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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

Submitted by Docgmt at: December 21, 2013
If the F-35 was so great Boeing would not be updating the F-18 w more stealth features and Canada would not be ordering the new 18. The Navy will be very happy with the failure rate of the F-35 when they have to start pulling pilots out of the ocean every four hours.
Submitted by LOL at: September 2, 2013
To Airforcevet: Oh please! Guess who cancelled the more superior F-22 and went for the weaker F-35 instead? Yes, your friend Obama did!!
Submitted by Federal Spending? at: March 23, 2013
The F-22 (already in production) is twice the aircraft of the F-35. The "estimated" price tag for the F-35 is $126 million, the F-22 is $135 million and the more of something you produce the cheaper is gets (ask Phillip Morris about profit margins). If the DoD scraps this program it saves ALL the money for sequestration....still can't find a benefit from the F-35.
Submitted by skyhawkmaintainer at: March 20, 2013
The entire concept of fighter attack is flawed. Would you use a Corvette Stingray for a moving van? We really should return to a fighter as a fighter and bomber as a bomber. The A-10 almost didn't make it to Iraq because it wasn't sexy enough for some USAF brass, but our ground troops loved that airplane as much as the Iraqi Army feared it. They even named it the Circling Buzzard, quite a compliment form a desert people. The F-35 might turn out to be a good fighter, but regarding close air support, it can't carry much, nor can it remain on station very long before having to either refuel or return to base. This product is supposed to serve the end user, the ground forces, but it seems it's primary purpose is to save someone else money by producing a single aircraft to do the job of two.
Submitted by EpicFail at: March 18, 2013
Having been casually interested in this and the F-22 project since their inception, I have heard the initial whiz-bang-zoom excitement trough from bad news followed by worse news and followed OMFG news. The simple fact is if there were ever any engagements, this aircraft would bankrupt the military at a very low loss rate. Even a predictable combat loss rate IF the bird were to be as good in the air as on the wishful paper specs would be unsustainable. Just like Germany in WW2 trying to make these supertanks, like the Tiger II. Even though it was a very good tank for its day, they were too complicated to make and repair and too expensive to buy and required too many materials to make a copy. The T-34 by comparison was a very 'good' tank that could be stamped out hundreds of copies a month. They could sustain losses and replace them en masse. We are making the same mistake here that uber engineering can outpace the fundamentals. If it was gun to gun, I doubt this POS good beat a F-86 in a dogfight. Theoretically giving the F-86 advanced missile BOVR system, and I'd call it a coin toss on who wins. If it were the latest variant F-16 or F-18, it seems the odds favor those aircraft on all fronts.
Submitted by Dfens at: March 13, 2013
The F-22 does not have any way to hide its infrared heat signature that is not equally available to the F-35, nor are there any significant differences in the design of their radars or nose radomes. More of the usual contractor schills spouting the usual bs. The YF-23 was the only aircraft design to have any infrared stealth measures and it lost to the F-22. If we really wanted to get out of this endless cycle of having defense contractors design extremely expensive weapons only to have them canceled immediately before production, we should have the US Air Force stand up their own design department to design their own F-23. It was stealthier, faster, and more survivable than either the F-22 or F-35, and it could be designed for less money in less time by the Air Force than it could by any US or foreign defense contractor, and the resulting airplane would be a cheaper to build. On the other hand, if you're going to stick with the same process, then force Lockheed to build the F-35. There's no reason to do the same thing over and over again, each time hoping for a better result. Hell, that's the very definition of crazy.
