Another often-touted feature that is supposed to give the F-35 superior situational awareness is the Distributed Aperture System (DAS). The DAS is one of the primary sensors feeding the displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system , and it is also failing to live up to the hype. The DAS sensors are six video cameras or “eyes” distributed around the fuselage of the F-35 that project onto the helmet visor the outside view in any direction the pilot wants to look, including downwards or to the rear. At the same time, the helmet visor displays the flight instruments and the target and threat symbols derived from the sensors and mission system. But because of problems with excessive false targets, unstable “jittered” images, and information overload, pilots are turning off some of the sensor and computer inputs and relying instead on simplified displays or the more traditional instrument panel.
Here again, the system is little better than those it’s supposed to replace.
Test pilots also had difficulty with the helmet during some of the important Weapon Delivery Accuracy tests. Several of the pilots described the displays in the helmet as “operationally unusable and potentially unsafe ” because of “symbol clutter” obscuring ground targets. While attempting to test fire short-range AIM-9X air-to-air missiles against targets, pilots reported that their view of the target was blocked by the symbols displayed on their helmet visors. Pilots also reported that the symbols were unstable while they were attempting to track targets.
Then there is the matter of pilots actually seeing double due to “false tracks.” There is a problem with taking all of the information generated by the various onboard instruments and merging it into a coherent picture for the pilot, a process called sensor fusion. Pilots are reporting that the different instruments, like the plane’s radar and the EOTS, are detecting the same target but the computer compiling the information is displaying the single target as two. Pilots have tried to work around this problem by shutting off some of the sensors to make the superfluous targets disappear. This, DOT&E says , 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 targets.”
And as bad as the problem is in a single plane, it’s much worse when several planes are attempting to share data across the network. The F-35 has a Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) that is designed to enable the plane to share information with other F-35s in order to give all the pilots a common picture of the battlespace. It does this by taking all of the data generated by each plane and combining it into a single, shared view of the world. But this system, too, is creating erroneous or split images of targets. Compounding the problem, the system is also sometimes dropping images of targets altogether, causing confusion inside the cockpits about what’s there or not there.
All of this means that the systems meant to give the pilots a better understanding of the world around them can do exactly the opposite. According to the report , these systems “continue to degrade battlespace awareness and increase pilot workload. Workarounds to these deficiencies are time-consuming for the pilot and detract from efficient and effective mission execution.”
F-35 boosters say it's the network that matters; what actually matters is that the network isn't working.
Ineffective as a Fighter:
The F-35 was intended to be a multi-role aircraft from its inception. This latest report provides a clear picture of how it stacks up so far in its various roles, including in comparison to each aircraft it’s supposed to replace. The news is not encouraging.
The F-35’s shortcomings as an air-to-air fighter have already been well documented . It famously lost in mock aerial combat within visual range (WVR), where its radar stealth is of no advantage, to an F-16 in early 2015, one of the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace as an aerial fighter. The F-35 lost repeatedly in air-to-air maneuvering despite the fact that the test was rigged in its favor because the F-16 employed was the heavier two-seater version and was further loaded down with heavy, drag-inducing external fuel tanks to hinder its maneuverability. F-35 boosters argue that the plane's low radar signature will keep it out of WVR situations, but the history of air combat is that WVR engagements cannot be avoided altogether. Missile failures, the effects of radar jamming and other hard-to-predict factors tend to force WVR engagements time and again.
This latest report confirms the F-35 is not as maneuverable as legacy fighters. All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.” One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.