Last month, the US Air Force announced that its small fleet of F-35A strike fighters are operationally capable. They’re not the first to say the Lightning II is ready for action – the US Marines did it in 2015 – but this is a much more significant milestone for the F-35 program. The Marines will mostly be operating the short takeoff/vertical landing F-35B variant; the F-35A is the main production model and will account for about three-quarters of the total fleet. If that’s ready for combat, the troubled F-35 project is in better shape than many suspected.
The problem is that it seems the USAF has gone for an increasingly familiar tactic here – they’ve rated the F-35A as ready by simply redefining “ready” to mean “the state the plane’s currently in.” It’s kind of like taking a test then claiming the pass mark’s whatever you scored.
Right now the F-35A is only cleared to carry one air to air missile – the AIM-120 AMRAAM – and two bombs, the GBU-12 Paveway II and the GBU-31 JDAM. Each of its two internal bays can carry a single bomb, plus a single AMRAAM on the inside of the door. It’s not cleared for any short range AAM, like the AIM-9X or AIM-132, or any long-range one like the Meteor. It isn’t cleared for any standoff ground attack weapon or anti-armour system. It isn’t cleared for rockets. And, if you want to carry more than two bombs and two AAMs, you need to hang them from external pylons and bang goes your stealth.
It gets worse. The gun is consistently failing accuracy requirements – apparently when you pull the trigger and the tiny stealth door over the muzzle opens, the extra drag pulls the nose off target – and only has 181 rounds anyway. The Fusion Tactical Situation Model (FTSM), that’s supposed to combine data from all the plane’s sensors into a single detailed sensor image, doesn’t work very well. The sensors pick up everything but the computer can’t do the fusion part, so pilots are turning off most of the sensors to avoid being swamped with ghost images.
The FTSM isn’t great even when it’s working, but if it fails the pilot should get a warning. He doesn’t. Other things that are supposed to warn the pilot when they fail – but don’t – include the radar and the Integrated Core Processor that controls practically every system on the plane.
While the USAF is talking up the F-35’s readiness, the Pentagon is fiercely critical. Their latest report says that not only is the plane not ready; the programme is actually on course for failure, and the full specified capability may never be delivered. The Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, says the F-35A is “not effective and not suitable” right now.
Despite the problems, both the USAF and Lockheed Martin are pushing the Pentagon to radically scale up production. So far F-35s are being delivered in small batches, each of them with dozens of incremental improvements. Now the pressure is on to order a large trance of nearly 500 airframes. This makes no sense at all; the design isn’t finished and, the way it’s going, won’t be finished any time soon. The more F-35s ordered now, the more will need to be expensively rebuilt within a few years. In the meantime, they’re next to useless. Unless the project gets back on track the Pentagon needs to look seriously at killing this money pit, and the rush to buy hundreds of them looks like a tactic to prevent that happening.
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