Concerns Over Performance and Safety
In 2006, the F-35 was downgraded from "very low observable" to "low observable", a change former RAAF flight test engineer Peter Goon likened to increasing the radar cross section from a marble to a beach ball. A Parliamentary Inquiry asked what was the re-categorization of the terminology in the United States such that the rating was changed from Very Low Observable to Low Observable. The Department of Defence said that the change in categorization by the U.S. was due to a revision in procedures for discussing stealth platforms in a public document. The previous decision to re-categorize in the public domain has now been reversed. Publicly released material now categorizes JSF as Very Low Observable (VLO).
In response to Air Power Australia's criticisms, Australia's Air Vice Marshal Osley said that "Air Power Australia (Kopp and Goon) claim that the F35 will not be competitive in 2020 and that Air Power Australia's criticisms mainly centre around F35's aerodynamic performance and stealth capabilities." Osley continued with, "these are inconsistent with years of detailed analysis that has been undertaken by Defence, the JSF program office, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. services and the eight other partner nations. While aircraft developments such as the Russian PAK-FA or the Chinese J20, as argued by Airpower Australia, show that threats we could potentially face are becoming increasingly sophisticated, there is nothing new regarding development of these aircraft to change Defence's assessment." He then said that he thinks that the Air Power Australia's "analysis is basically flawed through incorrect assumptions and a lack of knowledge of the classified F-35 performance information."
Andrew Krepinevich has questioned the reliance on "short range" aircraft like the F-35 or F-22 to "manage" China in a future conflict and has suggested reducing the number of F-35s ordered in favor of a longer range platform like the Next-Generation Bomber, but Michael Wynne, then United States Secretary of the Air Force rejected this plan of action in 2007. However in 2011, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) pointed to the restructuring of the F-35 program and the return of the bomber project as a sign of their effectiveness, while Rebecca Grant said that the restructuring was a "vote of confidence" in the F-35 and "there is no other stealthy, survivable new fighter program out there". Lockheed has also said that the F-35 is designed to launch internally carried bombs at supersonic speed and internal missiles at maximum supersonic speed.
In 2008, it was reported that RAND Corporation conducted simulated war games in which Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters defeated the F-35. As a result of these media reports, then Australian defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon requested a formal briefing from the Australian Department of Defence on the simulation. This briefing stated that the reports of the simulation were inaccurate and did not actually compare the F-35's flight performance against other aircraft.
The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin added that these simulations did not address air-to-air combat. A Lockheed Martin press-release points to USAF simulations regarding the F-35's air-to-air performance against potential adversaries described as "4th generation" fighters, in which it claims the F-35 is "400 percent" more effective. Major General Charles R. Davis, USAF, the F-35 program executive officer, has stated that the "F-35 enjoys a significant Combat Loss Exchange Ratio advantage over the current and future air-to-air threats, to include Sukhois". The nature of the simulations, and the terms upon which the "400 percent" figure have been derived remains unclear.
In March 2012, Tom Burbage, and Gary Liberson, of Lockheed Martin addressed an Australian Parliamentary Committee about earlier assessments. They stated "Time has moved on since 2008 and we know a lot more about this airplane now than we knew then. ... Our current assessment that we speak of is greater than 6 to 1 relative loss exchange ratio against, in 4 versus 8 engagement scenarios—4 blue F-35s versus 8 advanced red threats in the 2015 to 2020 time frame. And it is very important to note that is without the pilot in the loop and are the lowest number that we talk about, the greater than 6 to 1 is when we include the pilot in the loop activities". They said: "we actually have a fifth-gen airplane flying today. The F22 has been in many exercises and is much better than the simulations forecast. We have F35 flying today; it has not been put into that scenario yet, but we have very high quality information on the capability of the sensors and the capability of the airplane, and we have represented the airplane fairly and appropriately in these large-scale campaign models that we are using. But it is not just us—it is our air force; it is your air force; it is all the other participating nations that do this; it is our navy and our marine corps that do these exercises. It is not Lockheed in a closet gleaning up some sort of result." Although the advanced threats are classified they indicated that all the first-tier air forces in the world would not look at analysis against inferior threats."
