The F-35 Lightning II, the Joint Strike Fighter, is in more trouble than previously known just as the US government has committed to another massive buy, agreeing to spend US$34 billion for 478 new aircraft in a multi-year deal.
Serious problems have been found mainly in two variants of the F-35, the F-35B for the US Marine Corps, and the aircraft carrier variant F-35C.
The problems include flight control issues making manoeuverability hazardous under close combat scenarios, and problems with the stealth coating when the aircraft operates at supersonic speeds at high altitude, which leads to blistering of the stealth coating on the planes.
On top of operating issues, right now the F-35 can be used on only one aircraft carrier in the fleet, and not in a full long term deployment.
The US Navy does not have funds and appears not to have any plan to modify existing aircraft carriers to accommodate the F-35, other than the Carl Vinson. Even worse, the newest carrier still, the Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), cannot handle the F-35 without significant modifications, and the same problem applies to the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) which is under construction.
Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35 series, says it can fix the flight control and coating problems on the plane, although the coating fix will only be done for aircraft in future, leaving the existing fleet with the older coating. This means that F-35 B and C models will have a restricted flight envelope for at least the next four or five years. It is not known whether the fleet of Air Force F-35’s have the same issue.
The stealth coating is an ongoing challenge, even if a better coating is developed. The in-service F-22 stealth jets, for example, also are experiencing coating problems and the overall coating life-span, estimated at 8 to 10 years, is reaching its end limit. All stealth-type aircraft require extensive maintenance on stealth coatings or the aircraft will be vulnerable to most military radars (that operate primarily in the X radar band). In regard to the coating problem on the F-22, the General Accounting Office reports that “environmental factors such as high temperatures, humidity, and salinity can reduce that span by 2 to 3 years.”
It is worth noting that maintaining and repairing aircraft stealth coatings is a time consuming process requiring highly skilled personnel. This kind of maintenance and repair takes the planes off the flight line for some time, impacting the availability of planes for combat. The overall availability of the F-22 fleet for combat duty is less than 50%.
Exactly how the F-22 coating issues translates into similar problems for the F-35 is unclear. For example, there are questions about the integrity of aircraft stealth coatings (called “low observable coatings” by the Air Force) in use in humid areas, or subjected to high levels of dust in desert environments (as in the Middle East), or strong forces on the aircraft structure (that can cause cracks and fissures) when aircraft are launched and recovered on aircraft carriers. Salt water can also impact stealth coatings.
If stealth coatings are hard to maintain and easily compromised, the aircraft loses its principal advantage against any sophisticated enemy. The F-35 has often been criticized for its lack of agility and problems involving close-in “dog-fighting” scenarios. While some have claimed it is manoeuverable enough, without stealth the F-35 could be vulnerable to long range Russian and Chinese air to air and ground to air missiles.
The F-35 was designed as a new type of fighter capable of using beyond visual range, or BVR tactics. Simply put, with the F-35’s sophisticated radar and electronic counter measures, it could launch long range missiles and precision-guided munitions many miles from a target and then go back to base with little chance of being intercepted.
No one can say just how valuable or sustainable a BVR-type mission will be against a sophisticated enemy but if that advantage is compromised then the F-35 has to perform at least as well as convention fourth generation, or fourth generation-plus platforms. It can’t. The Russian Sukhoi Su-35 looks like a capable fourth-generation plus (non-stealth) aircraft. The Pentagon has to worry about confrontations with that aircraft if F-35 stealth performance is not as advertised. It is noteworthy that China recently bought 35 Su-35 aircraft from Russia and put them immediately in service. It would seem China is counting on the F-35 to challenge America and Japan’s F-35’s. This should be concerning to American policy makers.
There are different views on why currently fielded aircraft carriers cannot field the F-35C, the carrier-version of the F-35. At present, only one US carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) can operate the US Navy’s F-35C. The Lincoln carrier, however is not ready to support a full-squadron or to go on long deployments with the F-35. It is at present only a partial fix to a bigger problem.
The first carrier that will be able to operate a full squadron of F-35’s is the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70). The Carl Vinson is currently undergoing maintenance in a dry dock at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. The Vinson is scheduled to complete maintenance in 2020 and be available for the F-35C squadron in 2021.
The story for the two newest Ford-class aircraft carriers (the Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy) is not positive. These carriers are replete with problems, including trouble with the new electrically powered catapult system, trouble with arresting cables and problems with the ship’s elevators. The claim is that the F-35 issue relates to a lack of adequate blast protection doors to handle the more powerful and considerably hotter F-35 engines, and the lack of classified spaces to carry out maintenance on sensitive F-35 parts and repairs (including coatings). No one can yet say when or if these problems will be resolved, or whether there is money to fix them.
In the most simple terms, American aircraft carriers will not be F-35 stealth capable for many years, maybe a decade, and some maybe never. This hands US adversaries an advantage they did not expect to have, and gives them more time to find effective countermeasures to stealth aircraft. For China it means that if there was war with the United States, for at least the next five years China could focus on attacking US fixed bases in Japan and Okinawa, and seriously weaken or even liquidate US advanced aircraft capability in the region. US aircraft carriers deployed to the region with stealth aircraft would have been a major hedge, making it far harder for China, in a war scenario, to dominate.
One of the questions still unanswered is why the US moved boldly ahead on the F-35, committing hundreds of billions of dollars to acquiring and fielding them, without dealing with the aircraft carrier issue early on. Another question is how come serious operational issues surrounding stealth coatings and aircraft maneuverability are only now being “discovered.” While the US Congress heavily favors the F-35 program, and wants to buy even more aircraft, the looming problems also must be addressed.