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Is the F-35 fighter jet a trillion-dollar fiasco?

The Pentagon’s pricey F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet has been plagued by setbacks

SUNRISE MANOR, Nev. — On the outskirts of Las Vegas, the full array of U.S. airpower is on display at Nellis Air Force Base — from proven workhorses like the F-15 and F-16 to more modern aircraft like the F-22.

Parked alongside the runway, you’ll also find the latest addition to America’s military arsenal. Billed as the future of manned airpower in the U.S., the F-35 is a product of the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history. According to one Pentagon report, the price tag will reach $1.4 trillion.

The Pentagon has bought about 150 F-35s, even though the plane isn’t cleared for combat — in military speak, operationally capable. Eventually, the Air Force is expected to buy more than 1,700 F-35s, with the Navy and Marine Corps purchasing nearly 700 more F-35s modified for them. 

Congress and the military believe the F-35, manufactured by defense giant Lockheed Martin, can be tested and refined as planes continue to come off the assembly line. The Pentagon calls this concurrency. From its futuristic shape to the millions of lines of computer code that act as a kind of artificial intelligence, the plane is a complicated beast.

“I can say the F-35 is a monumental leap in capability,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Benjamin Bishop, a pilot and one of the senior Air Force commanders testing the new plane for battle. “You don’t really get in it. You strap it on.”

From a military man, that might be what you’d expect to hear. But the F-35 project has been so plagued by design flaws and technical setbacks that rarely a week goes by without a negative headline. A few weeks ago, a report written by J. Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s operational test and evaluation office (DOT&E), detailed so many problems that one defense industry publication called the F-35 “a hot mess.” 

Cascading and flight critical

In his report, the DOT&E talks about the results of live fire tests, which involve taking pieces of the airplane and shooting at them with ammunition.

According to Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon analyst who helped design the F-16 in the early 1970s, what those tests revealed was bad.

“There are fuel tanks all the way through the wing,” he said. “There are fuel tanks through the fuselage. And the worst places that they cram fuel [are] around the inlets and back toward the engine. Think of this engine as a blowtorch surrounded by fuel. That’s what it really is.”

A Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter jet landing at Nellis Air Force Base.
AP/Larry MacDougal

The plane’s risk of catching fire when shot at — perhaps the biggest concern in combat — is just the beginning. The DOT&E report lists many other safety concerns, including:

Problems protecting the plane from lighting, requiring it to stay 25 miles away from bad weather.

The potential for electrical wiring to short-circuit, which could jeopardize control of the plane in flight.

A problem with transonic roll-off, or what pilots call wing drop, which causes the plane to roll toward the ground when making certain turns.

In describing its concerns about the F-35, the report uses words like “cascading” and “flight critical.”

When asked what “cascading” meant, Sprey used the fuel tanks as an example. “You start with a small problem, you get leaking fuel, and it flows into the engine,” he said. “There goes the airplane. There goes the pilot.”

These safety concerns aren’t just theoretical. Last June at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, an F-35 burst into flames taxiing for takeoff because the engine cracked in previous flights performing limited maneuvers. “One of the sets of fans inside the engine rubbed against the casing. The whole fan exploded like shrapnel,” Sprey said. “Thank God, the airplane was on the runway.”

The entire fleet of F-35s was grounded for three weeks, and the plane missed its much heralded international debut. 

‘Think of this engine as a blowtorch surrounded by fuel. That’s what it really is.’

Pierre Sprey

former Pentagon analyst

To this day, test pilots at Nellis and on other bases are operating under severe restrictions, unable to fly the plane at high speed or maneuver aggressively, for fear the engine problem could happen again. According to the DOT&E, “a final design” to fix the engine problem was “not complete” at the time the report was written.

Major Gen. Jay Silveria commands the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis. His unit oversees what’s known as operational testing of the F-35 for the Air Force — in other words, seeing how it might perform in battle. He was just returning from a test flight when we met him earlier this month.

“We have a long history of a sound, safe program,” said Silveria, who has clocked 50 hours on the F-35. “I have no safety concerns, and since I fly the plane, I have to pay personal attention to those safety concerns.”

When asked about how the F-35’s problems may be affecting his ability to test it, he conceded that he’s facing “limitations.” He added, “We are slowly working through [them], expanding the operational envelope of the plane.”

According to Silveria, the F-35 process of concurrency is working.

“We take it and put it in operationally representative conditions. So when I put it in those conditions, I learn how it acts in combat,” he said. “I learn things about the plane, so we will find things.”

An ‘embarassing’ program

“I see a program that should have been held up,” said Tom Christie, who was the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation from 2001 to 2005. “You’ve got to take your time and wring this thing out before you start delivering these aircraft and [not] have to go back and spend billions fixing them.”

Despite all the problems — both those discovered and those still unknown — the Marine Corps is expected to declare its version of the F-35 operationally capable this summer. Christie called that decision “a sham.”

“The program has been embarrassing,” he said. “And they’re just at the point to say, ‘We’re going to take whatever we get.’”

The Air Force plans to declare its version fit for combat in late 2016. The Navy plans to do the same in 2019.

‘I see a program that should have been held up. You’ve got to take your time and wring this thing out before you start delivering these aircraft and [not] have to go back and spend billions fixing them.’

Tom Christie

former director, Pentagon operational testing

Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan discussing Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jet at a news conference at the Farnborough International Air Show in England in July 2014.
AP/Sang Tan

The office of Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who is in charge of the F-35 program, told “America Tonight” his schedule didn’t allow for a one-on-one interview in time for this report. However, in a recent statement, he said that the DOT&E report contained “no surprises” and that his office had already addressed several concerns “before the report was drafted.”

He added that now “is the optimal time to discover issues through testing so we can provide solutions early.”

At an off-camera press briefing Tuesday, Bogdan told “America Tonight” that the Marine Corps’ verdict on the plane was its decision to make and that he would support the corps either way.

As if the safety problems weren’t enough, the DOT&E report also found that the Pentagon has been massaging the numbers to make the F-35’s performance look better than it really is. Recent claims about the plane’s improved reliability are not due its getting better; rather, “not all failures are [being] counted,” the report reads.

In other words, the bad news about the F-35 could be a whole lot worse.

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