F-35 Still Years Away From Being Ready for Combat

America’s new fighter jet is plagued with engine, software and fuel tank problems

F-35 Still Years Away From Being Ready for Combat F-35 Still Years Away From Being Ready for Combat
The F-35 continues to fail the most basic requirements for combat aircraft and common sense. Despite reforms, the F-35 continues to be unaffordable, its... F-35 Still Years Away From Being Ready for Combat

The F-35 continues to fail the most basic requirements for combat aircraft and common sense. Despite reforms, the F-35 continues to be unaffordable, its engines continue to be susceptible to fire, and the Pentagon continues to misrepresent its performance.

Below are just a few of the issues identified in a recent report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation:

  • The Joint Program Office, led by Lt. Gen. Bogdan, is re-categorizing or failing to count aircraft failures to try to boost maintainability and reliability statistics.
  • Testing is continuing to reveal the need for more tests, but the majority of the fixes for capability deficiencies being discovered are being deferred to later blocks rather than being resolved.
  • The F-35 has a significant risk of fire due to extensive fuel tank vulnerability, lightning vulnerability, and an OBIGGS system unable to sufficiently reduce fire-sustaining oxygen, despite redesigns.
  • Wing drop concerns are still not resolved after six years, and may only be mitigated or solved at the expense of combat maneuverability and stealth.
  • The June engine problems are seriously impeding or preventing the completion of key test points, including ensuring that the F-35B delivered to the Marine Corps for IOC meets critical safety requirements—no redesign, schedule, or cost estimate for a long-term fix has been defined yet, thereby further impeding g-testing.
  • Even in its third iteration, the F-35’s helmet continues to show high false-alarm rates and computer stability concerns, seriously reducing pilots’ situational awareness and endangering their lives in combat.
  • The number of Block 2B’s already limited combat capabilities being deferred to later blocks means that the Marine Corps’ fiscal year 2015 IOC squadron will be even less combat capable than originally planned.
  • ALIS software failures continue to impede operation, mission planning, and maintenance of the F-35, forcing the services to be overly reliant on contractors and “unacceptable workarounds.”
  • Deficiencies in Block 2B software, and deferring those capabilities to later blocks, is undermining combat suitability for all three variants of the F-35.
  • The program’s attempts to save money now by reducing test points and deferring crucial combat capabilities will result in costly retrofits and fixes later down the line, creating a future unaffordable bow wave that, based on F-22 experience, will add at least an additional $67 billion in acquisition costs.
  • Low availability and reliability of the F-35 is driven by inherent design problems that are only becoming more obvious and difficult to fix.

The F-35 is years away from being ready for initial operational capability. To send this airplane on a combat deployment, or to declare it ready to be sent, as early as the Marines’ 2015 or the Air Force’s 2016 IOC dates, is a politically driven and irresponsible mistake.

Above and at top—the F-35 Lightning Ii. Air Force photos

DOT&E’s report shows that the current IOC plans for the F-35A and F-35B should be rejected as unrealistic. Without meaningful oversight from the Department of Defense or Congress, however, these IOC declarations will go unchallenged.

The F-35 program is designed so that there is no requirement to prove its combat capability before approving an annual production rate of 57 aircraft, a rate unprecedented for any fighter with so little operational testing accomplished and so many unresolved problems.

Further production of the F-35 at this point, let alone an increase in already high and unwarranted production rates, is unsupported by the DOT&E data. But that data is being ignored to continue funding a politically driven acquisition program.

The F-35’s unrealistic production and IOC schedule is divorcing the declaration of initial operating capability from operational reality.

Deferring combat capabilities, increasing future costs, and increasing the risk of delivering seriously deficient combat effectiveness mandates revising the current schedules for IOC and for production ramp-up.

Further accelerating a program with this many major design, safety, and reliability problems is a disservice to our people in uniform who have to fly, maintain, and go to war with this weapons system.

Despite Congress’s rhetoric regarding reform and accountability, they are rewarding the cooking of data, reckless program concurrency, and disastrous acquisition management by approving and funding the F-35’s current path. Their accession and approval will ensure that future acquisition programs have even worse outcomes.

Read POGO’s full analysis of the DOT&E report here.

Mandy Smithberger is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight, where this article originally appeared.

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