In its annual budget request, the Pentagon asked Congress to shell out for more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Despite delays, cost overruns, and a litany of other issues, both the program's officials and manufacturer Lockheed Martin insist everything is moving along smoothly.
Pentagon statements and Lockheed press releases highlight how the troublesome stealth fighters and their crews are racking up new milestones, from the Air Force version finally shooting its gun to an Italian prototype flying across the Atlantic. On Feb. 2, a pilot from the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona became the first to spend 500 hours flying the high tech plane.
"Our government and industry team has a proven track record of overcoming technical challenges discovered during developmental and operational testing and fleet operations, and delivering on program commitments," U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the top officer in charge of the F-35 program, wrote on Jan. 29. "These accomplishments prove the basic design of the F-35 is sound and test results reinforce our confidence in the ultimate performance the U.S. and its partners and allies value greatly."
With this good news in hand, Washington is looking to buy more than 400 new JSFs — more than 240 F-35As for the Air Force, nearly 100 F-35Bs for Marine Corps and just shy of 65 F-35Cs for the Navy — over the next five years, according to Reuters.
The price tag — over $55 billion. Though some 45 aircraft short of its original plan, the Pentagon argues that these large "block buy" purchases will help lower the plane's astronomical costs.
Texas-based Lockheed hopes to sell more than 2,000 of the advanced fighters to the United States and nearly a dozen allies. Likely to be the largest single defense project in history, the American portion of the program could cost an estimated $1 trillion over the entire course of the plane's lifetime.
But the positive attitude conceals a fundamental problem. As it stands now, the Pentagon will be paying millions of dollars for new F-35s — and already has more than 150 aircraft sitting at bases around the country — that simply don't work right.
On Feb. 1, the Pentagon's top weapon tester J. Michael Gilmore released a scathing 48-page dissection of the F-35 as part of his annual report to Congress. In his annual review, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation raised concerns with the plane's advanced computer "brain," other key gear, the basic design, and the testing regimen.
Gilmore said the services needed to get real about how soon pilots would be able start flying mock missions, let alone actual combat. "Essentially every aircraft bought to date requires modifications prior to use in combat," Gilmore wrote. If there are no changes to the schedule, Lockheed expects to deliver more than 500 F-35s of all types — more than a fifth of the whole fleet Washington plans to buy — to the Pentagon by 2020.
Still described as "low rate," this production tally of what amount to unfinished prototypes is larger than the total aircraft of all types in 10 NATO air forces — Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia — combined, according to figures from the 2013 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' authoritative The Military Balance.
On top of that, the Pentagon watchdog said operational testing wasn't likely to kick off until May 2018 at the very earliest — nearly 10 months after the current estimated start date. Test pilots likely will not finish up a full series of experiments to see how well the plane can destroy targets in the air and on the ground — called Weapon Delivery Accuracy events, or WDAs — for another three years given existing trends.
"The DOT&E report is factually accurate," Bogdan wrote in his statement, which was an official response to the report. "[But] it does not fully address program efforts to resolve known technical challenges and schedule risks."
Still, according to Gilmore, both the Pentagon and Congress should ask themselves whether it's wise to commit to block-buying F-35s if they're far from combat-ready.
The significance of Gilmore's report cannot be overstated. "This document is probably the most extraordinary review of any weapon that's come out of the DOT&E office," said Pierre Sprey, a former aeronautical engineer who helped design the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Warthog.
Sprey was speaking to a handful of journalists at a meeting with the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C. think tank. The panel of speakers also included former DOT&E director Thomas Christie, military reform advocate Winslow Wheeler, and POGO defense wonks Dan Grazier and Mandy Smithberger.
Gilmore's report did include many points F-35 critics will be familiar with already. However, the document adds additional — and more importantly official — details to the various complaints.
"Those are leaks," Sprey said of important revelations about the JSF — such as losing a mock dogfight to an older F-16 — that War Is Boring and others have uncovered over the plane's three decades of development. "This is a government document that says it. That's a big difference."
