War Is Boring
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War Is Boring

An F-35A takes off from Eglin Air Forece Base in Florida on Feb. 27, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo

The F-35 Is a $1.4 Trillion National Disaster

The JSF is a terrible fighter, bomber and attacker — and unfit for aircraft carriers

Technicians perform checks on an F-35A at Red Flag on Feb. 2, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo

Electronics used to justify cost — not delivering capabilities

The F-35 is being sold to the American people based in no small part on its mission systems, the vast array of sophisticated electronics on board the jet. A quick perusal of any of the hagiographic articles about the F-35 will find that they nearly always point to its capabilities to gather massive amounts of information.

Surrendering the element of surprise and enabling an opponent to shoot first is what we want to force the enemy to do, not ourselves.

Another often-touted feature that is supposed to give the F-35 superior situational awareness is the Distributed Aperture System (DAS). The DAS is one of the primary sensors feeding the displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system, and it is also failing to live up to the hype.

But this system, too, is creating erroneous or split images of targets. Compounding the problem, the system is also sometimes dropping images of targets altogether, causing confusion inside the cockpits about what’s there or not there.

All of this means that the systems meant to give the pilots a better understanding of the world around them can do exactly the opposite. According to the report, these systems “continue to degrade battlespace awareness and increase pilot workload. Workarounds to these deficiencies are time-consuming for the pilot and detract from efficient and effective mission execution.”

An F-35A takes off from Nellis Air Force Base on Feb. 2, 2017 during Red Flag 17–01. U.S. Air Force photo

Ineffective as a fighter

The F-35 was intended to be a multi-role aircraft from its inception. This latest report provides a clear picture of how it stacks up so far in its various roles, including in comparison to each aircraft it’s supposed to replace. The news is not encouraging.

All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.”

One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.

An F-35 drops a 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bomb in April 2016. U.S. Air Force photo

Ineffective as an interdiction bomber

There are several major reasons F-35s will have extremely limited interdiction usefulness — the Air Force’s and Marine Corps’ declaration of “initial operational capability” notwithstanding.

Every aircraft in the world is susceptible to PDS, stealth and non-stealth alike, and the F-35 is no exception.

The F-35’s main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120, is a beyond visual range radar missile — as a result, the F-35 has to use a large radar transmitting high-power signals in order to detect airborne targets and then guide the missile to them. Likewise, the aircraft has to employ high-powered ground mapping radar signals to find ground targets at long range.

Without accurate, up-to-date MDLs, the F-35 cannot find targets or evade and counter threats — nor can it carry out the networking and sensor fusion functions that are said to be its primary strengths.

The F-35 cannot go to war without its MDLs. The MDLs also need to be updated continuously with information concerning such things as threats, targets and signals that is gathered on every F-35 mission. F-35 pilots can only be sure the MDLs they need to survive work properly after they have been tested over ranges equipped with the necessary ground radar simulator equipment.

F-35Bs over Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Ineffective as a close air support platform

The F-35 has plenty of shortfalls performing air-to-ground interdiction missions well away from the immediate battlefield, but it is even worse in its other intended air-to-ground role directly in support of engaged troops, close air support (CAS).

None of the three F-35 models in the current fleet can use cannons in combat. In fact, none of them are even close to completing their developmental flight tests — much less their operational suitability tests — for airframe safety, accuracy and target lethality.

Even worse, based on preliminary test experience, it appears that the severe inaccuracy of the helmet-mounted gunsight on all three F-35 versions that makes the cannon ineffective in air-to-air combat will also make it ineffective in CAS — and that the helmet’s accuracy problem may be technically inherent and incurable.

Even more limiting in the effective use of any CAS weapon, cannon or other, is the F-35’s inability to fly low and slow enough to find typical hard-to-see CAS targets and safely identify them as enemy or friendly, even when cued by ground or air observers.

Due to its small, overloaded wings, the F-35 cannot maneuver adequately at the slow speeds that searching for concealed and camouflaged targets requires — and being completely unarmored and highly flammable, it would suffer catastrophic losses from just the small rifle and light machine gun hits inevitable at the low altitudes and slow speeds required. In sharp contrast, the A-10 was specifically designed for excellent low and slow maneuverability and, by design, has unprecedented survivability against those guns, and even against shoulder-fired missiles.

An F-35C launches from the carrier USS ‘George Washington’ on Aug. 21, 2016. U.S. Navy photo

Navy’s F-35 unsuitable for carrier operations

One of the most important characteristics the Navy’s variant of the F-35 must have is that it has to be able to operate from aircraft carriers. Otherwise, what is the point of designing a specialized naval version of the plane? But the Navy’s own pilots say the F-35C doesn’t work with the ships.

Gif via Business Insider

The test teams have found that the hook point on the F-35C’s arresting gear is wearing out three times faster than it is supposed to. Though it is supposed to last a minimum of 15 landings, the longest a hook point has lasted in testing is five. The program is reportedly considering redesigning the arresting gear to be more robust.

