by Roger Näbig (Twitter). He works as a lawyer and freelance journalist in Berlin with a focus on global conflicts, defense, security, military policy, armaments technology, and international law. He also gives lectures on defense policy issues. For a German version of the article, see here.
According to Lockheed Martin’s sales expectations, the F-35 Lightning II should be the most important fighter jet for the US Air Force (USAF), several NATO countries, and their allies over the next few decades. Orders have currently been received from a dozen countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and South Korea. More than 3,300 units could be produced, which could make the fighter jet attractive in terms of further long-term development and price. In terms of price alone, the F-35 has blossomed into a realistic candidate in the Swiss fighter jet evaluation after removing the Saab Gripen E in June 2019. In addition, the F-35 could give Switzerland technological access to another league. However, there are also risks because the technological challenges are more significant than those posed by the remaining 4th generation fighter jets evaluated by Switzerland. Is it worth taking these risks, or is the F-35 a too big challenge for Switzerland?
The F-35 was also under discussion in Germany as part of the Tornado fighter bomber’s successor decision. Both politicians and the renowned think tank “German Council on Foreign Relations” (DGAP) called for the modern F-35A to be purchased for nuclear sharing instead of the aged F/A-18 E/F (also part of the Swiss fighter jet evaluation). A Tornado successor must be able to work efficiently and smoothly with the allies’ combat aircraft. Furthermore, Germany should provide its pilots with the most suitable aircraft. The high probability of success of an operation and permanent aircraft availability are crucial for a credible deterrent, also concerning Germany’s nuclear sharing, which is important for its security policy. However, are the attributes mentioned by the DGAP applicable to the F-35?
In my first article about two years ago, I had already dealt intensively with the F-35. In the light of the current discussion in Switzerland and Germany about the acquisition of the F-35, it is time to take a closer look at the current status of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program in a second, updated article, and to examine in detail whether now the deficiencies that have occurred so far have been eliminated or perhaps new ones have even been discovered. Therefore, I recommend the interested reader to first look at the previous article “F-35: High-tech fighter jet or USD1.5 trillion disaster?” because basic technical information about the F-35 was already covered there.
500 aircraft of the variants A, B, and C have already been built as pre-series production
The F-35, with a total of 500 aircraft built (until February 2020) – 353 of which for the US armed forces – remains in pre-series production. Four to five fighter jets are delivered each month from the final assembly lines in Fort Worth (USA), Camera (Italy), and Nagoya (Japan). In 2019 alone, the US built as many F-35s as the German Air Force has Eurofighters. According to the existing program, the construction of over 3,300 aircraft is planned. While cancellations cannot be excluded, these should be offset by further exports. Lockheed Martin is participating in the ongoing selection processes in Switzerland, Finland, and Canada. The technical development phase (System Design & Development or SDD) with intensive tests of built jets and their software ran for almost 17 years until April 11, 2018. In December of the same year, the F-35 program went into the so-called troop testing phase or Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E), which will probably not end until 2021 with the decision on the final start of full series production (so-called Milestone C).
International partners of the program, who have currently ordered up to 809 F-35s, saw a remarkable development at the end of 2019: Turkey, as one of the larger customers with 100 units, was excluded from the JSF-Program due to its controversial procurement of the Russian S-400 air defense system. This is particularly problematic because Turkey should deliver around 1,000 components for the F-35, for which replacement manufacturers must now be sought and found as quickly as possible, without the production suffering from the failures of the “Turkish” parts.
New buyers were recently found with Belgium (34 units), Poland (32 units), and Singapore (12 units plus 8 purchase options). As production numbers have grown over the years, the unit costs for pre-series lots 12, 13, and 14 have now fallen to around $78 million for the F-35A CTOL, $101 million for the F-35B STVOL, and $94.5 million for the F-35C CV (flyaway cost; Valerie Insinna, “In Newly Inked Deal, F-35 Price Falls to $78 Million a Copy“, Defense News, 29.10.2019). The United States Marine Corps (USMC) will probably order 54 fewer aircraft than previously planned because the USMC squadron’s size will be reduced from 16 to 10 aircraft in the future. So far, the United States Air Force (USAF) intended to operate a fleet of only F-35A fighter jets in the future. Due to the long development time and the high operating costs, the USAF is now planning to purchase the F-15EX in addition to the F-35 as a replacement for older F-15 models and to reduce the number of F-35s by 590. The F-15EX is a considerably modernized version based on the “Eagle” models supplied to Saudi Arabia (F-15SA) and Qatar (F-15QA), which will then be placed alongside the F-35 as a kind of “weapon carrier pack“. (Jeremiah Gertler, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program“, Congressional Research Service, 27.05.2020).
