By Gabe Starosta
The Marine Corps and Navy are working with Congress to add funding to their accounts for Joint Strike Fighter concurrency modifications by using money previously earmarked for upgrading the aircraft to a future software block.
A portion of that block, known as Block 3i, will kick off later than expected because of delays in negotiations and a contract award between the government and F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin, according to the Pentagon’s omnibus reprogramming request dated July 10. That has freed up funding to accelerate aircraft modifications for the maritime services.
Because many F-35s were procured before flight testing had even begun, the aircraft in the field today all require a number of improvements and parts replacements that collectively are known as concurrency modifications. The aircraft that most urgently require those upgrades belong to the Marine Corps, because the expeditionary service will not be able to meet its planned F-35 initial operational capability date of July 2015 if those modifications are not accomplished.
In the reprogramming request, signed by Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord and valued at more than $4 billion, the Defense Department asks Congress for permission to essentially move $65 million in fiscal year 2014 F-35 funds from one account to another.
That money is intended to go toward what is formally referred to as the Concurrency Operational Safety Improvement Program, with $38 million earmarked for the Marines’ short-takeoff-vertical-landing F-35B and the remaining $27 million set aside for changes to the Navy’s carrier-capable F-35C. If approved, these transfers would increase FY-14 concurrency funding for the Marine aircraft to $149 million and for Navy jets to $58 million.
“This Concurrency OSIP is the only avenue for modifications to the aircraft necessary to meet Initial Operating Capability,” the reprogramming states about the Marine Corps’ fleet.
The Navy does not intend to declare IOC until late 2018 or early 2019, once F-35 development is complete. The Air Force plans to meet that milestone in 2016 using the Block 3i software load that recently entered flight testing and still represents an interim capability.
Marine IOC is set to come with only Block 2B software, the predecessor to Block 3i. The two have the same technical makeup, but 3i is hosted on improved hardware.
The $65 million being put toward concurrency modifications is available because “funding for Block 3i efforts within the Block 3i LRIP 2-5 Upgrade Operational Safety Improvement Program . . . for the F-35 STOVL aircraft have changed due to the timeline delay for proposal preparation, negotiations, and contract award,” according to the document. “Funds will not award until March 2015 and are, therefore, available for higher priority requirements.”
LRIP 2-5 refers to the second, third, fourth and fifth lots of F-35 low-rate initial production — which include the jets most in need of concurrency-related improvements. Later lots are already being built with improved components based on discoveries in flight test, but the aircraft that were previously delivered need to be sent to Pentagon or Lockheed Martin depots for repairs.
All of the above-referenced F-35 accounts are marked as congressional special interest items, and they are base budget requirements, not funding needs meant to be paid with wartime dollars.