The U.S. Operational Test Team, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 6, and 461st Flight Test Squadron partnered with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), VMFA-242, and 356th Fighter Squadron pilots supporting joint F-35 Lightning II operations and agile software development.
The UOTT, headquartered at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and the 461st FLTS at Edwards AFB, Calif., traveled to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan to collect non-traditional flight test data for future software upgrades while educating pilots on new F-35 capabilities. The joint, integrated support spanned two full weeks with a nearly 24/7 operations tempo.
The partnership between these fighter squadrons, the UOTT, AFOTEC Detachment 6, and the 461st FLTS represents a deliberate effort to support rapid F-35 software development. As the time between F-35 software updates continues to decrease, developmental test and operational test events occur often simultaneously in an integrated manner.
Because of this, feedback on the performance of the current F-35 software iteration, 30P06, is being used to ensuring future updates offer increased combat capability to the warfighter.
“In the past, this feedback was typically disjointed as OT and DT events often possess distinct structures and timelines,” said Maj. Ryan Luersen, F-35 experimental test pilot. “While OT missions can be less rigid and more realistic, DT events are normally very controlled and scripted. However, this is not the way the F-35 is employed so it is important to occasionally look at operational data to make sure that what we’re doing in DT is supporting the warfighter. This data ensures that future software updates continue to give F-35 pilots a suite of options when fighting in a highly contested, network-enabled battlespace.”
To support the UOTT and 461st FLTS F-35 software testing, VMFA-121, VMFA-242, and 356th FS F-35 pilots provided detailed information on missions in the Pacific region. Operational squadrons flying in the theaters of interest represent an important resource to inform F-35 tactics development and generate relevant data for the F-35 program. The data, given to the UOTT and 461st FLTS analysts, demonstrate performance strengths of F-35 systems and offers updated information for a host of contributors to F-35 development.
The UOTT and 461st FLTS are currently performing detailed analysis on the real-world data and using preliminary findings to shape future test events.
“The warfighter is using the equipment and technology that we provide to them,” said 1st Lt. Jason Centanni, F-35 test engineer. “The test and operational worlds are directly linked to each other, so if we do not test robustly enough to determine where the F-35 falls short, then the result of that will be our own pilots and aircrews working at a disadvantage.”
With this understanding, Centanni and Luersen conducted training for VMFA-121, VMFA-242, and 356th FS aircrews based at not only MCAS Iwakuni, but also aboard the USS Tripoli. While the two test organizations traveled to Japan for data collection purposes, they also educated F-35 operators on current 30P06 capability, as well as new functionality that the upcoming 30P07 software upgrade offers.
“The primary purpose of getting aboard the Tripoli was informing the Fleet of the full use of the F-35,” said Centanni, who spent several days aboard the ship embedded with the unit. “We wanted to share knowledge to enable the warfighter to squeeze a little more out of their jets than what they had previously been used to.”
“This training improves the connection between test and ops,” said Luersen. “Strengthening these connections with the Combat Air Force and Fleet ideally leads to a better closed-loop process for fielding effective software on an appropriate timeline. It also allows us to better advocate for CAF and Fleet needs and wants.”
“The UOTT and 461st FLTS trip to Iwakuni provided an opportunity to pass results directly to the end user and gave them a pathway to pass their data and concerns back to the enterprise quickly and meaningfully,” said LtCol Dave Merritt, UOTT Commanding Officer. “These results will immediately be used across the enterprise to increase the lethality of the platform. As F-35 upgrades are released more quickly, both the UOTT and 461st FLTS are committed to quickly and accurately reporting on new combat capability. Integrating more closely with operational squadrons and observing them in their natural environment ensures our test plans and operational impact reports get to the squadrons that need to see them.”
“Because of the help offered to VMFA-121, VMFA-242, and 356th FS pilots, the UOTT and 461st FLTS have already been asked to support other efforts like this in the years to come,” said Merritt. “As significant F-35 upgrades become a reality, the value of integrated DT and OT testing becomes critical when informing the CAF and Fleet. The UOTT and 461st FLTS have been working jointly to deliver the ground truth about the F-35 platform. As operational aircraft prepare to receive Technical Refresh 3 in 2023, the UOTT is determined to not only tell our pilots but also our global force managers exactly what they can expect out of their aircraft when it’s time to employ them.”
The lessons learned from this non-traditional data collection and integrated DT/OT approach have proven useful enough that AFOTEC Det. 6 is extending the concept beyond just the F-35.
“In the last several years we have been deliberately shifting to more realistic environments including operations with CAF and Fleet squadrons in opportunities like this,” said Col. Dan Javorsek, AFOTEC Det 6 Commander and UOTT Director. “The test enterprise needs to consider data from our aircraft a critical combat capability, and not limit analysis to just that from specially instrumented test aircraft. As our aircraft have continued to advance, so has their ability to collect exquisite information. This includes not just the performance of onboard systems but also how they interact with external threats. Events like this are invaluable. Our mission to test the way we fight is critical to rapidly adapt against a creative and aggressive adversary.”