Block 4 finally brings full combat capability to the F-35
At present, until the start of full series production and beyond, probably until 2024, the currently planned hardware and software version is Block 4, which will be the first after 2B, 3I, and 3F to have full combat capability with a comprehensive range of conventional guided missiles and rockets, as well as nuclear capability. The external appearance of the aircraft or its basic shape does not change. Block 4 consists of 80% new software and only 20% updated hardware. Fifty-three new functions will be integrated into the F-35, including weapon systems such as the Stormbreaker glide bomb, the B61-12 atomic bomb, the British ASRAAM and Meteor missiles, and the Joint Strike Missile from Kongsberg/Raytheon. There are also 11 radar and electro-optical retrofits and 13 updates for electronic warfare. A system to avoid collisions on the ground (AGCAS), external tanks for around 2,200 liters of additional fuel, a new, open device architecture for faster modernization in the future, and the ability to control one or more drones as “loyal wingmen” via the F-35, are also among the planned extensions. (John A. Tirpak, “Keeping the F-35 Ahead of the Bad Guys“, Air Force Magazine, 25.02.2019).
Block 4, however, will not be available for all already built F-35s because only previously with the Technical Refresh-3 (TR-3) retrofitted aircraft are eligible. TR-3 includes, among others, more modern panoramic cockpit displays, an expanded capacity of the storage systems, and an updated core processor and computer performance. It is expected that new F-35s from production lot 15 will already be equipped with TR-3 “as standard”, which is planned for 2023. It is still unclear whether all F-35 pre-series aircraft will receive the TR-3 retrofit and will probably also depend on future financing.
As early as 2018, the Joint Program Office (JPO) and the manufacturing company Lockheed Martin began extending the long-term development of Block 3F capabilities as part of the SDD. This was done through the continuous development and provision of capabilities (C2D2) on a faster, six-month development, test, and deployment cycle for additional capabilities in Block 4, during which deficiencies taken over from the SDD should be concurrently remedied. In the opinion of the Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E – internal auditing authority), as expressed in his report at the beginning of 2020, this ambitious or aggressive approach has not been successful so far.
The current Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2) process has not been able to keep pace with adding new increments of capability as planned. Software changes, intended to introduce new capabilities or fix deficiencies, often introduced stability problems and adversely affected other functionality. Due to these inefficiencies, along with a large amount of planned new capabilities, DOT&E considers the program’s current Revision 13 master schedule to be high risk. — “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)“, FY 2019, Annual Report, The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, 30 January 2020
According to the audit authority, the F-35 currently has 873 unresolved deficiencies, 576 identified before the SDD phase was completed, and the IOT&E phase began. Of these, 13 belong to category 1 of serious errors, i.e., those that endanger or prevent the pilot’s survival, the aircraft operation, or the fulfillment of the mission. Although the JSF program is working to correct these shortcomings, new bugs are still being found, so their total number has only decreased slightly. There are also several significant deficiencies that should be remedied in order to ensure that the SDD basic configuration (Block 3F) is still running in a stable manner before the large number of new capabilities planned in Block 4 are introduced. What DOT&E is trying to say in engineering jargon is that the endlessly patched software that controls all components and mission systems of the F-35 is unstable. The “computer that happens to fly” is a dense, integrated network of hardware, software, weapons, and mission data. A software change to any component can, and often does, have unintentional negative effects on another component that is not related.
The significance of the high number of deficiencies found can also be seen in the “Deficiency Report Metrics” document from the JSF program office dated February 28, 2020. According to this document, the JSF program reported 883 unresolved design errors at this point, and for 162 of them, there was no plan for correction (shown in the document as “open, no planned correction” – ONPC). More than half, namely 448 deficiencies, therefore remained “open, in dispute” (OUIN), which means that pilots or engineers believe that they have found a problem with the F-35, alas Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer responsible for the fix, claims there is no problem at all. For such identified deficiencies, the default and succinct answer is that the current F-35 design corresponds to the contract specifications. Further changes can only be made with a contract change or extension that will bear additional costs. However, the document also shows that the engineers found solutions to 273 deficiencies, which remain open because either more money is needed to fix them, or more testing is required to ensure that the fixes work. (Dan Grazier, “F-35 Design Flaws Mounting, New Document Shows“, Project On Government Oversight, 11.03.2020).