"And it took a huge amount of guts to do it," Sprey added. Throughout their presentation, both Sprey and Christie said they were impressed that the DOT&E report had "escaped" the Pentagon.
Gilmore's first target was the F-35's computer and its complex software. All told, the aircraft relies on more than 20 million lines of code to "fuze" information from the JSF's radar, infrared cameras, jamming gear, and even other planes and ground stations to help it hunt down and hide from opponents, as well as break through enemy lines to blow up targets on the ground. Combined with a special, classified stealth coating, Lockheed claims the aircraft will be "virtually invisible."
But if the computer doesn't work, the F-35's greatest advertised advantages over existing rivals and future threats would suddenly become moot.
After two false starts, the Pentagon finally began working on the F-35's so-called Block 3i software in March 2015. Block 3i essentially involved moving old Block 2B code into an upgraded box.
Despite assurances that this would be a smooth transition, the software did not work with the new hardware. After the transition, the Pentagon suddenly found more than 350 new "test points" that would have to be examined to make sure everything worked. The Block 3i test plan already called for more than 500 test points.
After just two months of tests, engineers released eight software patches. Pilots completed test flights with the new code eight months behind schedule. But the software's sixth and current revision — two additional versions of the fifth upgrade didn't get new numbers — still has trouble keeping the radar steady, according to Gilmore.
All of this work was based on earlier code that was full of "deficiencies" and had "limited combat capability."
The Pentagon claims the up-coming Block 3F version will be representative of the final product, currently dubbed Block 4. But Gilmore and the program's officials disagree on when engineers will fix the bugs in that software. By the end of 2015, the program had successfully run just over a quarter of the more than 5,000 expected tests on this latest variation.
"They have no idea what they're going to have to do" to get the aircraft to their final configuration, Christie said. "Every time we run a test, we find something new and as time goes on we're finding more problems."
This is a serious problem — and here's why.
When F-35s head out on combat missions in the near future, the Pentagon wants to load their computers with customized information packets which include details on where enemy and friendly forces are, the capabilities of surface-to-air missiles and radars, what the best routes to a target might be, and other data about the battlefield. Commanders around the globe would need information specific to their regions to load onto their planes.
All together, the data would give the F-35 a decisive information edge in a modern war. But as of 2014, the packets still couldn't properly identify various ground radars and missiles, or make use of all of the F-35's own gear. The sole office working on this part of the project still hasn't produced a single, fully optimized data set.
Even more galling, this U.S. Reprogramming Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida doesn't even have the equipment to work on the planes with the latest software packages.
"Despite the $45 million budget, the program has still not designed, contracted for and ordered the required equipment [for use with Block 3F] — a process that will take at least two years," Gilmore declared.
Perhaps more problematic, the Autonomic Logistics Information System is still utterly broken. When working properly, ALIS is supposed to identify broken parts and other faults, help speed up repairs and handle mission data uploads.
Instead, "it's a single point of failure in the whole program," Grazier said. "If they don't get that right, the plane might not even get off the ground."
This isn't hyperbole. ALIS has the ability to lock out pilots and ground crews if it sees a danger. If this happens, maintenance technicians have to convince the computer that they've dealt with the issue or that it was a false alarm.
This is all compounded by the fact that the Pentagon has modified and upgraded the planes on a largely ad hoc basis. With so many software versions and potential differences in parts, it's no surprise ALIS would get confused under the best of circumstances.
Grazier worries that this makes the F-35 a tempting target for hostile hackers. If someone convinced the computer that something was wrong across the fleet, they might be able to keep all the F-35s grounded. Not permanently — but long enough to present a serious danger.
Program officials seem to agree, though they have an odd way of showing it. In November 2015, the Pentagon canceled a cyber test because of worries it would, unsurprisingly, damage ALIS.
At least the computers won't kill you outright. The same can't be said of the JSF's ejection seat.
