Report: The U.S. Navy's Version of the F-35 Is Not Ready for Combat

(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe/Released)

Report: The U.S. Navy's Version of the F-35 Is Not Ready for Combat

Here is what we know.

 

Specifically, the report provides no information on or results of the two preliminary Initial Operational Test and Evaluation test events completed in 2018—both of which involved limited combat realism: the cold-weather test for F-35 basing in Alaska, and the opening round of the congressionally-mandated close air support combat-effectiveness fly-off between the F-35 and the A-10.

The Pentagon’s lack of information and transparency in reporting the fly-off tests is particularly disturbing, especially in light of POGO’s investigation of mismanagement, bias, and conflict of interest in the conduct of these tests. The tests’ outcome and the future of the A-10 should be of great concern to every soldier and Marine who may find themselves in need of air firepower.

 

F-35 Still Can’t Shoot Straight

The report does provide some detail on the developmental testing for the 25 mm gun, though nearly all of the details are actually old results already reported in previous years. The gun is of major significance for close air support because accurate strafing is almost always a better choice than bombs or missiles when troops are endangered by close-in enemies or when enemy targets are close to civilians.

The report includes a combination of this and previous years’ testing results for each of the three F-35 models’ guns, but the most significant results involve the F-35A’s. Like most aspects of the F-35 program, because there are three service-specific aircraft, there are three different guns: an internally mounted cannon for the Air Force’s F-35A, and a belly-mounted gun pod carrying 220 rounds for the Marine Corps’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C, though because of differences in the shape of each variant, the gun pods are not interchangeable. DOT&E reports that, based on a small sample of developmental flight tests, the Marine Corps’ and the Navy’s model gun pods have met their engineering accuracy specifications.

In contrast, the Air Force’s F-35A’s internally mounted gun continues to demonstrate poor accuracy during testing, as in years past. The gun shoots long and to the right of targets when pilots aim using cues projected into their helmets. Adjustments to the helmet’s targeting software should be able to correct the cues to match with bullet impacts, but repeated attempts over a period of at least two years have failed. Investigators first found misalignments in the gun mounts in 2017; according to the 2018 report, “the true alignment of each F-35A gun is not known.”

Due in no small part to the inadequacy of the testing program, still other questions remain about the effectiveness of the gun’s ammunition against real targets encountered in combat. The developmental testing phase tested three ammunition types: the PGU-23, a training and practice round; the PGU-47 armor-piercing high explosive incendiary round; and the PGU-48 frangible armor-piercing round. The incendiary round is mainly for use against light armor, as it is designed to penetrate thin armor plate before detonating with a delay inside the target. The last is a nontraditional, non-explosive fragmenting round meant to punch a hole through lightly armored targets and set off secondary detonations when it penetrates into fuel or stored ammunition. Live fire effectiveness testing of the ammunition to date has been against small numbers of obsolete vehicles, obsolete planes, and plywood silhouette dummies—none of which resemble the most common threats troops encounter.

Flight testing of the gun and its ammunition has been even more limited. According to the report, there were just 19 air-to-ground strafing test missions for the F-35A “through July 2018,” in which aircraft fired approximately 3,400 rounds of the three ammunition types, approximately 70 passes of 50 rounds apiece, since the F-35A carries only 182 rounds. (For comparison, the A-10’s 30 mm gun can carry 1,350 rounds.) In order to gather useful data on ammunition effectiveness, gun flight tests need to cover at least three approach angles and three opening ranges. The report does not shed light on the specifics of the test program, but simple arithmetic suggests that if the evaluators tested each round in all the appropriate scenarios, then they only have one or two sets of data for each ammunition type, far from the amount of data needed to properly determine performance.

Nothing in the report indicates that there will be much more gun-effectiveness testing, or that there will be any of a sort that would be sufficient to compare effectiveness of the A-10’s 30 mm gun with the F-35A’s 25 mm gun, with realistic targets and numbers of passes.

