Not A Big Surprise: The Marines' F-35 Operational Test Was Far From Operational

Illustration for article titled Not A Big Surprise: The Marines' F-35 Operational Test Was Far From Operational

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has a damning report on the F-35B’s shipboard “Operational Test” trials that occurred last May. It paints a dismal picture of an aircraft that is so far from being “operationally capable” it’s almost comical at this point. As a result, it proves what many of us already know: the Marines’ declaration of F-35B initial operational capability made this Summer was a farce.


The F-35B’s Operational Test trials aboard the USS Wasp late last May were widely portrayed as a big success and proof that the troubled aircraft had progressed past many of the issues that had plagued it for years. Yet information from this test was tightly controlled and the picture being painted from it seemed eerily rosy. The F-35B appeared to do what it was supposed to, at least for the cameras.

Yet in reality the tests were far from representative of operational conditions, and the jet performed poorly in many key areas and not at all in others.

Highlights from the POGO report include a mission capable rate of 50% among the six aircraft deployed for the test, even though the embarked maintenance crew was loaded with contractors. Additionally, the entire F-35 support base was on high alert to solve any wrongs as fast as possible, including the movement of parts across the country at lightning speed. Several MV-22 Ospreys were even put on high-alert to be ready to support parts runs for the trials, hardly a service that would be available under anything approaching “operational” conditions.

The Pogo report states:

“The Marine Corps and Lockheed Martin anticipated issues of this sort and made special arrangements to support this event. The report notes the Marine Corps placed several MV-22’s on standby to conduct logistics runs for the test. Further, Lockheed Martin had prioritized support for the deployment “very highly.” It positioned contractors at various bases across the country to rapidly move needed parts through the system. This is hardly surprising, since it was in Lockheed Martin’s interests to do everything possible to see that this demonstration went as smoothly as possible.”


Then there were the many other issues that would have been a Mission Kill for an F-35 in combat, including radar, radio, and electro-optical targeting system issues that nobody even attempted to fix during the detachment. As such, during the roughly half the time F-35Bs could fly around, they would not have been capable of partaking in even rudimentary combat missions.

The report elaborates:

The absence of key combat mission systems, since they were either not installed or not cleared for use. Specifically, the nose apertures for the infrared Distributed Aperture System, which provides missile launch warning and situational awareness to pilots, were not installed. Night vision camera use was restricted to elevations above 5,000 feet. And only limited radar modes were available for some of the Block 2B aircraft. Critical warfighting systems like these cannot operate without advanced software which was unavailable at the time of the demonstration. These systems will not be fully integrated into operational aircraft until the block 3F software is ready in 2017 at the earliest. If these systems had been available, they would likely have added additional maintenance burdens.


It concludes:

The USS Wasp operational test, which seems no more than a PR exercise, simply confirmed that beyond the highly publicized questions regarding the F-35’s combat effectiveness, more pressing issues remain about its basic reliability. If the most expensive weapons system in history can’t even get off the ground often enough to train pilots adequately, then all the money spent on it has been wasted.


All this is in addition to the fact that the F-35B is running on software and hardware in some cases that only gives it a fraction of its intended capabilities and weapons options. This means its effectiveness against any sort of robust foe is highly questionable and its ability to provide precision close air support is lacking compared to fighters and attack aircraft currently in the inventory.

Regardless of all of these troubles, and yet more key issues with the aircraft’s systems and durability, the Marines just went right ahead and declared the F-35B operational a few months after the test in question concluded.


A recent report by War Is Boring also shows that the Marines are not alone when it comes to selectively blurring the definition of what is an operational F-35. The piece details how a truthful developmental milestone, the F-35 with full Block 3 software and capabilities, was envisioned to mark the aircraft’s initial operational capability (IOC) with the USAF.


Because this would delay IOC by two years, it was dismissed and an earlier milestone was arbitrarily put in its place. The potential loss of international sales, the damage to the program’s already bruised image, and Congress’s enthusiasm for continuing to purchase a combat aircraft in great numbers that was not yet ready for combat were obvious reasons why this bait and switch maneuver was executed. War Is Boring says:

“The read on Congress from Maj. Gen. Tod Wolters, [from the] Air Force Legislative Liaison Office, was that there was more support overall for an early declaration in [calendar year] ’16 as opposed to sticking to Block 3F with a CY ’18 declaration. These opinions came from the negative connotation with having over 180 F-35A aircraft parked on runways without IOC and also being two years behind the Marines.”


And they conclude:

“To meet a deadline that Congress found acceptable, the Air Force decided to debut F-35s that it knew full well wouldn’t actually be combat-ready in any meaningful sense of the term. In May 2013, the flying branch submitted its F-35 IOC date to Congress and then, according to the history, “began the tense wait to see if the JSF program could fulfill its promises over the next three years.”


It is not just the massive cost overruns, vacant promises and increasing timelines that make the F-35 program so controversial, it is the lack of any sort of honesty or accountability from the top. The endless finagling key definitions, sugar coating of information and shell games with stated capabilities versus real ones are just tiring, not to mention the program’s rebuttals to criticism that are loaded with distracting disinformation. It all adds up to make the F-35 the ultimate poster child for the military industrial complex run amok.

Back to the POGO report. Their conclusion hits home:

“Traditionally, declaring IOC has depended upon completing combat-realistic testing, as was the criteria for the F-22’s IOC declaration in 2005. The Marine Corps admits the “initial” deployments are several years down the road. F-35Bs will not be deployed to Okinawa until 2017 at the earliest, and won’t bedeployed on amphibious assault ships until 2018. It’s clear that the F-35B’s IOC declaration does not establish that any necessary combat capabilities have actually been achieved. It simply establishes that the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office and the Marine Corps were doggedly determined to reap the public relations benefits of meeting their artificial IOC deadline—even if in name only—no matter what.”


Sadly, neither the military nor Lockheed can be trusted when it comes to this program. They have proven over and over again that there is little light between one another, and it is clearly apparent that they are willing to say and do virtually anything to produce thousands of these aircraft, regardless of what form they are in when they roll off the production line.


With all this in mind, how can we believe any milestone declaration from the F-35 Program in the future? It is clear that they will continue to write the F-35’s story to fit their needs, regardless of reality. As for their lame attempts to show great progress through manipulating definitions, declaring meaningless triumphs and not acknowledging damning performance data, think about this:

An F-35 was actually built in Europe before an F-35 ever made it to an air show on that continent as was promised years ago.


And finally, I will leave you with these last bits of info to mull over:

It has been eight years, eight months, and 30 days since the F-35A’s first flight.


It has been 15 years, five months, and 21 days since the X-35 first flew.

It took 7 years, 1 months, and 25 days from Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon to landing on it. How much more time (and money) does the F-35 get?

Illustration for article titled Not A Big Surprise: The Marines' F-35 Operational Test Was Far From Operational

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Bryce Williams

About 10 years and 4 jobs ago, I was on the JSF program. The director of our department was notorious for two things:

1) Dialing into meetings or missing them completely because he was overseeing the construction of his huge house on Lake Lanier.

2) Badmouthing our SR-71 pilot team member to the point that he declared he wouldn’t trust him to order janitorial supplies.

He was just one of many in what was not so affectionately referred to as The Marietta Mafia.