The F-35 B and C joint strike fighters can only fly at supersonic speeds for short bursts of time at very high altitudes before there being significant risk of structural damage and loss of stealth capability, Defense News reported, citing documents exclusively obtained by the outlet.
Moreover, the US Department of Defense has no plans to implement a fix to the problem, which not only influences the F-35 airframe, but also the low-observable coating that keeps it stealthy, in addition to the many antennas located on the back of the fighter jet.
The F-35 Joint Program Office reportedly classified the issues for the “B” and “C”, respectively for the US Navy and Marine Corps, models as separate category 1 deficiencies, indicating in one document that the problem presents a challenge to accomplishing one of the key missions of the fighter jet. Category 1 is the most serious class of deficiency.
Notably, both deficiencies were first observed in 2011 when both the F-35B and F-35C fighter jets flew at Mach 1.3 and Mach 1.4.
During a post-flight inspection in November 2011, it was discovered the F-35B sustained “bubbling [and] blistering” of the stealth coating on both the right and left sides of the horizontal tail and the tail boom.
Defense News got a comment from Vice Adm. Mat Winter, who leads the F-35 program on behalf of the Pentagon. He said that countermeasures were, in fact, undertaken – including an “improved spray-on coating.”
The justification for the Pentagon not undertaking any other fixes is that the issue only appeared when the fighter jets were being pushed to their limits and the issue only surfaced once for both the B and C models, with tests being unable to replicate it.
“How often do we expect something like that to occur?” he said. “It’s very, very small.”
He further said that if the issue were present in the entire fleet, then that would stop the US Navy from accomplishing its supersonic intercept mission.
“If you had that performance on all of your fleet, then you would have a problem. That’s not the case,” he said.
“We have put into place what we believe are the appropriate technical fix to ensure that our F-35Cs have the full envelope and capability to do the high-speed mission, if needed. That’s where we are. Right now, our United States Navy and Marine Corps flying the sea agree with that,” he said.
Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program head, said there have been no cases of this problem occurring in the operational fleet and that incidents have been limited to the “highest extremes of flight-testing conditions that are unlikely replicated in operational scenarios.”
According to the documentation, an F-35C can only fly at Mach 1.3 in afterburner for 50 cumulative seconds, while a F-35B can fly at Mach 1.2 for 80 cumulative seconds or 40 seconds of Mach 1.3. Which means that the pilot can’t accelerate, then slow back down and use the afterburner again. The engine needs to work at lower power for a while.
It is infeasible for the Navy or Marine Corps to operate the F-35 against a near-peer threat under such restrictions, the documents acknowledged.
“Pilot observed timers are not practical/observable in operationally relevant scenarios,” one document read. Another document said that “pilots will be unable to comply with time limit in many cases due to high mission workload, resulting in lost missions due to aircraft damage.”
And when those timer violations occur, they will result in “degradation of [stealth], damage to [communications, navigation and identification] antennas, and/or significant [horizontal tail damage].”
Bryan Clark, previously a top aide to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments provided a comment to Defense News on the time limit on the afterburner issue.
“I think the operational impact is not huge, since it only applies during a small fraction of the jet’s operational profile. In subs and ships, we have a ‘safe operating envelope’ that defines where the platform is engineered to operate reliably for a long time. We can operate outside the safe operating envelope for a short time, but there are risks to doing so. The operator or commander needs to balance those risks against the benefits,” he said.
“That is similar to this situation,” he added. “The pilot can be on afterburner as long as needed to evade a threat but has to know the risk of structural damage increases. The pilot can balance that against the risk of getting shot down because he or she didn’t evade fast enough.”
Meanwhile, reports surfaced that Poland would purchase the F-35 fighter jets that Turkey would be banned from receiving if it implemented the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
And indeed, on June 13th, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak visited Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, to take a look at the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft.
Minister @mblaszczak: samolot F-35 jest najlepszy na świecie. Będzie współpracował z samolotami F-16, które mamy. Podniesie zdolności obronne #WojskoPolskie o kilka poziomów. To jest przełom. Ten samolot da nam przewagę i będzie odstraszał potencjalnego agresora.
— Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej ?? (@MON_GOV_PL) June 12, 2019
“The F-35 aircraft is the best in the world. He will cooperate with the F-16 aircraft that we have. It will raise the defensive abilities of the Polish Armed Froces by several levels. This is a breakthrough. This aircraft will give us an edge and it’ll be a deterred potential aggressor.”
The US further announced that it would deploy more troops to Poland.
“Poland will provide the basing and infrastructure to support a military presence of about 1,000 American troops. The Polish government will build these projects at no cost to the United States. The Polish government will pay for this,” Trump said.
— Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej ?? (@MON_GOV_PL) June 12, 2019
A declaration was signed by both sides to increase cooperation.
Poland might, in fact, have a chance to buy Turkey’s F-35s, since on June 12th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the S-400 purchase was complete.
“I’m not saying Turkey will buy S-400 defense systems, it has already bought them; we’ve closed the deal,” Erdogan said. “This [S-400] system will be delivered to our country next month,” he added.
Furthermore, it is likely that the many already known problems and the newly appearing ones with the F-35 are part of the reason of the spat in US-Turkey relations and Turkey turning to Russia for military equipment. Ankara is showing that, unlike Poland, it is unwilling to sell its national interest for a flying disaster.
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