F-35 Hit With Cluster Bomb Of Damning Reports As Pentagon Eyes Full Rate Production

Some Joint Strike Fighter variants are hard to control during certain combat maneuvers, risk major damage during supersonic flight, and much more.

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Less than 48 hours after Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon reached a handshake agreement on the purchase of a whopping 480 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, an absolute cluster bomb of stories has dropped detailing significant technical issues with the jets. The revelations cover ongoing problems for all three F-35 variants, including performance limitations, troubles when operating in very hot or very cold weather, dangerous cockpit pressure incidents, faults in the helmet-mounted display, serious safety concerns in the event of a blown tire, and much more. The new details underscore the Joint Strike Fighter's ongoing troubles as the Pentagon's central Joint Program Office, or JPO, seeks to move the aircraft out of its developmental phase for good, as well as highlighting a worrying, but long-standing lack of transparency about the state of the program.

Defense News dropped the bundle of stories near-simultaneously on June 12, 2019—all of which are well worth reading in full—based on documents that it had obtained detailing 13 remaining Category 1 deficiencies across the F-35A, B, and C variants as of late 2018. These reviews of the issues were reportedly marked unclassified, but "For Official Use Only." Not all of the problems in these reports were previously unknown, but a number of them had never become public and the details about the known issues add important additional context. In total, this also represents what is perhaps the first full public accounting of so-called unclassified "CAT 1" problems across the Joint Strike Fighter program at any one point in time. Keep in mind there are also throngs of other deficiencies still in play that are serious, but don't rise to the CAT-1 level, at least not at this time.

“CAT 1-As are loss of life, potential loss of life, loss of material aircraft," U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, the current head of the F-35 JPO, said in defense of the program in an interview with Defense News. "Those have to be adjudicated, have to be corrected within hours, days. We have no CAT 1-A deficiencies."

The remaining problems are "CAT 1-B," which “have a mission impact with a current workaround that’s acceptable to the warfighter with the knowledge that we will be able to correct that deficiency at some future time,” Winter continued. The F-35 program's top officer said that nine of the 13 deficiencies Defense News reported on are on track to get fixed before the Pentagon makes a decision to proceed with full-rate production of the jets, set to occur later this year, while software fixes down the road are expected to solve two more. 

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From left to right, the F-35C, the F-35B, and the F-35A.

The F-35 JPO will not worry at all about resolving the remaining two problems, "opting to accept additional risk," according to Defense News. Winters also revealed that testing since December 2018 has uncovered four additional, unspecified Category 1 issues that also will not get resolved before the production decision.

Here are the known issues, as well as the course of action the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin are taking to address them:

  • The F-35B and F-35C are difficult to control after performing so-called "high angle of attack" maneuvers, as one might expect to see in a dogfight, resulting in unexpected changes in pitch and "erratic" yawing and rolling motions.
    • Lockheed Martin plans to implement a software fix for the flight control system.
  • The F-35B and F-35C cannot spend any appreciable time flying with their afterburners engaged at speeds above Mach 1.2 without risking damage to their critical stealth coating or horizontal stabilizers. 
    • The U.S. military has imposed restrictions on high-speed flight, but Lockheed Martin and the F-35 JPO claim the problem only occurs in extreme cases and will not pursue fixes to completely eliminate the problem.
  • The F-35B may not be able to provide sufficient power during vertical landings in temperatures over 90 degrees, which could result in hard landings or complete loss of the aircraft. 
    • Lockheed Martin plans to implement software fixes to ensure optimal performance in hot conditions.
  • F-35As experienced erroneous warnings that a critical battery had failed in extremely cold temperatures
    • Another software tweak, along with a change to the battery heater control system, will fix this issue.
  • If a tire blows on the F-35A and F-35B, debris could destroy the hydraulic brake lines on the aircraft, making it extremely difficult to bring the aircraft to a stop. 
    • Lockheed Martin fixed this issue on the F-35C, but there are no plans to do so on the F-35A and B for unclear reasons.
  • Unexpected surges in cabin pressure have caused F-35 pilots to experience serious ear and sinus pain. 
    • Lockheed Martin has developed a modified pressure regulation system to address this issue.
  • The helmet-mounted display continues to show a so-called "green-glow" in certain conditions during nighttime operations, which can be especially dangerous for F-35B and F-35C pilots landing on aircraft carriers and amphibious ships. 
  • The video feed into the helmet from the F-35's Distributed Aperture System is cluttered with horizontal striations in certain nighttime conditions that dangerously obscure the horizon line. 
    • Lockheed Martin says the new Generation III helmet will also fix this problem.
  • The F-35's AN/APG-81 radar has a limited field of view in sea search mode.
    • The F-35 JPO says a software fix is in development, but may not be ready before 2024.
  • The F-35's cloud-based Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) continues to be unreliable in diagnosing problems and in managing spare parts inventories, leading to loss of mission time do to confusing in the maintenance and logistics pipelines.
    • It remains unclear how the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin will proceed on this issue and the U.S. Air Force is already working on an alternative system.
  • The F-35's cloud-based Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) presents an operational security risk for foreign Joint Strike Fighter operators.
    • A firewall called the ALIS Sovereign Data Management system has been available since earlier this year.

