As Air Force senior officials prepare for posture hearings this week with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the subject of modernization promises to be front and center. Core to that discussion will almost certainly be the limping, $1.4 trillion F-35 program.
Belying the conventional wisdom, which touts the Joint Strike Fighter as something of a futuristic aerial Swiss army knife, the F-35 is proving to be little more than a dull, bent, and unwieldy butter knife — a jack of no trades, master of only one: burning through taxpayer dollars at a rate that would embarrass Croesus.
The bloat of the program is now placing increasingly excruciating pressure on the entire Air Force budget, this despite the F-35 being years from genuine operational capability. The pressure it is exerting is leading to a parade of rhetorical and actual absurdity of the variety that should, under normal circumstances, alarm Congress and anyone else concerned about the future of American defense.
Take, for example, a recent account filed by the nonprofit Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which exposes damning conclusions in the latest F-35 report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E).
Among the crippling problems highlighted in the DOT&E report:
- Software glitches disrupting enemy identification and weapon employment.
- A redesigned fuel tank that continues to demonstrate unacceptable vulnerability to explosion from lightning or enemy fire.
- Departures from controlled flight during high-speed maneuvering, a six-year-old problem that apparently will not be solved without sacrificing stealth or combat capability.
- Helmet issues fundamentally degrading pilot situational awareness.
- Engine problems so severe they’re limiting sortie rates, impeding the test schedule, and generating risky operational decisions.
- Nightmarish maintainability issues leading to over-reliance on contractor support.
As these and other issues mount, the F-35 Joint Program Office, led by Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, is apparently employing categorization and accounting schemes that overstate reliability and maintenance rates, masking the true nature of the crisis gripping the program.
If you find this summary alarming, consider a valium or two before digesting the full POGO article (“Not Ready for Prime Time”) and the detailed DOT&E report, both of which are worthy of your attention by virtue of their focus on a subject that will carry an eventual cost equivalent to the combined GDPs of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
To lend additional texture to these accounts, I was able to get access to the observations of a current F-35 pilot. This person’s identity will not be shared here on the risk that s/he would be subject to swift and certain reprisal for speaking honestly about the airframe affectionately known as the “Super Guppy” in fighter pilot circles.
Consider how these insights, if they could be openly shared with Congress and the public, might re-shape and re-direct discussion of the Pentagon’s most dubious acquisition effort.
On the unsafe fuel tank:
“We still have a 25NM restriction for lightning. This is due to the lightning protection that should have been installed but wasn’t to save weight for the B model. There is a supposed fix at the depot level, but we just found out that even after it gets this mod, it still won’t be certified.”
Unmentioned is that the self-sealing fuel bladder originally envisioned for the F-35 was never installed due to weight issues which trace to design flaws that should have been corrected before production was ever allowed to begin (failure to limit production before threshold testing has been called “acquisition malpractice” by the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer). The practical impact is that the Air Force’s future tactical fleet will be overwhelmingly comprised of an aircraft that can be brought down with a well-placed rifle shot, if ever its masters were to allow it close enough to an adversary to risk being engaged at all.
On high-speed “wing drop” and uncontrolled flight issues:
“A high [Angle of Attack]/[Basic Fighter Maneuvering] test occurred a few weeks ago. It went poorly and [the] jet did not do well.”
This is a foundational disability that remains uncorrected after six years and multiple attempted fixes. Despite this fatal flaw, the Air Force continues to insist the F-35 will be operationally capable next year. An even modestly responsible service leadership would be delaying operational projections until a path to the basic performance required of a fighter could be envisioned without recourse to hallucinogenic drugs.
On engine problems:
“We are in the middle of replacing both the left and right nacelle fuel vent tubes with stiffeners. Once this is complete, we have to execute an engine rub-in and fly the jet through [a Functional Check Flight] profile, after that we will be restricted to 7g and 20 [degrees Angle of Attack]. That [makes the aircraft] useless. All of the F-35s on every flight line need a new engine part to be installed. It might start this summer. What I don’t like about this is that barely any testing will be done to these engines [before we’re expected to fly with them].”
This represents a basic violation of virtually every development protocol ever written. When there are engine problems that limit g-loading and maneuverability for a high-performance fighter — especially one powered by a single motor — a robust test regime must accompany significant powerplant modifications before general fleet operations can commence or continue. Abandonment of this practice represents huge risk, and is a red flag that the program is desperate to meet politically imposed deadlines and lacks appropriate oversight.