Regarding the original plan to fit the F-35 with only two air-to-air missiles (internally), Major Richard Koch, chief of USAF Air Combat Command’s advanced air dominance branch is reported to have said that "I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of the F-35 going in with only two air-dominance weapons." However the Norwegians have been briefed on a plan to equip the F-35 with six AIM-120D missiles by 2019.
Former RAND author John Stillion has written of the F-35A's air-to-air combat performance that it “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run”, but Lockheed Martin test pilot Jon Beesley has countered that in an air-to-air configuration the F-35 has almost as much thrust as weight and a flight control system that allows it to be fully maneuverable even at a 50-degree angle of attack.
Andrew Hoehn, Director of RAND Project Air Force, made the following statement: “Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from the RAND Corporation were involved. Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft.”
In an interview with the state-run Global Times, Chen Hu, editor-in-chief of World Military Affairs magazine has said that the F-35 is too costly because it attempts to provide the capabilities needed for all three American services in a common airframe. Dutch news program NOVA show interviewed U.S. defense specialist Winslow T. Wheeler and aircraft designer Pierre Sprey who called the F-35 "heavy and sluggish" as well as having a "pitifully small load for all that money", and went on to criticize the value for money of the stealth measures as well as lacking fire safety measures. His final conclusion was that any air force would be better off maintaining its fleets of F-16s and F/A-18s compared to buying into the F-35 program. Lockheed spokesman John Kent has said that the missing fire-suppression systems would have offered "very small" improvements to survivability.
In the context of selling F-35s to Israel to match the F-15s that will be sold to Saudi Arabia, a senior U.S. defense official was quoted as saying that the F-35 will be "the most stealthy, sophisticated and lethal tactical fighter in the sky," and added "Quite simply, the F-15 will be no match for the F-35." After piloting the aircraft, RAF Squadron Leader Steve Long said that, over its existing aircraft, the F-35 will give "the RAF and Navy a quantum leap in airborne capability."
Consultant to Lockheed Martin Loren B. Thompson has said that the "electronic edge F-35 enjoys over every other tactical aircraft in the world may prove to be more important in future missions than maneuverability".
In 2011, Canadian politicians raised the issue of the safety of the F-35's reliance on a single engine (as opposed to a twin-engine configuration, which provides a backup in case of an engine failure). Canada, and other operators, had previous experience with a high-accident rate with the single-engine Lockheed CF-104 Starfighter with many accidents related to engine failures. Defence Minister Peter MacKay, when asked what would happen if the F-35’s single engine fails in the Far North, stated "It won’t".
In November 2011, a Pentagon study team identified the following 13 areas of concern that remained to be addressed in the F-35:
- The helmet-mounted display system does not work properly.
- The fuel dump subsystem poses a fire hazard.
- The Integrated Power Package is unreliable and difficult to service.
- The F-35C's arresting hook does not work.
- Classified "survivability issues", which have been speculated to be about stealth.
- The wing buffet is worse than previously reported.
- The airframe is unlikely to last through the required lifespan.
- The flight test program has yet to explore the most challenging areas.
- The software development is behind schedule.
- The aircraft is in danger of going overweight or, for the F-35B, not properly balanced for VTOL operations.
- There are multiple thermal management problems. The air conditioner fails to keep the pilot and controls cool enough, the roll posts on the F-35B overheat, and using the afterburner damages the aircraft.
- The automated logistics information system is partially developed.
- The lightning protection on the F-35 is uncertified, with areas of concern.
In December 2011 the Pentagon and Lockheed came to an agreement to assure funding and delivery for a fifth order of early F-35 aircraft of yet undefined type in spite of general national austerity measures affecting the program.
Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has questioned the capability of the F-35 to engage modern air defenses, in spite of Russia's own admission that the S-300 systems are vulnerable to the F-35.
In July 2012, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed another $450 million to fix the electronic warfare systems of the F-35.
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