Why the F-35 May Not Be Combat-Ready Until 2022
Policy + Politics

Why the F-35 May Not Be Combat-Ready Until 2022


If you were the CEO of an airline business and got a negative report about your new, very expensive aircraft that has been in development for a number of years, what would you say to your engineering and production managers? The report highlights look like this:

  • Key Tests Have Been Delayed Repeatedly
  • Flight Controls Impact Maneuverability
  • Serious Safety Concerns Remain
  • Significant Logistics Software Problems
  • Deferring Cyber Security Testing Leaves Aircraft Vulnerable
  • Maintenance Problems Keep Aircraft Grounded
  • Simulation Facility Failure Threatens Testing Program

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At the very least, people would be fired for incompetence and the contractors would be held accountable.

The details above are not about a commercial aircraft. They are from the latest forensic analysis of the $1 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has been in flight tests for more than 10 years. Each unit costs about $100 million, and so much is money is riding on this aircraft that it’s been deemed “too big to kill.”

The F-35 was redesigned in 2004 because it weighed too much. So Lockheed Martin put the plane on a diet and shed 2,700 pounds -- at a cost of $6.2 billion. In 2010, the Pentagon admitted that the F-35 program had exceeded its original cost estimates by more than 50 percent.

The delays are especially costly since pre-orders from multiple countries can’t be filled until the aircraft is combat ready.

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And now an independent watchdog group is saying that the long list of unresolved problems means that the F-35 won’t be ready for combat until 2022. The watchdog group, the well-respected Project on Government Oversight, is basing its analysis on a recent Department of Defense report that found numerous serious problems with the fifth-generation fighter.

The watchdog analysis comes after one of the three F-35 variants has already been declared combat ready. The F-35B, designed for the Marines, was declared ready to go in July 2015. However, the jet has not been used by the Marines in combat, despite plentiful opportunities in Syria and Iraq. And the Project on Government Oversight maintains that the declaration was premature, and that official testing proves that the jet is not ready for active duty. Some analysts have speculated that the Pentagon is trying to buy hundreds of planes before testing has been completed.

The Joint Strike Fighter Program Office has pushed back against the most recent analysis by the watchdog group, citing a long list of achievements for the program. The office reminded its critics that “the F-35 program is still in its developmental phase” and that there are “known deficiencies that must be corrected.” But that’s exactly the point: The plane that was supposed to be flying combat missions in 2012 is still costing taxpayers billions to develop, with no end in sight.