Meanwhile, the F-35 is still a train wreck

Now that votes are finally being cast, most Hot Air content is going to be revolving around the ongoing campaign, but it’s important we don’t lose sight of issue details that could wind up affecting the race, especially in areas where traditional Republican stances could leave one or more candidates very, very vulnerable.


National defense is a perennial Republican running point. More troops, more ships, more planes, more dollars is pretty much the mantra of every candidate. The worrisome story of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – a.k.a. the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – has been addressed here before by Jazz Shaw (July 1, 2015 and August 15, 2015), and since then, has gotten worse, not better. The F-35 is the most expensive defense acquisition project ever with projected costs exceeding $1.3 trillion.

Aviation Week and Space Technology obtained a leaked copy of the 48-page F-35 section (PDF file) of the Department of Defense’s FY2015 Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) Annual Report in late January. The report was released to Congress on Monday, February 1, 2016 but is yet to be publicly published in full. To quote from the AW&ST article by Bill Sweetman:

The Block 2B version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Marine Corps declared operational in July last year, is not capable of unsupported combat against any serious threat, according to Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E).

Digging deeper into the actual report, the F-35’s problems are extensive and span across all three variants of the aircraft: the “A” model for the Air Force, the “B” for the Marines (it can take off and land vertically, like the AV-8 Harrier), and the “C” for the Navy (carrier-capable). Particularly troubling are the admissions that weapons delivery accuracy (WDA) – can you fire or drop a weapon and have it hit what you’re aiming at – tests had to have their constraints altered to allow the aircraft to pass. (Emphases mine)


Eleven of the 12 [WDA] events required intervention by the developmental test control team to overcome system deficiencies and ensure a successful event (i.e., acquire and identify the target and engage it with a weapon). The program altered the event scenario for three of these events, as well as the twelfth event, specifically to work around F-35 system deficiencies (e.g., changing target spacing or restricting target maneuvers and countermeasures).

In plain language: they cheated. The report continues:

The performance of the Block 2B-configured F-35, if used in combat, will depend in part on the degree to which the enemy’s capabilities exceed the constraints of these narrow scenarios and the operational utility of the workarounds necessary for successful weapons employment.

Would you want to fly into battle piloting an aircraft that depends on enemy cooperation for you to complete your mission? The Marine Corps has declared their F-35 variant operational, and it seems like that’s what they’re asking their aviators to do. I’m sure our enemies will be completely cooperative as a spit-and-bailing-wire F-35 engages them. Jazz’s previous posts discussed the F-35’s poor performance in air-to-air combat, and the DOT&E report details those problems in the “flight sciences assessment” for the Air Force’s “A” version:

Testing of operational “dog-fighting” maneuvers showed that the F-35A lacked sufficient energy maneuverability to sustain an energy advantage over fourth generation fighter aircraft. Test pilots flew 17 engagements between an F-35A and an F-16D, which was configured with external fuel tanks that limited the F-16D envelope to 7.0 g’s. The F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage on every engagement. Pitch rates were also problematic, where full aft stick maneuvers would result in less than full permissible g loading (i.e., reaching 6.5 g when limit was 9.0 g), and subsequent rapid loss of energy. The slow pitch rates were observed at slower speeds—in a gun engagement, for example—that restricted the ability of an F-35A pilot to track a target for an engagement.


This time, they tried to cheat, and even when handicapping the F-16 test adversary by loading it down with external fuel tanks, the F-35 flying clean still couldn’t wax the older plane’s tail. To make things worse, there’s a fuel system problem that affects the F-35 in any form and restricts the aircraft’s operating parameters to not exceed 3.0 g maneuvers – the plane’s design specification is for 9.0 g – until it burns off almost half of its fuel load! Sounds like the men and women who will be flying the F-35 should have faith in their ejection seats and bail out procedures. Well…

The program conducted two sled tests on the pilot escape system in July and August of 2015 that resulted in failures of the system to successfully eject a manikin without exceeding load/stress limits on the manikin…[T]he system failed to meet neck injury criteria.

These tests were performed with 103-pound (July) and 136-pound (August) manikins with sled traveling at 160 knots (184 mph). Consider for a second: the F-35 is a supersonic aircraft. Its testing scenarios – to say nothing of potential combat flights – are conducted at speeds much faster than 160 knots. How is this being addressed?

