Oct. 21 (UPI) -- A new delay in testing Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter plane could keep the aircraft from full production status for up to 13 more months, a Pentagon official said.
A late start to initiation of intensive simulator testing in which air defense threats are replicated, referred to as the Joint Simulation Environment, is responsible, said Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition.
Full-rate production, a contractor's most profitable phase of manufacturing, was scheduled to begin in December.
A Pentagon decision, also known as Milestone C, was expected by the end of the year, but the JSE faces delays of its own and the Defense Department may be forced to concede the finish of the testing, which has not yet begun, by as many as 13 months, to January 2021.
"We actually had signed out of the JPO [F-35 Joint Program Office] earlier this week a program deviation report that documented expected schedule threshold breach in the Milestone C full-rate production decision of up to 13 months," Lord said last week.
Full-rate production on the F-35, a next-generation stealth fighter plane, was initially planned for 2012, and although the rigorous simulations have not been completed, about 435 planes have been delivered to U.S. military and allies.
Some have been deployed and successfully flown in combat missions. About 3,500 F-35s are planned, and Lockheed Martin hopes to hit stride building 160 per year by 2023.
Production and use of the plane has been hampered by problems, with supply chain and other issues leading to delays and cost overruns.
A report to Congress in August, an update to the Fiscal 2020 military budget, noted that the cost of the F-35 program grew by $25 billion in 2018, and is the "main driver" of a four percent increase in overall military spending.