The Buzz

The F-35 Stealth Fighter: The Ultimate Weapon or the Ultimate Bust?

However history ultimately judges the F-35 Lightning II, Lockheed’s stealthy aircraft will surely be described as one of the most hotly debated designs ever.

The U.S. Air Force, hoping to declare its version of the “fifth generation” fighter jet ready for by the end of 2016, has launched a new P.R. blitz to show critics that the planes are every bit as good as it says.

In June, the flying branch sent seven F-35As and more than 180 airmen from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Mountain Home Air Force Base in neighboring Idaho. The practice session was to test how well the crews prepared for combat in an actual war zone.

“By any measure, the aircraft did well,” Air Force Col. David Lyons, the head of Hill’s 388th Fighter Wing said after the exercise ended.

“Since the aircraft’s arrival last fall there have been too many milestones to count and we’re making great progress,” said Air Force Lt. Col. George Watkins, the commanding officer of the 34th Fighter Squadron.

To highlight these achievements, the Air Force released an infographic touting a number of specific details.

At Mountain Home, the high-tech jets flew every planned mission, did not lose a single mock fight against older jets and successfully hit more than 90 percent of targets on the ground with laser-guided bombs.

These figures stood in stark contrast to a damning report the Pentagon released four months earlier. In a nearly 50-page review, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester described a laundry list of serious problems with the jets ranging from software to the aircraft’s design.

On top of that, the statistics challenged the narrative that the new jets cannot win in air-to-air combat against even more dated aircraft. In June 2015, War Is Boring published a leaked report that described the F-35 as less agile than an overburdened two-seat F-16D trainer.

We were skeptical of the claims made in the infographic, so the Air Force’s top warfighting command invited us to send any questions we might have about the missions at Mountain Home.

So, we did. In addition, we obtained five pages of records related to the infographic through the Freedom of Information Act — including a hand-drawn draft of the image itself, seen here.

Here’s what we know and what we still don’t.

Data point #1: “88/88 Sorties Flown”:

One of the F-35’s biggest problems has been a revolutionary computer “brain” that is supposed to handle everything from where potential threats are on the battlefield to when worn-out parts are about to break.

Bugs in the millions of lines of software code could effectively lock crews of their own planes. The glitches have often forced F-35 pilots to reboot their radars while in the air.

According to the Air Force, flying every planned mission without any hiccups is proof that the computer program is finally stable. The practice flights included missions against simulated enemy aircraft and air defenses, as well as targets on the ground.

“Software issues that have affected … previous deployment exercises simply did not exist,” Benjamin Newell, a public affairs official at Air Combat Command, told War Is Boring in an email. “There were zero aborts.”

We don’t know whether any new software issues cropped up during the test flights. If so, they did not delay or otherwise impact any flights. “I’m sure it’s possible that one line Airman may have encountered and repaired one minor software glitch during the deployment exercise,” Newell acknowledged.

But in two cases, pilots had to use alternate jets after “mechanical” trouble sidelined their primary planes. A battery in one of the F-35s failed, while the navigation system failed in another. The problems were “innocuous” and “common on fourth-generation platforms,” according to Newell.

It is true that no matter how reliable F-35 is or becomes in the future, things will still break from time to time. That’s inevitable for every aircraft.

However, during the F-35's trip to Mountain Home, maintenance crews sometimes only had four aircraft ready to go on any given day, according to a June 17 email Lyons sent to Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert Carlisle. Censors redacted Lyons name, but left in “Commander 388 FW” in the signature line.

On average, the 34th managed to fly one mission per aircraft per day during the deployment.

In addition to Air Force personnel, Lockheed Martin company reps were present to help fiddle with the software and lend a hand if any problems arose. “They … provided timely spare parts when needed,” Lyons noted.

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