Americans don’t agree on much these days, but thankfully there’s one fact coming out of government reports that’s pretty incontrovertible: However awesome the F-35 might be in theory — whatever heights of achievement it might one day achieve — the plane as it exists today is in pretty sorry shape. Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio recently got a chance to preview the annual report prepared by Robert Behler, the DoD’s director of operational test and evaluation. While the latest version of the report doesn’t identify any fundamentally new failings, continued operational problems in the existing categories are more than enough to have stymied the effort to bring the aircraft to full readiness.
Behler’s office has identified 13 Category 1 “must fix” issues directly impacting safety and combat capability before the $22B Block 4 phase of the program commences. The problems detailed by Behler are separate from the announcement on January 22, 2020, that the aircraft’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) would be scrapped and replaced with a brand-new software project. ALIS was supposed to be a revolutionary parts and logistics management system, but it’s never worked properly (we’ve covered ALIS problems in years past at ET). Now that system will be replaced by a new, cloud-based solution designated ODIN (Operational Data Integrated Network). Like ALIS, ODIN will be created in partnership with Lockheed-Martin.
The big problem of Behler’s most recent report, according to Bloomberg, is that the Air Force version of the F-35 has a major problem with its 25mm cannon. The GAU-22/A cannon used by the Air Force is mounted internally. Structural cracking has been a problem for the F-35 for years, and it continues to be an issue today. The report states that “The effect on F-35 service life and the need for additional inspection requirements are still being determined.”
The externally-mounted versions of the gun used by the Marines and Navy doesn’t have the same problem, but the USAF variant has unacceptably low accuracy when used against ground-based targets. Yes, the F-35A has such poor accuracy, it can’t even hit the ground… accurately. Being made of steel and under the influence of gravity, it’s thoroughly capable of hitting the dirt at any other point. It just might do so a few feet to the left or right of where you thought it would.
No significant portion of the F-35 fleet in service with any branch of the US military was capable of achieving what then-Defense Secretary James Mattis promised to achieve in 2018: Namely, that the aircraft be mission-capable, on average, 80 percent of the time. The report doesn’t give percentages but states that all branches lagged the goal “by a large margin,” with the Air Force scoring best, the Marines ranking “roughly midway,” and the Navy’s performance being described as “particularly poor.” The gun issue is unique to the F-35A, but most of the other issues are cross-branch.
Over the years I’ve written about the F-35, there’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether it’s the “right” design to fight against America’s enemies in the engagements we will face in the future. The more practical question seems to genuinely be whether this aircraft can ever achieve the expectations that have been placed on it. It’s not the most tortured vehicle to ever move through the Pentagon procurement process — I’m pretty sure that dubious honor still belongs to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle — but the cost of the F-35’s development blows the BFV’s price tag out of the water. At least, it blows the BFV out of the water if you have the good sense to aim with a missile. Nineteen years after Lockheed’s X-35 beat Boeing’s X-32 to win the JSF program, that whole “gun” thing is looking a little sketchy.
Every time I look at the F-35, I wonder how the Air Force’s drone programs are coming along. Even if we eventually fix the plane, how long it will be before its replaced in many roles by drone fighters? I’m not claiming that’s going to happen in the next year or two, but the F-16 first entered service in 1980. Forty years later, it’s one of the most popular (and least expensive) fighter jets to operate in the world. There seems little chance of the F-35 achieving the same recognition.
I don’t expect the drone aircraft of 2022 to be punching holes in the F-35’s raison d’etre, but I’d be downright surprised if it’s still flying sorties in 2050. The plane is already scheduled to spend an extra year in testing trying to iron out these bugs, but the number of software flaws has only fallen slightly in 14 months, from 917 in September 2018, to 873 in November 2019.
At this point, has anyone considered a seance to contact Wilbur and Orville Wright?
- The US Just Grounded the Entire F-35 Fighter Fleet
- New Report Finds Pentagon Weapon Systems Riddled With Vulnerabilities
- US Air Force Considers Cutting F-35 Orders By a Third