U.S. Army Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois put the first wheels on a Wright Brothers’ aeroplane in 1910. After more than a century, the U.S. military is still trying to get it right. The latest bump in the runway involves the F-35 fighter, which has been bedeviled by tire problems, especially on the version being built for the Marines.
Folks might not comprehend the challenges associated with the F-35’s 10 million lines of computer code, its slo-mo helmet imagery, or its buggy Autonomic Logistics Information System, designed to keep the warplane ready for action. But they understand tires because most of us buy them and ride on them every day. Sure, F-35 tires and those on the family SUV are worlds apart. But they’re both round and black, and that’s good enough for most taxpayers.
There are three kinds of F-35s—for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines—and they all fly in the sky. But how they get there, and return safely to dirt (or deck), differs: the Air Force’s F-35A uses traditional runways, the Navy’s F-35C has to endure punishing carrier takeoffs and landings, and the Marines’ F-35B, with its swiveling engine, is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings from austere airfields.
The Pentagon’s new chief weapons-tester (on the job only since Dec. 11) raised the tiresome issue in his office’s latest annual report, released Jan. 23.
“The program has struggled to find a tire for the F-35B that is strong enough for conventional high-speed landings, soft enough to cushion vertical landings, and still light enough for the existing aircraft structure,” Robert Behler, a former Air Force test pilot, noted. “Average F-35B tire life is below 10 landings, well below the requirement for 25 conventional full-stop landings.” The problem, he added, won’t be fixed until after the F-35’s “System Development and Demonstration” phase wraps up, perhaps next year.
Think of it as military procurement in microcosm: Taxpayers will have paid to develop it, but what they paid for won’t actually do what it is supposed to do.
Nonetheless, the U.S. military loves the plane. "The F-35B’s ability to conduct operations from expeditionary airstrips or sea-based carriers provides our nation with its first 5th generation strike fighter, which will transform the way we fight and win,” Marine General Joe Dunford said as Marine commandant in 2015, before being tapped as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Military-aircraft tires have a life that’s brutish and short. They’re swapped out far more often than those on commercial airliners and pressurized 10 times more than your car’s. They’re pounded during takeoffs and landings, generating smoke as they skid upon touching down until their rotation catches up with the plane’s speed.
This wasn’t supposed to be a problem in 2018. The F-35 people have been saying for years that tire fixes are just around (sorry) the corner. "Those tires today are coming off the airplane way, way, way too frequently," the Air Force general running the program said five years ago.
His minions got the message. They explored thicker treads. “Tire wear must be improved for the F-35B variant, and we have taken concrete actions to fix this problem," an F-35 spokesman said back in 2013, when the tires couldn’t do more than 10 landings—just like today.
The tires cost about $1,500 each. That works out to $300 per flight just to burn rubber. They’re made by Britain’s Dunlop Aircraft Tyres Ltd. “World-class aircraft tyres,” the company says atop its website. “And nothing else.” (Goodyear and Michelin make the tires for the Air Force and Navy F-35s. To confuse things even more, the Dunlop company making the F-35 tires is not affiliated with Dunlop car tires, which since 1999 have been part of Goodyear.)
This isn’t the first time the issue has caught the attention of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office. “Tire assemblies on all F-35 variants do not last as long as expected and require very frequent replacement,” Michael Gilmore, Behler’s predecessor as the Defense Department’s top weapons-tester, noted in 2014. “The program is seeking redesigned tires for all variants to reduce maintenance down time for tire replacements.”
In 2015, the F-35 boss was still grumbling about the Marines’ F-35 tires. “This is more of a manufacturing problem than anything else,” he said. “We know exactly what the tire needs to look like.”
Yet manufacturing the tire isn’t its only shortfall, as handy Air Force mechanics have shown at two different F-35 bases. Tire-swapping airmen at Eglin Air Force Base didn’t like the three tool boxes for their work that came with the F-35 to their Florida base. They were able to cut the number of tools checked out for changing F-35 tires from 287 to 52, all in a single box. "It takes a lot less time now, compared to lugging out three boxes and a huge cart," an Air Force wrench-turner said in 2013. "Also, there's a lot less risk of losing tools now with one box as opposed to three boxes."
The wheel shop at Hill Air Force Base got real good at changing tires on the Utah base’s F-16s using a hydraulic tool to separate tires from rims. When they got a similar machine for use on the F-35, they were surprised at its inefficiency. So they adopted their tried-and-true F-16 machine for the F-35’s tires instead. "Using the legacy machine means that we can load the F-35 tires by rolling them on instead of lifting them on as we have to do on the newer, manual machine," an airman noted in 2016. "This saves a lot of time because only two personnel are involved, not four. By using the automated process, it takes half the time, which allows us to provide assets to the warfighter a lot quicker."
Such fixes are disconcerting in a $1.5 trillion program—the most expensive in world history. No wonder the Pentagon says it can’t afford to fly the F-35. “Right now, we can’t afford the sustainment costs we have on the F-35,” Ellen Lord, the Defense Department’s top weapons buyer, said Jan. 31.
The F-35 tire tale isn’t about reaching for the stars with new military technology and falling short. This isn’t, after all, rocket science. Rather, it’s about exaggerating the threat that drove the need to build the plane before its blueprints were finished, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for tires that can only do 40 percent of what was pledged.
One veteran pilot believes the Pentagon is stuck with the lousy tires. “I suspect it will be much less expensive to keep the present tire and write it off after 10 instead of 25 landings,” says Merrill McPeak, the Air Force’s top officer from 1990 to 1994, who has flown more than 6,000 hours in six different kinds of USAF fighters. “The avoided cost of finding or developing a Goldilocks tire will, I expect, pay for a warehouse full of tires that look more like Cinderella’s older sisters.”
The tires are emblematic of other Pentagon procurement nightmares. It’s that comparability—like prior purchases of coffee pots costing $7,622 and $640 toilet seats—that grabs taxpayers’ attention. The most recent case is the Air Force contract to replace the refrigerators on Air Force One for $24 million. All these items, like the F-35’s tires, were custom-made for the military. The iceboxes on the president’s plane, for example, have to chill 3,000 meals to feed passengers and crew for weeks without resupplying (didn’t see a single headline on the purchase with that nuance).
That Air Force One requirement is ridiculous, but that’s another column.
Such requirements—one plane shared among three services, including one that can hop into or out of the air—has led to the F-35 fiasco. It also leads to a disturbing thought: if they can’t get a century-old technology right, what other snafus will surface only when war breaks out and the rubber really meets the road?