F-35 testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements

Last month the Air Force declared its variant “ready for combat,” and most press reports lauded this as a signal that the program had turned a corner. But a memo issued from the Pentagon’s top testing official, based largely upon the Air Force’s own test data, showed that the declaration was wildly premature.

Michael Gilmore’s latest memorandum is damning. The F-35 program has derailed to the point where it “is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion.”

The 16-page memo, first reported by Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg and then by others, details just how troubled this program is — years behind schedule and failing to deliver even the most basic capabilities taxpayers, and the men and women who will entrust their lives to it, have been told to expect.

The Pentagon’s top testing office warns that the F-35 is in no way ready for combat since it is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded threats.”

As it stands now, the F-35 would need to run away from combat and have other planes come to its rescue, since it “will need support to locate and avoid modern threats, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage available (i.e., two bombs and two air-to-air missiles).”

In several instances, the memo rated the F-35A less capable than the aircraft we already have. …

The Air Force’s current configuration can only carry two long range air-to-air missiles (but no dogfighting short-range heat-seeking missiles) and two bombs to attack targets on the ground. This very limited weapons load-out is the result of ongoing software deficiencies, not of any potential (though untested) ability of the plane to carry more types of weapons.

Larger numbers of weapons would have to be carried externally, however, which compromises the aircraft’s range and stealth. …

Another of the F-35’s basic shortcomings is the lack of a usable cannon. The Block 3i aircraft lacks the ability to employ the cannon because the software needed for it is a Block 3F development and has yet to be completed. This issue has been reported many times before.

Now we learn that there are doubts that the most recent version of the plane’s complicated helmet, which is the only way to aim the cannon, will be accurate enough to reliably hit air-to-air or ground targets.

In order to keep the F-35A stealthy, the internal cannon sits behind a small door that opens when the cannon is fired. The Air Force proudly released a video of the first time an F-35A test fired its cannon in flight. Now we know that the simple action of opening the small door causes the plane to turn slightly because of the door’s drag, possibly enough to cause the cannon to miss.

The DOT&E memo reports that these door-induced aiming errors “exceed accuracy specifications” which will make it quite difficult for pilots to hit targets. And since the Air Force’s F-35 only holds 181 rounds — as opposed to 511 for the F-16 and 1,100 for the A-10 — every bullet will count. …

As the DOT&E memorandum says clearly, “The F-35A in the Block 3i configuration has numerous limitations which make it less effective overall at CAS (close air support) than most currently-fielded fighter aircraft like the F-15E, F-16, F-18 and A-10.”

As mentioned earlier, the F-35A, now declared “Initially Operationally Capable,” can only carry two bombs, both of which are too big to be safely used near friendly troops. And even if these bombs could be used in CAS, the plane has to immediately fly back to its base to reload after only one pass over an enemy formation. …

But that presupposes the F-35 will actually be able to stay over the battlefield long enough to be on hand to drop its bombs or fire its cannon exactly when needed. The F-35 is a notorious gas-guzzler that relies heavily on aerial tankers to stay on station for any length of time to be useful for the ground troops.

According to the memorandum, “the F-35 has high fuel burn rates and slow air refueling rates that extend air refueling times and decreases overall on-station time.” …

That’s what it’s supposed to do anyway. As it turns out, the F-35s have difficulty managing and fusing their own data, let alone that of their wingmen or surveillance assets further away.

Test pilots have reported their F-35s are creating false multiple tracks when all of their sensors are turned on. For example, when a radar and an infrared sensor detects the same enemy plane, the two sensors display it on the helmet-mounted sight as two enemy planes. The same thing happens when two or more sensors detect the same ground target. …

It is bad enough that each individual F-35 computer struggles to create a clear picture of what is going on in the battlespace for the pilot. But the false target problem is compounded when multiple F-35s try to share data through what is called the Multi-Aircraft Data Link.

What has been described as one of the F-35’s greatest advantages has yet to live up to expectations — and, to the contrary, has been increasing the pilot’s workload. …

The Government Accountability Office has already estimated it will cost $1.7 billion to upgrade planes bought early in the program just to fix the deficiencies so far identified in development testing. These fix-costs will certainly rise as the services continue buying new F-35s and as the more stressful operational testing gets started in the next few years.

There are 175 F-35s operational worldwide.

In 2017, the Pentagon will get 80 new F-35s plus 100 more in 2018. That’s 355 F-35s being delivered that can’t go into combat and will have to go back to the depot for major rebuilds when developmental and operational testing has discovered and then designed all the fixes required (and then confirmation-tested those fixes to make sure they actually fix the problem).

Operational testing and evaluation likely can’t be completed any sooner than fall 2021, and that means those 355 F-35s will be non-combat-capable until at least 2023 and more likely 2024 or 2025. In other words, those 355 (plus lots more delivered after 2018) can’t go to war for another seven to nine years.

The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat