The Marine Corps declared last week that its version of the F-35 has reached Initial Operating Capability (IOC), and is therefore ready for limited combat missions. Advocates of the plane are claiming that its cost and performance problems are behind it, and that it is time to move full speed ahead on the program. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s not even clear that the F-35 can be kept in the air long enough to serve as a reliable asset. A recent analysis by the Pentagon’s office of independent testing found that the Marine version of the plane was available for flight only about half the time in a recent shipboard trial. And the plane as currently configured doesn’t even have a working gun.
A recently released analysis by an F-35 test pilot suggests that the Air Force’s version of the aircraft is also far from ready for prime time. In a mock battle with a current generation F-16 fighter, the F-35 lost decisively. It’s own cannon could not hit an F-16, and it was too slow to maneuver out of the way of the F-16’s gun. The high tech helmet that is supposed to give an F-35 pilot superior situational awareness was judged to be too large to allow the pilot to adequately see what was happening behind the aircraft.
The F-35’s defenders in the Pentagon and the Air Force were quick to argue that the January test did not provide a fair assessment of the F-35’s capabilities because the plane lacked its full mission software package and didn’t have its full stealth coating. But if anything, these points simply reinforce the point that the F-35 is not ready for combat. Until tests can be conducted with these critical components in place, the Pentagon should not be buying and producing large numbers of F-35s.
The second line of defense for the F-35 is that it is not expected to be involved in close-in combat because its sensors and weapon systems will allow it to destroy an adversary’s planes even before they are within visual range. But a recent analysis by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) cites a RAND study of the history of air warfare that found that only 4% of the “kills” of enemy aircraft since the 1950s were achieved beyond visual range. And as the tests cited above have shown, the F-35 is not yet capable of prevailing at close-range. Given that the F-35 is also inferior to the existing A-10 in providing close air support to troops on the ground, and that it can carry only a limited bomb load without compromising its stealth capabilities, the real question is what will the F-35 be good at?
The most plausible answer provided by the plane’s advocates is that it will serve as the nerve center of a combined effort including other air and naval assets. In many cases it will merely identify targets that will be destroyed by existing planes like the F/A-18. At $1.4 trillion over its lifetime, that’s an awfully expensive sensor system. And its not clear that this limited mission requires the purchase of over 2,400 F-35s, as is currently planned.
Along with continuing problems with its dauntingly complex software, the biggest problem with the F-35 is maintenance. According to POGO’s recent analysis, F-35s based at Luke Air Force Base were able to fly only 5 to 7 missions per month, only about one-sixth of the number required to train a top-flight pilot. Pilots at Nellis Air Force base fared even worse, managing just 4 to 5 sorties per month.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently noted that “the biggest lesson I learned from the F-35 is that never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re still building it.” But that is precisely what the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines are doing by certifying one version of the plane for combat while ramping up production rate on the others, even as serious problems persist.
So what’s the solution? The Pentagon should fill out the force with newly produced, upgraded F-18s and F-16s as needed, while building a limited number of F-35s. This approach would provide a better defense, and it would also be a better deal for taxpayers.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.