Last month, the United States Navy declared that the carrier-based variant of Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter, known as the F-35C, was ready to commence combat operations. Now, a new report from the non-profit, bipartisan Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says that decision contradicts the Navy’s own data regarding the platform.
According to POGO, “The Navy is pushing ahead with the aircraft in spite of evidence that it is not ready for combat and could therefore put at risk missions, as well as the troops who depend on it to get to the fight.”
The report doesn’t get any rosier from there, even going so far as to point out seemingly intentional omissions from the Pentagon’s annual operational testing report for fiscal year 2018—a particularly damning assertion seeing as that report does not paint the F-35 program in the most positive light, raising some questions about the overall program’s readiness rates and some ongoing issues with the aircraft themselves.
For as much as the 2018 report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) reveals about the F-35’s lack of progress in nearly every essential area, it is markedly less transparent than previous reports. It provides no updates on the crippling deficiencies highlighted in previous years, reports far fewer findings critical of the program than earlier reports, and contains almost no quantitative results on the F-35’s most urgent problems. The report omits any mention of the program’s fully mission capable rate—let alone the Navy version’s—which is the most significant measure of whether a fighter force is ready to show up for combat.”
It goes on to identify a number of specific areas where the F-35 program continues to struggle according to their analysis, and if their report is accurate, these issues raise some serious questions about how combat ready the F-35C truly is. According to POGO, the platform has seen “little or no improvement” in the realm of readiness, availability, or reliability in recent years despite consistent efforts to address these issues, which they assess will dramatically reduce the number of F-35Cs available for combat operations.
“The F-35B’s fully mission capable rate fell from 23 percent in October 2017 to 12.9 percent in June 2018, while the F-35C plummeted from 12 percent in October 2016 to 0 percent in December 2017, then remained in the single digits through 2018,” the report reads.
Durability testing has produced cracks in airframes and the subsequent repairs have dramatically reduced the projected lifespans of these aircraft. Some test planes are now expected to be sent to the boneyard before they can complete their 8,000 hour life-expectancy tests. That means these airframes would be retired more than 44 years earlier than projected.
Concerns about the F-35’s network systems also pervade the report, with some identified issues specific to malfunction and reliability concerns and still more tied to problems with cybersecurity.
“As in previous years, cybersecurity testing shows that many previously confirmed F-35 vulnerabilities have not been fixed, meaning that enemy hackers could potentially shut down the ALIS network, steal secret data from the network and onboard computers, and perhaps prevent the F-35 from flying or from accomplishing its missions.”
The report closes with a rather damning declaration regarding the F-35’s timeline, budget, and performance, calling on the Department of Defense (DOD) to maintain strict expectations of the F-35’s progress regardless of political pressure. That pressure, it’s worth noting, is a real concern. With F-35 production spread out over 46 different states, lawmakers are particularly defensive of the F-35 program as a source of employment and revenue for their respective constituents.
Lockheed Martin responded to POGO’s report in a statement that, for the most part, offered a fairly vague idea of how these problems are being addressed. It did not counter any specific points, but rather listed efforts that are already underway to address longstanding concerns.
As more aircraft enter service, we are optimizing resources across the fleet and leveraging data across hundreds of thousands of flight hours to identify and invest in the biggest drivers to improve readiness and reduce costs.
For example, we are improving supply availability and turnaround time; further enhancing system reliability and maintainability; implementing advanced analytics tools; enhancing [the Autonomic Logistics Information System]; conducting supply chain competitions; buying parts in bulk up front; accelerating modifications of earlier aircraft; and supporting the stand-up of regional warehouses and customer repair depots.”
They went on to say that mission-capable rates were rising as sustainment processes mature and that they are “confident in meeting the DOD’s readiness and cost goals.”