The USMC is fielding its first “operational” squadron of F-35Bs at MCAS Yuma as I am writing this, although in reality the truth is very far from the headlines. Testing has not even reached the half-way point on the JSF program and weapons integration is just beginning. The standing up of an “operational” F-35 squadron is a procurement power-play of grand proportions and I believe it puts aircrews, aircraft, and the DoD’s cash flow needlessly at risk. In many ways fielding the F-35 well before it has been properly vetted, another marvelous step in the Joint Strike Fighter’s incredibly flawed “concurrency” development strategy, is akin to putting a drug with known but not well understood side-effects onto the market prematurely. A quote from a previous Aviationintel post from months ago further explains why the Marines and Lockheed Martine are clearly rushing this unvetted machine into “operational status:
Meanwhile, the Marines want to take some of their new, yet still far from perfect, F-35Bs and standup the first “operational” squadron in Yuma within months, yet the aircraft is still having major issues with its complex software, its helmet mounted sight, and its crucial health monitoring and logistics system, not to mention all the other issues that for the most part nobody has disclosed that they have been verifiably fixed to my knowledge. Some of these other issues include the fuel dump nozzle’s location and its inherent fire risk, wing drop and buffeting at certain speeds, peeling skin coatings at mach, cooling issues, structural issues, the aircraft electronic warfare system and the list goes on and on…”
“So how on earth can the Marines fire up a line squadron when even the schoolhouse is still being stood up and their B models are not even landing or taking off vertically? What value is just flying around the sky burning jet fuel with a totally unvalidated weapon system? Why blow the money and precious airframe hours on such questionable, if not risky training? Simple, its called marketing, guinea pigs and concurrency. The jets were built way too soon at the approval of a naive congress and recklessly optimistic DoD before the aircraft’s design was ever even validated. Now that the USMC have them sitting in the hangar they have to do something with them to move the program along. Further, the Marines badly want their first “active squadron” in place to ensure that they will not lose their precious aircraft due to looming budget cuts. Lockheed is also on-board so that they can show the world “hey everything is ok in Joint Strike Fighter land, we are flying this thing for real now on operational training missions,” which is a total lie as not even half the basic testing program has been completed yet alone operational testing and weapons integration etc. So, it seems apparent that just like the F-35 schoolhouse standing up in Florida, the first “operational squadron” will serve as guinea pigs and an extension of the real testing program still being performed by actual test pilots. Instead of envelope expansion and weapons tests, the first F-35B squadron in Yuma will be similar to an “extended test drive” as seen in Motor Trend. They will most likely evaluate the aircraft’s bugs and reliability and buzz around the sky in totally un-operationally viable aircraft as F-35 testers by default (link).”
Beyond the litany of problems and design issues that continue to plague the F-35, even the jet’s “revolutionary” and incredibly crucial Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is clearly not ready for prime time. In fact US Navy cyber warfare gurus hacked the ALIS system recently, a feat that could have neutered the F-35’s operational viability if it was executed by an enemy during a time of war.
ALIS, its massive amount of software programming and its integration with the F-35, has been a major concern during the F-35’s troubled development process, with bugs, quirks, uncompleted lines of code and other issues continuously slowing down its development. In fact ALIS is integrated into the F-35 concept that it alone could hold the program back years if bugs are not fixed in rapid turnaround form. In many ways ALIS is the F-35’s “cloud” brain, a place where the aircraft’s health is monitored in real-time, its history is stored, its mission planning takes place and a place where the entire complicated F-35 logistics train is managed. It is true that the ALIS system is revolutionary in nature, and undoubtedly it is understandable for such a complex subsystem to have its issues, but some would argue that ALIS is just another symptom of the Joint Strike Fighter’s conceptual disease- having too much riding on the single system. Instead, separate systems would allow for more redundancy and would be less susceptible to flaws and enemy intrusion, an action that could see the worldwide F-35 logistics train grind to a halt, yet alone greatly impacting the mission effectiveness of the aircraft itself during not only times of war but also during times of peace. Some say that Lockheed will get their act together as they have very good cyber security capabilities, yet we know that the Chinese have sat in virtually on web conferences and have stolen thousands of documents related to the design of even their most sensitive projects. With this is mind, maybe fielding something as complex, capable and deeply integrated as ALIS is actually more of a liability than an advantage.
In the end the F-35’s momentum wins again, not due to velocity of its progress but because of its sheer weight. The Marines will get their hollow photo opportunity and Lockheed will be able to tell ignorant politicians and the public that the troubled jet is operational, simply because it is flying at Yuma instead of a test center or at Eglin AFB, its joint training base. In the meantime valuable airframe hours will be burnt during irrelevant “operational” training, and the risk of such operations will be needlessly high. Some debate these views by saying that the JSF program is incredibly complex, and doing anything this complicated will be fraught with delays and cost overruns. I agree, but Lockheed Martin apparently did not when they sold this boondoggle to the DoD and Congress. Furthermore, is complexity and technological challenges a means to an end itself? Maybe we do not need ALIS or the F-35 that goes with it. Just because it is more complicated and more advanced does not mean it is always the right piece of equipment for America’s military. This concept began when the Predator was barely in testing and GPS guided weapons were still an idea, so I find it very hard to believe that such a machine, dreamed up decades ago, is still the right one-size-fits all solution for maintaining America’s air dominance edge over the next 50 years, especially now that each machine costs between two and four times what was originally estimated.
At least we know that the F-35 is truly a deadly weapons system, seeing as it continues to get away with budgetary and political murder month after month and year after year…
For all my past coverage on the Joint Strike Fighter saga click here: