F-35 No-Show at a Premier European Airshow—Again

Aircraft manufacturers and press from across the globe are gathered at Le Bourget Airport for the 51st Paris Air Show. One noticeable absence among the aircraft on display is the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Despite being touted as the world’s premier fifth-generation combat aircraft, the Department of Defense did not include it at this year’s event. (That doesn’t mean there won’t be an American military presence in Paris this summer, though: eleven other American military aircraft will make an appearance, including the F-15E, AH-64, and the A-10 Warthog.)

Even though the F-35 is not quite ready for prime time, the fact that it was a no-show did not prevent the manufacturers from singing its praises.

Pratt & Whitney (P&W) president Paul Adams, referring to events in Iraq and Syria, said he expects an increase in demand for the F-35. “Frankly, I think one of the motivating factors is we live in a dangerous world, and the more dangerous the world that we live in, the more opportunities there are for sales.”

Other reporting from the air show rehashed statements of the past several months that the F-35’s engine problems have been solved and that nothing will be lost from the delay in the delivery of an operational cannon for the Marine Corps variant.

Mark Buongiorno, vice president for P&W’s F135 engine program, spoke to reporters regarding the notorious engine fire during takeoff on one of the planes. The fire temporarily grounded the fleet and kept the plane from its much-hyped international debut at the Farnborough Airshow last year. The fire occurred last June at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, when a caused the third stage rotor to disintegrate and start a fire, irreparably damaging the plane’s entire aft end. The investigation report estimated damages in excess of $50 million. The fire damaged the airframe beyond repair, prompting officials to scrap it for spare parts.

“Immediately after that, we had validated root cause and then we’ve already incorporated the fix into production. We’re in the process of retrofitting the entire fleet,” said Buongiorno. The costs of changes and retrofits to existing and current production aircraft to address the problem are not yet known, and the true effectiveness of the engine modifications has yet to be verified by independent testing by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. Pratt & Whitney claims the permanent solution to the engine problem should be implemented by 2016, a year after the Marine Corps is scheduled to declare its variant, the F-35B, combat ready.

First responders work to extract an injured pilot from an F-35 during a training exercise (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Samuel King Jr.)
First responders work to extract an injured pilot from an F-35 during a training exercise (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Samuel King Jr.)

Other F-35 news to emerge from Paris this week regards a major aspect of its close air support (CAS) capabilities.

The Marine Corps is on the cusp of declaring its variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, combat ready—including for use in close air support (CAS), a core reason for Marine Corps aviation—despite deferring capabilities and having yet to prove key safety and combat requirements. These include not having an operational cannon or the F-35B’s primary close support munition, the upgraded variation of the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB II). The F-35B is designed for vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL), and because of the engine configuration required for V/STOL capabilities, the SBD II will not fit into the plane’s weapons bay. It also necessitates an externally mounted cannon pod. This cannon pod has yet to be tested on the plane, a feat that will be difficult to accomplish as the current version of the plane’s software isn’t capable of firing it.

A large caliber cannon has long been recognized as one of the most important characteristics of a CAS platform. In spite of this knowledge, the Marine Corps seems willing to accept an aircraft that will not have a working cannon until sometime in 2019 or later when the necessary software is fully tested and approved for operational use.

Even after the software and the cannon pod are tested and become fully functional, the F-35B will likely be of limited utility in a CAS role. The gun pod has an extremely limited supply of ammunition—good only for one, possibly two, target passes. Moreover, all variants of the F-35 share an inherent susceptibility to ground fire, low sortie rate, and high maintenance burdens. All of these flaws are hardly in keeping with proven CAS platforms. Congress seems to agree, as demonstrated by the House and Senate armed services and appropriations committees’ rejection of Air Force efforts to abandon the current go-to CAS platform, the A-10.

Despite manufacturers’ and program managers’ claims, these problems indicate the Marine Corps’ declaration of combat readiness later this year will be an almost entirely cosmetic combat readiness, perhaps the type that would have been on display at Le Bourget, if only the F-35 had made it to the show this time.