During 2015, engineers launched two mannequins — one weighing 103 pounds and another 136 pounds — from test sleds on the ground. These rocket-powered test beds are a simple and cheap way to see what could happen if a pilot actually had to bail out. In both cases, the testers concluded that a real person would have ended up with severe whiplash … or worse.
Individuals in this weight range would have a 23 percent chance of dying and 100 percent chance of a "neck extension" if they ejected from the F-35. With this in mind, the Pentagon banned pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying the stealthy fighters. Anyone over that limit is still good to go.
"The program and the services have decided to accept the risk to pilots in this weight range, although the basis for the decision to accept these risks is unknown," Gilmore noted.
Part of this has to do with the special, $600,000 helmet pilots have to wear. The high-tech headpiece is supposed to replace a traditional heads up display in the cockpit, showing the pilot important data on their visor no matter where they might look. With no rearward visibility, cameras positioned around the plane will feed onto the same screen so the pilot can "see" in any direction.
The latest version of this complex headgear weights more than five pounds. That's twice as much as the extra larger version of the current HGU-55/P helmets Air Force fighter pilots wear today, according to information on the manufacturer Gentex Corporation's website.
The helmets are big. In a flight test on Jan. 4, 2015, a pilot complained that their visor was bumping up against the canopy when they turned their head, according to a report leaked to War Is Boring. Despite these obvious dangers, the Pentagon has not launched any mannequins between 136 and 245 pounds — a weight range that most pilots would probably fall into — in sled tests.
While less dangerous, the aircraft's basic shape and arrangement have continued to pose problems. The plane is still too hot and prototypes are wearing out faster than expected. The versions of all three major types sent for stress testing have developed cracks and other wear and tear earlier than expected. Lockheed will have to develop fixes, get them into the existing fleet and onto aircraft still on the production line.
The heat issue may never be solved. "They've put too much heat generating stuff in an airplane that's very hard to cool," Sprey said.
Packed full of high-powered electronics, the F-35 puts out a lot of heat. Traditional vents to suck in cool air would ruin the plane's stealthy shape, so Lockheed's design has a set of coolant-filled piping to try and mitigate the problem. The fuel tanks are supposed to further absorb some of the excess heat.
But by using fuel tanks to help cool the plane, the F-35's fuel … is heating up. The Air Force responded by painting fuel tankers on the ground white to try and chill their contents.
None of this has solved the problem. Between 5,000 and 25,000 feet in the air and at speeds between around 575 and 700 miles per hour, pilots cannot keep the plane's weapon bay closed for more than 10 minutes at a time for fear of overheating the aircraft. With the doors open, the F-35 is no longer stealthy.
"This will require pilots to develop tactics to work around the restricted envelope," Gilmore explained. "However, threat and/or weather conditions may make completing the mission difficult or impossible using the work around."
And if the plane heats up too much, parts could fail or the plane might show up on an enemy's infrared cameras. Any serious mechanic failure could be catastrophic as the coolant and the fuel are both flammable.
"This is like if you were using gasoline in your car radiator," Sprey said of the setup.
In June 2014, an F-35 burst into flames on the runway at Eglin after a turbine blade from the engine went hurtling through the fuselage. The resulting cavity quickly filled with burning liquids, causing more than $50 million in damage in a matter of minutes.
All of these issues mean that pilots and crews are having serious trouble keeping the F-35s the Pentagon has now airworthy. In spite of the special treatment they receive, all of the JSFs set aside for tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California are only able to make six flights every month.
The Marine Corps notes its F-35Bs have passed the "initial operational capability" milestone, making them technically ready for limited combat. In December, the leathernecks sent eight of the planes to a training exercise nicknamed Steel Knight 16 at Twentynine Palms, California.
But Marine aviators flew less than half their planned sorties during the event. To keep up the numbers, they even swapped one plane out for another back at base. Even including that flight and others, which had nothing to do with the practice missions, the F-35Bs managed to complete just over half of their assigned missions.