Submitted by Brian at: March 12, 2013
"tf", The problem is, the F35 has put all its eggs in one basket - with every other drawback relying on a "wonder" super-computer - which has to be *perfect* or it'll run into a chain of compromises. Example:- Stealth on the F35 is publicly claimed to be approx 0.001m2 front RCS & 0.01m2 side / rear aspect. Against the highest powered Russian Irbis-E AESA radar on the Su-35, this works out to detection ranges of approx 40km front and 90km side/top/bottom/rear aspect - better than typical 150km of 4.5Gen legacy jets (and +240km of old 3rd/4th gen ones) - but still not close to the sub 20-40km front/side believed of the F-22. Here's a chart of Russia's Irbis-E RCS vs range:- http://i.imgur.com/uYfsRZ8.jpg 90km side / rear detection of the F35 is not particularly "great". Higher powered, lower frequency AWACS/Destroyer radars may be even longer. The IR stealth on the F35 is not superb either. It's been reported that as soon as it lights up its radar the heat in the nose-cone shoots up to the point it's even "brighter" head-on than a Eurofighter or F-16. The exhaust isn't "thermally stealthy" like the Raptor either. In short, the F35 is more than likely to be seen from +50km away on both passive FLIR (given the more stealthy F-22 has already been detected at that range by German Eurofighters) and its larger side / rear / underbelly radar aspect. Not so bad if it's conventionally good elsewhere (like the F-22) - but it isn't. T/W ratio's, rate of climb, turning performance have all plummeted. Helmet Mounted Sights can work *very* well when kept simple & in the real-time domain where initial target / missile cueing information is simply overlaid - but that's not how the JSF works. It works by creating a "virtual reality middleman" inside the helmet, the supposed "advantage" of which is to allow the pilot to "see through the canopy" (unnecessary if the jet had decent visibility in the first place), etc, but the disadvantage is that it's no longer in real-time - it's massively "laggy" and plagued with stuttering / micro-stuttering, sensor lag & input delays. "The JSF doesn't need to dogfight or see out of the canopy because it's so clever and will rely completely on EO-DAS + HMS" is already looking very shaky given the "not so clever" continuous targeting issues, latency and jitter experienced with both the EO-DAS and HMS. Sometimes IRST contacts have "dropped off" for no reason, other times it's taken far longer for it to recognize an incoming large IR target as a threat. The onboard computer is not powerful enough and is already plagued with over-heating issues (sometimes locking up completely). It cannot be replaced without major cost and yet more delays. And the AESA radar + super-computer + A2G targeting pod electronics all squeezed into the nose-cone is like sticking a 20kw heater in there making it highly unstealthy to anyone with a decent FLIR / IRST... What the F35 pilot sees can be over 1 second behind real-time. This is what the latency issues are all about and they are nowhere near as easy to fix as simply upping the GHz on the CPU. It would have been FAR easier to give the jet decent all-round visibility and build a simpler but more reliable HMS that doesn't try and "stitch" a panoramic thermal display spanning multiple cameras, but rather simply overlay directional cues & estimated range of incoming aircraft / SAM's. HMS's have been working perfectly on the Gripen (Cobra), Eurofighter (HMSS), Rafale (TopOwl-F), Israeli F-15 & 16's (DASH II), MIG-29's (ZSh-5) and even Army Apache AH-64 helicopters (IHADSS) and A-10C's & C-130W "gunships" (Scorpion), etc, since what - the mid 1990's? 20 years later, the more fancy F35 one still can't even get the basics right despite a 100x fold increase in CPU power... That's just pathetic.
Submitted by tf at: March 11, 2013
Dr. Gilmore's basic issue in his recent "readiness for training" report was concurrency of test and training - a legit concern and an unfortunate fact of the F-35 program made 12+ years ago. Operational pilots flying pre-operational jets freaking out about pre-operational OFP LIMFACS is the result. If they find themselves looking through the headrest to see if they are being gunned, then a lot of things had to fail first: a) Stealth (haven't heard anyone credible counter this basic FACT), b) Radar (yep the integration software load in Block 1A ain't up to combat standards - NOR was it ever meant to be), c) EOTS (yes it does air-to-air), d) DAS (designed to detect and track ALL aircraft beyond visual range - BEFORE an adversary gets into guns range), e) pilot selection process (US fighter pilots used to NOT be born strafe rags), f) training (US training has always been second to none, at least since the mid point of the Vietnam war).
Submitted by Joe Katzman at: March 10, 2013
RE: the visibility issue. This, too, is legit. No, the pilots didn't have a lot of experience in the jet. But if the HMD has become a big technical risk - which it has - then the F-35's design limitations become very serious, because they aren't really fixable. That design weakness also creates a point of failure weakness that could be fatal on missions, because even if the HMD design is fixed, all of those associated systems had better work right prior to each mission, or you're in serous air combat trouble. Which means you've just dropped reliability, and/or upped O&M costs. The Europeans looked at stealth, and decided that trade-offs like this made F-35 level stealth a bad idea. Instead, they went for notable RCS reduction within conventional designs, plus excellent visibility, superior kinematic performance, and longer range weapons like Meteor. In other words, there's a legitimate fighter design debate underneath the notes about the HMD. If America intends to make the F-35 its front-line air-superiority linchpin, it's a debate worth checking in on and revisiting from time to time.
Submitted by Joe Katzman at: March 10, 2013
For a jet that's still in testing, all of Wheeler's flight limitations are normal. Wheeler didn't do himself a favor by including them. The issue of *why* the jet is rolling of production lines before testing finishes is a more serious debate, worth having. Wheeler's notes about reliability growth matter because the F-35's operating (O&M) cost per hour has to come down a LOT, or the US military will be in big budget trouble for decades, and unable to afford other needed projects. Too early to say the F-35 isn't viable, but not too early to be legitimately concerned. Likewise, Wheeler is correct in noting that the "cold" weather issue needs a fix fast, or it's going to undermine confidence among countries having second thoughts - including Canada and the Netherlands. This kind of thing isn't entirely abnormal, but it is confidence-sapping at a time when the program's future in some places hangs on confidence.
Submitted by Truth Teller at: March 9, 2013
When will we bring to justice the flag officers and SESs, past and present, who presided over this abortion? Courts martial, criminal indictments, please? And what about the contractor's violations?
