The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II might be the world’s costliest and most divisive warplane, but there’s something to be said for the seemingly Teflon-coated Joint Strike Fighter’s resiliency.
On 28 April, just days after the developmental aircraft’s many flaws were enumerated at a Senate hearing, the US House Armed Services Committee agreed on a defence policy that would fund 11 more F-35s in fiscal year 2017, on top of the 63 aircraft already requested by the US services.
Congress, despite many members being vocal critics of the aircraft, has made adding money for F-35s something of an annual tradition, having also added 11 more Lightning IIs than requested in the current fiscal year 2016 defence budget.
Though US lawmakers decry the concurrent development and production of such a sophisticated and technologically difficult piece of military hardware, they don’t seem at all concerned about bolstering production with extra aircraft.
F-35C visits Hill AFB, Utah
US Air Force
The decision to develop and build the JSF aircraft simultaneously was described this week as “acquisition malpractice” and the cause of a “long nightmare”. That's because every one of the approximately 500 aircraft that will be delivered prior to the introduction of the full warfighting Block 3F configuration in 2018, at the end of the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, will need to be retrofitted at great expense.
However, Pentagon officials note that the aircraft and propulsion system's fundamental design is stable and the main challenges relate to updatable software and the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), which still hasn’t successfully incorporated engine data.
The Pentagon’s top weapons tester J Michael Gilmore told Congress this week that after fifteen years of development and one year out from the planned start of operational testing in late 2017, the F-35 “remains immature and provides limited combat capability”, although corrections are being made.
The Defence Department’s acquisition czar Frank Kendall says the “F-35 is no longer a programme that keeps me up at night” and testing is about 90% complete. “I do expect additional discovery, but I will be surprised if a major design problem surfaces at this point,” he says.
Along with the 11 more F-35s, the House Armed Services panel also authorised funding for 14 more Boeing F/A-18E/Fs for the US Navy. If approved by the full Congress, those extra Super Hornet orders would help keep production in St Louis, Missouri humming at a sustainable level, even if some international orders don’t materialise.
Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet aboard an aircraft carrier