE has contributed to the successful "Runs for Score" trials, and they look forward to continuing their collaboration with the Joint Program Office and JSE teams.

Furthermore, the results from these trials may reveal the necessity for retrofits to address potential shortcomings in combat scenarios. Concurrent development has led to the creation of 14 different versions of the F-35, as highlighted in a recent watchdog report.

Despite the challenges faced in the F-35 program, key figures within the Air Force, including Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Head of Air Combat Command Gen. Mark Kelly, have expressed confidence in the system's performance. They have praised the F-35's superiority over fourth-generation aircraft, emphasizing the positive outcomes observed in terms of aerial performance against potential threats.

In summary, the completion of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter combat trials is a significant step forward in the program's journey toward full-rate production approval. While challenges and delays have been a part of this process, the results of these trials will provide valuable insights into the capabilities of this advanced stealth fighter, shaping its future development and deployment.

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