To hear Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon tell it, the myriad problems with the F-35 combat aircraft are all behind us, and it is time to dramatically ramp up production of the plane. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plane continues to have basic problems with engine performance, software development, operating costs, maintenance, and reliability that suggest the Pentagon and the military services should proceed with caution.
If the F-35 isn’t ready for prime time, what’s the rush? The answer can be summed up in one word: politics. The decision to approve the Marines’ version of the plane for Initial Operating Capability (IOC) before the end of this year and the recent proposal to fund over 450 planes in the next several years are designed to make the F-35 program “too big to fail.” Once production reaches a certain tipping point, it will become even harder for members of Congress, independent experts, or taxpayers to slow down or exert control over the program.
What needs to be fixed before the F-35 is determined to be adequate to join the active force? Let’s start with the engine. On June 23 of last year an F-35’s engine caught on fire while the plane was taxiing on the runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Now, nearly a year later, a new report from the Air Force’s Accident Investigation Board attributed the fire to a catastrophic failure of the engine. So far, no long-term solution has been found to the problems identified by the accident investigation board. An April report by the Government Accountability Office has described the reliability of the engine as “very poor (less than half of what it should be).”
Problems have also plagued the plane’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which is needed to keep the F-35 up and running. As Mandy Smithberger of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight puts it, “ALIS is the core to making sure the F-35 functions.” A report last year by the Pentagon’s independent testing office noted that the system had been “fielded with deficiencies.” In April, F-35 maintainers told members of the House Armed Services committee that 80 percent of the problems identified by ALIS were “false positives.” In addition, as Smithberger has noted, the rush to deployment means that there will be no careful assessment of how changes in ALIS affect other aspects of the aircraft’s performance.
There have also been serious problems with the helmet that is supposed to serve as an F-35 pilot’s eyes in the sky. Until the helmet is working to full capacity, the ability of an F-35 to drop bombs accurately or recognize enemy fighters will be impaired. And in April, the Pentagon’s office of independent testing noted that in the event of a failure of the helmet, a pilot would not be able to see what is happening below or behind the plane.
Declaring planes ready before they can actually meet basic performance standards is not a responsible approach to fielding an aircraft. Down the road, many of the problems that have yet to be resolved will require expensive retrofits of planes already in the force.
The specific performance issues cited above don’t address a more fundamental problem with the F-35. The program is grounded in a basic conceptual flaw. Expecting variants of the same aircraft to serve as a fighter, a bomber, a close air support aircraft, and a plane that can land on Navy carriers and do vertical take off and landing for the Marines has resulted in design compromises that means it does none of these things as well as it should, given its immense cost.
Current plans call for an average expenditure of over $12 billion per year for procurement of the F-35 through 2038, a figure that will be unsustainable unless other proposed programs like a new tanker, a new bomber, and a new generation of more capable unmanned aerial vehicles are substantially scaled back.
Unless further, realistic testing can demonstrate that the F-35 can adequately perform all of its proposed missions, it’s not worth the cost. The Pentagon should slow down and make sure it knows what it’s getting before it spends tens of billions of additional taxpayer dollars on the F-35. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) should subject the program to close scrutiny during his committee’s proposed strategic review of major acquisition programs.
Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.