An Australian F-35 poses on the tarmac. The future of the combat stealth fighter rests on its performance during a seven month combat evaluation program, beginning this month.
An Australian F-35 poses on the tarmac. The future of the combat stealth fighter rests on its performance during a seven month combat evaluation program, beginning this month.

F-35 fighter’s crucial test

More than a decade late and innumerable billions over budget, it's crunch time for the F-35 Lightning II program.

Its manufacturers insist it's ready. Its supporters say none of its remaining problems are insurmountable.

Auditors and the Pentagon are not so sure.

All three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter - the F-35A built for the US air force and the RAAF, the F-35B 'jump jet' built for the US Marines and UK navy, and the F-35C built for the US Navy - will this month begin a seven-month in-depth assessment.

The purpose of the tests are to determine if the jets live up to expectations.

But doubts persist: have all of its 'critical' flaws been addressed?

And the F-35 project is already two months late.

The original evaluation start date was September. This was missed due to a late 'critical' software update. Now the entire 11-month evaluation program must be squeezed into just nine months.

If they make the grade, the F-35's current 'low-level' production runs will be accelerated. The assembly lines will be cranked into high gear to mass-produce the hundreds ordered by the US and its allies, including Australia.

The Royal Australian Air Force has taken delivery of nine early-model F-35As. It has committed to purchasing a total of 72.

 

A US Air Force and a Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II are towed on the flight line during a monsoon at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, earlier this year. Picture: USAF
A US Air Force and a Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II are towed on the flight line during a monsoon at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, earlier this year. Picture: USAF

 

TRIAL BY FIRE

The initial operational test and evaluation (IOT & E) process kicks off tonight.

The F-35 can't fail.

But a poor showing could further delay the project and add substantially to its overall cost.

Between now and July next year, a handful of F-35s of all types will be put through their paces.

Can they operate in cold weather? Can they be kept operational given the exposure to weather and limited facilities available on aircraft carriers? Can they fight - and win?

It's a process intended to reassure customers - and critics - that the controversial jet has overcome most of its problems.

It's a process that has already been delayed several times. Most recently, a September 15 start-date was missed due to delays in the provision of a vital operating software update.

However, the new November start date maintains the September deadline.

The Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team (JOTT) says it believes it can complete IOT & E by the original July 2019 date. But, to do so, it must hurry things along - and "assuming more risk".

Some 300 F-35s are already in service.

And several squadrons have already deployed on 'limited' operational tours. The US Marines has had their jump-jet version active since 2015. And the US Air Force has a few of its strike-fighters since 2016.

It's already fired its first shots in anger.

Israeli F-35s reportedly engaged in two strikes "somewhere in the Middle East" in May. On September 27, a Marine Corps F-35B, launched from the USS Essex amphibious warfare ship, struck targets in Afghanistan.

It hasn't all been plain sailing.

The most troubled version of the F-35, the "B" variant jump-jet, suffered the first ever crash of the type in September. The pilot ejected and survived. But the jet, worth more than $100 million, was destroyed. The cause was traced to faulty fuel-lines, prompting the grounding of the entire fleet for assessment and repairs.

 

An F-35 displays its weapons bays. It’s ability to target the weapons it carries is under question.
An F-35 displays its weapons bays. It’s ability to target the weapons it carries is under question.


UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

In August, the Pentagon's aircraft testing director reported that the F-35 simply was not ready to undergo the crucial combat evaluation tests.

Director of operational test and evaluation Robert Behler ruled that he would not accept testing of an aircraft that did not have the same operational software as production aircraft.

And he pointed out the F-35s operating software, mission-data system, self-diagnostic and self-reporting systems were not up to scratch.

The September start date also was delayed to ensure F-35 on-board artificial intelligence - the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) - reported accurate mission flight test data.

This was accompanied by concerns of "key technical deficiencies" including the F-35's ability to effectively use one of its primary weapons - the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Its on-board cannon was also judged to be out-of-alignment, consistently firing to the right of the crosshairs and missing its target.

It is not known if the software fix applied to the aircraft since September has addressed all these issues. That, however, will become apparent under the eyes of the evaluation umpires in coming months.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) in August found F-35 program officials had been cooking the books.

It accused the program of altering paperwork to make to appear as though the F-35 had completed its development phase - when it had not.

And this, it said, was potentially life threatening.

At the heart of the issue is a list of long-known design flaws. POGO states reports had been altered to make it look as though progress had been made in addressing these issues, when in fact nothing had been fixed.

"F-35 officials are recategorizing - rather than fixing - major design flaws to be able to claim they have completed the program's development phase without having to pay overruns for badly needed fixes," the POGO report reads. "Several of these flaws, like the lack of any means for a pilot to confirm a weapon's target data before firing, and damage to the plane caused by the tailhook on the Air Force's variant, have potentially serious implications for safety and combat effectiveness."

 

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet conducts the first ever night-time flight trials aboard the Royal navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: US Navy
An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet conducts the first ever night-time flight trials aboard the Royal navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: US Navy

 

 

CHALLENGED FUTURE

The Defence Department is slated to make a decision on full rate production by the end of 2019. Though this is entirely dependent upon the evaluation program's outcome.

Under US federal law, this cannot begin until the director of operational test and evaluation office agrees the F-35 program has met all of its agreed-on criteria.

But the new US deputy secretary of defence isn't so worried about whether or not the F-35 is up to the task: He's more worried about whether or not that lasts.

"We know long term, the biggest challenge for the F-35 is not going to be the performance of the aircraft, it's going to be affordability," Shanahan said. "In the next two years, we double the fleet. And if we don't really have a robust, high-performing sustainment system, it'll divert attention of the F-35 program from other critical areas like development or production, and it'll create disruption in the supply."

 

An F-35 is put through its paces at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The stealth jet must now pass a series of performance examinations.
An F-35 is put through its paces at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The stealth jet must now pass a series of performance examinations.

 

The F-35 has been flying in some form or another now for 17 years. Some 300 early examples have already been delivered to the US and its allies.

All nine of Australa's F-35s are currently situated at a US training facility in Arizona. The first two to be permanently stationed in Australia - at RAAF Williamstown in NSW - are due to arrive on December 10.

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Most of those will likely need extensive upgrades, repairs and modification to bring them up to fully operational standards.

The complete force of 72 Australian jets is due to be delivered by 2023.

It's a $17 billion project aimed at replacing Australia's ageing F/A-18 A and B model Hornet strike fighters.

It's an incredibly ambitious aircraft.

To maintain its standards of stealth, all components must be precisely fitted. Even being a millimetre out can produce a surface producing unwanted radar reflection. All this requires high quality materials and precision engineering not previously applied to aircraft.

Then there's the complex and integrated nature of its sensor and weapons systems. Pulling it all together requires powerful software.

With complexity comes risk.

According to US Air Force records for its F-35As, the type achieved only a 55 per cent availability rate during 2017. That's a lot of down time in the hangar. It also means a greatly reduced presence of aircraft on the 'front line'.

Availability objectives require more than an 80 per cent readiness state across the operational fleet. Clearly, the F-35A still has some way to go to reach that goal.

 

An F-35 aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: US Navy
An F-35 aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: US Navy

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