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DOD report — F-35 problems will take years to fix

December 13, 2011 (by Eric L. Palmer) - An internal U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) report states that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has multiple complex problems which will take years to fix.

USAF pilot Lt. Col. Dwayne Opella and Lockheed Martin test pilot Mark Ward fly F-35A aircraft AF-6 and AF-7 from Edwards AFB for maturity flight software testing on July 15th, 2011. [Lockheed Martin photo by Tom Reynolds]

An Aviation Week article by Bill Sweetman includes a link to the full report which was marked for official use only “FOUO / U.S. Only”.

Aviation Week cites several of the problems in the report. Of interest is how the F-35 program spins events to make them sound like progress. For instance, it was reported in the media recently that the F-35 reached Mach 1.6 in a test. Few glowing statements were spared. Not reported was that after the flight, the aircraft program was limited to Mach 1 performance because of damage to the horizontal stabilisers and engine thermal protection.

Glowing media reports have also stated that the F-35 helmet and distributed aperture system (DAS) have been working great. The DOD report shows otherwise. It reports that the helmet and DAS problems are so severe that the F-35 will not meet operational requirement document (ORD) goals. The temporary replacement helmet has similar visual problems and will not (and never was) able to use DAS capability. Also, an extended range of buffet in the aircraft's flight performance limits the ability to take advantage of visual cueing symbology displayed in the helmet.

Multiple thermal issues, which were reported by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) and other sources some years ago, have made little progress in being fixed. Using the fuel system as a heat-sink, one of the core beliefs in resolving thermal issues, has not been successful. This even includes heat causing the computer-driven main display panels to not function properly. Add to this, the aircraft is yet to be flown in operationally relevant scenarios which will stress thermal management to the maximum. Given the other problems of basic flight with the F-35, expect to hear more about thermal management.

With this, the report states that the aircraft will not be able to perform air-to-air or air or air-to-ground missions.

Pilot training has not started at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida because the aircraft is unsafe to fly. There are restrictions on diving the F-35 because the fuel inerting system (common on aircraft like the F-16) does not have the capacity to make empty portions of the fuel system fire resistant. Also the aircraft has poor resistance to lighting strikes. It cannot be used within 25 miles of lighting conditions. Anyone that has been to Florida knows that this kind of weather is common.

The integrated power pack (IPP)—a critical aircraft system—is significantly unreliable. The IPP was expected to fly on a jet for over 2000 hours before needing to be replaced. Stopping flight test to replace the IPP is now a frequent task. It has taken up to 48 hours of continuous work to change this device.

The report goes on with several more problems of significant mention to do with weight margins that will have a negative affect on range and flight performance. Block 3 software, which was to be completed inside the system design and development phase of the program will not be finished until sometime around 2016; assuming no more delays. Also, the tail hook for the carrier F-35C variant is in the wrong place on the aircraft. A critical design review in 2007 certified the F-35C as good to go.

Realistically the original Joint Strike Fighter partner nations (or any other potential customer) has not much more to look forward to than a flying question mark. System complexity and over-optimism have thrown the program into confusion. Maybe sometime in the 2020's, an intelligent purchaser of military aircraft can consider evaluating the F-35. Until then, any report of F-35 program progress will require verification. Press releases from the marking pukes don't count.