Submitted by ivanczar at: March 9, 2013
Thank YOU.
Submitted by Airforcevet at: March 9, 2013
The Bush administration rushed the f35 into production before design and testing. That is asking for trouble and trouble is just what the US taxpayers are saddled with. The question now is can the f35 let our pilots dominate the skies like our current aircraft? America needs to answer that question immediately.
Submitted by Dfens at: March 8, 2013
Wheeler and Lockheed want the F-35 program to be canceled so Lockheed can move on to designing the next great US fighter instead of building any of the F-35. For Lockheed it is a matter of money. They continue to make record profits designing the F-35. If they have to set up an assembly line and build the airplane, they'll end up losing money until they get all the kinks worked out of the line. This is the problem with paying a contractor the same 10% profit on design and construction. It is more profit than they deserve during the design phase, and too little for the construction phase. The question is, what does Wheeler get out of this by being in Lockheed's corner and helping them get exactly what they want? Both of them seem happy to stick the US taxpayer with $100 billion in development costs with no actual aircraft to show for it. At this point, even a poor performing aircraft is better than nothing. Don't let Wheeler and Lockheed stick it to you again.
Submitted by Brian at: March 8, 2013
So let me get this straight:- The jet has no lightning protection, the ejection seat may drown the pilot, it's thrust-to-weight ratio has plummeted, its sustained turn performance has been reduced from 5G to 4.5G, 2 of the 3 variants have no gun, none can carry heat-seeking missiles internally, it has poor visibility from the cockpit and pilots struggle to see other aircraft, it has cracks in the engine, it has cracks in its aluminum bulkhead superstructure, its radar doesn't work properly, its helmet mounted sight has a jittery / stuttering display making eye controlled targeting unreliable, its touch-screen sporadically responds, its electro-hydrostatic actuators overheat, its STOVL post-roll actuators overheat, the computer that feeds panoramic display into HMS overheats, its radar causes its nose to glow hot making it very non-stealthy vs enemy jets equipped with FLIR (even the F-22 has been passively detected by Eurofighter's from 50km away with the newest generation FLIR cameras and the F35 is less stealthy than that), its Navy tail-hook doesn't work and still can't land on a carrier as safely as Super Hornets, its stealth skin around the exhaust "peels and bubbles" (reducing rear aspect stealth), its Integrated Power Package fails (one blew up puncturing a nearby fuel tank), its lift-fan (Marine variant) wears out much faster than expected, its fuel dump doesn't work (sprays fuel over the wing reducing stealth & creating a fire hazard upon landing), its EO-DAS has a higher than expected latency, its Night Vision Goggles are worse than some 4.5 Gen jets (20/80 vision vs 20/25 = 3x worse), much higher than expected buffet loads causes huge stress / fatigue to the tail of the jet, automated logistics give false information, it can't use IFF, it can't use aerial refuelling, it can't use the radar to track ground vehicles or ships accurately, it can't take off or land in formation, it can't use real missiles, pilots are not allowed to move the stick or rudder's "too rapidly", and it can't fly supersonic, at night, in the rain or near storms... And this is an "upgrade" to a 1/3rd of the price F-16? Dear God, what a screw-up... The usual "yes, but it's stealthy!" copout is starting to wear very thin indeed...
Submitted by Mr. Obvious at: March 7, 2013
Instead of focusing on Mr. Wheeler, one should simply look at the facts. We are years (10+) into this project and are probably close to a decade away from real IOC. If LM was footing the bill, it would be one thing, but the taxpayers are purchasing expensive prototypes that will need to be eventually scrapped or totally overhauled. By running the program the way we have, all we are doing is encouraging LM to fiddle around and waste more taxpayer money. Unfortunatley we need something to fly but it may close to time to seriously consider if the F35 is the answer, given its performance shortfalls (post IOC-stated specifications). I doubt that anyone has the stones to do this, so at best the government should quit buying these dogs and force LM into properly running an aircraft engineering and production project.
Submitted by Sam at: March 6, 2013
The report identifies a number of significant problems but no one claims that the F-35A is ready for combat now. The report is based on statements of a very small number of pilots, most of whom have minimal experience in the plane. The most that can be said about the report is that there might be a visibility issue and the training program looks a bit like a PR project resulting in little useful pilot training. But no serious analysis of the report could conclude that the report means "the F-35A is not viable."
Submitted by Skyhawk Maintainer at: March 6, 2013
Lockheed made some very good aircraft once, but once they diversified into everything, they went downhill fast. Is there any way to bust up the big corporations? This Alpha bird sounds like a piece of crap!
Submitted by Amicus Curiae at: March 6, 2013
Becaue Mr. Wheeler has a reputation with me that involves his many excessive criticisms of any and all equipment puchased by the US military, this latest one has very little gravitas. He has misused facts and used hyperpole in the past, so why should I believe him now? It's a shame, because it looks like we need a champion of the truth that is above reproach. He isn't it. Is there someone else out there? Anyone?

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