The F-35 Still Has a Long Way to Go before It Will Be Ready for Combat
The F-35’s Program Manager, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, has said he will attempt a short-term tweak to the F-35C’s nose gear strut to fix the problem, but a longer-term fix may actually be required, such as a redesign of the entire front landing gear assembly. This is unlikely to begin until 2019—the same year the Navy has said it intends to declare the F-35C ready for combat. By that time, the Navy will likely have 36 F-35Cs in the fleet, each of which would then need to have the front landing gear replaced, at a yet-to-be determined cost.
The F-35C’s problems aren’t limited to the beginning of a flight. Just as a jet needs help taking off from a carrier, it also needs help stopping during the landing. This is accomplished by cables strung across the deck. When a jet comes in for a landing, a hook on the aircraft catches one of the cables, which uses a hydraulic engine inside the ship to absorb the energy and bring the jet to a halt.
The test teams have found that the hook point on the F-35C’s arresting gear is wearing out three times faster than it is supposed to. Though it is supposed to last a minimum of 15 landings, the longest a hook point has lasted in testing is 5. The program is reportedly considering redesigning the arresting gear to be more robust.
Another structural issue yet to be resolved on the F-35C involves the wings. During test flights, engineers discovered the ends of the wings were not strong enough to support the weight of the AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile. The F-35C’s wings fold at the ends to save space in the crowded confines of the deck and hangars on aircraft carriers. When the missiles are carried past the wing fold, the weight exceeds structural limits when the plane maneuvers hard and during landings. According to DOT&E, until the problem is corrected, “the F-35C will have a restricted flight envelope for missile carriage and employment, which will be detrimental to maneuvering, [and] close-in engagements.” It’s more detrimental, even, than the F-35’s other inherent maneuvering limitations. The problem is bad enough that Lt. Gen. Bogdan has admitted the F-35C will need an entirely redesigned outer wing.
Launching and recovering planes is only one part of the challenge for naval aviation. Maintenance crews also have to be able to keep the jets flightworthy while at sea. One of the critical maintenance functions that crews have to be able to perform is an engine removal and installation (R&I). Crews performed the first R&I proof-of-concept demonstration aboard the USS George Washington in August 2016.
It took the crew 55 hours to complete the engine swap, far longer than it takes to perform the same action on a legacy aircraft. The engine on an F/A-18, for instance, can be replaced in 6 to 8 hours. DOT&E noted the crew took its time performing all the necessary steps for safety purposes, and pointed out that future iterations would likely be a little faster as the crews gain more experience. That said, the crew had full use of the entire hangar bay space, something they wouldn’t have with an air wing embarked on the ship. This likely sped up the process during this demonstration. Replacing the engine in the F-35 is more complicated than in an F/A-18. Crews must remove several more skin panels and a large structural piece called the tail hook trestle in order to remove the engine, thus requiring more space in the maintenance hangar. These parts and all the tubes and wires associated with them must be stored properly to prevent damage, also taking extra space. The maintenance crews must perform this process with a full air wing present in order to know whether the system is operationally suitable. And the process must become significantly more efficient to generate the sortie rate needed for combat.
Another problem uncovered during the trials on the George Washington involved the transmission of the massive data files the F-35C’s computers produce. The F-35 program relies on the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the enormous and complex computer system all F-35s use for mission planning, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, parts ordering, and more. To work properly, the system has to move large volumes of data across the network on and off the ship.