The F-35 Lightning II stealth jet’s Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) has been put on hold as the hosting California’s Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB) records four cases of COVID-19 novel coronavirus infection.
The tests, if conducted, would have certified the Lockheed F-35 for full production. The Pentagon has bought numerous small batches of the F-35 under low-rate production. Over 500 F-35s comprising all of its three variants have already been built.
“As of 4 p.m. on March 25, 2020, Edwards AFB has 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (one active duty member and three family members); all four members reside off base,” EAFB said in a statement.
The closure has put the F-35’s evaluations on hold, possibly including development of its Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), a high-tech combat flight simulator that must become operational before the Pentagon will certify the aircraft for full production, which is expected in 2021. Pentagon testers call it the “F-35 in a Box.”
“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,” Brandi Schiff, a spokesperson for the F-35 joint program office, was quoted as saying by Defense News on Wednesday.
“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,” she noted. “Additionally, select lab and ground test activities are ongoing, and aircraft limited maintenance activities are ongoing to maintain fleet readiness.”
Schiff further noted that “although certain developmental and fielding activities will likely experience delays, the F-35 teams continue to assess ways of furthering efforts while protecting and preserving our workforce’s health and safety.”
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, however, said that she “can’t comment on the full rate production decision.”
“What I will tell you is we are moving forward. While we have COVID-19 we still have normal operations executing on our programs,” Lord stated.