The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Wednesday the Air Force is “long overdue” in completing combat simulation testing for the F-35, citing the assessment as a critical piece for determining future program plans.

“We need to look at the F-35 program. It goes to engine reliability. It goes to finishing the combat testing and evaluation which is long overdue. And I think those assessments will play into our decisions about the procurement of the F-35,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told reporters. “We cannot just sit back and wait much longer for operational testing and full acceptance by the Air Force.”

F-35As sit on the flight line at Hill AFB, Utah on Jan. 6, 2020. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

The ongoing delay in testing with the program’s new Joint Simulation Environment, which will assess how the F-35 will fare against advanced threats, has pushed back back a full-rate production decision.

“Frankly, we want this aircraft in the hands of our pilots with unrestricted use as soon as possible for our defense and their defense too,” Reed said.

Reed added that SASC is also concerned over the F-35’s long-term sustainment costs.

Last month, an Air Force official said the F-35 program is at an “inflection point” in which the program needs to reduce sustainment, cost-per-flying hour costs, as the service looks to double its fleet of the conventional F-35As over the next several years (Defense Daily, Jan. 14). 

Reed said he doesn’t foresee having to make dramatic cuts to F-35 procurement plans in the upcoming budget cycle to send a signal to the Air Force regarding the lagging timeline, adding that any program decision will be based on the service’s operational plans and force structure requirements.

“Signaling, you can do that occasionally. Other than automatically cutting equipment, I think we have to make sure that we send the right signal but also don’t compromise the operations of the Air Force,” Reed said.