“Old friends” continue to cause problems…
If you read the 2019 report by DOT&E on the F-35 further, you will sometimes experience a déjà-vu because many of the problems described in 2018 are also resurfacing now. The DOT&E report also indirectly provides a reason for the various difficulties with the F-35: The maintenance of several hardware configurations of the aircraft already in use (including Block 2B, Block 3F, the new electronic warfare system starting with Lot 11 and, finally, the factory-equipped units with TR-3 from Lot 15 and older, retrofitted aircraft), represent a challenge for programmers and engineers that obviously cannot be mastered. In addition, the JSF program also has to continuously maintain the existing development and operational test fleet to support ongoing production, provide six different software versions for support, and eliminate new programming errors promptly. Additional versions will be required in the future if further hardware changes are added as part of Lot 14/15. By then, around 1,000 aircraft should have been built. Thus, it is not surprising that the majority of the current errors can be found primarily in aircraft software.
We reported that one Air Force unit estimated that it spent the equivalent of more than 45,000 hours per year performing additional tasks and manual workarounds because ALIS was not functioning as needed. — United States Government Accountability Office, “DOD Faces Challenges in Sustaining a Growing Fleet“, 13.11.2019, p. 8).
The cybersecurity of the F-35 and its auxiliary and maintenance components, which DOT&E has repeatedly criticized in the past, does not seem to have improved significantly. According to the DOT&E report, previous security tests have shown that the weaknesses identified in previous years remain unresolved. Again, points of attack were identified that must be eliminated to guarantee safe operation of ALIS, the training system, the US Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL), and the fighter jets themselves in the future. Given the current cyber-attacks and threats to bases and communication from (almost) equal opponents such as China or Russia, data services for aircraft operations without an ALIS connection should continue to be tested intensively for 30 operating days. DOT&E had already given the same recommendation in 2018, although operating the F-35 without ALIS is only possible to a limited extent.
Finally, the USRL, responsible for the programming and ongoing maintenance of Mission Data Loads (MDL), does not give the auditors much pleasure. As in previous years, the process of creating the MDL, a key component for the F-35 operation, is too slow. Besides, the USRL still lacks adequate equipment to test and optimize the mission files under conditions that are comprehensive enough to ensure adequate performance of the F-35 against current and future threats in combat. For example, the USRL still lacks enough signal generators to simulate a realistic, highly complex threat situation of an enemy, integrated air defense system with several modern surface-to-air missile systems and the radar devices that support them. Furthermore, there is an insufficient number of high-frequency signal generator channels to adequately stimulate the electronic warfare system and the corresponding radar functions of the F-35 with simulated threat radar signals. Tools previously used by the USRL for reprogramming the mission files, as well as the hardware and software, were too cumbersome and required several months to create, test, optimize and verify a new MDL for the respective application area. Upon conflict, the USRL lacks the necessary ability to reprogram the mission files quickly. (“F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)“, FY 2019, Annual Report, The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, 30 January 2020).
…and new errors are continually being added
It would go beyond the scope of this article to show all the current design errors of the F-35 in addition to the countless software problems. For this reason, the explanations are limited to particularly glaring technical defects, which, however, must be sought from other sources. In this respect, it is noticeable with the current DOT&E report that it is significantly less transparent than the reports up to 2018. It contains no updates on the shortcomings found in previous years, reports on far less program-critical findings than previous reports, and contains almost no quantitative results on the most pressing problems of the F-35. For example, the report published in 2018 included a table listing the results of the accuracy tests for weapon operations in general, and the success or failure status of air-to-air and air-to-surface guided missile tests. This table or at least corresponding relevant information are not found in the current report. One can only speculate about the reasons for this.
