Air Force officials have often argued that the lack of an effective gun or inability to maneuver low and slow won’t matter in future wars because the Air Force intends to conduct CAS differently—that is, at high altitudes using smaller precision munitions. But the F-35 will not be cleared to carry those weapons for at least five years.
In the meantime, the F-35 can carry only two guided bombs right now, and those are 500 pounds or larger. None of those models are usable in proximity to friendly troops. According to the military’s risk-estimate table, at 250 meters (820 feet), a 500-pound bomb has a 10 percent chance of incapacitating friendly troops. This means that within that bubble, the enemy can maneuver free from close air support fires. A 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb II is now in low rate production and cleared for use on the F-15E; even that, though, is much too large to be used near friendly troops in “danger close” firefights, and the software and bomb racks necessary to employ it on the F-35 will not be available and cleared for combat until 2021 at the earliest.
Close air support is more than aircraft simply dropping bombs on targets. To be truly effective, CAS missions require detailed tactical coordination between the pilots and the troops fighting on the ground. For decades, this has been done effectively through radio communication, and in recent years, operational aircraft have been upgraded with digital communication links for voice and data over networked systems called Variable Message Format and Link-16. In flight tests, the F-35’s digital data links have experienced significant difficulties, including dropped messages or information being transmitted in the wrong format. This has forced pilots and ground controllers to work around the system by repeating the information by voice over the radio. In a close firefight, when seconds count, this is a dangerous delay the troops can ill-afford.
F-35 defenders are always quick to point to the allegedly lethal capabilities of near-peer adversary air defense systems as justification for the necessity of using F-35s in CAS as well as in interdiction bombing. Introducing a sounder tactical and historical perspective, Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha points out that the scenario of flying CAS missions over an area of heavy air defense threats is unlikely at best. The cumbersome, slow-moving, and logistics-intensive “high threat” missile systems are unlikely to be dragged along by a near-peer enemy conducting modern mobile warfare. Our close support pilots are much more likely to face lesser light and mobile air defenses (machineguns, light anti-aircraft guns, and man-carried heat-seeking missiles) just as they faced during WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the wars of the past 15-plus years.
In announcing F-35 IOC, the Marines (who used to prize CAS as part of the unique Marine heritage) and the Air Force apparently deem these F-35 CAS limitations acceptable.
But it is shameful to see close air support treated as an afterthought tacked on to the F-35 program. To provide adequate CAS, the taxpayers’ money would be far better spent maintaining the battle-proven A-10 until a significantly more effective and even more affordable follow-on is tested and fielded.
Navy’s F-35 Unsuitable for Carrier Operations:
One of the most important characteristics the Navy’s variant of the F-35 must have is that it has to be able to operate from aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what is the point of designing a specialized naval version of the plane? But the Navy’s own pilots say the F-35C doesn’t work with the ships.
Developmental testing revealed that a severe amount of jerking during catapult launches—termed “excessive vertical oscillation”—“make the F-35C operationally unsuitable for carrier operations, according to fleet pilots who conducted training onboard USS George Washington during the latest set of ship trials.”
Aircraft taking off from the confined decks of carriers require a major boost to reach the necessary speed to achieve lift and takeoff, which is accomplished with a catapult set into the flight deck. Before the jets are launched, the pilots increase the engine thrust. To keep the jets from rolling off the front of the ship before launch, they are held down with hold-back bars. The force of the thrust compresses the gear’s strut as it is being held down. When the hold-back bar is released and the jet is launched, the F-35C’s strut is unloaded, causing the nose to bounce up and down, jarring the pilot according to a Navy report that was leaked to Inside Defense in January 2017.
The severity of this can be clearly seen here:
The problem is dangerous to the pilot. The Helmet-Mounted Display is unusually heavy, currently weighing in at 5.1 pounds, and when that’s combined with the forces generated during a catapult launch, the extra weight slams the pilot’s head back and forth. In 70 percent of F-35 catapult launches, pilots report moderate to severe pain in their heads and necks.
The launch also impacts the alignment of the helmet. Pilots reported difficulty reading critical information inside the helmet, and they have to readjust it after getting into the air. The pilots say this is unsafe as it happens during one of the most critical phases of any flight. Pilots try to counter the oscillations by cinching down their body harnesses tighter, but this creates a new problem by making it hard to reach emergency switches and the ejection handles in the event of an emergency.
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.