A committee of the United States Parliament announced in early June 2022 the establishment of a “durability” review of the F-35 fighter. The range of American fighter planes suffers from defects, reliability problems, and high costs, all of which worry American parliamentarians.
F-35 and its maintainability issues
The defects of the F-35 are being debated in the parliamentary chambers of the United States Congress. The House Committee on Armed Services, or HASC, is tasked to establish a control and reliability review of fifth-generation fighter jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The legislators point in particular to “problems concerning the supply chain of spare parts for the F-35” and “logistical shortcomings“. The Director-General of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is responsible for investigating whether the different versions of the F-35 meet the prerequisites necessary for the program’s financing.
The report should analyze the operational capabilities of the F-35 once deployed, identify whether the aircraft has encountered operating problems, and determine whether the spare parts provided to the U.S. Air Force allow the aircraft to be fully maintained. The controller will also note any element likely to be questioned on the use of fighter planes. The GAO is expected to submit a detailed report on March 1, 2023.
The F-35: a defective aircraft?
The entry into service of the F-35 within the U.S. Air Force and in other partner countries has become a soap opera as Lockheed Martin fighters keep accumulating the problems. In 2018, the HASC had alerted, in a report to the American Congress subsequently made public, on the low operational range of the F-35C. The radius of action of this navalized version of the F-35 (with take-off by catapult and landing by arresting strands) was so small that it was necessary to bring the aircraft carriers closer to their target until they were put at a range of enemy missiles… With its flight range of “only” 670 nautical miles (1,240 km), the aircraft is considered ineffective if the aircraft carrier is more than 1,800 km from a target.
But the naval version of the F-35 is not the only one to be criticized for its technical and logistical problems; the other two models of the aircraft, the F-35A (with conventional take-off and landing) and the F-35B ( short take-off and vertical landing) also encountering a lot of difficulties. Of the 857 failures listed in July 2021, only 165 were in the process of being resolved, while seven “critical” category one problems were still identified, which could have an impact on the accomplishment of a mission.
Laura Seal, the spokesperson for the Joint Program Office of the F-35, devoted to the study and design of the capabilities of fighter aircraft, declared at the same time that all the defects could not be revealed publicly, arguing that such information would endanger the pilots.
Many deficiencies and high cost
In 2021, the media detailed a few Category 1 issues, including:
- Pressurization problems that led to several barotraumas,
- A range less than the needs of the U.S. Navy (an a priori insoluble problem, the shape and size of the nose of the aircraft prohibiting any improvement other than software, expected in 2024),
- Interference in the pilot’s helmet can make the landing dangerous,
- Ejection seat defects,
- The impossibility of flying at more than Mach 1 (1,234.8 km/h) for more than a few seconds,
- Deficiencies due to sometimes extreme temperatures (underpowered in the hot weather, batteries appearing empty in cold weather, etc.).
The F-35 is also an expensive aircraft, and at more than $ 17 trillion, it is the most expensive program in the history of the armament. Even if the “basic” aircraft has a relatively affordable price tag of around $80 million, the operating cost of the aircraft greatly exceeds 30,000 dollars per flight hour. The U.S. is reducing the F-35 fleet, substituting it with the purchase of new generation 4.5+ aircraft, F/A-18 and F-15EX, and accelerating the Next Generation Air Program (NGAD) program of 6th generation aircraft, which could enter into activity as early as 2030.
Despite these flaws, the F-35 is selling relatively well. Germany had no choice but to buy it to maintain its nuclear capability in NATO, while countries like Switzerland and Finland have placed orders following a call for tenders. The Netherlands, for its part, has chosen to increase the size of its fleet. Lockheed Martin has nevertheless indicated that the prices of the next F-35 could drop below the 80 million dollar mark per unit, excluding equipment and mandatory subscriptions (predictive maintenance, electronic warfare libraries, etc.), training of pilots and technicians, armaments, etc.
The HASC report should provide additional information on the F-35 and its failures. While the U.S. government has no plans to suspend the purchase of these fighters, the HASC said in 2019 that the U.S. government could supply the armed forces with other fighter jets.