F-35: Is America's Most Expensive Weapon of War the Ultimate Failure?

March 19, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35MilitaryTechnologyWorldAir Force

F-35: Is America's Most Expensive Weapon of War the Ultimate Failure?

Pilots have to figure out which targets are real and which aren’t, usually by verbally confirming them with other pilots—the very action the sensor fusion system is intended to replace.

In addition, the F-35 program, including ALIS, remains critically vulnerable to cyber threats. The new Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Robert F. Behler, a retired Air Force Major General who most recently served as Chief Operating Officer of the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute (SEI), has made it a priority to fully test the intricately networked system. This will be easier said than done as several testing activities were disrupted in 2017 for reasons like sudden Defense Department policy changes regarding classified equipment security requirements, delayed software deliveries, and “pre-coordination problems” with the contractors administering the ALIS Standard Operating Unit at Edwards Air Force Base.

The testing that did occur revealed that several of the severe cyber vulnerabilities identified in previous years still have not been fixed. The report did not detail these vulnerabilities, but DOT&E did provide this pessimistic warning and recommendation:

According to the [Joint Program Office], the air vehicle is capable of operating for up to 30 days without connectivity to ALIS. In light of current cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities, along with peer and near-peer threats to bases and communications, the F-35 program and Services should conduct testing of aircraft operations without access to ALIS for extended periods of time.”

DOT&E is signaling their pessimism that ALIS will actually be able to effectively support F-35 combat operations long-term either because it is hacked, or because it simply will not work as intended. This statement says the Program Office should find a way to fly the F-35 without using ALIS at all.

The F-35 program is also having difficulties with the seemingly mundane. For example, engineers have struggled to build a proper tire for the Marine Corps’ F-35B. The short-takeoff, vertical landing variant does present unique challenges for the program: the tires on the F-35B need to be soft enough to provide cushioning during vertical landings, strong enough for high-speed landings on a conventional runway, and light enough to fit the aircraft’s tight weight limits. The tires are also required to be good for at least 25 conventional landings. So far, the average F-35B tire has only lasted 10 landings before it must be replaced. Each tire costs around $1,500. Unless a better tire can be developed, the Marine Corps will spend approximately $300 per flight hour just for replacements. With an expected lifetime of 8,000 flight hours, taxpayers will spend approximately $2.4 million on tires for each and every F-35B.

There are numerous other problems that need to be resolved, such as ejection seats that aren’t safe for pilots of all sizes, identifying the cause of hypoxia (physiological incidents) that a growing number of pilots are experiencing, production line quality lapses, speed and maneuvering restrictions, deficiencies in the helmet display and night vision camera, and restrictions in air refueling for the F-35B and F-35C.

It is for these and several hundred other reasons like them that Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, said we can’t afford to sustain the F-35. DOT&E recommends that the Program Office review the available reliability and maintenance data from the testing process and field operations to obtain a realistic sustainment cost estimate that is based on actual operating data instead of relying on the current optimistic and unsupported estimates of the F-35’s operating costs. Congress should get involved and mandate just such a review. Indeed, an inherently complex system like the F-35 may require a higher cost to sustain in the future—well beyond current estimates.

It’s easy to see why the military reform movement advocates so strongly against overly complex weapon systems. In addition to making weapons unaffordable and decades late in meeting threats, excessive complexity adds extra friction to the inherent chaos of the battlefield. Facing such overwhelming combat pressures, the last things our troops need are additional workloads, uncertainties, delays, and maintenance burdens that should have been tested and engineered out of their weapon systems long before being sent to combat. Even worse is to undermine long-term combat effectiveness, training, and readiness by issuing conveniently optimistic cost and suitability guesstimates to serve short term political goals.

Testing Shortfalls

While DOT&E’s report shows that there are still significant problems with the design and function of the F-35, it also reveals a disturbing pattern by the Pentagon and the defense industry: they are undermining the critical operational tests and test facilities that might reveal major F-35 combat deficiencies.

