The Buzz

America's F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the most expensive procurement program in Pentagon history. It’s been plagued by schedule delays, gross cost overruns, and a slew of underwhelming performance reviews. Last month the Air Force declared its variant “ready for combat,” and most press reports lauded this as a signal that the program had turned a corner. But a memo issued from the Pentagon’s top testing official, based largely upon the Air Force’s own test data, showed that the Air Force’s declaration was wildly premature.

Dr. Michael Gilmore’s latest memorandum is damning. The F-35 program has derailed to the point where it “is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion.” The 16-page memo,first reported by Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg and then by others, details just how troubled this program is: years behind schedule and failing to deliver even the most basic capabilities taxpayers, and the men and women who will entrust their lives to it, have been told to expect.

The Pentagon’s top testing office warns that the F-35 is in no way ready for combat since it is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded threats.” As it stands now, the F-35 would need to run away from combat and have other planes come to its rescue, since it “will need support to locate and avoid modern threats, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage available (i.e., two bombs and two air-to-air missiles).” In several instances, the memo rated the F-35A less capable than the aircraft we already have.

The memo from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation makes very clear that the constant stream of positive pronouncements made by the Joint Program Office and Air Force generals have been false. Statements that General Hawk Carlisle, the Air Force’s Air Combat Commander, recently made to the press and that Joint Program Office chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has made in testimony on Capitol Hill are directly contradicted by the facts reported in the memorandum. “The F-35A will be the most dominant aircraft in our inventory because it can go where our legacy aircraft cannot and provide the capabilities our commanders need on the modern battlefield,” General Carlisle said during the IOC announcement. According to Dr. Gilmore, however, this is not the case and there is evidence that the Air Force knew this already. Before declaring its variant ready for combat the Air Force conducted and presumably read its own evaluation. The DOT&E memo clearly states that the findings contained within are “fully consistent” with the official report of the Air Force’s own internal IOC Readiness Assessment Team report.

 

This memo is a brutally revealing assessment of the F-35’s performance deficiencies. It’s important to note that Congress and the public know of these severe and debilitating deficiencies only because Congress mandated an independent testing office with broad bipartisan support in 1983—and because the present director is a person of independence and integrity.

Limited Combat Ability:

The Air Force stated to Congress that its Initial Operational Capability (“combat ready”) declaration would be based on the ability of the current F-35A (Block 3i) to perform three basic missions: close air support, interdiction, and limited attacks on enemy air defenses.

The services are taking delivery of new F-35s in succeeding “block” versions, each adding increments to the previous block’s incomplete combat capabilities. The version equipping the Air Force’s IOC squadron, the Block 3i, is an interim version in which the earlier Block 2B’s obsolete computer has been replaced with a new one. Meanwhile, schedule slippage continues on the F-35 program’s Block 3F development effort, intended to incorporate all the contractually mandated combat capabilities.

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