U.S. Deploying Pre-Production F-35 Aircraft Unfit for Combat

Friday, April 29, 2016
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James (photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

By Don Bacon


Chronic maintenance problems with the aging F-18 Hornet are hobbling the Marines, leaving them with less than 60 percent of the strike fighters they need to conduct training and operations, the Marine deputy commandant for aviation testified recently as reported at Breaking Defense. Units deployed overseas are fully equipped, as they need to be, but this removes capability from training and non-deployed units even though squadron size has been lessened.


The aging Air Force fleet is also a problem.  Air superiority is overwhelmingly being supported by the F-15, which makes up 71 percent of the air superiority platforms but has consumed over 90 percent of its estimated 30-year service life according to the 2016 Index of US Military Strength. The Navy has similar concerns, but is procuring operational fighter aircraft to ease its situation. Meanwhile the need for a viable fighter aircraft has increased. “We’ve seen both Russia and China develop airplanes faster than was anticipated,” Air Force Lt. Gen. James Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a March 8 hearing as reported by DefenseOne.


While the services suffer, billions of dollars are being spent especially by the Marines and Air Force in procuring F-35 pre-production aircraft years before the Milestone C production and deployment decision (currently scheduled for 2019). Is there any justifiable hope that these expensive F-35 pre-production systems could ease the current problems?


There seems to be a belief in the land that manufacturing pre-production F-35 aircraft is a solution to this situation. But obviously aircraft which can't be deployed is not a solution to the need for deployed aircraft. The Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall has called this "acquisition malpractice." Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James: "People believed we could go faster, cheaper, better" by designing and building the F-35 concurrently, "and that the degree of concurrency would work. Indeed it has not worked as well as we had hoped and that's probably the understatement of the day."


There is competition among the states over basing these useless aircraft. Arizona has done quite well for obvious reasons. The two dozen (only) planes bought by five (of eight) foreign Joint Strike Fighter Partners have been based in the U.S.  Like the U.S. models, they can't leave because future development and operational testing will probably lead to engineering changes which must be done at U.S. depots.  Hill AFB in Utah recently became the first depot facility to perform modifications on all three F-35 Lightning II variants.  But the planes are still not deployable pending further test and evaluation.


The F-35 won't be combat capable any time soon.  "Overall, the program is at a critical time," said Michael Gilmore, head of the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Office.  "Although the Marine Corps has declared initial operational capability, and the Air Force plans to do so later this calendar year, the F-35 system remains immature and provides limited combat capability, with the officially planned start of initial operational test and evaluation just over one year away." In fact, as of the end of January 2016, the program had 931 open, documented deficiencies, 158 of which are Category 1 -- serious. “There are shortfalls in electronic warfare, electronic attack, shortfalls in the performance of distributed aperture system and other issues that are classified,” Dr. Gilmore said March 23. “With regard to mission assistance, stealth aircraft are not visible to achieve success against the modern stressing mobile threats. We’re relying on our $400 billion investment in F-35 to provide mission systems [that] must work in some reasonable sense of that word.”


Congress got the message. Until Air Force Secretary James certifies that the F-35s delivered in fiscal year 2018 will have full combat capability — including “Block 3F hardware, software, and weapons carriage” — Congress will limit procurement funds for the plane, according to the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.  James won't be able to do that, according to Gilmore's testimony. So FY2016 procurement may be held up, and in fact a principal contract for FY2015 procurement (LRIP-9) hasn't been awarded yet, more than six months after the end of the fiscal year.


Block 3F software, the F-35 "flying computer" requirement for combat capability, won't even be available for operational test & evaluation before 2018.  But 3F isn't enough. The project says that Block 4 "modernization" is necessary for combat capability, and that will take at least six more years and $3 billion more to Lockheed.  Plus there is the unreliable engine and airframe, the helmet, the obsolete air-to-air missile, the lack of a gun, the ALIS logistics system which may not work thus jeopardizing operations, etc. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) , F-35 engine reliability is still at about sixty percent of where the program expected them to be at this point, and aircraft performance has been lessened (e.g. g's) as a result. 


Because of system unreliability, it takes many contract personnel to assist service maintenance personnel.  Based on current contractor support levels at Luke AFB, the immature F-35 aircraft requires 60-90 industry tech reps per squadron as reported by Second Line of Defense. Is it practical to deploy this many people to help service an immature system? No.


An immature aircraft which isn't combat capable is not deployable. That includes the Marine squadron that declared "initial operational capability (IOC)" with patched-up F-35 pre-production aircraft in 2015, and also includes the imminent Air Force "IOC" at Hill AFB this year. And on and on for the next five years or so, more squadrons will be rendered non-deployable by F-35 prototype issuance, one after the other.  How many squadrons will be rendered non-deployable in the next five years? The plans are to deliver 367 more F-35 aircraft in five years.  Assuming an average squadron aircraft strength of thirteen aircraft (Marine and Air Force numbers differ) means that approximately 28 (twenty-eight) more squadrons will be removed from the combat roles. Is that what we want?


In fact there is a law proscribing the deployment of systems not proven by operational test and evaluation, which the F-35 program won't be able to accomplish until 2019 or probably later (i.e. prior to Milestone C). Title 10 USC § 2399 - Operational test and evaluation of defense acquisition programs -- states that "The Secretary of Defense shall provide that a covered major defense acquisition program may not proceed beyond low-rate initial production (LRIP) until initial operational test and evaluation of the program or subprogram is completed." (LRIP is primarily intended to provide production or production-representative articles for Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) and definitely not to provide systems for in-service operation.)


The F-35 won't be combat capable any time soon, which Congress has recognized (in addition to its threat to limit F-35 procurement funds).  Current headline: House Lawmakers Want Air Force to Study Restarting F-22 Production. That's because given the increased need, F-35 combat deployment is not an option. The "sound of freedom" is really a hollow whimper.


Don Bacon, LtCol (ret), B.S.and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Army veteran, is a graduate of the DOD project management school with multiple project manager office assignments.


To Learn More:

Obama Administration Backs Lockheed Sale of F-35 Fighter Jets in Violation of Contract with Partner Nations (by Donald Bacon)

More Problems for the Trillion-Dollar F-35: It’s not Good at Close Combat (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

When F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Goes Operational this Summer, it won’t Work any better than 40-Year-Old Thunderbolts (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

How Much do F-35s Cost? Beware of Answers from Lockheed-Martin (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Trillion-Dollar F-35 Jet Fighter Has 13 Flaws (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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