On helmet failures:
“Just a word on the helmet and seat. The helmet is so big, and the seat is so tall and wide at the top, that the ability to check 6 and even really 5-7 o’clock is miserable and nearly impossible. [Bottom line]: don’t get in a turning fight with anyone.”
What this pilot is saying is that no one bothered to build the F-35 in a way that allows the pilot to see behind him. This is breathtakingly stupid. The whole point of aerial combat at visual range is to get behind the adversary and kill him with a gun or short-range missile that tracks on the heat energy emitted by his exhaust. Countering this objective involves a broad range of tactics, techniques, and procedures, basic among them the ability to visually acquire and assess the movement of an adversary. This is peculiarly important at the moment he is maneuvering into position to kill you.
The issue with the F-35 helmet indicates one of three things. Either program managers (a) wanted to motivate F-35 pilots to never allow an enemy behind them, (b) wanted any F-35 pilot failing to meet this standard to die in a ball of flame, or (c) were grossly incompetent. Any of these three possibilities would ordinarily instigate a “back to the drawing board” situation, notwithstanding breathless counterclaims of on-time coolness by any and every Air Force general whose plastic-ring-adorned drawstring is sufficiently yanked. When it comes to the F-35, the drawing board was cremated long ago. The ashes were used to fertilize the money tree where F-35 funding flourishes in defiance of the laws of nature.
But actually, this flaw might be indicative of a fourth possibility: the Air Force believes visual dogfighting is a dead business. This would echo of the unfolding Close Air Support (CAS) debate, with the service unilaterally dismantling — absent any semblance of debate — its ability to conduct a significant segment of a mission core to airpower expectations across the joint force. If the Air Force is indeed singularly deciding that the F-35 will never need the fangs to contend with enemy fighters within arm’s length, this is something that must be surfaced and exhaustively debated. It represents a tectonic shift in airpower logic, and has almost certainly not been well thought out.
On software issues:
“There are serious problems with determining if the target being shot is actually the target or a spoofer track.”
This is pilot speak for “I have no idea what I’m lobbing a missile at.” Sounds pretty bad, right? Well, it’s even worse than it seems. Beyond the horrific risk of shooting the wrong object or wasting ammunition on an imaginary target, there is the reality that trying to make such a sketchy determination while moving at high subsonic speed, in enemy airspace, surrounded by threats, while likely running low on fuel, obsessively babysitting the instruments attached to your lone engine, and lacking confidence in your own weapon system…is a ridiculous fool’s errand we should never demand of our warfighters.
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With all of these problems, surely Congress is poised to halt and re-evaluate this program, right? Wrong. They’re funding more. They’re accelerating purchases despite frequent public displays of hand-wringing to the contrary.
But even with Congress asking for an accelerated purchase, the Air Force is actuating the acquisition speedbrake, right? Wrong. It’s liquidating airmen and mothballing other missions to free up the budget tradespace to keep this nag limping forth.
The most visible and controversial trade-off involves the A-10, which continues to deliver molten metal to enemy foreheads even as the Air Force pulls the budgetary rug from beneath it. At a recent “summit” allegedly discussing the future of air support to ground operations, participants privately agreed that retirement of the A-10 would mean “lowering the bar” in the CAS mission. While this private finding has not been publicly acknowledged, the Air Force has tacitly admitted it is willing to short CAS by pretending fixed-coordinate bombing is equivalent to closely coordinated support of maneuvering ground forces.
The F-35 is roughly $4B over budget. The Air Force hopes to save roughly $4B by cashiering the A-10. This is not a coincidence. The A-10 is obviously being retired to facilitate the F-35 departing budgetary orbit.
This is where the concept of moral hazard begins to register. Moral hazard, for the uninitiated, is the idea that unwittingly misplaced incentives can create unintended and adverse behaviors. For example, an insurance policy with no deductible could embolden some drivers to discount the consequences of recklessness, raising the likelihood of costly accidents. Applied to a group of similarly situated actors, such a policy could exact a heavy social and economic toll.
So it is with the bulbously swollen F-35 program. By continuing to lavish limitless cash upon a noticeably failing program, Congress is making failure politically and economically profitable. The predictable result is more failure.
This debacle is, in many ways, a distressing sign of what happens when Congress is no longer the domain of statesmanly adult behavior that puts country first. Congress itself has perverse incentives to set perverse incentives for others. Unfortunately for the country, the first sign that moral hazard has truly captured national defense may be the inability of the Air Force to effectively support it when called upon, having obliterated or bled pale too much of its airpower portfolio to make room for a weapon that has not proven it deserves to be the centerpiece of the world’s greatest Air Force.