The U.S. Air Force plans to declare its first batch of Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Lightning II fighter jets ready for initial combat duties as early as August of this year. But a scathing new report from the Pentagon office in charge of testing and evaluating U.S. military weapons systems suggests that America’s fifth-generation, all-purpose combat jet is anything but ready for combat.
The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) report cites a myriad of problems with the F-35, spanning design issues that negatively impact its aerodynamics in flight to countless software bugs buried in the F-35’s eight million lines of code. (The 24 million lines of code running the F-35’s maintenance and logistics software on the ground? Also buggy.)
Meanwhile, officials have indicated that a major block buy of 500 of the trouble-plagued aircraft could be in the works for the fiscal 2018 budget. The DOT&E report suggests that any such block buy before 2022 would be premature, according to an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight. That’s to say nothing of the Marine Corps and Air Force declaring their F-35s combat ready. The Marine Corps already did so last year.
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The Project on Government Oversight delves deep into the ongoing problems with the F-35 enumerated by the DOT&E. A quick primer:
- Problems with the F-35s flight controls and aerodynamics result in un-commanded “wing drop.” That is when under heavy maneuvering, the plane makes sudden movements not initiated by the pilot. During certain maneuvers, the aircraft experiences intense buffeting, or shaking, caused by the airflow separating and then reengaging with the aircraft’s lifting surfaces. In other words, when the F-35 is pushed hard—as it might be in a combat situation—the aircraft shakes so much that the pilot has a hard time reading the helmet-mounted display that is supposed to provide him or her with enhanced situational awareness.
- Safety concerns abound. Of the 97 significant safety deficiencies recognized by DOT&E, 27 are what it refers to as “Category I”—those that may cause death, severe injury, major damage to the weapons system itself, and/or “critically restrict the combat readiness capabilities of the using organization.” The using organization in this case being the U.S. military.
- While the F-35’s buggy onboard software has received its fair share of criticism, the aircraft’s ground-based maintenance and logistics software known as ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System) is riddled with problems as well. Most fundamentally, the DOT&E report finds that it can’t tell the difference between good parts and parts that need repair. When ALIS does a systems check, it often diagnoses maintenance problems that simply don’t exist. Field tests showed at one point that some 80 percent (yes, eight-zero percent) of ALIS-reported problems turn out to be false alarms. The aircraft in question must be grounded until crews can properly diagnose the problem (or non-problem) and manually override the system
- That means that if things don’t improve dramatically, nearly half of the U.S. F-35 fleet—which is expected to top 2,400 aircraft before the Pentagon is done buying—will be grounded for maintenance at any given time.
- Yet the program continues to march toward U.S. Air Force initial operating capability (IOC) because, according to the DOT&E report, officials continue to put off critical tests until later phases of the program or bend the criteria of tests to fit the F-35’s limited capability. For instance, the report says that the testing team evaluating the Marine Corps F-35 that was declared ready for combat last year intervened in 11 of 12 weapons delivery accuracy tests. That is, out of 12 tests designed to evaluate the aircraft’s ability to identify and hit a target with a weapon, testers stepped in to either help the plane do things it wasn’t doing well (like acquire the target) or to weaken the guidelines to help the plane meet the minimum criteria to pass.
Separate from the DOT&E study, reports also circulated this week that a glitch in the F-35’s radar software interferes with the system’s ability to remain online during flight. That is, pilots are forced to reboot the plane’s radar periodically while in flight. For emphasis, pilots are having to regularly Ctrl+Alt+Delete the radar on the world’s most sophisticated warplane while in flight.
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The takeaway, according to the Project on Government Oversight, is the Marine Corps declaration that their F-35’s are combat-ready was a premature publicity stunt. If the U.S. Air Force goes forward with its IOC declaration in August as planned, it will be nothing but window dressing as well. The F-35 program office already issued a rebuttal, stating nothing in the DOT&E report is a surprise to the F-35 development team or Lockheed Martin (LMT) and that the report doesn’t fully address the efforts being made to rectify the problems.
However, it also describes the damning DOT&E report as “factually accurate.”