The F-35 was supposed to wow aviation spectators and weapons buyers at air shows in the UK two years ago, but an engine fire grounded the program. Now two years later, the F-35 is slated to attempt another inaugural showing in the UK this summer.
This news comes as the F-35A will also begin making debuts around the U.S. as part of the USAF’s Heritage Flight program. These displays include formation flying with an antique fighter aircraft, then performing a few fly-bys. The Marine Corps’s F-35B has already performed at a limited number of air shows in the past two years.
The UK Ministry of Defense has announced plans to buy over 100 F-35s in coming years, many of which will fill the decks of its two new aircraft carriers. As such, the UK being the destination of the F-35's first overseas air show appearance makes more sense than ever.
The detachment to the UK will consist of two F-35As and two F-35Bs. The F-35As are slated to perform the Heritage Flight while the F-35Bs will execute their limited demonstration, which includes hovering in short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) mode. The air shows the quartet of jets will be attending are the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) and the Farnborough air show, both of which are scheduled for July.
According to Aviation Week, the Royal Netherlands Air Force may also bring the F-35 over to Europe this summer for some ground suitability tests, after which it could make an appearance at the Leeuwarden Air Base air show. Italy could also show off an F-35 at a local air show as the jets are now being assembled at a facility in Cameri.
The F-35's international debut announcement comes as the Pentagon’s head tester Michael Gilmore has warned of looming delays with the F-35's seemingly never-ending software code. In a previously non-disclosed memo dated December 11th, 2015, Gilmore notes that hundreds of unresolved issues remain with the Block 2B software flying today, most notably on the USMC’s supposedly operational F-35Bs. This is further hampering the Block 3F software that will be needed for the USAF to declare initial operating capability (IOC) later this year with their F-35As. Until the software situation is sorted out the F-35 will not be allowed to enter full-rate production.
Breaking Defense notes that the F-35 Joint Project Office responded to this scathing assessment of the supposedly operational F-35B’s software as follows: “All critical must-fix deficiencies were addressed. It’s up to the Marines, Air Force and Navy decide whether to fix deficiencies immediately, fix them in later increments, or not fix them at all.”
As for the more comprehensive 3F software the USAF needs to meet its IOC deadline for the F-35A, the Joint Program Office has acknowledged that there could be months of delays associated with it, but that “the JPO does not intend on ‘short cutting’ any required testing. Removal of test points by the combined JPO, industry and warfighting team occurs only after a thorough and disciplined review of what is required to deliver the promised capabilities.”
The cutting test points to speed the F-35's development has been a major point of contention in recent years. In this case, Gilmore notes that a whopping two-thirds of weapons tests previously slated to prove the software’s successful integration with the aircraft may be axed.
Gilmore also noted that the F-35's crucial do-everything computer support system, called the Automated Logistics Information System, or ALIS for short, remains in disarray and vulnerable to cyber attack. The system is used for everything from diagnosing the aircraft’s issues to planning missions to controlling the F-35's spare parts pipeline. Gilmore writes:
“ALIS continues to struggle in development with deferred requirements, late and incomplete deliveries, high manpower requirements, multiple deficiencies requiring work-arounds, and a complex architecture with likely (but largely untested) cyber deficiencies.”
The hugely complex ALIS, which really is a weapon system onto itself, has been plagued with issues for the better part of a decade. It has also been viewed as potentially the most exposed “Achilles heel” of the F-35 program, especially when it comes to being vulnerable to cyber intrusion. It remains unclear exactly how a large fleet of F-35s would operate without the system. As such, if it were to be taken out via hacking attacks, it may result in a similar effect as taking out the entire F-35 force, at least temporarily.
We will have to wait for the Director Of Test and Evaluation’s full annual report on the F-35's progress which should be released soon. This should not only provide more details on these issues but it should also give an update on the many other issues that have plagued the program.
Parts of the DoD and industry have been very boisterous about how the F-35 program has recovered as of late. Yet often times big claims about the weapon system have been met by harsh realities, and many of the problems discussed in this recent memo are issues that are not necessarily new.
At least reports like those produced by the DOTE give us an actual peek into what is really going on with the program, and are not just regenerated the propaganda that the Joint Project Office and industry have been known to peddle with seemingly little regard to the truth.
In the meantime, go here to see if the F-35 will be appearing at an air show near you this year.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photos via Lockheed Martin