Maybe the F-35 program is just not supposed to work out. Despite a week where the system appeared to display a growing sense of maturity, old problems of reliability, pilot hypoxia and lagging airframe deliveries eclipsed progress. But, first, the good news.
On Monday, the U.S. Air Force announced the first operational deployment of the F-35A, which will begin in early November. Twelve jets and 300 airmen from Utah’s Hill Air Force Base will deploy to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa for six months, about 400 miles south of the Japan.
“The F-35A gives the joint warfighter unprecedented global precision attack capability against current and emerging threats while complementing our air superiority fleet,” the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, said in a news release. “The airframe is ideally suited to meet our command’s obligations, and we look forward to integrating it into our training and operations.”
The announcement of the deployment was expected after two Air Force F-35As participated in this year’s Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition air show. The two F-35As were from the same squadron which will deploy to the Pacific in a few weeks and their presence at the air show provided the South Korean military a glimpse of what they should expect. In late 2014, South Korea agreed to purchase 40 F-35As, and the Korean air force should begin receiving their jets next year.
When the Air Force F-35As do arrive in the Pacific for their deployment, they’ll be joining a group of F-35Bs, which left Arizona for Iwakuni, Japan, in January.
Since their arrival in Japan, the F-35Bs have been quite active, participating in a number of exercises as well as flying missions along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea as escort for a pair of B-1B bombers at the end of August.
The F-35As, though, will have advantages over the F-35Bs, including an increased range and larger ordnance load out, as well as a newer version of the jet’s software, a previous version of which had been described as rudimentary, only allowing about 87 percent of the jets full war-fighting capability to be used.
In addition, for the first time last week, both the F-35B and the F-35C operated from ships simultaneously, as the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson launched and recovered a F-35C. The Vinson is expected to be the first carrier in the Pacific Fleet to deploy with an F-35C squadron, a deployment which is expected to occur in 2021 after the Vinson completes a scheduled maintenance period beginning in 2019.
While much of the flight operations were designed to familiarize the crew with handling the jet, F-35 pilots were also testing a new helmet. The new helmet will have an organic LED configuration that will help reduce green-glow which makes it difficult for pilots to see certain objects at night, such as lights on the carrier deck or lights on aircraft flying near them. The green glow has been described as looking through a dirty window.
Meanwhile, not too far up the coast, exercise Dawn Blitz was in full swing, designed to train the Navy and Marines to conduct a large scale amphibious assault. For the first time, F-35Bs are participating.
Flying from the assault ship USS Essex, six aircraft have provided air support and are fully integrated into the exercise’s scenarios. The lessons learned from this exercise will be applied to sea deployment of the F-35B, which could still happen this year despite delays in getting the ship needed to Japan.
And while all that is happening, a single test F-35A has arrived at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks. That aircraft will spend a month in the cold weather testing the jet’s ability to maneuver on frozen runways, an important part of the jet’s future with 54 F-35As scheduled to arrive at the Alaskan base begining in 2020. The test jet will also try out a drag-chute modification for the F-35As that the Norwegian Air Force will receive. (It was, in fact, a Norwegian test pilot that delivered the jet and has been conducting initial tests.)
Norwegian F-35s, like the F-16s they will be replacing, use drag chutes to help rapidly decelerate the aircraft, especially on the short, icy runways the Norwegians must deal with. Norway will receive its first three F-35As on November 10, when the jets arrive at Ørland Air Station. That date is also the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s 73rd anniversary.
And Yet, It’s The Same Old F-35
Even with the steps forward, the F-35 still is not yet able to shake off problems that have long plagued its development. A Bloomberg report on Monday outlined some of those problems, like the lack of spare parts and the struggle for aircraft sustainment, or keeping the aircraft you have in flying condition, two things that are rapidly becoming a long-term problem for the F-35 program.
According to the report:
The time to repair a part has averaged 172 days — “twice the program’s objective” — the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s watchdog agency, found. The shortages are “degrading readiness” because the fighter jets “were unable to fly about 22 percent of the time” from January through August for lack of needed parts.
As the number of F-35s put into service increases—not only to the U.S. military but also to international partners—the low supply of repair parts is only expected to get worse.
In addition, it wasn’t only the Air Force’s version of the F-35 that was hit hard in the GAO report. The Marines’ F-35B, which is the most complicated version of the three variants, is also projected to experience maintenance issues as it begins shipboard deployments next year.
According to Bloomberg, the F-35B will not have the required maintenance and capability for repair while at sea and as a result “will likely experience degraded readiness.” All of which might be a problem since taking the F-35B to sea is the next goal for the Marines, which had intended to put a detachment of the new jets aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp later this year, plans that have since been delayed. The Wasp departed Naval Station Norfolk in late August intending to sail to Japan, where it was scheduled to take on the F-35B for its maiden deployment. But the Wasp is still in the Caribbean helping provide recovery efforts to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. USMC officials have not confirmed when they now expect the Wasp to arrive in Japan.
Earlier this year, as Foxtrot Alpha reported, the Air Force grounded all the F-35As at Arizona’s Luke Air Force Base after pilots had experienced hypoxia-like symptoms. The 11-day grounding at the base outside Phoenix came after five pilots reported experiencing physiological episodes for over a month between May and June After the grounding, Air Force officials implemented a 25,000-altitude restriction on training flights that was in effect until late August. But the hypoxia-like events have continued to occur, according to a report in Aviation Week, with five new reported instances of symptoms. (The Air Force is still investigating the cause of the problems.)
Another bad sign? For the second year in a row, Lockheed Martin is expected to deliver fewer F-35s than it had planned. The company had planned to produce 66 jets this year but acknowledged in its third quarter earnings this week that it seems very unlikely to reach that number. Only 44 of the fighters have made it off the production lines through the end of September.
While the F-35 is currently assembled in Texas, Italy and Japan, major components for the aircraft are made in places scattered across the world, including Turkey and Australia. Still, over 3,000 F-35s are expected to be built, with 2,456 planned for purchase by the Pentagon. Lockheed and the Air Force will do everything they can to support the deployment, with the jets getting as much flying time as the pilots can handle.
No matter what happens, of course, there will be many interested parties watching the deployment, including America’s allies and enemies. Both will be hoping for different outcomes.