UK Declared F-35 Operational Despite Issues, Auditors Say

Credit: USAF

LONDON—The UK declared the F-35 operational even though the fleet was suffering from availability, infrastructure, logistics and security issues, auditors have revealed.

The UK National Audit Office (NAO) found that the December 2018 initial operating capability (IOC) from land bases was granted with 67 exceptions, with almost one-third of those still yet to be resolved more than a year later.

It is not clear on how many criteria IOC (Land) was judged, but the process is common practice, officials say, noting that waiting for all issues to be fully addressed before declaring the aircraft operational would “needlessly withhold” the capability from the front-line.

In its report studying how new capabilities are delivered into front-line operations, the NAO reported that in the run-up to the milestone there had been delays in the provision of synthetic training facilities. This affected the availability of pilots and maintainers, while operational availability of the aircraft “hampered the ability to deliver training.”

The report appears to confirm the reasons behind a 34-day flying break by the UK-based fleet in the late summer of 2018 reported by Aerospace DAILY.

Plans to use simulators for training have been frustrated by “technical difficulties and delays in security vetting.”

The NAO said the UK Ministry of Defense is able to use exemptions when bringing a new capability into service. Capabilities that do not meet specifications but are deemed good enough would be given an exemption. The NAO also says that IOC acceptance criteria for the F-35 was not finalized “until several years” after business case approval in the second half of 2017. 

Exemptions arose from “not being able to demonstrate deployability through a planned exercise,” because of aircraft availability, a reliance on contractors for mission support because of a lack of trained Royal Air Force personnel, and a lack of access to mission support training facilities in the U.S. Another challenge was an inability to program aircraft with UK mission data independently of the U.S. This has since been addressed with the opening of the Australian, Canadian and United Kingdom Reprogramming Laboratory (ACURL) at Eglin AFB, Florida, which was declared operational in February.

The NAO notes that 20 of the exemptions had still not been resolved as of February of this year, but also says the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have made progress in the areas of training personnel and logistics. Aerospace Daily understands that of the 67 exemptions, only six now remain and will be resolved by year’s end.

The UK now has 15 F-35Bs based in the country flying with front-line unit 617 Sqdn. and with 207 Sqdn, a training unit. Since their arrival to the UK, the aircraft have been deployed to Cyprus and flown operational missions in the Middle East. They also recently took part in a Tier 1 Red Flag exercise with Five Eyes partners Australia and the U.S. 

A spokesman for the UK MoD said, “We are grateful to the NAO for their report and acknowledge there is further to go. We will continue to improve through the Integrated Review and remain committed to ensuring new capabilities present the best value for money.”

A Lockheed Martin spokesman said that while it was for the customer to answer questions concerning IOC, “the F-35 program globally continues to mature, and Lockheed Martin has made significant steps in terms of reliability and aircraft availability, with the global fleet averaging greater than 65% mission-capable rates and operational units consistently performing near 75%.”

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.