Pentagon expects F-35 deliveries to restart this month

by Braxton Taylor

The Pentagon will likely resume accepting new F-35s this month, a top Air Force leader said Wednesday, while also noting the service will choose the builder of its next fighter jet later this year. 

“Right now we’re very much focused on the TR-3 upgrade, software upgrade, to the [F-35] jet. And as you know, Lockheed Martin had some issues with stability of that software package. So we’ve held up signing the jets over to the Air Force for the last few months. And so we’re very much focused on unwinding that hold up. And I’m hopeful that those jets will start to be delivered this month,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the head of Air Combat Command, said during a virtual Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event Wednesday. The government stopped accepting new F-35s last July because of problems with Technology Refresh-3, or TR-3. 

“As we go forward, though … there’s some power generation and some cooling issues with some future upgrades that we certainly need to address. And I will tell you that we haven’t decided how we’re going to go about doing that yet.” 

The Air Force is mulling a few options to fix longstanding issues with the F-35’s power and cooling systems, including “very expensive” fixes that “include some additional capabilities” alongside some that are “just good enough,” Wilsbach said, calling it a priority going forward. “You definitely will want some more power and some more cooling as you prove the other capabilities on the aircraft, because they’re going to take power and cooling to operate.”

Wilsbach also said the service has no official replacement program for the F-22—despite service leaders’ previously insisting that’s what the Next Generation Air Dominance program would be.

“The F-22 is a fantastic aircraft. We’re actually planning several upgrades to the jet as we speak. And there is no official replacement to the F-22 right now. Obviously, it’ll be in complement with the F-35s, which we’re continuing to build and, hopefully soon, we’ll start to take delivery of more of those, as we get through the TR-3 slow down at Lockheed Martin,” he said. 

Wilsbach said he expects the NGAD downselect to happen this year. The program, which is designed to be a suite of complementary platforms, has experienced significant delays. 

But even with those program delays, Wilsbach stressed that the Air Force’s fleet is strong. 

“And then of course, the F-15EX, we’ve been taking delivery of those this year. And in fact, I just declared [initial operating capability] for the F-15EX, that’s going to be a tremendous platform for us because of its fourth-gen-plus capability and external weapons carriage,” Wilsbach said. “Those long range kill-chain weapons that can’t be carried on an F-35 or an F-22 because they don’t fit in the internal weapons bay. But the F-15E can carry some immense weapons that can go a long way.”

The service is also continuing to upgrade the F-16 with new electronic warfare suites and electronically scanned antenna radars “so they can see much farther and much smaller radar cross section targets,” he said. 

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