Is the F-35 Program at a Crossroads?

Mar 08, 2021

Pentagon leaders expected 2020 to be a big year for the $1.7 trillion F-35 program. The long-anticipated full-rate production decision that would have allowed the F-35 to move beyond testing and development and into mass production was scheduled to be made by the end of 2019. Coronavirus-related travel restrictions hindered some development fixes in 2020, but any such impacts were minor compared to the many long-standing issues with the program that predate the pandemic. As the F-35 enters its 20th year, program officials have delayed the important full-rate production milestone indefinitely because the program still can’t complete the initial operational testing phase.

Highlights of the report include:

  • Engineers can’t complete the Joint Simulation Environment facility. Taxpayers are paying a premium for the F-35 to be capable of defeating any adversary’s defense and anti-aircraft systems. The only way, short of war, to see if the F-35 can perform as promised is to simulate a modern threat environment. The contractor never delivered a functional simulation facility despite having had 14 years to do so, and the facility is still incomplete six years after the Navy was given the project.
  • Program officials continue to struggle against a tide of F-35 design flaws. Nearly every time the engineers solve one problem, a new one is discovered. The F-35 still has 871 unresolved deficiencies, only two fewer than last year. Ten of these are the more serious Category I deficiencies that “may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness; may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system; critically restricts the combat readiness capabilities of the using organization.”
  • The F-35 program made some reliability improvements in 2020, but is still failing to live up to its maintenance and sortie requirements, despite the fact that those expectations were set very low. When aircraft are unable to fly often enough for adequate training, it can result in diminished pilot skills, increased peacetime accidents, and degraded combat effectiveness.
  • For years, one of the biggest weaknesses of the F-35 program has been the deeply flawed maintenance and spare parts computer network called the Autonomic Logistics Information Network, known as ALIS. Pentagon leaders finally admitted defeat in 2020 and pulled the plug on ALIS. It will be replaced with the cloud-based Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN), but the report warns that program officials are repeating many of the same mistakes made with ALIS, which would saddle the troops on the maintenance line with another flawed product.