The F-35 Still Has a Long Way to Go before It Will Be Ready for Combat
Close air support is more than aircraft simply dropping bombs on targets. To be truly effective, CAS missions require detailed tactical coordination between the pilots and the troops fighting on the ground. For decades, this has been done effectively through radio communication, and in recent years, operational aircraft have been upgraded with digital communication links for voice and data over networked systems called Variable Message Format and Link-16. In flight tests, the F-35’s digital data links have experienced significant difficulties, including dropped messages or information being transmitted in the wrong format. This has forced pilots and ground controllers to work around the system by repeating the information by voice over the radio. In a close firefight, when seconds count, this is a dangerous delay the troops can ill-afford.
F-35 defenders are always quick to point to the allegedly lethal capabilities of near-peer adversary air defense systems as justification for the necessity of using F-35s in CAS as well as in interdiction bombing. Introducing a sounder tactical and historical perspective, Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha points out that the scenario of flying CAS missions over an area of heavy air defense threats is unlikely at best. The cumbersome, slow-moving, and logistics-intensive “high threat” missile systems are unlikely to be dragged along by a near-peer enemy conducting modern mobile warfare. Our close support pilots are much more likely to face lesser light and mobile air defenses (machineguns, light anti-aircraft guns, and man-carried heat-seeking missiles) just as they faced during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the wars of the past 15-plus years.
In announcing F-35 IOC, the Marines (who used to prize CAS as part of the unique Marine heritage) and the Air Force apparently deem these F-35 CAS limitations acceptable.
But it is shameful to see close air support treated as an afterthought tacked on to the F-35 program. To provide adequate CAS, the taxpayers’ money would be far better spent maintaining the battle-proven A-10 until a significantly more effective and even more affordable follow-on is tested and fielded.
Navy’s F-35 Unsuitable for Carrier Operations
One of the most important characteristics the Navy’s variant of the F-35 must have is that it has to be able to operate from aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what is the point of designing a specialized naval version of the plane? But the Navy’s own pilots say the F-35C doesn’t work with the ships.
Developmental testing revealed that a severe amount of jerking during catapult launches—termed “excessive vertical oscillation”—“make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots who conducted training onboard USS George Washington during the latest set of ship trials.”
Aircraft taking off from the confined decks of carriers require a major boost to reach the necessary speed to achieve lift and takeoff, which is accomplished with a catapult set into the flight deck. Before the jets are launched, the pilots increase the engine thrust. To keep the jets from rolling off the front of the ship before launch, they are held down with hold-back bars. The force of the thrust compresses the gear’s strut as it is being held down. When the hold-back bar is released and the jet is launched, the F-35C’s strut is unloaded, causing the nose to bounce up and down, jarring the pilot according to a Navy report that was leaked to Inside Defense in January 2017.
The problem is dangerous to the pilot. The Helmet-Mounted Display is unusually heavy, currently weighing in at 5.1 pounds, and when that’s combined with the forces generated during a catapult launch, the extra weight slams the pilot’s head back and forth. In 70 percent of F-35 catapult launches, pilots report moderate to severe pain in their heads and necks.
The launch also impacts the alignment of the helmet. Pilots reported difficulty reading critical information inside the helmet, and they have to readjust it after getting into the air. The pilots say this is unsafe as it happens during one of the most critical phases of any flight. Pilots try to counter the oscillations by cinching down their body harnesses tighter, but this creates a new problem by making it hard to reach emergency switches and the ejection handlesin the event of an emergency.