The F-35 is supposed to meet or exceed the combat performance of the aircraft it is slated to replace. The F-35A is intended to eventually replace the A-10 in the close air support role. Until engineers can make the F-35A’s gun shoot straight, and demonstrate this conclusively in testing, it is unlikely that many ground troops will be willing to trust the F-35 as they do the A-10 to fire safely at enemy targets close to their positions. And likely fewer still would be willing to entrust their lives to the F-35’s 182 25 mm rounds instead of the 1,350 30 mm rounds the A-10 can carry.

Aircraft Durability Showing Cracks

The services had expected the F-35 to fly for half a century, but it is possible that many of the legacy aircraft it is meant to replace may still be in service by the time the first F-35s have been scrapped.

All F-35s are supposed to have a service life of 8,000 hours, a standard military aircraft lifespan. To ensure the design will last, each model is required to undergo three lifetimes’ worth (24,000 hours) of structural load testing to determine if they can handle the representative stress placed on them during takeoffs, landings, and in flight. In the course of this life testing over the years, engineers have found numerous instances of cracks and wear in the test airframes’ structural components and joints. For example, an attachment jointbetween the vertical tail and the airframe on an F-35A failed during testing in October 2010. This forced a redesign of the joint that was later incorporated into the manufacturing process. That test aircraft, after this repair and others, went on to complete the full three lifetime tests, and, according to the 2018 report, is currently undergoing a complete evaluation to determine what other fixes are needed and whether F-35As do indeed have an 8,000-hour life.

The Marines’ F-35B structural test airframe proved unable to complete the three lifetimes of testing. According to the 2018 report, Joint Program Office officials suspended tests on that airframe in 2017 after its second lifetime when they found the necessary patches and modifications were so extensive that the airframe was “no longer representative of the wing-carry-through structure” of the aircraft coming off the assembly line. Shockingly, there are no plans to procure a replacement airframe to test the F-35B to the full three lifetimes required by the contract. Using the data gathered during the tests the aircraft did complete, evaluators determined that the service life of the F-35B could be as low as 2,100 flight hours. That means the Marine Corps could potentially have to start retiring the first of its F-35s in seven years, and may never acquire any F-35Bs with a verified 8,000-hour service life.

Similarly, Joint Program Office officials called off durability testing on the Navy’s F-35C test airframe in the middle of the third lifetime iteration following the discovery of damage to several structural components that were deemed too costly to repair. As with the F-35B, the program office appears to have no plans to procure a replacement test airframe or to complete the required third lifetime of tests.

In order to match the service life of the later models, already-built F-35s will require costly retrofits to incorporate design modifications to fix problems discovered during even the incomplete tests.

Logistics and Maintenance System Undermines Logistics and Maintenance

The troubled Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)—the massive, complex network owned and operated by Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s prime contractor—continues to vex the entire program.

The network is supposed to integrate maintenance diagnosis and scheduling and supply chain management with combat-mission planning and threat analysis. Despite years’ worth of evidence—including from the government’s own Government Accountability Office—that the system is not succeeding, Lockheed Martin claims on its website that ALIS’s capabilities will “reduce operating costs and increase aircraft availability.” In the manner of many of the Pentagon’s purportedly labor-saving efforts, ALIS has actually increased the workload of hard-pressed maintainers, due to persistent problems including false positive maintenance diagnoses, cumbersome data entry procedures, and slow uploads and downloads of data between the aircraft and ALIS. In fact, ALIS has so many flaws and has experienced so many failures that Lockheed Martin did not even use its version of the system on its manufacturing floor until March 2018.

The program fielded ALIS version 2.0.2.4 in early 2018. Units in the field reported numerous significant problems with it. Ironically, the system’s Deployment Planning Tool did not alleviate the substantial difficulties of deploying F-35 units. Users also complained about the Life-Limited Parts Management tool, saying it consumed a great deal of time and required them to manually work around the system to complete their tasks—exactly the opposite of how the system is supposed to work. In the meantime, yet another patched ALIS version, 3.0.1, has been in testing since late 2017 and has already required two revisions, the latest of which, 3.0.1.2, was introduced for use at the beginning of Initial Operational Test and Evaluation but will be upgraded again in six months.