Is the F-35 Program Doomed?

© Photo : Staff Sgt. Joshua King // US Air ForceAn XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020
An XQ-58A Valkyrie low-cost unmanned aerial vehicle launches at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Dec. 9, 2020 - Sputnik International
The beleaguered F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program just hit another of many roadblocks in early January as the Department of Defense (DoD) formally decreed that a decision on full-rate production of the jet is on indefinite hold due to technical challenges and the impact of COVID19.

The verdict in the first week of January came only four months after Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, placed her full confidence behind the program saying that “the F-35 will complete its testing by March 2021.” 

This is another of many signs that the multi-trillion-dollar “disaster” is going to continue to be a headache for the DoD and the partner nations. The inability of the program to move to the full-rate production means, according to the defence analyst Anthony Capaccio, that the warplane is not going to be deemed effective against the highest-level threats since it cannot meet its maintenance goals and it cannot be produced efficiently.  

There are technical, financial, and political reasons why the F-35 JSF program’s future looks very dismal.  

According to the USAF, there are 883 detected flaws, of which 13 are deemed Category 1 (the most serious) that “may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness; may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system; critically restricts the combat readiness capabilities of the using organisation, or result in a production line stoppage.”

© Staff Sgt. Zade VadnaisThe first F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing lands at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 21, 2020. A total of 54 F-35As will be stationed at Eielson AFB by the end of 2021, which will make Alaska the most concentrated state for combat-coded fifth-generation aircraft
Is the F-35 Program Doomed? - Sputnik International
The first F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing lands at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 21, 2020. A total of 54 F-35As will be stationed at Eielson AFB by the end of 2021, which will make Alaska the most concentrated state for combat-coded fifth-generation aircraft

Such flaws include the mounted Gatling gun being out of balance causing cracks in the fuselage, losing control of the aircraft during vertical takeoffs and landings when the aircraft is operating above a 20-degree angle of attack, supersonic speeds at very high altitudes causing the stealth feature to fail and threatens the structural integrity of the aircraft. Even more dangerously, the Marine Corps version, F35B, can explode upon a lightning strike due to fuel tank issues.

Further defects include troubles when operating in very hot or very cold weather, dangerous cockpit pressure incidents, failures in the helmet-mounted display, serious safety concerns in the event of a blown tire. The hundreds of flaws discovered are considered to be too overwhelming for the engineers to overcome any time soon. 

These flaws have in the last six years resulted in serious incidents including an F-35 bursting into flames because fan blades inside broke off due to overheating, another one caught fire during an engine start-up, and in a first hull-loss accident a Marine F-35B crashing due to faulty wiring causing a fire in the hydraulics. Most notably, in April 2019, a Japanese F-35 crashed into the Pacific Ocean, with the remains of the pilot not being found until two months later.  

Lockheed Martin as a Detriment for the F35 Program   

The F-35 JSF program has severe sustainability issues predominantly emanating from the main contractor Lockheed Martin’s inappropriate corporate practices, which have repeatedly been criticized by the US Congress and the Government.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports suggesting that Lockheed has since 2015 failed to address serious flaws in the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)—a complex system supporting operations, mission planning, supply-chain management, maintenance, and other processes.

Furthermore, GAO found a significant lack of coordination between the Department of Defense (DoD) and Lockheed Martin. According to this, DoD officials are facing considerable challenges such as obtaining from Lockheed key technical data as the blueprints, drawings, photographs, plans, instructions, and other documentation required to adequately produce, operate, and sustain weapon systems.

For instance, (GAO) noted that electronic records of F-35 parts are frequently incorrect, corrupt, or missing, resulting in the system signalling that an aircraft should be grounded. GAO’s Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, Diana Maurer warned at a Congressional hearing in 2019 that “there are not enough spare parts to go around, parts are breaking more often than expected, it’s taking twice as long to fix them, and the necessary depot repair capabilities won’t be completed until 2024.”

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At times, F-35 squadron leaders have had to decide to fly an aircraft when the records indicated not to, thus assuming operational risk to meet mission requirements. Consequently, acute mission planning, supply-chain management, and maintenance issues have severely crippled the program’s efficiency. By the end of 2022, the F35 fleet is expected to double from 500 today to 1000. However, Ms Mauer warns that DoD is 8 years behind the projected depot capabilities, which renders that prediction obsolete.   

The member of the House Armed Services Committee, Doug Lamborn of Colorado criticized Lockheed Martin at a Congressional hearing saying that it is Lockheed Martin, not DoD, that manages the supply chain incurring enormous cost on the program and that it is becoming too overwhelming for the government. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman for the F35 Oversight Committee, lambasted Lockheed for failing to meet the contract requirements and sourced spare parts, saying “the Military has been forced to divert personnel to troubleshoot these issues which has cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars ($303 million to be exact).”

