First, the good news: after a nearly month-long flight ban, the Pentagon’s 20-strong Joint Strike Fighter test fleet is back in the air. The military and builder Lockheed Martin determined that the stealthy F-35 jet’s power system, while potentially flawed, did not justify the same prolonged grounding that has turned the Air Force’s 160 F-22s into $411 million hangar ornaments.
Now, the bad news: the test team has admitted another design problem with the $150-million airplane — a weakened wing structure. The admission is sure to fan the political flames raging around the $380 billion Joint Strike Fighter program, which aims to replace most of the Air Force, Navy and Marines’ existing fighters, but has been beset by delays, cost overruns, technical problems and questions over performance.
“The ‘defective’ aluminum beam was detected in November on Air Force and Marine Corps test aircraft after an unrelated bulkhead crack surfaced in the Marine Corps model,” Bloomberg reported. The problem reduces the lifespan of the F-35A and F-35B’s wing from 8,000 hours — roughly 25 years of operations — to just 1,200 hours, or around 5 years.
“This is not considered a serious issue,” F-35 spokesman Joseph DellaVedova said of the flimsy beam. Lockheed argues that the cracks could be considered a good thing, sorta, because the aluminum rib lasted 2,800 hours. But the Pentagon’s top testing official disagrees. Fixing the flaw will be a “difficult and complex process,” Michael Gilmore told Bloomberg. The cost of repairs will come out of the existing F-35 budget, potentially sapping funding for testing and production.
The revelation of the wing flaw could not have at a worse time for the Joint Strike Fighter, the costliest program in Pentagon history. In January then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put the Marines’ F-35B on a two-year probation after discovering structural flaws. In May, Ashton Carter, the military’s former chief weapons buyer, called the F-35’s projected trillion-dollar lifetime purchase and support cost “unaffordable.”
Two months later, Navy undersecretary Bob Work asked naval aviation officials to weigh the implications of killing off either the Marines’ F-35B or the Navy’s F-35C. The Congressional super-committee tasked with cutting the nation’s trillion-dollar annual deficits is said to be considering deep defense cuts on top of the $400 billion in savings the Pentagon has already promised, only increasing the pressure on the F-35. Oh, and there’s also a major program review on the horizon.
Politicians with a stake in F-35 production clearly sense the mounting danger to the newfangled jet. Republican Senators John Cornyn and Saxby Chambliss — respectively from Texas and Georgia, where most of the F-35 work is done — have both recently sent harshly-worded letters to Pentagon officials demanding stronger support for the F-35. The Pentagon’s “failure to sufficiently defend and advocate for the program has enabled and even invited unwarranted criticisms,” Cornyn wrote.
But with the bad news apparently outnumbering the good, is the criticism truly “unwarranted?”