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The Air Force's F-35A: Not Ready for Combat, Not Even Ready for Combat Training

F-35A Fighter Jet

On February 15, 2013 the Department of Defense's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) sent a memorandum and accompanying evaluation report to Congress and the DOD hierarchy describing the performance of the F-35A and its support infrastructure at Eglin Air Force Base (FL). There, already skilled Air Force pilots are undergoing a basic syllabus of familiarization training with the aircraft. Not previously in the public domain, the unclassified DOT&E materials are available at the POGO.org.

DOT&E's report, titled "F-35A Joint Strike Fighter: Readiness for Training Operational Utility Evaluation," reveals yet more disappointments on the status and performance of the F-35. The Operational Utility Evaluation (OUE) is particularly valuable as it focuses on the Air Force's A model of the F-35 "Joint Strike Fighter." Many in the political and think tank world have focused more on the Marine Corps B, or Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL), version or the Navy's C model with its heavier structure and larger wings.  While the B  and C are even more expensive and lower in performance-on certain key performance dimensions-than the Air Force's A model, this OUE (inadvertently) demonstrates that the A model is also flawed beyond redemption.

While the DOT&E paperwork includes an opening memo and an executive summary, they do not do justice to the detailed findings of the report. Specific issues are discussed below-much of it in quotations and showing the appropriate page number of the text of the evaluation.

Restrictions in Software, Systems and Flight

The currently available software essential to control the aircraft (software Blocks 1A and 1B) is "intended to provide only basic pilot training and has no combat capability. The current aircraft have a number of significant operational restrictions such as limited maneuvering, speeds, and constrained descent rates; no carriage of weapons, no use of countermeasures, and no opening of weapons bay doors in flight." (p. 1.)  Also, "student pilots were limited in flight maneuvering to very basic aircraft handling, such as simple turns, climbs, and descents as the flight envelope of speed and altitude was limited, angle-of-attack and g-loading were restricted, and maneuvers normally flown during a familiarization phase of a syllabus were explicitly prohibited." (p. 2.)

Table 3-1 (starting on p. 14.) outlines the many limitations. The following are prohibited:

  • Descent rates more than 6,000 feet per minute (for reference, Wikipedia shows the F-16C rate of climb to be 50,000 feet per minute)
  • Airspeed above 550 knots per hour or Mach 0.9 (not the 1.6 Mach or 1,200 mph Wikipedia says the F-35 is capable of);
  • Angle-of-attack (attitude of flight) beyond -5 and +18 degrees (e.g. not the +50 degrees the aircraft is capable of);
  • Maneuvering at more than -1 or +5 gs (nowhere near the stated +9g capability);
  • Take offs or landings in formation;
  • Flying at night or in weather;
  • Using real or simulated weapons;
  • Rapid stick or rudder movements;
  • Air-to-air or air-to-ground tracking maneuvers;
  • Refueling in the air;
  • Flying within 25 miles of lightning;
  • Use of electronic countermeasures;
  • Use of anti-jamming, secure communications, or datalink systems;
  • Electro-optical targeting;
  • Using the Distributed Aperture System of sensors to detect targets or threats;
  • Using the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Interrogator;
  • Using the helmet mounted display system as a "primary reference;"
  • Use of air-to-air or air-to-ground radar modes for electronic attack, sea search, ground-moving targets or close-in air combat modes. (pp. 14-16.)

In addition, "the radar system exhibited shortfalls that–if not corrected–may significantly degrade the ability to train and fly safely under a typical transition training syllabus, where an operational radar is required. The radar performance shortfalls ranged from the radar being completely inoperative on two sorties to failing to display targets on one sortie, inexplicably dropping targets on another sortie, and taking excessive time to develop a track on near co-speed targets on yet another sortie." (p. 13.)

"Aft Visibility Will Get the Pilot Gunned Every Time"

A key system of the aircraft, the pilot's multi-million dollar helmet-mounted display (HMD) of the aircraft's operating systems, threats, targets and other information "functioned more or less adequately. [but] presented frequent problems for the pilots." These included "misalignment of the virtual horizon display with the actual horizon, inoperative or flickering displays, and focal problems - where the pilot would have either blurry or 'double vision' in the display. The pilots also mentioned problems with stability, jitter, latency, and brightness of the presentation in the helmet display..." Two of the complaints were basically that elements of the helmet made it harder, not easier, to see outside the aircraft. (pp. 16-17.)

