Just when the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter project appeared it couldn’t get any worse, it went and did exactly that.
The case study in how not to procure a weapons system has received yet another failing grade. According to a new 48-page report from J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, the version of the F-35 designed for the Marine Corps has not yet demonstrated it is fit to enter combat on its own.
“If in an opposed combat scenario,” Gilmore writes, “the F-35 Block 2B aircraft would need to avoid threat engagement and would require augmentation by other friendly forces.” As reported by Popular Mechanics, the F-35 would require fighter escort because, at high speeds, it can’t actually fire its weapons:
[Gilmore] lists off some of the problems facing…the current version of the F-35 Block 2B, including the fact that the F-35 is unable to deploy weapons or defensive countermeasures while flying at its maximum speed—pilots will need to slow down from the F-35’s max speed of Mach 1.6 to Mach 1.2 or less in order to fire.
Software bugs continue to plague the fighter as well, with 11 out of 12 weapons tested during Block 2B evaluation severely hampered. The software malfunctions, Gilmore writes, “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).
Not only can the F-35 not fire its weapons, but the fighter also has issues with overheating. The F-35’s weapons bay can overheat if the atmospheric temperature exceeds 90 degrees and when the plane is flying at high speeds under 25,000 feet. The way to mitigate the overheating is to open the weapons bay doors. The problem? That compromises the plane’s stealth capabilities, which are its first line of defense.
The Pentagon report also had critiques of the Navy version of the F-35. It said the plane’s current timeline to be ready for full-scale testing by August 2017 is unrealistic. The training simulator originally designed for the plane was scrapped after it was behind schedule and the new one has not yet been authorized. The new recommended target date is now August 2018.
Given these problems and the newly reported ones about the software, it’s probably time for the military to consider the unthinkable: a replacement for the F-35. The military, of course, has no such plans.
The F-35 is a Cold War relic designed to use stealth technology to gain superiority over all enemies, air and ground. The problem with stealth technology is that the Russians and Chinese are on track to beat it. The F-35 would then have to rely on its agility and weapons to win an encounter against an advanced enemy. But the F-35 loses simulated dogfights to older F-16s and cannot see enemies very well at beyond visual range. It is essentially a glorified F-117 stealth bomber.
The National Interest has twice published articles (one in 2014 and one last year, when Canada considered withdrawing from the F-35 program) suggesting replacements for the F-35. The common suggestions are a combination of updated legacy-fleet airframes and foreign airplanes such as the French-made Dassault Rafale and the Swedish-made Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Both articles also recommended ordering more UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, aka “drones”) and electronic-warfare-capable aircraft.
The F-35 places American national security at-risk by depleting resources available for other weapons systems and equipment the military needs. It also places American national security at risk by not being about to live up to its “jack-of-all-trades” billing. It’s time for Congress and the Pentagon to begin putting together a plan to replace the F-35 that will save taxpayer money and protect American national security.