July 19, 2019 | International, Aerospace
WASHINGTON — Over the past several years, U.S. Defense Department leaders have gone from citing technical problems as their biggest concern for the F-35 program to bemoaning the expense of buying and sustaining the aircraft.
But the reality may be worse. According to documents exclusively obtained by Defense News, the F-35 continues to be marred by flaws and glitches that, if left unfixed, could create risks to pilot safety and call into question the fighter jet’s ability to accomplish key parts of its mission:
F-35B and F-35C pilots, compelled to observe limitations on airspeed to avoid damage to the F-35’s airframe or stealth coating. Cockpit pressure spikes that cause “excruciating” ear and sinus pain. Issues with the helmet-mounted display and night vision camera that contribute to the difficulty of landing the F-35C on an aircraft carrier.
These are some of the problems with the jet that the documents describe as category 1 deficiencies — the designation given to major flaws that impact safety or mission effectiveness.
Thirteen of the most serious flaws are described in detail, including the circumstances associated with each issue, how it impacts F-35 operations and the Defense Department’s plans to ameliorate it.
All but a couple of these problems have escaped intense scrutiny by Congress and the media. A few others have been briefly alluded to in reports by government watchdog groups.
But the majority of these problems have not been publicly disclosed, exposing a lack of transparency about the limitations of the Defense Department’s most expensive and high-profile weapons system.
These problems impact far more operators than the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy customer base. Eleven countries — Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom — have all selected the aircraft as their future fighter of choice, and nine partner nations have contributed funds to the development of the F-35.
Taken together, these documents provide evidence that the F-35 program is still grappling with serious technical problems, even as it finds itself in a key transitional moment.
And the clock is ticking. By the end of 2019, Defense Department leaders are set to make a critical decision on whether to shut the door on the F-35’s development stage and move forward with full-rate production. During this period, the yearly production rate will skyrocket from the 91 jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin in 2018 to upward of 160 by 2023.
Generally speaking, the department’s policy calls for all deficiencies to be closed before full-rate production starts. This is meant to cut down on expensive retrofits needed to bring existing planes to standard.
The F-35 Joint Program Office appears to be making fast progress, but not all problems will be solved before the full-rate production decision, said Vice Adm. Mat Winter, the Defense Department’s F-35 program executive.
“None of them, right now, are against any of the design, any of the hardware or any of the manufacturing of the aircraft, which is what the full-rate production decision is for,” he told Defense News in an interview. “There are no discrepancies that put at risk a decision of the department to approve us to go into full-rate production.”
Nine out of 13 problems will likely either be corrected or downgraded to category 2 status before the Pentagon determines whether to start full-rate production, and two will be adjudicated in future software builds, Winter said.
However, the F-35 program office has no intention of correcting two of the problems addressed in the documents, with the department opting to accept additional risk.
Winter maintains that none of the issues represent any serious or catastrophic risk to pilots, the mission or the F-35 airframe. After being contacted by Defense News, the program office created two designations of category 1 problems to highlight the difference between issues that would qualify as an emergency and others that are more minor in nature.
“CAT 1-As are loss of life, potential loss of life, loss of material aircraft. Those have to be adjudicated, have to be corrected within hours, days. We have no CAT 1-A deficiencies,” Winter said.
Instead, the deficiencies on the books all fall under category 1B, which represents problems “that have a mission impact with a current workaround that’s acceptable to the war fighter with the knowledge that we will be able to correct that deficiency at some future time,” Winter added.
Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for the F-35 program, said currently fielded F-35s are meeting or exceeding performance specifications.
“These issues are important to address, and each is well understood, resolved or on a path to resolution," he said. "We’ve worked collaboratively with our customers, and we are fully confident in the F-35’s performance and the solutions in place to address each of the items identified.”
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