The recent news of the F-35’s parts shortage is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a Titanic-sized program riddled with performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. The $1.4 trillion-dollar Joint Strike Fighter program is the most expensive weapons system in human history. A program that promised capabilities to justify its overwhelming cost has clearly missed its mark and is nearly 7 years behind schedule.
Is the JSF program the ‘too big to fail’ of defense programs? Or maybe it’s ‘too big to fly’? The F-35 has more than 8 million lines of code. That’s more than four times as much as the F-22. That is a risk given the unreliability of computer software, not to mention the threat of hacking. Dan Grazier, of The National Interest, digs into some of the critical software and system failures the F-35 is facing.
● False Targets and Inaccurate Locations:
Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), was singled out by pilots as inferior in resolution and range to the systems currently being used on legacy aircraft. EOTS is one of the systems designed to help the F-35 detect and destroy enemy fighters from far enough away to make dogfighting a thing of the past. Mounted close to the nose of the aircraft, it incorporates a television camera, an infrared search and track system, and a laser rangefinder and designator. These sensors swivel under computer control to track targets over a wide field of regard and display imagery on the pilot’s helmet visor display.
But the limitations of EOTS, including image degradation with humidity, force pilots to fly in closer to a target than they had to when using earlier systems just to get a clear enough picture to launch a missile or take a shot. The report says the problem is bad enough that F-35 pilots may need to fly in so close to acquire the target that they would have to maneuver away to gain the distance needed for a guided weapon shot. Thus, the system’s limitations can force an attacking F-35 to compromise surprise, allowing the enemy to maneuver to a first-shot opportunity. Surrendering the element of surprise and enabling an opponent to shoot first is what we want to force the enemy to do, not ourselves.
● Jittered Images and Double Vision on Helmet Display:
The Distributed Aperture System (DAS) is one of the primary sensors feeding the displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system, and it is also failing to live up to the hype. The DAS sensors are six video cameras or “eyes” distributed around the fuselage of the F-35 that project onto the helmet visor the outside view in any direction the pilot wants to look, including downwards or to the rear. At the same time, the helmet visor displays the flight instruments and the target and threat symbols derived from the sensors and mission system. But because of problems with excessive false targets, unstable “jittered” images, and information overload, pilots are turning off some of the sensor and computer inputs and relying instead on simplified displays or the more traditional instrument panel.
● Bad Data Shared Across Network:
And as bad as the problem is in a single plane, it’s much worse when several planes are attempting to share data across the network. The F-35 has a Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) that is designed to enable the plane to share information with other F-35s in order to give all the pilots a common picture of the battlespace. It does this by taking all of the data generated by each plane and combining it into a single, shared view of the world. But this system, too, is creating erroneous or split images of targets. Compounding the problem, the system is also sometimes dropping images of targets altogether, causing confusion inside the cockpits about what’s there or not there.
● Fixing Maneuverability and Performance Problems with Software:
This latest report confirms the F-35 is not as maneuverable as legacy fighters. All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.” One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.
Transonic speeds, just below the sound barrier, are the most critical spot of the flight envelope for a fighter plane. These are the speeds where, historically, the majority of aerial combat takes place. And it is at these speeds where the F-35 needs to be the most nimble to be an effective fighter.
The program has attempted to fix the maneuverability performance problems by making changes to the F-35’s flight software rather than by redesigning the actual flight surfaces that are the cause of the problems. The software, called control laws, translates the pilot’s stick commands into behavior by the aircraft. One would expect that certain force by the pilot on the stick would result in an equivalent response by the plane. Because of the software changes, that’s sometimes not the case. For example, if a pilot makes a sharp stick move to turn the plane, the control law software now results in a gentler turn to prevent problems such as (and including) dig-in. F-35 apologists try to dismiss such issues by claiming that the F-35 was never intended for close-in aerial dogfighting, a claim belied by the Air Force’s insistence that the jet be equipped with a short range air-to-air gun.
● Radar Used to Attack Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Gives Away F-35’s Location:
The F-35’s main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120, is a beyond visual range radar missile; as a result, the F-35 has to use a large radar transmitting high-power signals in order to detect airborne targets and then guide the missile to them. Likewise, the aircraft has to employ high-powered ground mapping radar signals to find ground targets at long range. Moreover, if the plane’s systems have to communicate with other aircraft in the formation or with off-board supporting aircraft like AWACS, it has to use its radios and data links. The F-35 is thus likely susceptible to detection by passive tracking systems. Several of these passive detection systems are significantly less expensive than search radars—and they are virtually undetectable electronically.
● Limited Weapons the F35 Can Carry Limits Flexibility in Combat
The F-35 can currently only carry a few models of large guided direct attack bombs. None of these can be launched from a distance like a power guided missile. Rather they fall on a ballistic trajectory from the aircraft to the target, which means they can only be released at relatively short ranges in view of the target. For now F-35 pilots “will be forced to fly much closer to engage ground targets and, depending on the threat level of enemy air defenses and acceptable mission risk, it may be limited to engaging ground targets that are defended by only short-range air defenses, or by none at all.”
The small number of weapon types the F-35 can carry also limits its flexibility in combat.
● Inability to Hit Deep Strikes:
The ability to penetrate heavily defended airspace to destroy fixed targets deep in enemy territory is an often-cited justification for the F-35. Of course, the F-35’s limited range—less than legacy F-16s—means that it is unlikely to be able to perform what the Air Force likes to call “deep strikes” well inside the homeland of large nations such as Russia and China.
● The F-35 Cannot go to War Without its MDL’s:
Equally crippling, until the ground radar simulator equipment is in place, the F-35 program will be unable to properly develop, validate, and update the F-35’s mission-critical onboard software files, called Mission Data Loads (MDLs). MDLs are huge files specifying all target and threat locations together with their individual electronic and/or infrared signatures and all relevant mapping data. Without accurate, up-to-date MDLs, the F-35 cannot find targets or evade and counter threats—nor can it carry out the networking and sensor fusion functions that are said to be its primary strengths. The F-35 cannot go to war without its MDLs. The MDLs also need to be updated continuously with information concerning such things as threats, targets, and signals that is gathered on every F-35 mission. F-35 pilots can only be sure the MDLs they need to survive work properly after they have been tested over ranges equipped with the necessary ground radar simulator equipment.
These are just some of the setbacks Dan Glaizer points out. For the full list, read his article here.
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