According to Theresa Hull, Assistant Inspector General at DoD, Lockheed, since 2015, has been delivering non-Ready-For-Issue (RFI) spare parts for F35s without Electronic Equipment Logbook (EEL) registration when it is required to deliver RFI parts with electronic codes assigned.

DoD has submitted more than 15,000 action requests to correct the non-RFI issues, most of which have not been resolved. The records indicate that at any given day more than 50% of the F35 fleet is flying without proper RFI parts, which requires immediate grounding of the planes due to potential dangers. Lockheed is blamed for falsifying the total number of hours F35s have flown without non-RFI parts, which resulted in exorbitant performance incentive fees paid to the contractor.

Furthermore, the amount Lockheed charged back to the government for the non-RFI parts is unknown because Lockheed has not tracked the records and has so far refused to cooperate with the government. Hull warns that Lockheed’s ill-corporate culture is endangering the future of the program. Finally, Congresswoman Maloney also warned that the contractor’s irresponsible practices are putting pilots’ lives in danger.   

The GOA foresees that the already abysmal spare-part issue will get even worse if Turkish defence manufacturers are pushed out of the program. Between the main contractor Lockheed and the engine manufacturer Pratt&Whitney, about 1005 parts are single or dual sourced from Turkey.

DoD has attempted to replace the Turkish parts suppliers but found that the new manufacturers will not be producing at the rate required and their rates for 15 components are lagging behind that of the legacy of Turkish producers. Furthermore, F35 engines have some critical parts that can only be produced in Turkey. All things considered, DoD foresees that Turkey will continue to be a crucial parts supplier well into 2022. However, one must look at the fragility of the program given the possibility that Ankara may retaliate against the CAATSA sanctions by cutting parts supply to the program.    

Fewer than Anticipated Sales Projections   

The JSF program’s future sales are in danger as the soaring cost and the incredible amount of technical flaws are forcing the potential customers to reconsider their procurement.  

The US Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger indicated last April that F35 cuts are on the table at a time the corps is shedding legacy missions as it pivots to focus on a primarily naval-focused service. The Corps currently has four F-35C squadrons, as opposed to the initial plan of 10. The US Air Force too announced it would buy fewer F35s, 48 F-35s each year from fiscal 2021 through 2023 instead of the 54 previously planned, rather they would be focusing on Boeing’s upgraded F15s. The Air Force has also been considering changes that could affect the number of F-35s acquired.  

Abroad, in a huge blow to the JSF program, Canada, a Level 3 partner, cancelled its order of 65 jets in 2015, choosing Boeing’s F-18 instead. The UK, which is currently committed to buying only 48 F35s, announced it would cut its target of 138jets. Italy had already cut its own procurement of the F-35 from 121 planes to just 90. Finally, Turkey initially intended to buy 100 F35s, with a price tag of $18.5 billion dollars. Naturally, its ejection means a major market loss for the program.

Rising Number of Competitors

To make things worse, the UK, France, and Germany have all now declared their intent to develop their own sixth-generation jets, creating more competition for the already shrinking market for the F35s.  

The UK Royal Air Force has teamed up with the main contractor BAE System, Rolls Royce, and Italian Leonardo creating the sixth-gen. Tempest Program with the initial funding of $2 billion. In what may reinforce this intent, the British Government announced in June 2020 that it might not upgrade its F35 fleet to Block 4 (full combat) standard leaving the jets with more limited capabilities.

Furthermore, Washington announced in May 2020 that it may block future F35 sales over the U.K. government's decision to allow the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to build the country's national 5G mobile phone and Wi-Fi networks. Moreover, France (Dassault-Thales), Germany (Airbus), Spain (Indra Systems) joined forces to develop the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).   

What is Ahead for F35?  

The 33rd Deputy Secretary of Defense (2019), Patrick M. Shanahan expressed his dismay in the F-35 program by calling it; “F---d up!”. The chairman of the Subcommittee on US Military Readiness John Garamendi said, “We have a big problem here. This thing (F35 Program) is not working well. In many cases, it is not working at all.  

Lockheed Martin’s unethical conduct and lack of accountability have developed serious sustainability issues for the now 1.5 trillion-dollar program. It has also created the impression that it has taken DoD hostage as the program has now been deemed too big to cancel. Despite record earnings in 2020, Lockheed is yet again continuing to suck taxpayer millions under the CARES Act citing the impact of COVID.

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Riddled with hundreds of hardware and software flaws, growing supply chain problems, rising competition, and procurement cancellations have all made the JSF program a bottomless pit with no light in sight. The trillion-dollar question (literally) is if everyone else is cutting their losses with no one else buying, and Lockheed Martin is not able to fix the flaws with the F35, will the US government continue to support a failing program because it is “too big to fail” or will they hold Lockheed accountable while searching for another way to protect the American people.

Unless Lockheed creates a miracle, the government will have no choice but to end the program. 

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