One of the most intriguing deficiencies remaining is that the short and vertical takeoff and landing capable F-35B and the aircraft carrier-specific F-35C can be difficult to control following maneuvers involving an angle of attack (AOA) of 20 degrees or more. The deficiency "will cause modal confusion, prevent precise lift vector control, and prevent repeatable air-to-air combat techniques, resulting in mid-air collisions during training, controlled flight into terrain, and aircraft loss during combat engagements with adversary aircraft and missiles," one document warned in no uncertain terms, according to Defense News

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A US Marine Corps F-35B.

The limitations on afterburner flight above Mach 1.2 are also highly concerning and the workarounds that are officially in place now seem all but impossible to realistically implement. F-35Bs cannot fly at Mach 1.2 for more than 80 total seconds throughout the course of a mission before needing to slow down for at least three minutes. At Mach 1.3 or above, the B model risks structural damage after just 40 cumulative seconds. The F-35C does not have a restriction at Mach 1.2, but can't fly for more than 50 cumulative seconds at Mach 1.3 before needing to enter the three-minute cool-down period.

Defense News rightly notes how difficult these requirements would be for a pilot to monitor given that they are not simply linear time restrictions. It seems almost impossible that an aviator would be able to keep track of the total seconds of high-speed flight throughout the course of a mission to know if they need to drop speed for three minutes. Needless to say, the requirement to stop short could come at an inopportune time and might easily get ignored during an intense combat situation. 

But without adhering to these guidelines, there is a danger that areas of the jet's low observable coating would peel off and structural damage would be inflicted to portions of the rear stabilizer. This area also houses key antennas embedded in beneath the F-35's skin. So, we are talking about the possibility of low-observable (stealth) degradation, damage to key components of the jet's sensor system that would keep it from performing key missions, straight up structural damage, and in some circumstances, all three. 

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A pair of US Navy F-35Cs.

According to the report, nearly any of these issues would require the aircraft return to a depot for deep maintenance. The issue is especially concerning as these two models of Joint Strike Fighters will be flying from ships a significant part of the time, which presents its own maintenance and logistics complexities. But if any of this were to occur, even out of necessity to the survival of the jet and its pilot over the battlefield, the aircraft would likely not fly another mission until the ship returned home and it gets fixed or it is flown back to a depot individually during a cruise. Either way, this would cut the availability of the damaged jet significantly if not totally. Availability is already something that all F-35 variant are struggling with at present.  

Above all else, these restrictions limit the tactical options for F-35 pilots over the battlefield. The aircraft is not invisible to radar or infrared sensors, especially from the rear. Running away from a threat or threats is often necessary in air combat, including the need to just get out of a very hostile area as soon as possible for survivability's sake. The F-35 is meant to operate in extremely contested airspace, to begin with. So, limiting the jet's kinetic performance due to such a defect is far from ideal and could even result in losses during combat. 

Though it has reportedly only happened once, so far, the F-35B engine power issue is another very serious and concerning revelation, especially considering that the Marine Corps declared Initial Operational Capability with the jets in 2015. Since then, the Marines have deployed their Joint Strike Fighters to the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and the Western Pacific, all regions where temperatures can easily exceed 90 degrees. The idea that these aircraft may not be able to produce the necessary thrust in vertical landing mode—and in an unpredictable manner—while returning to a ship operating at sea level is a threat to the lives of the pilot and those on the ship, let alone the hardware. 

"We’re not done yet, and the Marine Corps will tell you we’re not done yet until we see the fix in the fleet, because that’s where we are," Vice Admiral Winter told Defense News, acknowledging the issue and that revolving it has been a priority. "That is the only way a STOVL [short takeoff and vertical landing] aircraft lands on an L-class [amphibious] ship, so it’s important."

The tire issue might be largely moot if there wasn't also such an elevated risk of blowouts, although the Defense News reports that the risk of this happening has declined somewhat. Still, the fact that blown tire can mean the instant loss of both hydraulic systems when the aircraft and its pilot absolutely need them most—while taking off and landing—is far from comforting. Why this issue was able to be mitigated in the F-35C and not the B or the A model is also unknown at this time.

Other problems seem either less severe or have been very well established before now. The battery failure error is a minor issue that appears to have been relatively easy to fix. Despite its sea search limitations, the APG-81 has fully met the F-35 JPO's stated requirements. 

The "green glow" problem first emerged in 2017 and the Generation III helmet is the result of efforts to resolve that problem. The problems with ALIS have been especially well documented over the years and the ultimate solution may simply be to abandon it altogether.

"That document looks like growing pains for an aircraft that we tried to do a whole lot to all at once," an unnamed senior naval aviator told Defense News, downplaying the reports. “You’re going to see that if you dig back at what [F/A-18E/F] Super Hornets looked like for the first few years. Go back in the archives and look at [the F-14] Tomcat.”