Gilmore said that if the Marines try to use their existing F-35Bs in actual combat, pilots will need help from others to avoid threats, find their target, and get their weapons to hit the mark. And if the Air Force declares their F-35As to be ready for combat in 2016 as planned, they'll be in the same predicament.
"The Joint Program Office will continue to work with the F-35 enterprise to make corrections and improvements as quickly as possible," Bogdan said. "We thank the DOT&E for their assistance."
Gilmore's damning report would probably spell the end of many weapon systems. But in the face of near constant criticism, the F-35 has proven to be politically unkillable.
"This program is a historic case of political engineering," former DOT&E director Thomas Christie lamented. And he would know.
After taking charge of the DOT&E in July 2001, Christie's first report covered problems with the now famous Predator drone. His findings quickly earned him a visit from the more infamous Darleen Druyun, then the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and management.
"She shows up with about five flag officers, Air Force flag officers," Christie recalled. "She comes in sits down and plops this report on [the table]."
He said she asked him bluntly "what the f*** do you think you're doing with this?"
In October 2004, Druyun — by then a Boeing executive — was sentenced to nine months in federal prison for inflating the costs of a tanker contract she later awarded to the Seattle-based plane maker, and for passing along sensitive information about rival Airbus. She left prison in September 2005 to serve another three years of supervised release.
Sprey and Christie both worry that when America elects a new president in 2016, the new administration could appoint someone less principled than Gilmore to the post. Sprey said the top weapon tester was an anomaly in the Pentagon today.
The F-35 will likely stay. Russia and China continue to develop their own stealth fighters, and the Pentagon and Lockheed say the JSF will be critical for maintaining America's military edge. "Nobody wants to explore the alternatives … they don't want to go there for lots of reasons," Wheeler contended.
Boeing's F-18E/F Super Hornet is still in production, as is Lockheed's own F-16E/F Viper. Advanced long-range missiles and similar weapons might protect these aging designs from increasingly deadly air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.
At the same time, aircraft makers could cook up a new fifth-generation design or simply pursue an even more advanced plane. In a television advertisement during the Super Bowl, Northrop Grumman teased a concept for a new, sleek, tailless fighter jet.
Unfortunately, Congress has had little stomach to reign in the program. "No," Wheeler told the room flatly when asked if any lawmakers were likely to stand up to the F-35.
Vocal opponents in the legislature have been just that, vocal, and little else, he pointed out. Arizona Sen. John McCain has been a particularly outspoken critic … all while adding more F-35s to the last Pentagon budget. In 2015, the Air Force sent several JSFs to Luke Air Force Base outside of Glendale, Arizona.
"There's the obvious reason of the distribution of defense contracting," Wheeler pointed out. Of America's 50 states, 46 have a stake in the JSF program. Democrats and Republicans alike both fear being labeled as weak on defense or unfriendly to defense contractors, Wheeler added.
And with so many planes already built or on order, the project is becoming increasingly hard to stop. Now that versions are rolling off the assembly line for other countries, Congress might worry about damaging relations with critical allies, Smithberger noted.
Of course, remember, this is all still "low rate" production. Christie said attempts in the past to actually define low and full rate production have "gone nowhere." When it comes to the F-35, "in my opinion, we've been in full rate production for several years," he added.
Though pessimistic, Sprey said there might be some hope still. "You actually have some fiscal hawks in the Congress … that have the quaint notion that weapons ought to work and ought to be worth what you pay for them."
What is clear is that none of the JSFs rolling off the assembly will be representative of the final warplane, and all of them will need some number of upgrades to get them ready for tests, let alone actual service. This means more money for Lockheed and its partners, but less combat-ready planes for the services at any point in the foreseeable future.
With Gilmore's report in hand and Congress set to review the Pentagon's latest request, the whole debacle may finally be turning a corner … it's just not clear yet in which direction.
From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, War is Boring explores how and why we fight above, on, and below an angry world. Sign up for its daily email update here or subscribe to its RSS Feed here.