In numerous posts over the years, I've criticized the F-35 Lightning II, the so-called "Joint Strike Fighter", as a boondoggle and a failure. Despite glowing articles released by its supporters in the news media, I've seen nothing to make me revise that opinion. It may be technologically marvelous, but its serviceability and - above all - its exorbitant cost make it simply unaffordable.
The Project on Government Oversight has highlighted the major problems with the platform in its most recent report.
Sold in 2001 as a cheap multi-role fighter at a promised $38 million per plane, the troubled F-35, now at an average $158.4 million per copy, continues to dramatically underperform in crucial areas including availability and reliability, cyber-vulnerability testing, and life-expectancy testing.
For as much as the 2018 report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) reveals about the F-35’s lack of progress in nearly every essential area, it is markedly less transparent than previous reports. It provides no updates on the crippling deficiencies highlighted in previous years, reports far fewer findings critical of the program than earlier reports, and contains almost no quantitative results on the F-35’s most urgent problems. The report omits any mention of the program’s fully mission capable rate—let alone the Navy version’s—which is the most significant measure of whether a fighter force is ready to show up for combat.
Despite an ongoing stream of optimistic press releases from the Pentagon, the information that is provided by DOT&E shows that the F-35 is still in trouble in these vital areas:
- Little or no improvement in the key availability, reliability, and flying-hour metrics over the last several years means too few F-35s will likely be ready for combat when they are most needed, now or for the foreseeable future.
- During durability testing, the Marine and Navy F-35s have suffered so many cracks and received so many repairs and modifications that the test planes can’t complete their 8,000-hour life-expectancy tests. The Marine version’s airframe life could be so short that today’s F-35Bs might end up in the boneyard as early as 2026, 44 years before the program’s planned 2070 sunset.
- Despite years of patches and upgrades, the F-35’s most combat-crucial computer systems continue to malfunction, including the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) maintenance and parts ordering network; and the data links that display, combine, and exchange target and threat information among fighters and intelligence sources.
- The program has not provided the resources necessary to build, test, and validate the onboard mission-data files that control mission accomplishment and survival.
- As in previous years, cybersecurity testing shows that many previously confirmed F-35 vulnerabilities have not been fixed, meaning that enemy hackers could potentially shut down the ALIS network, steal secret data from the network and onboard computers, and perhaps prevent the F-35 from flying or from accomplishing its missions.
- The all-important and much-delayed F-35 Initial Operational Test and Evaluation report—assessing whether the plane is combat-suitable and ready for full-scale production—may well not only be late (perhaps well into 2020), but may also be based on testing that is considerably less combat-realistic than planned. This is both because test personnel are forced to make do with incompletely developed, deficiency-laden planes, and the F-35 program has for years failed to fund adequate test-range hardware and realistic multi-aircraft, multi-threat simulation facilities.
But the report presents precious little hard data on maintainability; availability and flying hours; weapons-testing results; ALIS-caused maintenance problems; pilot difficulties with sensors and display; and shortfalls in testing resources and realism. By leaving out any information on the program’s fully mission capable rates, which previous years’ reports included, DOT&E keeps the public from knowing the percentage of time these aircraft are ready to perform all of their intended missions. It is unclear why this is absent from the report, but it raises questions as to whether performance has actually gotten worse, and whether the Pentagon is seeking to hide that fact.
. . .
The most important measure of an aircraft’s readiness for combat is the “fully mission capable” rate. This is the percentage of aircraft on hand that have fully functional, non-degraded vehicle systems (flight controls and engine), electronic mission systems (radar, electronic warfare systems, computers, etc.), and weapons employment capabilities—a particularly important measure for the F-35. The 2017 DOT&E report showed a 26 percent fully mission capable rate across the entire F-35 fleet. Because the 2018 report makes no mention of this rate, it is impossible to know what the 2018 rate was.
The Navy document POGO obtained shows that the problem persists: the Marines’ F-35B and the Navy’s F-35C variants posted even worse figures in 2018 than in the previous year. The F-35B’s fully mission capable rate fell from 23 percent in October 2017 to 12.9 percent in June 2018, while the F-35C plummeted from 12 percent in October 2016 to 0 percent in December 2017, then remained in the single digits through 2018.
There's much more at the link.
The F-35's cost per flight hour is also a matter of profound concern. If that's too high, it will chew up operating budgets, leaving too little to pay for other operational needs. I note that the US Navy is buying more F-18E/F Super Hornets, which cost less than the F-35C and are much cheaper to operate. It looks like the US Air Force's recent decision to order at least 80 more advanced F-15EX fighters may be motivated by similar factors. Aviation journalist Steve Trimble reports:
Given the low mission capable rates for all models of the F-35, these purchases of "legacy" fighters may be intended to both augment the troubled stealth fighter's numbers, and provide more affordable flying hours to service pilots.
All in all, we're stuck with the F-35 now: it's too far along to be scrapped entirely. Nevertheless, I remain of the opinion that it should be bought in minimum quantities, and its successor designed to avoid the problems that have plagued the Joint Strike Fighter program. JSF should have learned from the disaster that was the F-111 program. It didn't . . . and it's become just such a disaster itself.