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The F-35 Has Been a Mess. Is Our Military Aviation Dominance in Trouble?

The U.S. and its allies will have to determine how to get along until the aircraft’s defects have been addressed.
July 16, 2019
The F-35 Has Been a Mess. Is Our Military Aviation Dominance in Trouble?
An F-35B Lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), launches from the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex of the Fifth Fleet. (Photo by Cpl. Francisco J. Diaz Jr./U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images)

Le Bourget

In 1927, Charles Lindberg made the Aéroport de Paris-Le Bourget aerodrome famous when touched down there transatlantic solo flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. It was history in the making, but also a bittersweet moment for European aviation.

Two weeks prior, a duo of French pilots who were also national heroes from World War I, Charles Nungesser and François Coli, had attempted to beat Lindbergh with their own attempt at a transatlantic Paris-to-New York flight. Their aircraft disappeared over the ocean with almost no trace. Their actual fate remains unknown even today.

Lindbergh’s heroic feat ushered in a decades-long era of American dominance in military aviation that was in no small measure responsible for ultimate victory in the Cold War. 

Today, Le Bourget is home to the Paris Air Show, the largest event of its kind anywhere in the world – the most prestigious gathering of designers and builders of aircraft, aeroengine, avionics, radar, etc. who all want to show their wares and attract new customers. But the latest installment, which took place in late June, demonstrated that pole position of the U.S. in the aviation industry is fading.

In 2017, a Lockheed Martin (LM) F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Le Bourget for the first time and made an impressive display. But it made no return appearance this year. Its absence was conspicuous because several hundred of these fighters have already been built for and delivered to existing customers, plus the aircraft is now being considered for procurement by Switzerland, Finland and Poland – in addition to the U.K. and the several other European partners that are already committed to the F-35.

This aircraft is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the Defense Department. Its initial concept was for a basic design of a stealthy, single-engine combat aircraft to be built in three variants: a standard, land-based F-35A Air Force model, a vertical take-off F-35B version for the Marine Corps to replace its famous AV-8 Harrier jump jets, and a carrier-capable F-35C with an enlarged wing that would enable it to be flown from Navy carriers.

While this idea had the virtue of being all things to all people while it was still an on-paper design, how it has played out in the light of actual production and operational testing has fallen short of the original goals of the program.

Back in March 2018, Rep. Adam Smith of the House Armed Services Committee said that “if we could go back to 1997, we would not build the F-35 the way we are currently building it.” He also questioned senior military officials on the aircraft, asking “what would we do differently in the way we constructed that program, so that it didn’t become the money pit that it has become?”

Critics complain that in retrospect the program should not have been committed to a low rate of production in the initial stages before the design was thoroughly vetted and permanent fixes for technical faults implemented. More than one U.S. military representative has stated that the three services will never again buy a weapon system using this type of acquisition model.

About 400 of the aircraft have been produced and are in service. Most of these will at some point have to be modified to address a series of design defects. It is also possible they will have to be retired well in advance of their projected service life. In reality, all military aircraft programs suffer from initial design flaws, which is why the Pentagon insists on an exhaustive set of operational testing before certifying a program as being acceptable for series production. Criticizing the F-35 for having problems at this stage is somewhat unfair. The better complaint would be engaging the aircraft’s production before many of these faults had ever been identified – now creating a huge backwards compatibility and compliance problem.

“If the program continues as it is planned that means there will be hundreds of F-35s out there with these deficiencies and they will have to either be retrofitted with fixes or the defective aircraft will have to be scrapped,” said the U.K.-based representative of another European aerospace firm at Le Bourget. “Either option is going to be horrendously expensive and the cost will of course have to be borne by all of the partners that are vested in the program.”

Just prior to Le Bourget, a Pentagon report that was leaked to the press outlined some of the more serious deficiencies that still plague the aircraft. These defects fall into several categories – some are performance issues that compromise the aircraft’s handling qualities and the effectiveness of its on-board sensors.

Others are related to the F-35’s environmental control systems. One of these is a problem with cabin pressure spikes in the cockpit that have been known to cause “barotrauma,” a medical term for extreme ear and sinus pain.  The cause for this is under study but no plan to correct it has been determined. The official word is that a fix for this issue is expected “soon.”

But far more disturbing is that the aircraft’s stealthy radar-evading surface material can begin to bubble up and delaminate if F-35 airspeed exceeds Mach 1.2 for prolonged periods of time, making it visible to enemy air defense systems and other aircraft. Friction with the air at these speeds creates excessive heat, which is the culprit, so pilots are now instructed to limit the amount of time spent flying at supersonic speeds. Unfortunately, being able to operate at those speeds without restrictions could be the difference between returning and not returning from a mission.

No end date is yet specified for when the aircraft will be a trouble-free platform, but in the cases of those flaws where there is an identified fix the relevant modifications will not be made before 2021.

The sad fact is that F-35 was billed as being far more capable than the Cold War fighters it would replace. Claims have been made that it is a weapon system orders of magnitude better at jamming enemy radar, reconnaissance missions, air-to-air combat performance, air-to-ground strike missions, etc. But many of these promises have yet to be proven and in the meantime other nations are not standing still.

Russia has a fifth-generation stealthy-shaped aircraft in production, although there are questions about how capable it is in comparison with its advertised performance. China has at least two different new fighters in developmental testing. The U.K., the Germans and French in a combined project; Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and others are all in the process of developing their own combat aircraft. Almost all of these designs are twin-engine concepts and some of them are quite a bit larger than the single-engine F-35 – and thus they carry more weaponry.

The U.S. aerospace sector, which at one time owned a major portion of the world’s fighter sales, is seeing an expanding number of competitors taking over traditional U.S. markets. Egypt, a major buyer of U.S. fighter aircraft since the 1980s, recently elected to acquire the Dassault Rafale from France and the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35.

The industry is also reeling from the scandals involving the crashes of its Boeing 737 MAX design and is facing more challenges than at any time in history – a setback for the manufacturer that Airbus is certain to capitalize on. At the same time, the U.S. military aircraft business is looking at having an increasingly smaller edge over its European and other foreign peer competitors.

The F-35’s design flaws will eventually be resolved and the aircraft will probably be a capable weapons platform at some point. But it may take several iterations of upgrades and technology that does not exist yet to reach that point. The U.S. and its allies will have to determine how to get along until the aircraft’s defects have been addressed. In the meantime, the Pentagon will be forced to keep procuring new-build models of some of its Cold War-generation military aircraft, models that the F-35 was supposed to replace by now. 

It is “an expensive but necessary decision” said one Washington, D.C.-based defense specialist. “The trick will be expend these kind of resources to keep both the F-35 and these older production lines running and at the same time to not be eclipsed by those countries out there trying to knock us out of the No. 1 position in this strategically important industry.”

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.