F-35 operational testing in the United States has been suspended in an effort to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing into question whether the timeline for going into full rate production will be delayed.
Edwards Air Force Base in California, where F-35 operational testing is being carried out, closed its gates on Friday, with flight testing at the installation suspended.
Tests of the F-35’s Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) and its cyber protections may also have been been slowed or halted, with the base closed to all except mission essential personnel and residents.
“The F-35 Test Enterprise is experiencing impacts across most major verification venues as various organizations respond to federal, state, and local COVID-19 restrictions,” said Brandi Schiff, a spokesperson for the F-35 joint program office.
“As of today, F-35 flight test organizations have ceased flight operations, but organizations that can continue verification activities via telework are continuing to do so. Additionally, select lab and ground test activities are ongoing, and aircraft limited maintenance activities are ongoing to maintain fleet readiness.”
Schiff acknowledged that the situation could set back testing for certain aspects of Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 program, but added that the program office is taking measures to ensure that test activities can resume quickly after COVID-19 restrictions are removed
The pause in testing could further delay to the JSE, which the JPO had previously said would be ready as early as the middle of this year. The JSE allows operators to conduct simulated evaluations of the F-35 in a range of high-threat scenarios without conducting live training, and is a critical part of the F-35 program.
The JSE is already months late and has caused the U.S. Department of Defense to put off a full-rate production decision for the F-35. The full-rate production decision is planned for January 2021, although that is a mainly symbolic display of confidence in the program’s maturity.
Australia is planning to buy a total of 72 of the F-35A conventional take-off and landing variant, with deliveries of around 20 of the aircraft completed as of this date.