Aussie Who Led Weapons Tests Knocks F-35

Official urges Australia to take a bigger role in the fighter project or pull out

Aussie Who Led Weapons Tests Knocks F-35 Aussie Who Led Weapons Tests Knocks F-35
Australia’s former top weapons tester has warned of serious problems with the country’s $24 billion share of the F-35 stealth fighter program. The ex-official, Keith Joiner,... Aussie Who Led Weapons Tests Knocks F-35

Australia’s former top weapons tester has warned of serious problems with the country’s $24 billion share of the F-35 stealth fighter program.

The ex-official, Keith Joiner, issued the warnings in a Jan. 4 letter to the Australian Senate’s formal inquiry into the Joint Strike Fighter project. Joiner’s biggest criticisms involve the F-35’s repeated delays, lack of Australian input in the project and the fighter’s powerful computer brain.

The retired official wrote that Canberra must either speak out about the stealth warplane’s problems or pull out of the project. He also favors delaying Australia’s commitment until developer Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon prove the F-35 will deliver on its promises.

“Put simply — get in or get out!” Joiner declared. “Stop being naive that just because something should work it will work.”

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There are at least two reasons why this is important. First, the F-35 doesn’t work … at least as well as it should. Second, Joiner knows airplanes. He’s an aeronautical engineer who led the Australian military’s Test and Evaluation Office from 2010-2015, and had an up-close look at the troublesome jet.

A year before his appointment, Canberra decided to buy as many as 100 F-35As to replace its aging F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighter jets. The JSF will replace the bulk of Australia’s and America’s front-line fighters over the coming decade.

Above - a U.S. Air Force F-35A. At top - Australia's first F-35A. Air Force photosAbove — a U.S. Air Force F-35A. At top — Australia’s first F-35A. Air Force photos

An advanced, fifth-generation stealth fighter, one of the F-35’s biggest strengths is its software, which should allow the aircraft to pull data from its radar, cameras and sensors — together with information from other planes — and “see” the battlefield like never before.

But for Australia, the software may be one of the JSF’s biggest liabilities, according to Joiner. To make the most of these features, the stealth jet’s gear will have to be compatible with the RAAF’s existing aircraft, such as the E-7 Wedgetail radar plane. The F-35s will need powerful and reliable linkages to get all this information in near real time and properly “fuze” everything together.

But Australia has cut or scaled back its own work on new data links and improved satellite communications systems. If the E-7 and sites on the ground can’t “talk” with the new planes, the JSF’s biggest advantage is suddenly … moot.

There is also a fear that the jet won’t be compatible with Australia’s KC-30A tankers — or will at least require significant tweaks. To allay these concerns, U.S. Air Force F-35s ran through test runs with RAAF tankers in September 2015.

Still, based on his experience, Joiner said he felt Australia’s F-35 project officers were “timid,” “defensive” and unwilling to raise concerns either internally or with their American counterparts. In the letter, he described the officers as having a “‘passenger mentality’ with respect to the U.S. ‘driver.'”

But despite his criticisms and worries, Joiner is clearly in favor of a JSF that works.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A links up with an RAAF KC-30 tanker during tests. Air Force photoA U.S. Air Force F-35A links up with an RAAF KC-30 tanker during tests. Air Force photo

“All of Australia’s decisions, including full production approval by our government, have so far been made while the aircraft is still under U.S. development,” Joiner wrote. “The obvious first logic” would be to hold off until the Americans get their act together, he added.

Australian officials and legislators argue that their plan is safe because Lockheed will have worked out all the kinks by the time any jets make their way across the Pacific. The first two Australian F-35s are currently undergoing testing in the United States.

But Australia has declined Pentagon offers to be a part of the initial testing plan. “Hence, Australia’s early aircraft are only for training and the few test officers being sent to U.S. [Testing & Evaluation] are only to witness operational testing (when that begins),” Joiner wrote.

Instead of just sitting on the sidelines, Joiner stressed that Australian officials should work closely with their American partners. The letter offered up the development and testing of the P-8 maritime patrol plane as a counter example, which involved an Australian team embedded with their American counterparts during the testing phase. The RAAF now expects to get the first of those planes in 2016, a reasonable four years after fully committing to the project.

“This exemplary … strategy stands in stark contrast to what Australia has pursued with the JSF,” Joiner wrote.

His analysis appears to bolster independent Australian experts critical of the F-35. In 2012, Peter Goon and Carlo Kopp of the Air Power Australia think tank submitted detailed analyses of the F-35 to Parliament. “Data shows JSF Program to be an ‘Outlier’ of unprecedented disproportions, with growths in cost and schedule by far the largest ever seen,” Goon wrote.

“Even if the F-35 were to meet its mediocre performance specifications or as-marketed expectations, it would not be viable in combat against modern Russian and Chinese … systems,” Kopp added.

The criticisms didn’t sit well with the RAAF. Air Vice Marshal Kym Osley dismissed the complaints entirely during a March 2012 hearing before Parliament, telling legislators that Goon and Kopp were overly focused on the plane’s shape and, by extension, how well it could maneuver. “[The] analysis is basically flawed through incorrect assumptions and a lack of knowledge of the classified F-35 performance information.”

Since then, serious doubts about the F-35’s ability to engage enemies close in and at longer ranges have emerged, along with a litany of other problems repeatedly cited by the Pentagon’s own top weapons tester. There is significant evidence that both the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps have watered down their requirements to keep plans on schedule.

Today, the Royal Australian Air Force has 72 F-35s on order, with an option for another 28 by 2030. In July 2015, Australia opted not to buy any F-35Bs — which can take off and land vertically — for its Canberra-class amphibious assault ships.

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