[T]he Program Office and Services decided to restrict pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying any F-35 variant…Pilots weighing between 136 and 165 pounds are considered less at risk than lighter weight pilots, but still at increased risk (compared to heavier pilots). The level of risk was labeled as “serious” by the Program Office based on the probability of death being 23 percent, and the probability of neck extension (which will result in some level of injury) being 100 percent. Currently the Program Office and the Services have decided to accept this level of risk to pilots in this weight range, although the basis for the decision to accept these risks is unknown.


For the slight of stature – including otherwise combat-qualified female pilots – tough, you can’t fly an F-35. What of heavier pilots? What of faster speeds? Both? The report is silent on those questions, but how can one not have doubts about any pilot’s survivability if they have to bail out?

The report contains damning result after damning result: software issues, maintenance issues, problems with the shoes necessary to be worn to protect the F-35’s low-observable coatings during servicing being too slippery and becoming a safety issue, Navy shipboard integration issues, and so on. There’s several on each and every page.

Regardless, the current plan is to move ahead with accelerated production of the F-35 – a “block buy” of up to 270 aircraft – before operational testing is completed and all the problems have been resolved. Oh, by the way, the DOT&E Annual Report also projects that most if not all of the current testing milestones won’t be reached by their already delayed dates and that testing is currently identifying new problems at a faster rate than the known ones are being fixed.

The F-35, and the potential “block buy”, isn’t just of questionable fiscal sanity: it may also be illegal (and the DOT&E annual report cautions as such). 10 USC §2306b reads as follows:

(a) In General.—To the extent that funds are otherwise available for obligation, the head of an agency (e.g., the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Air Force, et al.) may enter into multiyear contracts for the purchase of property whenever the head of that agency finds each of the following…

(4) That there is a stable design for the property to be acquired and that the technical risks associated with such property are not excessive.


The entire F-35 program, as it currently stands, is an excessive technical risk.

Every Republican candidate running right now has championed rebuilding our military and spending more on defense. With respect to the F-35, only Donald Trump has come right out and said the program should be cancelled. I don’t know if that’s the proper remedy, nor am I a Trump supporter, but more people in office and not had better start taking a serious look at this aircraft, its shortcomings, and what we’re spending on it. Most of the others in the GOP field haven’t brought up the F-35, but just over two years ago, newly-minted Iowa caucus victor Senator Ted Cruz visited the Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas where the F-35 is built and tweeted:

Lockheed Martin employs 13,700 of Senator Cruz’s constituents in Fort Worth, with a yearly payroll of $1.4 billion. The facility also claims $795 million per year in goods and services purchased from suppliers in Texas. Was the Senator referring to the F-35 program as a whole when he challenged, “Come and take it!”? I’ll leave that for you to evaluate.

Then, there’s Senator Marco Rubio, who explicitly wraps his arms around the F-35 not once, but twice on his “Marco’s Plan to Restore Military Strength” page (screen captures):



That “new amphibious-assault vehicle”? The Marine Corps cancelled their Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program in 2011 after $3 billion had been spent in development, and the replacement Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) is scheduled to complete its first prototypes late this year.


Rubio’s plan basically says “spend more on every possible weapon system”, including the Air Force’s new KC-46 tanker, with which I’ve already pointed out cost/benefit problems. His positions, taken alone, could easily be explained away if questioned, except Senator Rubio also claims to stand for this:


I call that a lack of intellectual honesty, plain and simple.

Both Senators Cruz and Rubio claim the mantles of fiscal conservatism, restraint, and responsibility. A balanced budget amendment is standard Republican fare. Until Republicans get serious about controlling defense costs and making sure we, the taxpayers are getting value for our dollars – and our warriors are getting equipment that does the job it is supposed to do at an effective, affordable cost – they should all be prepared to answer for their boasting. We must not wait for the opposition to challenge them.

Allan Bourdius is a co-founder of Vigilant Liberty Radio and the co-host of the station’s “Roundtable of Extreme Liberty”, host of “Their Finest Hour” and the founder of the blog of the same name. You can follow him on Twitter as @allanbourdius.

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