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—John A. Tirpak

The F-35 program should wait until the all-up Block 3F software version is fully developed before asking industry to offer upgrades for future iterations, known as Block IV, and before significantly increasing the fighter’s production rate, the Government Accountability Office said Monday.

In its second congressionally mandated annual review of the F-35, the GAO predicted that 3F testing, which was supposed to wrap up in the fall, will take at least five months longer, and “could take an additional 12 months.”

That would postpone operational test and delay fielding of the Navy F-35C version. Such a delay would also put off achieving full-rate production for all variants, targeted for April 2019, the GAO said. The cost would be $539 million extra for a five-month delay and $1.7 billion more for a full year, according to the report.

The GAO also asserted that moving forward with the Block 4 program would be unwise until the 3F is fully developed and tested. “Completing Block 3F development is essential for a sound business case and warrants funding priority over Block 4 and economic order quantities at this time,” the government watchdog agency said.

It bases its predictions on “historical data” of the F-35 program, which it asserted is the “best practice” way to do it, suggesting that the “anticipated test point achievements” by the system program office are unrealistic.  

Although the F-35 SPO could not be reached for comment Monday, program manager Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has recently acknowledged that 3F development could indeed be delayed, but only until May of next year, and he remains optimistic that it could still finish in calendar 2017. He also said that operational test could still begin on time in January 2018 with a smaller-than-planned number of F-35s,​ if the Pentagon would give the program a waiver to do so.

The 3F version is the last step in achieving the baseline capabilities of the F-35, with all the weapons and electronic warfare capabilities planned for the initial version. The Marine Corps and Air Force declared initial operational capability with the jet in July 2015 and August 2016, respectively, with the Block 3i version of the software. The Navy plans IOC in 2018 with the full-up 3F software iteration.

Service leaders have urged moving forward with Block 4 development plans because of the need to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing threat of adversary air defense systems and aircraft. They also base that suggestion on experience with operational F-35s, which they have said are performing well and meeting or exceeding expectations, even with the transitional 3i software.