There are additional problems for detecting threats in the all-important visual mode: the ejection seat headrest and canopy "bow" (where the canopy meets the fuselage) are designed in such a way as to impede seeing aircraft to the rear: one pilot commented "A pilot will find it nearly impossible to check [their six o'clock position{to the rear}] under g." Another commented, "The head rest is too large and will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements," and "Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned [down] every time," referring to close-range combat. (p. 18.)

Indeed, DOT&E stated explicitly "The out-of-cockpit visibility in the F-35 is less than other Air Force fighter aircraft." (p. 17.)

To summarize in different words, the helmet-mounted display and the F-35 system does not present an enhanced, clearer view of the outside world, targets and threats to the pilot; instead, they present a distorted and/or obstructed view.  This is one of the most serious backward steps that the entire F-35 system takes, and it presents an even greater threat to the survivability of the F-35 and its pilot than the astounding evidence of the flammability of the F-35 (all versions) in the recent analysis of another DOT&E report by military analyst Lee Gaillard at Counterpunch.

In the event of the pilot needing to escape from the aircraft, there are also some incompletely explained problems with the ejection seat in "off-normal" situations, i.e. those that can occur in combat or even real training. (p. 43.)

"Sustainment"

While there is little that is more important than pilot and aircraft survivability, additional, almost-as stunning revelations about the F-35A involved its "sustainment"-or reliability, maintainability, and availability.

While the report states "Sustainment of the six Block 1A F-35A aircraft was sufficient to meet the student training sortie requirements of the syllabus" (p. ii.), it further explains that this was despite "generous" Air Force resources and a "hybrid of government and contractor support personnel that relies heavily on workaround procedures, non-standard support procedure, and specialized support equipment to generate sorties and maintain the F-35A fleet.." (p. iv).

Moreover, "the program is not meeting reliability growth targets..." That is to say, it is not as reliable as it should be for this stage of its development. (pp. iv and 27)  It is also important to note that this was despite the aircraft lacking many mission systems "which resulted in far fewer failure modes and a narrower scope of demand on the supply chain" than would a combat capable aircraft. (In other words, had more of the F-35's complex components and systems been available for use, the aircraft would have required still more maintenance, with the commensurate, additional loss of reliability and availability. [p. 27])

The as is sustainment numbers were not impressive. 

The F-35 program required an air abort rate no greater than 1,000 aborts per 100,000 flight hours to commence F-35A training (p. 27): while they were previously even higher, in late 2012-well after the training started-the aircraft had an air abort rate of 3,600 air aborts per 100,000 flying hours. (p. 28) 

Mission aborts while the plane is still on the ground (ground aborts) were also a serious problem: one in seven sortie attempts resulted in a ground abort. (p. 28)

The Air Force wanted the F-35As at Eglin AFB to be available for training missions 33 percent of the time: the equivalent of each aircraft flying one sortie every three days. (pp. 29, 30) By late 2012 this very modest minimum was basically being achieved (p. 29), but certain aircraft at various times during the OUE flew as seldom as one sortie every 7 to 10 days. (pp. 30, 31)

Mean Flight Hours Between Critical Failures (a typical measure of reliability) occurred every four hours, on average-well short of the expected 11 hours at this stage of the F-35's development-and well below the aircraft's ultimate goal of a modest 20 hours. (p. 34) The F-35As at Eglin also failed reliability goals for this stage of development: a major problem was the poor reliability of the complicated, badly performing helmet. (p. 34) 

Similar problems occurred on the maintenance time the aircraft required. (pp. 36, 37) For example, the mean elapsed time for an engine removal and installation was 52 hours; the system threshold is 120 minutes. (p. 37)

One component vividly demonstrated the fragility of the F-35A. Temperatures at Eglin as moderate as 59 degrees Fahrenheit caused a problem for the 270 Volt Battery Charger Control Unit inside the airplane. Maintainers had to warm the aircraft in hangars overnight to prevent ground aborts. (p. 38) Foreign purchasers such as Canada and Norway, already wary of real cold weather issues for their F-35As, are sure to be concerned with a "cold weather" issue at just 59 degrees and below.

The aircraft's Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) was limited and required workarounds throughout the operating cycle (p. 38), and it has potential problems in hot weather when air conditioning is not available, which would cause ALIS to shut down altogether. The system was also cumbersome and time consuming. (pp. 39-41)

Conclusion

The conclusion is obvious: The F-35A is not viable.

Image by Flickr user AereiMilitari.org.

By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Defense, DOD Oversight, F-35, Joint Strike Fighter, Straus, Wasteful Defense Spending

Authors: Winslow Wheeler

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