Part of every Major Defense Acquisition Program is the creation of a Test and Evaluation Masterplan (TEMP), a document that details all of the developmental and operational testing events, their objectives, and the material requirements to conduct them. This includes the number of production-representative aircraft and the facilities needed to complete the operational testing process. The details of the TEMP are established by the program’s management office and must be approved by the Pentagon’s developmental and operational testing directors.

In the case of the F-35 program, the approved TEMP calls for a fleet of 23 production-representative and properly instrumented operational testing aircraft. The aircraft designated for testing were produced in Lots 3 through 5 in the 2010-2012 time frame. In the intervening years, fixes to correct the deficiencies uncovered during developmental testing have resulted in an F-35 design that has changed significantly: the originally produced test aircraft are no longer production-representative. DOT&E reports that some of the designated test aircraft are in need of as many as 155 modifications to become production-representative. Program and Lockheed Martin officials have acknowledged the problem for years, yet have approved schedules and budgets that make it impossible to complete all the necessary modifications before the much-delayed start of the F-35’s combat trials, known as Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E), now set to begin by the end of August 2018 at the earliest.

DOT&E first reported the modification bottleneck in 2014. Rather than taking the necessary steps to correct the situation, Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office seemed to prefer that operational testing be constrained to a much narrower and less realistic scope by a much smaller fleet of available operational test aircraft. The realism and scope of the operational tests will shrink even further because the F-35 program has been slow to fund and build essential range facilities, threat-simulating emitters, and high-fidelity simulators for large formation combat, as will be seen below.

A prime example of the Program Office’s and Lockheed Martin’s delaying tactics can be seen in a small facility at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida called the United States Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL).

Much of the F-35’s promised stealth capability depends on the F-35 computer system calculating optimal flight paths through the enemy’s defense array of radars, SAM missiles, and airborne fighters. The calculations depend on huge files of threat maps, threat electronic signals, and information about threat missiles, as well as data about F-35 and other friendly systems. These massive files are called Mission Data Loads (MDLs). Separate Mission Data Loads have to be created to fit the specifics of each potential combat theater. Further, they have to be updated rapidly whenever new intelligence arrives or when the threat and the combat scenario change. Without up-to-date, well-verified MDLs, the F-35’s systems will not be able to properly find and attack targets or evade threats. These MDLs are created at the Reprogramming Lab.

DOT&E has repeatedly reported on the Lab’s shortfalls and inordinate lead times in creating these files: it takes up to 15 months to create and validate each of these files, and a minimum of six files are needed, one for each major combat theater where F-35s might be deployed plus one specifically for the operational test range environment. Because each threat country’s military operates with different equipment, more than five combat theater files may well prove necessary. Based on the estimate provided by DOT&E, the Reprogramming Lab may not even be able to provide the operational test MDL before the end of calendar year 2018, four months after the presently promised start of IOT&E. Unfortunately, despite DOT&E’s repeated warnings regarding shortfalls with the Lab, officials in the Program Office and at Lockheed Martin have not invested enough resources in it. As a result, the Lab lacks effective capability and is late in delivering the much-needed Mission Data Loads, both for the IOT&E and for actual F-35 deployments.

To be fully effective, the MDLs must be verified and tested frequently. “[T]he Department must have a reprogramming lab that is capable of rapidly creating, testing, and optimizing MDLs, as well as verifying their functionality under stressing conditions representative of real-world scenarios.” Testing the MDLs requires special electronics (called threat emitters) that generate signals mimicking the kind of radar, missile guidance, and other threat equipment the F-35 may encounter in a combat zone. DOT&E reports that the Reprogramming Lab does not have enough of these emitters to simulate arrays of anti-aircraft threats a potential adversary would have. Without the necessary equipment, the Reprogramming Lab will not be able to properly test the F-35’s electronic warfare systems to ensure “adequate performance against current and future threats.”