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The Lockheed Martin F35’s troubles have been well-documented, ranging from major software issues to a horrendous price tag. But is one of the most advanced military jets in history making good progress?
According to a Secretary of Defense memo, spotted by Bloomberg and the Project for Government Oversight, the F35 is “on a path toward failing” to deliver the full capabilities for the programme by 2018. The memo added that the Department of Defense was paying US$400-billion for the programme.
The memo noted that the military jet would be unable to perform close air support operations as effectively as the older F16, F15E, A10 and F/A-18 aircraft. It cited the limited weapon load of two missiles and two bombs and the lack of an effective gun capability as being the two biggest hindrances in supporting ground operations.
By comparison, the smaller (but not stealthy) F16 is able to carry six GBU-12 laser guided bombs and at least two missiles, in addition to its cannon.
Testing revealed that firing the F35 cannon causes the aircraft to yaw significantly enough to affect aim
“An aircraft-mounted gun is a key weapon for some CAS scenarios when a bomb cannot be used due to collateral damage concerns or when the enemy is ‘danger close’ to friendly troops,” the memo explained.
In fact, testing the F35’s 25mm cannon revealed a rather concerning issue.
“…flight sciences testing of the F-35A recently revealed that the small doors that open when the gun shoots induce a yaw (i.e. sideslip), resulting in gun aiming errors that exceed
accuracy specifications,” read an excerpt from the memo.
Moving ground targets are another issue for the aircraft, despite the fact that the jets can drop GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.
“However, Block 3i [one of the latest F35 revisions – ed] does not have an automated targeting function with lead-laser guidance (i.e., automatically computing and positioning the laser spot proportionately in front of the moving target to increase the likelihood of hitting the target) to engage moving targets with the GBU-12, like most legacy aircraft that currently fly CAS missions,” the memo reported.
Fuel use and target marking is still a concern
Compounding the issue is the fact that, unlike legacy aircraft, the F35 can’t receive target marking information from other platforms. In other words, if a soldier in the field has a portable laser designator pointed at a target, the F35 wouldn’t be able to see it.
“Legacy CAS platforms can mark targets with rockets, flares, and/or infrared (IR) pointers, none of which are currently available on the F-35,” the memo added, noting that the F35 laser designator was able to guide other F35s.
Finally, even if the fighter is able to find and engage ground targets, fuel is another major concern.
“The F-35 has high fuel burn rates and slow air refuelling rates that extend air refuelling times and decrease overall on-station time which may impact mission effectiveness.”
Other notable tech issues at this stage include duplication of tracked targets, logistics information that takes up to 24 hours to be loaded onto the aircraft and night vision “visual acuity” that’s worse than previous generation aircraft.