Here’s what we know and what we still don’t
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
However history ultimately judges the F-35 Lightning II, Lockheed’s stealthy aircraft will surely be described as one of the most hotly debated designs ever.
The U.S. Air Force, hoping to declare its version of the “fifth generation” fighter jet ready for by the end of 2016, has launched a new P.R. blitz to show critics that the planes are every bit as good as it says.
In June, the flying branch sent seven F-35As and more than 180 airmen from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Mountain Home Air Force Base in neighboring Idaho. The practice session was to test how well the crews prepared for combat in an actual war zone.
“By any measure, the aircraft did well,” Air Force Col. David Lyons, the head of Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing said after the exercise ended.
“Since the aircraft’s arrival last fall there have been too many milestones to count and we’re making great progress,” said Air Force Lt. Col. George Watkins, the commanding officer of the 34th Fighter Squadron.
To highlight these achievements, the Air Force released an infographic touting a number of specific details.
At Mountain Home, the high-tech jets flew every planned mission, did not lose a single mock fight against older jets and successfully hit more than 90 percent of targets on the ground with laser-guided bombs.
These figures stood in stark contrast to a damning report the Pentagon released four months earlier. In a nearly 50-page review, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester described a laundry list of serious problems with the jets ranging from software to the aircraft’s design.
On top of that, the statistics challenged the narrative that the new jets cannot win in air-to-air combat against even more dated aircraft. In June 2015, War Is Boring published a leaked report that described the F-35 as less agile than an overburdened two-seat F-16D trainer.
We were skeptical of the claims made in the infographic, so the Air Force’s top warfighting command invited us to send any questions we might have about the missions at Mountain Home.
So, we did. In addition, we obtained five pages of records related to the infographic through the Freedom of Information Act — including a hand-drawn draft of the image itself, seen above.
Here’s what we know and what we still don’t.
Data point #1: “88/88 Sorties Flown”
One of the F-35’s biggest problems has been a revolutionary computer “brain” that is supposed to handle everything from where potential threats are on the battlefield to when worn-out parts are about to break.
Bugs in the millions of lines of software code could effectively lock crews of their own planes. The glitches have often forced F-35 pilots to reboot their radars while in the air.
According to the Air Force, flying every planned mission without any hiccups is proof that the computer program is finally stable. The practice flights included missions against simulated enemy aircraft and air defenses, as well as targets on the ground.
“Software issues that have affected … previous deployment exercises simply did not exist,” Benjamin Newell, a public affairs official at Air Combat Command, told War Is Boring in an email. “There were zero aborts.”
We don’t know whether any new software issues cropped up during the test flights. If so, they did not delay or otherwise impact any flights. “I’m sure it’s possible that one line Airman may have encountered and repaired one minor software glitch during the deployment exercise,” Newell acknowledged.
But in two cases, pilots had to use alternate jets after “mechanical” trouble sidelined their primary planes. A battery in one of the F-35s failed, while the navigation system failed in another. The problems were “innocuous” and “common on fourth-generation platforms,” according to Newell.
It is true that no matter how reliable F-35 is or becomes in the future, things will still break from time to time. That’s inevitable for every aircraft.
However, during the F-35's trip to Mountain Home, maintenance crews sometimes only had four aircraft ready to go on any given day, according to a June 17 email Lyons sent to Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert Carlisle. Censors redacted Lyons name, but left in “Commander 388 FW” in the signature line.
On average, the 34th managed to fly one mission per aircraft per day during the deployment.
In addition to Air Force personnel, Lockheed Martin company reps were present to help fiddle with the software and lend a hand if any problems arose. “They … provided timely spare parts when needed,” Lyons noted.
But despite the success of the test, Lyons explained the F-35’s long-standing vulnerability to lightning strikes remained an issue. More worrisome, the Air Force still has no standard procedure for “aircraft-inerting” — a process to keep dangerous fumes from building up in the fuel tank, which could risk blowing up the F-35.
The Air Force already has to keep F-35 fuel cooled to prevent overheating once airborne. “While this was never a show-stopper, it complicated operations,” Lyons wrote. “I have confidence the Air Force will resolve this issue in short order.”
Data point #2: “Zero Losses in ‘Dog Fights’”
In 2008, John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue, both analysts with the think tank RAND, ran a computer simulation that pitted the F-35 against Chinese jets. Their review famously stated Lockheed’s jet “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
A review of a test flight in January 2015 seemed to reinforce those findings. The unnamed test pilot said the stealthy jet was a “a distinct energy disadvantage” during a series of mock battles with a dated F-16D.
The Air Force, Lockheed and foreign buyers have all pushed back against these claims. At the same time, the flying branch has stressed that traditional air-to-air dogfights are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
“Close-in combat typically visualized in movies like ‘Top Gun’ are not realistic in today’s combat scenarios,” Newell wrote. “The F-35 and the F-22 are premier ‘first look, first kill’ capable aircraft.”
During the practice flights at Mountain Home, the F-35s seemed to continue this trend, dominating F-15E Strike Eagles from the 366th Fighter Wing in mock battles. “Pew, pew, pew,” the infographic’s designers added.
