Hot air clouds the truth about the JSF

A recent US report highlights an endless stream of flaws in the Joint Strike Fighter, which can only spell disaster for Australia's long-term air defence strategy.

If you are a defence official in Indonesia, Russia, India or China, you will have raised your glass to toast yet another confirmation of the looming disaster that is America’s Joint Strike Fighter, now called the F-35.

For Australia, this is an alarming situation because we are basing our long-term air defence on this aircraft.

This time, the confirmation of the dangers of a disaster comes from none other than America’s director, Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, who was appointed by the President and confirmed by the US Senate to advise the Secretary of Defence on US weapons systems. Gilmore’s report devotes a few pages to each of a wide variety of weapons systems until he reaches the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35).

Then he devotes some 20 pages to an endless stream of problems, which appears to have got longer than his report a year ago. Indeed, Gilmore reveals that the JSF overall program controllers and contractor Lockheed Martin are satisfactorily addressing only three of his previous 10 key recommendations. But there are now seemingly countless more problems.

Of course, in the unlikely event that the JSF reaches its operational aims this decade, it will still be no match for the Russian/Indian aircraft. By then, say 2020, Indonesia will own 180 of the Russian/Indian Sukhoi fighters, almost certainly including the lethal T-50 PAK-FA and Su-35S. If we rely on the JSF, Indonesia will have control over our northern air space (How Indonesia will control Australian migration, January 24).

As always, the Lockheed Martin public relations machine is in full battle gear to defend Lockheed against Gilmore and other critics. Lockheed say they can fix the problems raised by the presidential adviser. The problem is that the list just gets longer. The Lockheed public relations machine may have developed new tactics for 2014, but its usual strategy is to fly as many customers, politicians and journalists to the US as they can muster to speak with their 'experts'. As was the case in 2013, Lockheed will say about 'nothing is new' about Gilmore’s claims.

To some extent that is true, because people like Australia’s premier defence analysts Air Power Australia group have been forecasting these difficulties for years. Our politicians have so far been unable to grasp the enormity of the problem and have simply hoped it will go away. But it won’t. Our only hope of at least being able to match the Indonesians lies in convincing the Americans to re-start the manufacture of the magnificent F-22 aircraft and combining that program with the JSF. A lot of good work has been done at the JSF and that work will enhance the F-22.

But such a merger would come at a huge cost to Lockheed profits, so it’s all hands to the Lockheed public relations machine pumps.

But no amount of public relations can overcome the truth. Here are just a few of the JSF (F-35) problems set out by the President’s appointee, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore. If you feel overwhelmed by Gilmore's technical words, I have put some key words in black type.

  • As of August 2013, 231 'critical' ARs (action requests) remained open, while over 200 ‘severe’ ARs were open. These are very serious matters. A 'critical' AR addresses a deficiency, which may cause major loss or damage to a system, or severe injury or possible death to personnel if not corrected. A “severe” AR addresses a deficiency, which adversely affects operational safety, suitability, or effectiveness. However, a workaround is permitted.
  • The F-35 program uses reliability growth curves that project expected reliability for each variant throughout the development period based on accumulated flight hours. These growth curves are established to compare observed reliability with a target to meet the mean flight hours between critical failure (MFHBCF) threshold requirement by 75,000 flight hours for the F-35A andF-35B, and by 50,000 flight hours for the F-35C. Currently, none of the variants are achieving their predicted reliability based on flight hours accumulated as of the end of August 2013.
  • The JSF engine container was unable to sustain the required sudden drop of 18 inches without damage to the power module during shock testing. The Navy is redesigning the container to better protect this engine, but this is likely to result in an increase in container size and weight.
  • Engine noise is a potential risk to personnel on the flight deck (Navy version) and one level below the flight deck. The Navy has decided to procure active noise reduction personal hearing protection for on-deck personnel. (Australia is not buying the Navy version, but Air Power says Darwin residents will also need noise protection.)
  • Gilmore says the JSF program controllers and Lockheed Martin should conduct a vulnerability analysis as soon as possible to determine the likelihood of ballistically or lightning-induced arcing from the 270-volt on a 28-volt system and determine whether the resulting damage effects would be catastrophic to the airplane.
  • A live fire test in 2012 demonstrated the fuel hydraulics system is vulnerable to missile fragments, resulting in potential fire and loss of aircraft.  Engine ballistic tests in FY13 also showed that the fuel hydraulics system is vulnerable and that a shut-off for a damaged system could mitigate much of the vulnerability.
  • Gilmore has repeatedly recommended redesigning and reinstalling a PAO shut-off valve after the overall JSF project office decided on its removal for weight reduction. The JSF program controllers have been reconsidering the reinstatement of the PAO shut-off valve and have tasked Lockheed Martin to develop a technical solution to meet the criteria demonstrated in live fire tests. Gilmore has not received any updates on the operational feasibility and effectiveness of the design, or an official decision to reinstate this vulnerability reduction feature. (Air Power Australia has already warned that if the Gilmore recommendation of re-instating the value is adopted and the valve is required to be used, then it will shut down the aircraft’s coolant system and render the JSF inoperable. Hobson’s Choice.)
  • VSIM mission software for the operational test agencies’ requirements is now at significant risk of failing.
  • The F-35 is vulnerable to ballistically-induced propellant fire from all combat threats.

That’s enough. If you want more, here is the link to Gilmore's 2013 DOT&E Annual Report. Open the DOD Program link and then the link for the F-35 JSF to get to the 20-page report.

Footnote: Apart from the constantly escalating capital cost of this inadequate aircraft, the operational cost is already 50 per cent above budget and rising. It will go much higher.

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