The Buzz

108 U.S. F-35s Won't Be Combat-Capable

The new F-35 program executive officer, U.S. Navy vice admiral Mat Winter, said his office is exploring the option of leaving 108 aircraft in their current state because the funds to upgrade them to the fully combat-capable configuration would threaten the Air Force’s plans to ramp up production in the coming years.

These are most likely the same 108 aircraft the Air Force reportedly needed to upgrade earlier in 2017. Without being retrofitted, these aircraft would become “concurrency orphans” — airplanes left behind in the acquisition cycle after the services purchased them in haste before finishing the development process.

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Left unsaid so far is what will become of the 81 F-35s purchased by the Marine Corps and Navy during that same period. If they are left in their current state, nearly 200 F-35s might permanently remain unready for combat because the Pentagon would rather buy new aircraft than upgrade the ones the American people have already paid for.

What makes this particularly galling is the aircraft that would be left behind by such a scheme were the most expensive F-35s purchased so far. When the tab for all the aircraft purchased in an immature state is added up, the total comes to nearly $40 billion.

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That’s a lot of money to spend on training jets and aircraft that will simply be stripped for spare parts.

Empty promises

The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have been assuring the American people for years that the price tag for the F-35 is on its way down. Much of that effort was part of the campaign to convince Congress to approve the Economic Order Quantity, or multiple-year block buy of F-35 components.

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They claimed that would lead to even more cost savings. But it’s difficult to be enthusiastic about the prospect of saving $2 billion when the program could potentially have wasted up to 10 or perhaps 20 times that amount.

The services will have nearly 800 F-35s either on hand or in the manufacturing pipeline before the design is fully proven through testing under the current plans.

Upgrades are unusually complex for the F-35 because of the design process being used for the program. The program is developing the F-35 in several phases, called blocks. Each block has more capabilities than the earlier version. According to the Lockheed Martin website, Block 1A/1B combined basic training capabilities with some security enhancements.

Block 2A remained a training version, with the ability to share data between aircraft. Blocks 2B and 3I are the first versions with any combat capabilities. The only significant difference between 2B and 3I is the aircraft’s computer processor.

The first version expected to have full combat capabilities is Block 3F. This version has yet to be completed and is only expected to begin realistic combat testing next year.

The Marine Corps controversially declared Initial Operational Capability with Block 2B aircraft in 2015. But this version is hardly ready for combat. The Pentagon’s testing office has repeatedly said that any pilots flying Block 2B F-35s who find themselves in a combat situation would “need to avoid threat engagement and would require augmentation by other friendly forces.”

In other words, the 108 Air Force F-35s in question, or any of the Block 2B aircraft, would need to run away from a fight and have other aircraft come to their rescue.

Expensive trainers

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