Another structural issue yet to be resolved on the F-35C involves the wings. During test flights, engineers discovered the ends of the wings were not strong enough to support the weight of the AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile. The F-35C’s wings fold at the ends to save space in the crowded confines of the deck and hangars on aircraft carriers. When the missiles are carried past the wing fold, the weight exceeds structural limits when the plane maneuvers hard and during landings.

F-35As at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. U.S. Air Force photo

The only thing stealthy about the F-35 — the price tag

Much has been said since the election about further F-35 purchases and affordability. President Donald Trump questioned the program’s value in a series of tweets before the inauguration, but hopes that the program would be dramatically altered were dashed when he declared he had convinced Lockheed Martin to shave $600 million from the price of the latest batch of F-35s.

And there still remains the cost of actually operating the F-35 fleet. DoD has estimated that all training and operational operations over the 50-year life of the program — assuming a 30-year life for each aircraft — will be $1 trillion, making the cost to buy and operate the F-35 at least $1.4 trillion.

The cost just to operate the F-35 is so high because the aircraft is so complex compared to other aircraft. Based on the Air Force’s own numbers, in FY 2016 each F-35 flew an average of 163 hours at $44,026 per flying hour.

Combat effectiveness at risk

In every first-rate air force, turning out superior fighter pilots requires them to fly at least 30 hours a month to hone and improve their combat skills. Here lies the single largest cause of the F-35’s lack of combat effectiveness: because of the plane’s unprecedented complexity and the corresponding reliability and maintenance burdens, pilots simply cannot fly them often enough to get enough real flying hours to develop the combat skills they need.

A crew chief prepares an F-35A for launch during Red Flag 17–1 on Feb. 7, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo

Can the F-35 be where it’s needed, when It’s needed?

Even if, and this is a big IF, the F-35 could perform in combat the way Lockheed Martin says it can — to say nothing of how a competent replacement for the F-16, A-10 and F-18 should perform — the program is still next to worthless if the jets can’t be where they need to be when they are needed.

This means that when several F-35s receive a mission, they can’t go through all the pre-flight processes fast enough to launch on time if anything but a huge amount of planning time is allotted.

The Air Force conducted a major test of the F-35 program when it conducted a deployment demonstration from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho in February and March 2016. This was the service’s first attempt to use an updated version of the ALIS — the ground-based computer system that is supposed to diagnose mechanical problems, order and track replacement parts, and guide maintenance crews through repairs.

Even if the jets can be positioned in enough time to respond to a crisis, problems like lengthy uploading times could keep them on the ground when they are needed in the sky. An aircraft immobilized on the ground is a target, not an asset.

Another time-consuming process involves adding new aircraft to each ALIS standard operating unit. Every time an F-35 is moved from one base to another where ALIS is already up, it must be inducted into that system. It takes 24 hours. Thus, when an F-35 deploys to a new base, an entire day is lost as the data is processed. And only one plane at a time can upload.

An avionics specialist inspects an F-35A before takeoff in Idaho. U.S. Air Force photo

F-35 reliability problems

Even if an F-35 squadron can get to where it is needed, when it is needed, what good is it if it can’t then fly on missions? This is one of the most enduring problems of the F-35 program.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program’s executive officer, speaks at AVALON 2017. U.S. Air Force photo

Officials hiding truth about F-35’s problems and delays from taxpayers

When Lockheed Martin first won the contract 17 years ago, the F-35 was expected to begin operational testing in 2008. Once they failed to meet that, 2017 was supposed to be the big year for the start of the combat testing process. We now know that this process will almost certainly be delayed until 2019 … and possibly 2020.

“would likely result in failures in IOT&E causing the need for additional follow-on operational testing, and, most importantly, deliver Block 3F to the field with severe shortfalls in capability — capability that the Department must have if the F-35 is ever needed in combat against current threats.”

The program office appears to be dragging its feet with regards to testing many of the capabilities that supposedly make the F-35 so indispensable.

Not only has the Joint Program Office failed to follow the operational testing plan it agreed to, it has failed to fund and test the equipment essential to conduct the tests. This includes no funding for flight-testing the Data Acquisition Recording and Telemetry pod, an instrument mounted to the F-35 that is used to simulate the aircraft’s weapons.

This is essential for reporting and analyzing the results of each simulated weapons firing. There can be no such tests until the pod is cleared for function and safety in conditions that the plane will fly during the engagement and weapons testing.

A Marine F-35 pilot. U.S. Marine Corps photo

Moving forward

The DOT&E’s latest report is yet more proof that the F-35 program will continue to be a massive drain on time and resources for years to come, and will provide our armed forces with a second-rate combat aircraft less able to perform its missions than the “legacy” aircraft it is meant to replace. The men and women who take to the skies to defend the nation deserve something better.

Conclusion

The F-35 program office has reached a crucial decision point. Bold action is required now to salvage something from the national disaster that is the Joint Strike Fighter.

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