The multi-billion-dollar jet has faced a turbulent birth, but it is not flying into clear air just yet.
The F-35 Lightning II, better known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the world’s most expensive military weapons programme.
The stealthy fifth-generation fighter, built by Lockheed Martin, is designed to penetrate foreign air defences and bolster US military superiority – and that of its allies - in the years to come. Along with its ability to evade radar, the supersonic Joint Strike Fighter boasts the world’s “most powerful” fighter turbofan, a helmet-mounted display that is designed to give the pilot a 360-degree virtual view combining sensor and flight data, and advanced electronic arrays that will allow it to pick out air and ground targets.
But the crown jewel of the US military’s technology investment portfolio is now becoming a glaring eyesore for Pentagon planners who are forced to defend its ballooning costs and delays while the military is facing across the board cuts.
To compound the problem has been a slew of technical problems from getting the vaunted helmet-mounted display to work to peeling in the aircraft’s stealth coating. Other classified problems have also been identified.
But military officials working on the programme have a simple message: when it comes to so-called military megaprojects , these sorts of problems are bound to happen. “It’s never nearly as bad, nor nearly as it good as it first appears,” Vice Admiral David Dunaway, the commander of Naval Air Systems Command, in Patuxent River, Maryland, told an audience at a Navy trade show this week in the Washington DC area.
While touting progress, Dunaway was careful to temper expectations about the aircraft, calling the F-35 a “fairly mature air vehicle”. The biggest problem the programme now faces is attempts to change the requirements for the aircraft, something that typically happens with Pentagon weapons where development can stretch out over years and even decades.
Such changes, which inevitably add complexity, are often made without considering the potential costs. “Change will kill the programme,” Dunaway said emphatically.
‘Trillion dollar fighter’
The F-35 is being developed in three variants that will eventually be used by the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, as well as eight other countries that have committed to buying the aircraft and are helping to pay for its development. The theory was that having a basic common frame across three services would help keep costs down.
The US Air Force will fly the F-35A, which takes off and lands like a conventional aircraft, while the Navy will get the F-35C, which can operate from aircraft carriers. The most complex of the three variants is the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft that is supposed to be able to operate without the need for a traditional runway.
That version of the aircraft, known as the F-35B, has what’s called a “thrust vectoring nozzle,” which deflects engine exhaust to achieve the vertical lift that allows the aircraft to hover. The STOVL version—the first to go into service - will be used by the US Marine Corps and the Royal Navy.
Although the first planes have long since been delivered for testing, the aircraft of the future continues to hit turbulence. The engine of an F-35A developed a crack that temporarily grounded the entire fleet earlier this year; the tail hook for the F-35C, which allows it to land on an aircraft carrier, had to be redesigned by aircraft maker Lockheed Martin, and there have been concerns that intense heat from engine of the aircraft could endanger the crew and equipment onboard aircraft carrier (officials speaking at the show said they are looking at protective coatings).
While the officials spoke about the progress on all three variants, they also acknowledged there will likely be more difficulties ahead. The radar-evading aircraft, which was originally billed as an “affordable,” had grown in cost and complexity, while the date for fielding the aircraft has slipped a number of times. Estimates suggest that the craft will not be operational until 2018, eight years behind initial estimates. The total programme cost is now estimated at about $400 billion, while the cost of sustaining the aircraft over their expected 30 year life is expected to run over $1 trillion, a figure that has led to headlined dubbing it – whether fairly or not – the “trillion dollar fighter.”
But the planes problems are not over yet. They are likely to continue as the military moves the aircraft from development and testing and into operations, officials said. “I guarantee you we will discover other things,” said Rear Admiral Mark W Darrah, the head of Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. “Once at sea, we re going to make new discoveries, just like every other platform.”
It’s not just technical problems that may challenge the new aircraft. Critics of the Joint Strike Fighter point out that countries like China are developing and acquiring weapons that will push aircraft carriers so far out to sea that the F-35, which has a range of 1,000km (600 miles), will not be able to strike inside enemies’ borders. And then there is a new class of advanced pilotless drones being developed, such as the X-47B, which may be able to do some of the same missions, but without risking pilot’s lives.
But for now at least the programme continues and officials say things are back on schedule. Rear Admiral Randolph Mahr, the deputy head of the Joint Strike Fighter programme, says that an initial batch of operational STOVL aircraft will be delivered to the Marine Corps by the summer of 2015, as currently planned. “The Marine Corps is holding us to that date,” he said.
Any delays to that delivery – or others – are not likely to go down well. The US Defense Department is facing funding cuts as part of a budget deal known as sequestration. While cutting an expensive aircraft programme may look like an attractive option, many analysts warn this will result in a “death spiral,” where reducing the number of aircraft pushes the unit price up, making it even more costly.
Despite its problems, the F-35 so far appears to have avoided the axe amid the current budget turmoil. The president this week requested $8.4 billion to continue the Joint Strike fighter during the next fiscal year, leaving the aircraft safe … at least for now.