You would think that Lockheed Martin would have figured this out at the beginning, but it appears the US$78-million F-35 fighter jet can literally burn its tail in supersonic mode.
So much money has been spent fixing other issues — critics call it a US$1.5 trillion disaster — that officials say it’s not worth fixing, and will instead be addressed by changing the operating parameters, the F-35 Joint Program Office told Defense News in a statement.
The deficiency, first reported by Defense News in 2019, means that at high altitudes, the US Navy’s and Marine Corps’ versions of the F-35 jet can only fly at supersonic speeds for short bursts of time before there is a risk of structural damage.
The problem may make it impossible for the Navy’s F-35C to conduct supersonic intercepts, experts say.
According to the Defense News report, the carrier-launched “C” variant and the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing “B” version will both be able to carry out all their missions without correcting the deficiency, the JPO said.
The potential damage from sustained high speeds would influence not only the F-35’s airframe and the low-observable coating that keeps it stealthy, but also the myriad antennas located on the back of the plane, according to documents exclusively obtained by Defense News.
While it may seem dire that an aircraft procured for flying at supersonic speeds will be unable to do so for extended periods, the F-35 may not need to do it that often, the Defense News reported.
For the F-35, as opposed to the F-22 where supersonic flight is baked into its tactics, the ability to fly supersonic is more of a “break glass in case of emergency” feature, said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Hudson Institute and a retired naval officer.
“Supersonic flight is not a big feature of the F-35,” Clark said. “It’s capable of it, but when you talk to F-35 pilots, they’ll say they’d fly supersonic in such limited times and cases that — while having the ability is nice because you never know when you are going to need to run away from something very fast — it’s just not a main feature for their tactics.”
But a retired naval aviator told Defense News last year that the limitations on the afterburner could prove deadly in close-combat.
The concept of operations for the F-35 is to kill an enemy aircraft before it can detect the fighter jet, but relying on long-range kills is a perspective that, for historical and cultural reasons, naval aviation distrusts.
In the Vietnam War, when air warfare began heavily relying on missiles and moved away from the forward gun, it caused a spike in air-to-air combat deaths, Defense News reported.
Jet fighters like the F4 Phantom that carried missiles at high altitudes, in extreme -40C cold, had to dive deep into hot, humid jungles, which caused a high rate of missile failure — a fact that was not publicized at the time.
The lesson naval aviation took away was to prevent the latest technology from offsetting the fundamentals, and it was the impetus behind the formation of the now famous Top Gun school, the Defense News reported.
The F4 Phantom — which was designed for aerial combat and ground attack, and as a result, did neither rather well — later added a nose gun for added firepower.
“The solution is: ‘Hey, we’ll just limit the afterburner to less than a minute at a time,’ ” a retired naval aviator said when told of the issue. “Which, with what the aircraft is supposed to do and be capable of, that’s a pretty significant limitation.”
The issue is compounded for the Navy, which must operate forward for months at a time, because any significant issues with coatings or the structure of aircraft would require a depot-level repair, the Defense News reported.
And so a damaged aircraft would remain “a dead bird” until its host ship returns to home port, reducing the combat effectiveness of the air wing.
“We might have to be operating at sea for eight months, so if you damage something on week one, guess what? It’s damaged for the rest of the deployment,” the aviator said.
On top of this, according to The National Interest, the additional weight and bulkier fuselage necessary to make the F-35B jump jet version left all variants of the F-35 saddled with performance thresholds that are inferior to fourth-generation fighters.
The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, compared to Mach 2 to 2.5 for the F-16 and F-15, respectively. Its service ceiling is fifty thousand feet, compared to sixty thousand for the other models, The National Interest reported.
In 2015, the Air Force tested the F-35 in a short-range dogfight with an F-16D mounting external fuel tanks, and the test pilot complained that it was simply out-turned and less energy efficient than its more agile opponent.