The flying branch is rushing new stealth fighter to into service despite flaws and limited fighting capability.
On May 18, 2012, the US House of Representatives dropped a figurative bomb on the US Air Force. Fed up with delays and cost overruns on the US-led international F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program—an ambitious effort to replace nearly all the thousands of jet fighters in the US military and allied air arms with a single basic model—the House wrote language into the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Pentagon to set deadlines for bringing the F-35 into service.
This was a problem for the Air Force's Air Combat Command, which oversees most of the flying branch's fighters and which had hoped to take a wait-and-see approach with the complex, failure-prone F-35, a single-seat, single-engine supersonic stealth fighter that the military hopes will be able to strike targets on the ground and in the air with equal prowess while also evading detection by enemy sensors.
To satisfy Congress while also reassuring the dozens of countries that had invested in, or might invest in, the Joint Strike Fighter program, Air Combat Command proclaimed that its F-35A version of the new warplane would be war-ready no later than December 2016.
But there was a catch—one that the Air Force has not been keen to publicize. In order to meet the end-of-2016 deadline, the flying branch had to badly water down the F-35, diluting its ability to fight and survive against a determined enemy such as Russia, China or Iran. The jet fighter that the Air Force plans to debut sometime before January 2017 is a weak version of itself. One that by the military's own admission won't be capable of reliably winning a high-tech battle.
Congress' May 2012 demand caught the Air Force by surprise. Gen. Mike Hostage, then Air Combat Command's top officer, just a few months earlier had quietly erased the Air Force's old timeline, dating back to 2010, for declaring the flying branch's F-35A version of the Joint Strike Fighter combat-ready.
In 2010, the plan had been to introduce the F-35A no later than October 2016 with war-ready "Block 3" software. Under that schedule, the first operational F-35As would have been capable of performing the full range of missions against even the best-armed foe—including the deadly task of hunting and destroying the latest Russian- and Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles and shooting down fully-armed enemy jets in fast-moving aerial battles.
But a long chain of problems with the F-35's engine, sensors, cockpit layout and other subsystems had scuttled the 2010 plan. Hostage's new plan, which he signed off on in February 2012, was "not date driven," according to Air Combat Command's official history for 2013, which War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
Instead, Hostage wanted to wait to declare the F-35A operational until it had full Block 3 software, including all the code necessary for a Joint Strike Fighter to operate most of the sensors and weapons it's theoretically capable of carrying.
No short-range infrared dogfighting missile. No small GPS bomb. No cruise missile. No gun.
By mid-2015, Lockheed Martin had delivered around 150 F-35s to the Air Force, Marines, Navy and allied air forces. Just 10 of the jets were officially combat-ready—those belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in Yuma, Arizona. The VMFA-121 planes have Block 2B software that's compatible with just three different weapons—a 500-pound laser-guided bomb, a 2,000-pound GPS-guided bomb and the AIM-120 medium-range, radar-guided air-to-air missile. No short-range infrared dogfighting missile. No small GPS bomb. No cruise missile. No gun.
The Block 2B software also limits the F-35's maneuverability and sensors.
But with Congress breathing down the military's neck, Hostage backtracked from his open-ended timeline. According to the Air Combat Command history, Air Force brass were also worried that the absence of a firm deadline for war-readiness would hurt the F-35's sales prospects. Lockheed anticipates selling hundreds or even thousands of Joint Strike Fighters in addition to the 2,400 the Pentagon wants to buy. Everyone is counting on economies of scale to drive down the F-35's current high price tag—no less than $100 million for a single baseline F-35A.
Air Combat Command was in a bind. "Too much of a delay could discourage partners from buying or participating at all," the history notes. "However, the Air Staff made it clear that they wanted to avoid 'F-22 deja vu' by sacrificing capabilities to meet timeline pressures." The Air Force had rushed Lockheed's twin-engine F-22 into service in 2005 even though the plane wasn't actually ready. The stealthy F-22 didn't fly its first combat mission—striking Islamic State in Syria—until September 2014.***
What the Air Force needed was a compromise—a combination of a firm and relatively early date for declaring the F-35A operational plus a version of the F-35 that could be ready by that date without also being a total embarrassment to the military.
Or at the very least, being less embarrassing than having no firm date at all for finally introducing the F-35 into front-line service.
Air Combat Command floated the idea of a 2018 deadline, which might have given Lockheed time to prep the Block 3F software that should give the F-35 most of its combat capabilities. "It was the thought of many involved that the best way ahead was to hold firm to the Block 3F capabilities," the Air Combat Command history recalls, "but Hostage began to realize the overall negative repercussions associated with waiting."
Feedback from lawmakers reinforced Hostage's concerns. "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."
So Hostage bit the bullet. The Air Combat Command boss "stated he was willing to declare IOC at Block 3i, an earlier block with limited capabilities, and certain non-negotiable capabilities." The new deadline for officially declaring the F-35A war-ready would be December 2016.
But there was a catch. By the Air Force's own reckoning, the F-35A with Block 3i software wouldn't be able to fight in the most dangerous environments without unacceptable risk to its pilots. Where before the Air Force required that its Initial Operational Capability F-35s be capable of offensive air-to-air missions and the suppression of enemy air defenses in a heavily opposed "anti-access" environment, under the new planning the initial F-35s would be suitable only for "basic" close air support and other ground-attack missions and "limited" defense-suppression—and none of it in anti-access airspace.
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."
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