In any case, no progress has been made in eliminating the problems with the F-35A’s internal cannon, which have been known for years. It is still impossible for the pilots to hit targets reliably because the on-board cannon is still firing too long and too far to the right. The DOT&E report once again rated this fact as simply “unacceptable”. Investigations revealed, among other things, faulty gun mounts, leading to incorrect alignment of the muzzle. As a result, the actual orientation of each F-35A on-board cannon is unknown, so options for realignment and correction are now being considered. Further tests in 2019 also revealed structural damage to a longitudinal belt and the outer shell of the F-35, which was caused by the firing itself. Now the pilots are only allowed to use the on-board cannon as an exception in combat operations but not for training purposes, even if it continues to fire imprecisely. (Dan Grazier, “Uncorrected Design Flaws, Cyber-Vulnerabilities, and Unreliability Plague the F-35 Program“, Project on Government Oversight, 24.03.2020).
It has been known since June 2019 that excessive cabin pressure in some cases causes extreme ear and sinus pain for pilots, which can lead to a loss of situational awareness during the flight. This so-called barotrauma arises when sensors on the aircraft’s outer contour detect rapidly changing static pressures, causing very rapid changes in the pressure control valve in the cockpit. While a solution for this seems to have been found, flight tests with a new cockpit pressure control system have not yet occurred. For whatever reason, these are only planned for mid-2020. By 2021, two years after its occurrence, this error could then perhaps be eliminated. (Georg Mader, “Weiterhin viele Probleme beim F-35“,Militär Aktuell, 27.04.2020).
Another category 1 technical deficiency even called the Swiss Military Intelligence Service (MND) on the scene. The heat of the afterburner exhaust fumes in the F-35B/C fighter jets causes bubbles to form on the radar-absorbing outer skin as well as the horizontal tail units and the boom. Sensitive sensors embedded in the outer shell of the rear surfaces can also be damaged. These heat issues reportedly arose when the F-35B/C flew near its maximum service ceiling of 15,000 m using its afterburners to reach Mach 1.3 and Mach 1.4, respectively. After the incident in 2011, the USMC introduced a guideline according to which the B version could not use the afterburner for more than 80 seconds cumulatively at Mach 1.3, and no longer than 40 seconds at Mach 1.4. US Navy pilots with the C version could now use the afterburner at Mach 1.3 for only 50 seconds. A three-minute flight without an afterburner to cool down was later introduced to thermally “reset” the tail. This category 1 error ultimately remained unsolved until 2019, when it was simply closed in December without a proposal for correction because the cost-benefit effect of eliminating it was supposedly disproportionate. The MND now feared that this problem could also be present with the F-35A. In response to an official request from Switzerland, the manufacturer Lockheed Martin stated that “[t]he heat given off by the afterburner is not a problem for the F-35A, whose afterburner does not have the same properties as those of the B and C models. The ability of the F-35A for afterburner or supersonic flight is therefore not in question”. The pilots of the B and C versions will hardly be comforted by this statement.
Not even every third F-35 is fully operational
Regardless of what capabilities the F-35 theoretically has for a combat mission, these can only be used when the aircraft is ready for action. Getting a complete picture of the technical reliability of the F-35 fleet is a rather tricky endeavor due to the various statistics used to measure the condition of the fleet. A parameter that is often used for this is the so-called Mission Capability Rate (MC). It is calculated per unit and represents the percentage of aircraft capable of completing at least one of their assigned tasks. An F-35 that, for example, can only take off but otherwise cannot fulfill a single mission, is already listed as operational. The JSF program naturally prefers this value to the more stringent so-called Full Mission Capability Rate (FMC), which indicates the percentage of aircraft capable of performing all of their assigned missions. For a multi-purpose aircraft like the F-35, the percentage of fully operational aircraft is, of course, the much more informative number, especially if it is to compete against (almost) equal opponents in the future. According to the latest DOT&E report, no part of the F-35 fleet, including those intended for combat missions, has been able to achieve and maintain the 80% operational capability (MC) goal set by former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. This only succeeded in individual cases for a short period of time. Basically, the FMC rates remained significantly behind those of the MC. All three variants achieved roughly similar MC rates, but significantly different FMC rates. The F-35A showed the best FMC performance, while the F-35C suffered from a particularly poor FMC rate. The F-35B’s FMC rate was roughly in the middle between the other two variants. What the report only sums up in somewhat vague words can be read much better from a graph by the GAO from April 2019:
The statistical information from May to November 2018 did not have changed or improved significantly to this day. Regardless of which numbers you look at in the bar graphs above, the operational capability of the F-35 fleet remains below average overall. At around 50%, all three models are far from the 80% MC rate target mentioned above. The numbers are even worse for the FMC rate: while 34% of all aircraft are still fully operational with the F-35A, the proportion for the B version is only 16%, and then drops dramatically to 2% for the carrier-supported C version. Overall, the FMC rate across the entire F-35 fleet is only 26.8% on average. One reason for this is, on the one hand, that spare parts for the F-35 are held in a joint pool of the US armed forces and the JSF partner countries, which, however, is not able to provide enough spare parts at the required time. On the other hand, components of the F-35 are also defective much more often than expected, and the corresponding personnel and logistical capacities are lacking for the large number of unexpected repairs.
