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

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

A $1,000,000,000,000 disaster? 

An effective cannon on the plane closes that gap. The F-35 is supposed to eventually use a 25-millimeter cannon. The risk-estimate factor for that weapon is 100 meters. Of course the safe distance depends on how accurate the aircraft platform and aiming system is. As noted in the DOT&E memo, the simple act of opening the cannon door on the Air Force’s variant pulls the plane to one side—which could shift the bullet impacts either closer towards friendly troops or away from the enemy’s (thereby rendering the attack dangerous or useless).

But that presupposes the F-35 will actually be able to stay over the battlefield long enough to be on hand to drop its bombs or fire its cannon exactly when needed. The F-35 is a notorious gas-guzzler that relies heavily on aerial tankers to stay on station for any length of time to be useful for the ground troops. According to the memorandum, “the F-35 has high fuel burn rates and slow air refueling rates that extend air refueling times and decreases overall on-station time.” Unfortunately, the troops on the ground can’t call a time-out when their air support has to leave the battle to re-fuel or reload.

The high fuel burn rate and high drag of the F-35 creates a plane that has “short legs” and inadequate on-station times. All variants and versions of the F-35 share this problem. Current short-legged fighters mitigate this deficiency by rotating flights of planes back to the tanker while another remains over the battlefield. But with the well-documented problems the services’ maintainers have keeping the F-35 flightworthy, it is doubtful there will be enough flyable planes to make such a rotation practical any time soon. Actual current F-35 sortie rates reveal the severity of the problem: today’s F-35s are flying one sortie every 5 days. In other words, a squadron deployment of 12 F-35s to Afghanistan or Syria—such as is typical for F-16s or A-10s—would only be able to put up slightly more than one two-ship mission a day to cover the whole country.

Data Fusion Causes Pilots to See Double:

Publicists and “experts” sent out to try to convince the American people their money isn’t being wasted on the F-35 frequently tout the system’s capability to combine data derived from onboard sensors, sensors on other aircraft, and ground sensors. This is called sensor fusion. Each F-35, like other current fighters, has radars, video cameras, infrared seekers, and passive electronic warfare receivers to locate targets and threats in the air or on the ground. One of the main selling points for the F-35 has been that its computer system is intended to merge the information from all these onboard and offboard sensors to create a simple combined-sensor display (instead of the current approach of a separate display for every sensor) of each target and each threat for the pilot. This single display is shared instantly with every other plane in the formation. This is supposed to provide everyone with a more accurate, less confusing picture of the target and threat environment surrounding the formation—and to do so quickly without the need for time-consuming radio voice exchanges.

That’s what it’s supposed to do anyway. As it turns out, the F-35s have difficulty managing and fusing their own data, let alone that of their wingmen or surveillance assets further away.

Test pilots have reported their F-35s are creating false multiple tracks when all of their sensors are turned on. For example, when a radar and an infrared sensor detects the same enemy plane, the two sensors display it on the helmet-mounted sight as two enemy planes. The same thing happens when two or more sensors detect the same ground target.


Test pilots have worked around this problem by turning off all but one of their sensors to eliminate the multiple tracks. DOT&E says this is “unacceptable for combat and violates the basic principle of fusing contributions from multiple sensors into an accurate track and clear display to gain situational awareness and to identify and engage enemy tracks.”

It is bad enough that each individual F-35 computer struggles to create a clear picture of what is going on in the battlespace for the pilot. But the false target problem is compounded when multiple F-35s try to share data through what is called the Multi-Aircraft Data Link.

What has been described as one of the F-35’s greatest advantages has yet to live up to expectations—and, to the contrary, has been increasing the pilot’s workload.

Logistics Software Falling Behind:

Another major and expensive component of the F-35 program, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), is a massive computer system intended to automate mission operations, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, and parts ordering. But the cumbersome ALIS continues to be a major headache for the program. An updated version, ALIS 2.0.2, was supposed to be delivered in time for the Air Force’s Initial Operational Capability announcement. Yet IOC was declared without the new version, which remains seriously delayed because Lockheed has been unable to integrate Pratt and Whitney’s separate engine computer data system into ALIS.

ALIS combines aircraft onboard and ground-based computers and software to create a world-wide network that, for each F-35 flight, uploads and downloads flight path/target/threat data (at beyond top secret level), diagnoses maintenance problems, assigns corrective maintenance actions to mechanics, orders parts, tracks their installation, tracks aircraft modifications, and orders mechanics to perform preventative maintenance actions. It is a massively complex system, with 24 million lines of computer code. It also requires a large, heavy footprint of hardware wherever the F-35 is based. The latest hardware version is smaller than the original bulky and undeployable ALIS units, but it still takes several days to set up whenever it is moved. This impedes the F-35’s ability to deploy quickly and raises questions about the entire program’s operational suitability.

For example, when it is working, it takes 24 hours to upload data from each plane into a new ALIS ground computer. So when an F-35 deploys to a new base, an entire day is lost as the data is passed to the new ALIS. And only one plane at a time can upload. So if the 12 F-35’s of Hill Air Force Base’s first “operational” squadron deploy to combat, it will take nearly two weeks to start maintaining the full squadron with ALIS.

Because ALIS uploads and downloads top secret mission data, the ALIS computers have to be housed in a secure compound called a Special Access Program Facility, made up of one or more modified large shipping containers called Deployable Debrief Facilities.

Furthermore, forward-deploying units not only need to lug bulky equipment and facilities to foreign battlefields, they also need to drag around civilian contractors to help set up and operate the equipment. Contractors from Lockheed Martin are essential to transfer data from the plane’s home station to the deployed ALIS unit. Field service representatives from Pratt and Whitney are also needed to download engine data for the post-flight maintenance process. This is fine during development, but in combat, such arrangements hamper rapid deployment and limit basing options to locations safe for civilians. That means basing farther from combat zones, slower emergency response times, and increased reliance on scarce aerial tankers.

Future Development in Jeopardy:

The program is supposed to have truly combat-capable F-35s—Block 3F—ready for operational testing at the end of the System Development and Demonstration process, which is now scheduled to be at the end of 2018. Dr. Gilmore reports that while some progress is being made in the simpler developmental flight-testing process, the pace has fallen far behind that which is necessary to complete the Block 3F testing within the remaining schedule and budget. And this is the point in the developmental flight test plan where the most complex capabilities are added to the plane. He estimates developmental flight testing will need to continue at full capacity for at least another year to “complete the planned testing of the new capabilities and attempted fixes for the hundreds of remaining deficiencies.” It will simply be impossible to complete operational testing by the 2018 deadline.

To complicate matters even further, the program is losing testing personnel right at this critical juncture. The test centers have a turnover rate of approximately 20 percent on a normal basis. DOT&E reported that the recent departures are not being replaced. Dr. Gilmore also reports the program has started laying off people including maintenance staff, engineers, and analysts. The layoffs have started a cascading effect where many of those left are now looking for other jobs before they can be laid off.

Dr. Gilmore pointed out that how “the program will be able to complete the volume of work remaining at the integrated test centers while the staffing begins to ramp down is not known.”

This is all further evidence of program mismanagement. There is still a long way to go to complete the development phase of the JSF program, but rather than budgeting to resource that adequately, program officials seem to be focused more on expanding future procurement budgets.[DG3]  JSF Program officials both inside the government and at Lockheed Martin have repeatedly expressed their desire to ramp up from low rate initial production. They want Congress to authorize a block buy of 465 planes—with commensurate large pre-payments—for the United States and foreign military partners beginning in 2018. But not one official has expressed the need for funding the extra people and extra flight hours essential to keeping the development program from sliding further behind.