The Buzz

The F-35 Still Has a Long Way to Go before It Will Be Ready for Combat

All of this means that the systems meant to give the pilots a better understanding of the world around them can do exactly the opposite. According to the report, these systems “continue to degrade battlespace awareness and increase pilot workload. Workarounds to these deficiencies are time-consuming for the pilot and detract from efficient and effective mission execution.”

F-35 boosters say it's the network that matters; what actually matters is that the network isn't working.

Ineffective as a Fighter

The F-35 was intended to be a multi-role aircraft from its inception. This latest report provides a clear picture of how it stacks up so far in its various roles, including in comparison to each aircraft it’s supposed to replace. The news is not encouraging.

The F-35’s shortcomings as an air-to-air fighter have already been well documented. It famously lost in mock aerial combat within visual range (WVR), where its radar stealth is of no advantage, to an F-16 in early 2015, one of the planes the F-35 is supposed to replace as an aerial fighter. The F-35 lost repeatedly in air-to-air maneuvering despite the fact that the test was rigged in its favor because the F-16 employed was the heavier two-seater version and was further loaded down with heavy, drag-inducing external fuel tanks to hinder its maneuverability. F-35 boosters argue that the plane's low radar signature will keep it out of WVR situations, but the history of air combat is that WVR engagements cannot be avoided altogether. Missile failures, the effects of radar jamming and other hard-to-predict factors tend to force WVR engagements time and again.

This latest report confirms the F-35 is not as maneuverable as legacy fighters. All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.” One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.

Transonic speeds, just below the sound barrier, are the most critical spot of the flight envelope for a fighter plane. These are the speeds where, historically, the majority of aerial combat takes place. And it is at these speeds where the F-35 needs to be the most nimble to be an effective fighter.

The program has attempted to fix the maneuverability performance problems by making changes to the F-35’s flight software rather than by redesigning the actual flight surfaces that are the cause of the problems. The software, called control laws, translates the pilot’s stick commands into behavior by the aircraft. One would expect that certain force by the pilot on the stick would result in an equivalent response by the plane. Because of the software changes, that’s sometimes not the case. For example, if a pilot makes a sharp stick move to turn the plane, the control law software now results in a gentler turn to prevent problems such as (and including) dig-in. F-35 apologists try to dismiss such issues by claiming that the F-35 was never intended for close-in aerial dogfighting, a claim belied by the Air Force’s insistence that the jet be equipped with a short range air-to-air gun.

As an air-to-air fighter, the F-35’s combat capability is extremely limited because at the moment the software version only enables it to employ two missiles, and they have to be the radar-guided advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs); in the future it will carry no more than four if it wants to retain its stealth characteristic. The F-35’s capability as an air-to-air fighter is currently further limited because the AMRAAM is not optimized for close, visual-range combat. (Eventually, upgraded software versions will allow the plane to carry missiles other than AMRAAMs, but not any time soon.) This means that any fight the F-35 gets into had better be short, because it will very quickly run out of ammunition.

Its gun would be available in close-in fighting as well, but it’s not currently working because the software needed to effectively use it in combat hasn’t been completed. The cannon in the F-35A sits behind a small door on the side of the aircraft that opens quickly an instant before the cannon is fired—a characteristic intended to keep the aircraft stealthy. Test flights have shown that this door catches the air flowing across the surface of the aircraft, pulling the F-35’s nose off the aimpoint resulting in errors “that exceed accuracy specifications.” Engineers are working on yet more changes to the F-35’s control laws to correct for the door-induced error. Making these changes and performing the subsequent “regression” re-testing to confirm the effectiveness of the changes have delayed the actual gun accuracy tests. Until these tests occur, no one can know whether the F-35A’s cannon can actually hit a target.