While it is certainly fair to say that many advanced military aircraft programs experience growing pains over the course of their development, they really don't compare to the F-35—an aircraft that first flew 16 years ago—and its issues on many levels, as well as the critical nature of the program and its gargantuan investment. On top of that, none of those programs operated from the very beginning under the concept of "concurrency," at least in the extreme sense we know it today. Under this notion, the Pentagon deliberately purchased hundreds of Joint Strike Fighters knowing that it would have to implement fixes and modifications as time went on. Pitched a cost-saving move, by the F-35 JPO's own admission, this has in fact driven up costs, led to schedule delays, and will require additional spending as time goes on. Many of the early production jets have very low availability rates and will not be able to be called upon for combat operations. 

On June 10, 2019, Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon reached a handshake deal to buy nearly 480 more F-35s across three future production blocks for a total of approximately $34 billion. This was hailed as a milestone given that it would see the average unit cost for the F-35A model finally drop below $80 million. But many of these aircraft will arrive immediately in need of additional updates, all of which could lead to an increase in real costs down the line. 

This is to say nothing of the costs it will take to upgrade the jets the U.S. military, as well as foreign F-35 program partners, already have. On June 3, 2019, the F-35 JPO announced the delivery of the 400th Joint Strike Fighter, the bulk of which have gone to the U.S. Air Force, Marines, and Navy. This total production, which the Pentagon insists on describing as "low-rate initial production," equates to more aircraft than are in the total Air Force inventories of nine NATO members Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia — combined. It also doesn't take into account the massive unique infrastructure costs incurred by the program which will continue to add up as the aircraft is fielded in greater numbers. 

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Lockheed Martin's F-35 production line in Texas.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon informed Congress that the expected total cost of the F-35 program across its entire lifecycle was at least $22 billion more than previously reported due to the ongoing Block 4 upgrade program. Overall, the U.S. military now expects to spend $1.196 trillion just to operate and maintain its Joint Strike Fighters through 2070.

In addition, the naval aviator's comments, along with the defenses Lockheed Martin and the F-35 JPO offered to Defense News, underscore what is perhaps a larger issue. There has and continues to be a worrisome lack of transparency surrounding the long-troubled F-35 program. There is, at best, a tone-deaf effort to spin the details about the Joint Strike Fighter program and, at worst, deliberate attempts to obfuscate serious continuing issues with the aircraft while playing-up a fantasy narrative of sorts.

Defense News noted that it appeared to be only after they contacted the F-35 JPO for their stories that the office created the "CAT 1-B" definition, establishing a less severe subcategory in what seemed to be an effort to downplay the severity the situation overall. The reports that the outlet obtained reportedly make no such distinction.

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An Air Force F-16C Viper, in the background, flies with an F-35A.

It has repeatedly emerged that Lockheed Martin's and the F-35 JPO's public attitude is almost entirely at odds with their internal candor about the state of the Joint Strike Fighter program and the issues it still faces going forward. The Pentagon's own Inspector General recently cleared Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, of any unethical behavior in relation to the F-35 in no small part based on the argument that harsh criticism of the management and execution of the Joint Strike Fighter program is pervasive in the halls of the Pentagon. 

A briefing that the F-35 JPO gave to then-President-Elect Donald Trump in 2016, which The War Zone obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, only reinforces this view. The slides included comments such as "marked improvement, but not perfect" and "difficult to overcome a troubled past, but program is improving."

This apparently extends to foreign partners, too. Though it was previously known that a number of countries were worried about the security risks that ALIS presented, the documents Defense News obtained say that two unspecified members of the Joint Strike Fighter program outright threatened to drop out over the issue. It is very possible that these countries were Italy and Norway, major participants in the program, who helped pay for the development of the ALIS Sovereign Data Management system.

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A Norwegian F-35A.

None of this is to say that the F-35 program hasn't made positive strides in recent years, but, as Defense News' latest reports show, there is a distinct lack of candor about ongoing issues and what is getting done to tackle them. Regardless of the realities of the F-35, there is absolutely no denying that this policy of being reactive rather than proactive has hurt the public perception of the program.

This is especially baffling because the F-35 is far beyond the point of cancellation. Even significantly reduced purchases aren't really a possibility in the near term. The program is literally too big to fail. In other words, the F-35 is here to stay and there are many good things about the aircraft that are abundantly clear. But considering it has a relatively assured future, it is puzzling why the program hasn't become more open about ongoing issues and has instead kept pushing a somewhat fictional and often anecdotal narrative. 

By the end of 2019, the Pentagon expects to have decided whether or not to approve full-rate production of the F-35, which could see the annual production of the jets nearly double within four years. Before and after that decision gets made, the American public deserves regular, honest accounting of exactly what they have and will be paying for in the future. The program will only be stronger for it. 

Contact the authors: joe@thedrive.com and tyler@thedrive.com