It still goes without saying that the United States has been the leader of technologically innovated military hardware. The Russian Federation has recently surpassed it in the very important matter of hypersonic weapons, but the US has had the best and most advanced aircraft in the skies for many years now.
Except that there is a problem.
The F-22 is grotesquely expensive (more on that in another piece) and the F-35, the go-to standard for the American forces, is also grossly expensive and half of the present fleet doesn’t even work. According to a report from Breakingdefense.com, the new Director (of) Operational Test and Evaluation, Robert Behler, says this about the F-35 Joint Strike fighter in his office’s latest annual report:
- The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains below requirements and is dependent on work-arounds that would not meet Service expectations in combat situations (emphasis added). Over the previous year, most suitability metrics have remained nearly the same, or have moved only within narrow bands which are insufficient to characterize a change in performance.
- Overall fleet-wide monthly availability rates remain around 50 percent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of new aircraft. One notable trend is an increase in the percentage of the fleet that cannot fly while awaiting replacement parts – indicated by the Not Mission Capable due to Supplyrate.
- Reliability growth has stagnated. It is unlikely that the program will achieve the JSF ORD (Operational Requirements Document) threshold requirements at maturity for the majority of reliability metrics. Most notably, the program is not likely to achieve the Mean Flight Hours Between Critical Failuresthreshold without redesigning aircraft components (emphasis added).
This is a damning problem, made more so because this fighter is expected to make up the bulk of the US Air Defense forces over time, with some 2,400 aircraft in procurement for the Americans, and a total of 3,100 for all nine major partner nations. The project stood at US $163 billion over budget in 2014! But the program has also been termed ‘too big to kill’, so the member nations keep buying these.
The biggest problems are presently these:
- The onboard computer systems are susceptible to cyber attack, so much so that the F-35 program is expected to conduct testing of aircraft operations without the availability of its Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, basically the same thing for the F-35 as the computer in new cars that tells you when you need maintenance.
- The tires for the F-35B variant are problematic. At present the average tire life is below 10 landings, far below the conventional requirement for 25 full-stop landings. The problem lies in finding a tire that deals with the heavier weight of this variant, but which can withstand vertical landings and still be lightweight enough for the existing aircraft structure.
- The Air-refueling probe tips break too often, resulting in limitations on air refueling for squadrons of these planes.
- the F-35A gun consistently misses ground targets in strafe testing, and the program is still troubleshooting this problem. (The B and C variants are better, but still show an aiming bias that is the same as the A, which is ‘long and to the right.’)
- the F-35B is supposed to be able to last 8,000 hours in use. The plane used for testing for this endurance fell to pieces, and has to be replaced.
The current fleet availability listing for the major US bases ranges between a low of 35% available for the F-35B (7 aircraft) at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and 70% for the Hill AFB’s F-35A’s (27 aircraft).
The problems are having an effect on both production and sale of this airplane. Germany has prioritized the Eurofighter Typhoon ahead of the F-35, relegating it to a ‘secondary option.’ Locally, the Program Office’s patience is wearing out because of Lockheed Martin’s inability to reduce the plane costs despite promising to do so. (Each plane presently costs between US $94 and $110 million. – the similarly-named Russian Su-35 costs $40 to $65 million, still expensive, but their planes all work.)
The concept of this fighter’s use is actually very interesting. Since the plane is stealthy, it is very difficult to spot on radar, and it possesses a beyond-line-of-sight sensor capability, so it theoretically needs not encounter enemy aircraft at close range, since it can see them well over 100 miles away. The plane’s design is focused around direct conflict avoidance, and viewed in this context, some of its performance deficiencies (low top speed, low range, low agility) are compensated for by its ability to remain unseen.
The biggest criticism of why the program is faring so badly seems to center on Lockheed’s being allowed to design, test and produce this aircraft at the same time, without the usual process of testing, identifying and fixing defects prior to firing up its production line.
By contrast, the Su-35 (paired here simply because the number 35 is the same for both aircraft) costs way less, has strong reliability, is much faster and longer-range. The video below gives an interesting head-to-head comparison of these two incredible aircraft.