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.
Another problem uncovered during the trials on the George Washington involved the transmission of the massive data files the F-35C’s computers produce. The F-35 program relies on the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), the enormous and complex computer system all F-35s use for mission planning, maintenance diagnosis, maintenance scheduling, parts ordering, and more. To work properly, the system has to move large volumes of data across the network on and off the ship.
During the Washington trials, the crew had to transmit a moderately sized 200 MB ALIS file over the ship’s satellite network. It took two days. Bandwidth limitations and spotty connectivity had drastically impeded the transmission of the data. Many such transmissions—and even larger ones—will be required to support an entire air wing. Additionally, the fleet often operates in periods of “emissions control,” or radio silence, to avoid giving away its position to the enemy, further bottlenecking the transfer of the data necessary to keep the F-35s flying.
The George Washington trials generated plenty of fawning press coverage. And publicly at least, the Navy claimed success. However, there is evidence that the Navy is not too excited with the program because of the kind of problems discussed above and, of course, the cost: the Service has been slow to purchase the F-35Cs. While the Air Force is set to buy 44 new F-35s in 2017, the Navy will only buy 2. The Navy also requested 14 additional F/A-18s in its 2017 Unfunded Priorities (“Wish”) List and only 2 more F-35Cs. Moreover, this is the only variant the Services have not rushed to prematurely declare combat ready.
Some Pentagon leaders have said the Navy variant is the only one threatened by a review that was ordered by the Trump administration and that Secretary of Defense James Mattis is currently conducting. This may prove to be one part of the program where a viable alternative to the F-35 is sought.
Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35:
Much has been said since the election about further F-35 purchases and affordability. President Trump questioned the program’s value in a series of tweets before the inauguration, but hopes that the program would be dramatically altered were dashed when he declared he had convinced Lockheed Martin to shave $600 million from the price of the latest batch of F-35s. Lockheed Martin and their partners within the JPO had already stated the price would be lower, largely due to improved efficiencies in manufacturing. On the surface, this seems like a great development for the American taxpayers, but any money “saved” now will end up costing far more in the future because we are buying a bunch of untested prototypes that will require extensive and expensive retrofits later. And this problem will only be compounded if Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office get their way and Congress approves a three year “block buy” of 400 F-35s before the program completes the testing and evaluation process.
The prices quoted in the press are usually based on the cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A—the least expensive of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is only an estimate of future costs, one that assumes everything will proceed perfectly for the F-35 from here on out—which is unlikely as the program enters its most technologically challenging test phase. As this latest DOT&E report shows, the program has a long way to go before the F-35 will be ready for combat.
The Joint Program Office recently claimed that the price for an F-35A went below $100 million each in the FY 2016 contract. Yet in its FY 2016 legislation, Congress appropriated $119.6 million per F-35A.
Even this amount doesn’t tell the whole story: it only covers the procurement cost, not what it will cost to bring F-35As up to the latest approved configuration, nor the additional Military Construction costs to house and operate F-35As. And of course, the $119.6 million price tag does not include any of the research and development costs to develop and test the F-35A. The 2016 production-only cost for the Marine Corps’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C is $166.4 million and $185.2 million per plane, respectively.
First, they don’t include how much it will cost to fix design flaws discovered in recent, current, and future testing—a not insubstantial amount of money. Nor do they include the costs of planned modernization efforts, such as for Block 4 of the aircraft, which will be incorporated into all F-35As in the future. The Government Accountability Office estimates the program will spend at least $3 billion on the modernization effort in the next six years. For example, modifications to fix just some of the problems identified up to now cost $426.7 million, according to the GAO. Each of these aircraft were already modified and they will require more in the future. The Air Force has already acknowledged it must retrofit all 108 of the F-35As delivered to it and in the operational fleet. These costs will continue to grow as known problems are fixed and new ones are discovered, and they are an integral part of the cost per airplane.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing—the development or laboratory testing—and into the critical combat (operational) testing period in the next few years, even more problems will be uncovered. A good example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35. Upon closer inspection, they found that the insulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant. And, when the GAO estimated it would cost $426.7 million to fix some of the known problems in the F-35As already in depot, the coolant line insulation problem had not been discovered. Fixes to this and other problems will all have to be devised, tested, and implemented throughout the fleet of aircraft already produced and purchased.