The world’s most lethal weapon is so impressive that Australia committed to purchase 72 of them.
But the $17 billion investment to arm the Australian Defence Force with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is behind schedule and plagued with a host of new problems that put pilots at risk and the entire program under a cloud.
According to documents seen by US military journal Defense News, 13 new category 1 problems have been identified. A category 1 problem is classified as the most serious type of deficiency.
Among them are issues with the way the jet handles at superspeed and during sharp maneuvering, but perhaps more alarming is the reported cabin over-pressurisation that leads to “extreme ear and sinus pain” for those behind the controls.
Two missions have been aborted because pilots were struggling in the cockpit.
Other issues include visibility at night under “low starlight” and damage to the tail of the aircraft when it exceeds the speed of sound (mach 1).
According to the report in Defense News, the new problems add to a long list of issues that have plagued the F-35’s development.
“Many of those problems have not been publicly disclosed, exposing the lack of transparency about problems with the most expensive weapons system ever bought,” associate editor Jeff Martin said.
“Until all issues are fixed, questions will remain about the F-35’s capabilities and what problems are being publicly disclosed.”
It’s not the first time the F-35 has been the subject of concern. A test pilot wrote a seething review of the stealth aircraft in 2015, when the F-35 was already six years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
The review followed a simulation that saw the F-35 pilot trying to “shoot down” an F-16, while at the same time doing its best to evade an attack. The pilot declared the F-35 was no match for the much older version of fighter jet.
“Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” he wrote.
“Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead; the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution.”
Lockheed Martin issued a statement in response to the story this week, declaring “each of the problems is well understood” and that the manufacturer is confident it can problem solve all glitches.
As news was breaking, the F-35 was doing a flyover of Washington. The official Twitter account of the F-35 Lighting II wrote it was “a true sight to see — a rare flyover, the F-35 soared above the White House demonstrating 5th Generation airpower”.
Wing Commander Darren Clare from the Royal Australian Air Force No. 3 Squadron with an Australian F-35A aircraft Source: Supplied
Australia has committed to purchasing 72 of the F-35A aircraft for three squadrons at RAAF Base Williamstown, RAAF Base Tindal and the training squadron, also at RAAF Base Williamstown.
“The first F-35A aircraft was accepted into Australian service in 2018 and the first squadron, Number 3 Squadron, will be operational in 2021,” the ADF says on its website.
“All 72 aircraft are expected to be fully operational by 2023.”
The Air Force describes the F-35 as “a highly advanced multi-role, supersonic, stealth fighter which will meet Australia’s requirements to defeat current and emerging threats”.
“The F-35A is at the forefront of air combat technology. Its advanced sensors and data fusion allows it to gather more information and share it with other Air Force aircraft, Navy ships and Army units quicker than ever before.
“This will greatly enhance the Australian Defence Force’s situational awareness and combat effectiveness.
“In addition, to greatly enhanced situational awareness, the F-35A provides its pilots with significantly higher levels of lethality and survivability in combat.”