The Joint Program Office (JPO) for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 fighter at Patuxent River, Md. expects to receive an analysis by Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Georgia Tech Research Institute in the next several weeks on whether the program’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) is feasible.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, the program executive officer for the F-35 JPO, told an Apr. 22 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) Tactical Air and Land Forces panel and the HASC Readiness panel that the JPO had sought the universities’ counsel this year.

A big challenge to DoD approval of F-35 full-rate production has been JSE testing, which is to assess how the F-35 will fare against advanced threats. A delay in that testing has pushed back the full-rate production decision, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in February that the completion of such testing is “long overdue” (Defense Daily, Feb. 24). The JPO has said that it now expects the completion of JSE testing by the end of next year.

On Apr. 22, Fick said that the JPO expects by the end of this month or early May to receive the universities’ JSE assesment “to make sure we’re not asking for something that’s impossible.”

“It’s very easy to make things look right on the screen,” he testified. “It’s a lot different to make sure that all of the software operational flight programs are responding appropriately, that all of the signals are processed by the radar or the radar simulator appropriately because it’s really those interactions under the hood that are the things that are important with this very complex weapons system.”

The program established JSE for F-35 initial operational test and evaluation some five years ago after the program decided to take over work on the simulation environment from Lockheed Martin.

“What we’ve discovered is that integrating the F-35 aircraft and all of the blue and red aircraft and the ground and airborne threats into that environment, along with all of the weapons that they use in numbers that are operationally representative of the theater we’re trying to synthetically create, is a very daunting problem,” Fick testified on Apr. 22 in response to questions on JSE from Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces panel.

“It’s a very challenging problem to do that integration in a way that allows us to take open air flight test data, bring it into that environment and prove to ourselves that in that synthetic environment I can exactly duplicate what I would have seen in open air,” he said. “It’s that verification and validation process that gives us the ability to use that for initial operational test and evaluation.”

Some JSE delay is associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the program encountered difficulties with personnel working in close-space, classified settings on JSE, Fick said.

Asked by Hartzler what the program will do, if the universities’ analysis finds JSE to be infeasible, Fick replied that “I don’t think that’s going to be the case, but I think we would need to have to have a serious conversation with the [Pentagon] director of operational test and evaluation about whether he still feels those 64 final runs in our initial operational test and evaluation program need to continue to be executed.”

The F-35 program is facing a number of issues, including engine removals because of the lack of depot maintenance capacity, delays in Tech Refresh 3 (TR3) hardware that may be $450 million over budget, and more than $1.2 trillion in projected sustainment costs laid out in a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, F-35 Sustainment: Enhanced Attention to and Oversight of Affordability Are Needed.

“If this program continues to fail to significantly control and reduce actual and projected sustainment costs, we may need to invest in other, more affordable programs and backfill an operational shortfall of potentially over 800 tactical fighters,” Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J), the chairman of the HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces panel, said at the start of the Apr. 22 hearing. “The Tactical Air and Land [Forces] subcommittee has been supportive of this program in the past, but as we’ve said many times, we don’t have unlimited resources, as we chase this elusive affordability of the program, and, given the overall affordability concerns that exist within the program, I would not support any request for additional aircraft beyond what is contained in this year’s president’s budget request.”

The TR3 hardware is to enable the aircraft’s Block 4 capabilities so that the F-35 take on “near peer” adversaries, Russia and China.

Lockheed Martin has said that it is working with L3Harris Technologies [LHX] to resolve the TR3 issues.

Under TR3, Elbit Systems of America [ELST] is providing the F-35 Panoramic Cockpit Display (PCD), while L3 Harris is providing the PCD-Electronic Unit (PCD-EU), the display’s computer. L3Harris has provided more than 1,000 larger PCDs for the F-35 in Tech Refresh 2 and earlier.

In 2017, Lockheed Martin chose L3Harris to supply the F-35’s PCD-EU and the F-35’s Aircraft Memory System (AMS) for TR3. AMS is to provide solid-state mass storage for the plane’s avionics subsystems.