New cracks for the F-35B, and life under probation

F-35B Ship Trials

This was then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on 6 January:

The Marine Corps’ short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant is experiencing significant testing problems.  These issues may lead to a redesign of the aircraft’s structure and propulsion, changes that could add yet more weight and more cost to an aircraft that has little capacity to absorb more of either.  

As a result, I am placing the STOVL variant on the equivalent of a two-year probation.  If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame and get it back on track in terms of performance, cost and schedule, then I believe it should be canceled.

The F-35B is back in the news again this morning. Flightglobal exclusively reports that tiny cracks have been discovered on three of the F-35B flight test aircraft, which prevent vertical landings until they are fixed. The cracking problem had been anticipated years ago, and a redesigned actuator support beam associated with the lift fan system was already installed on the last F-35B test aircraft during final assembly.

In the broad scheme of things, discovering hairline cracks in a part that has already been redesigned is not a “show-stopper” kind of problem. On the other hand, the F-35B is less than half-way through a loosely-defined, two-year probation where every new glitch raises the question: Is this enough excuse to trip Gates’ cancellation threat?

The cracking problem is the first technical issue exclusive to the F-35B since Gates issued his cancellation threat. Two other groundings in March and August were caused by electrical and power system faults common to all three variants. In fact, the F-35B had behaved relatively well all year, recovering flight test sorties lost during a disastrous 2010. Gates’ concerns about a costly structural and propulsion system redesign proved invalid. The structural problem was fixed with an isolated redesign of the F-35B’s aluminium-alloy 496 bulkhead. Three of the propulsion system glitches are already fixed and the remaining two problems should be eliminated by February. The shipboard vertical landings in October consumed eight more days than the scheduled 10-day minimum, but otherwise appeared to raise no show-stopping problems that at least we know about.

And, yet, the elusive terms of the F-35B’s probationary status and the uncertainty of the US military’s budget situation will keep us guessing about the STOVL variant’s future. The Department of Defense has never clarified how the F-35B succeeds or fails the terms of probation. 

There is only one other DoD weapon system that was officially placed on a “probationary” status. That was the Boeing C-17. The airlifter is now considered a model programme, but in 1994 it was inarguably in even worse shape than the F-35B is today, having a wing dramatically fail ultimate load test and test crews barely surviving several near-crashes. But the DoD took a very different approach to the C-17′s probation. The terms of success and failure were stated specifically. The USAF and Boeing knew exactly what needed to be done to lift the programme out of probation, and they did.

Tiny cracks in the actuator support beam may become a small footnote in the final story of the F-35B’s success or failure, but the unspoken terms of probation means we don’t know that for sure. It seems a strange way of doing business. Even a convicted criminal is allowed that basic knowledge.


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