Is the F-35 too complicated, too focused on stealth, and too expensive?
The F-35 is not only a big issue in Germany, as described above, but of course, also in Russia. The chief editor of the Internet portal of the Russian military magazine “Fatherland’s Arsenal” (“Арсенал Отечества“), Dmitry Drozdenko, commented on the US fighter jet on Sputnik as follows: “The F-35 is a very complex system and, as such, it has lots of holes, bugs and other things, and it is very difficult to debug it.” As with other problems with Western systems, he believes this is all because this is an overly high-tech aircraft.
Unlike us, Americans rely too much on stealth technology. Radar technology is developing rapidly, however, and invisibility is no longer a sure guarantee of air superiority. […] Americans tolerate this aircraft because it is a huge and expensive business with billions of dollars in contracts. As they continue to build the F-35, the Americans are modernizing their fourth-generation F-18 and F-15 and trying to get them up to par with the Russian Su-35.— Dmitry Drozdenko cited in “‘Su-35 Can See F-35 All Right’: Military Expert Says US Jet ‘Too Complex’“, Sputnik, 15.08.2018.
The F-35 JPO Program Executive Officer, US Vice Admiral Mat Winter, summed it up from a different perspective, namely concerning the high operating costs of the F-35, as follows: “If you can afford to buy something but you have to keep it in the parking lot because you can’t afford to own and operate it, then it doesn’t do you much good.” (Jeremiah Gertler, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program“, Congressional Research Service, 27.05.2020, p. 9f).
Despite all the criticism, the fact that the JSF program has recently been able to reduce the number of serious category 1 errors massively seems to be a step forward, even if this was sometimes only possible by simply “downgrading” deficiencies. On the other hand, it should be thought that even in the current testing phase, new, serious errors will still be found by the troops, although the actual development phase has long been completed. Even if it was possible to reduce the serious and most serious errors significantly, it should not be overlooked that, in the last four years, the number of otherwise identified deficiencies only dropped from around 1,200 (2016) to 1,000 (2017), 940 (2018 ) and, currently, still comprise 870, 98% of which are so-called category 2 deficiencies, i.e., those that can hinder or limit at least one successful mission. After 14 years of development, this persistently high number of errors can hardly be communicated. Much more serious is the fact that ALIS, as an integral part of the F-35, is so flawed that its use in the troops is even expressly discouraged, updates are no longer published, and should now be replaced by an entirely newly created program (ODIN). The F-35 is only now getting full combat capability with the current Block 4 hardware and software version, but the previous Block 3F software is still not stable, new software errors keep appearing, and the DOT&E expressly in a “rushed” introduction, sees high risk from Block 4. This does not bode well for the future of the JSF program. Additionally, there are the long-known but still unresolved cyber vulnerabilities in the F-35 and its auxiliary components, which should be an incentive for every hacker from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran to look for points of attack. To top it all off, the internal Gatling on-board cannon of the F-35A continues to miss, even damaging the fuselage, and so has not been able to perform the intended Close Air Support (CAS). These points result in bad to very bad values for the (full) mission capability, which completed its maiden flight back in December 2006.
Quo Vadis F-35?
The F-35 is currently neither “high-tech” nor “disaster” due to the many software errors and hardware problems that still exist — it is somewhere in between. It is a flying stealth combat system of the 5th generation, which now functions somewhat, but not yet very reliable, whose high operating costs will place a massive strain on the defense budgets of the user countries in the future and whose other essential components, such as ALIS, are not always operational. If the DGAP regards the fundamental suitability and permanent availability of the F-35 for a credible deterrent, also in regard of the nuclear sharing, which is essential for Germany security policy, as essential characteristics for their procurement, then Germany should probably remain in the current planning with the F/A-18E/F, or alternatively purchase the F-15EX.