In each of six “large force exercises,” at least four F-35s flew together, according to Newell. This makes sense, since one of the Lightning II’s main advantages is the ability to quickly share information between the jets.
In theory, if one pilot saw his opponents, all four fliers should have been aware of the threat.
But there are some slight complications. The F-15E model is focused on attacking targets on the ground rather than jousting in the air. We could not find out whether the 366th’s jets were carrying drop tanks or weapons that would have made them less maneuverable.
In the January 2015 experiment, the prototype F-35 struggled to keep up with an F-16 loaded down with two drop tanks. “Operators have assured us that the status of the fuel loadouts were not a factor in the performance of either Red or Blue forces,” Newell noted.
We also don’t know how many F-15Es mock-battled these flights of F-35s. Details about the so-called “splash cones” — the criteria the Air Force uses to score “kills” during these exercise — are classified.
And unlike Air Force units that specifically train to play the role of enemy pilots in practice sessions, the 366th is a regular combat squadron. Of course, the pilots would still have experience with air-to-air combat exercises.
Despite the flying branch’s complaints that it’s almost impossibly hard to cook up war games that properly test the F-35, “The scenarios were robust,” Lyons assured Carlisle. “One experienced former F-16 pilot stated, ‘we would never have survived that in a Viper.’”
Data point #3: “94% of Bombs Hit Their Mark”
The Air Force wants to completely replace both the F-16 fighter jet and A-10 Warthog ground attack plane with the F-35A. Since 2001, both of these aircraft have flown missions in support of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics have repeatedly questioned whether or not the F-35 has the ability to take on this close air support role and otherwise hit enemy targets. The Air Force has been eager to prove that the stealthy jets can function just fine as fighter bombers.
While at Mountain Home, the planes dropped a total of 16 GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. All but one hit the target.
As of 2016, the Air Force’s F-35A can carry a maximum of two of the 500-pound weapons in its internal bomb bays. The jets can carry more weapons on external racks, but must sacrifice their stealthy characteristics in the process.
“External payloads played little role in the types of standoff scenarios the F-35 participated in,” Newell explained. If the jets carried the bombs internally, the 34th would have needed to fly a minimum of eight individual missions to hit all of their assigned targets.
By comparison, photographs from recent strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq show Warthogs carrying three GBU-12s on one pylon. F-16s routinely lug pairs of precision weapons under each wing.
As with the air-to-air fights, we don’t know how close the bombs had to land to score a hit. We also don’t know what, if any, role the F-35’s advanced cameras and radars played in finding the targets in the first place.
But defense contractor Ratheyon has claimed the bombs generally hit within four feet of where troops on the ground point their laser targeting beams. In continuous production since 1976, the GBU-12 is in widespread service with air forces around the world.
From the available information, the Air Force is making progress in getting the F-35 ready for real world combat. But serious questions remain surrounding what the jet’s “initial” capabilities will really be when it truly matters.
Carlisle himself has offered slightly conflicting statements about what the rest of the decade will look like for his stealthy fighters. The flying branch might send the Lightning IIs to fight the Islamic State … but only if the Pentagon asks for them.
“The minute I declare initial operational capability, if the combatant commander calls me up and says they needed F-35s, I would send them,” Carlisle told reporters at the Royal International Aviation Tattoo, a massive annual air show in the United Kingdom, on June 13. “I would explain its capabilities in its current state” and then “deploy the fighter if asked.”
But Carlisle suggested “F-35s not likely to deploy to Iraq or Syria until 2017 or 2018 even if declared battle ready this year,” Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber, at RAF Fairford for the show, tweeted out on June 7.
It’s important to note that the Air Force has the authority to set whatever requirements it thinks are reasonable to classify the F-35s as ready for combat. In 2012, Carlisle’s predecessor at Air Combat Command Gen. Mike Hostage quietly watered down the criteria to try and keep the project on schedule.
“There exists no formal uniform guidance in the Department of Defense for declaring initial operational capability … for weapon systems,” U.S. Army Major Robert Cabiness, a Pentagon spokesman, told War Is Boring in an email.
In the opinion of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the F-35A’s newest software provides only a “limited combat capability.”
The U.S. Navy is the only service that plans to wait for its F-35C to finish independent operational testing and evaluation before declaring them combat capable. The U.S. Marine Corps said its F-35Bs were ready for action in July 2015.
“While nearing completion, the F-35 is still in development, and technical challenges are to be expected,” the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer Frank Kendall and the head of the main F-35 program office Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, wrote in a joint statement presented to the Senate on April 26. “However, we believe the combined government-industry team has the ability to resolve current issues and future discoveries.”
The most recent concern is a discovery that the F-35’s ejection seats may not be safe. Tests have shown that pilots weighing between 103 and 136 pounds have at least a one in five chance of dying if they bail out. Despite Bogdan’s office insisting the problems were fixable, the Air Force is looking into alternatives, according to a report by Defense News.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see if the Air Force has made real progress with the vexing stealth jet — or just exposed new hurdles.