The sensors on the fighter that are supposed to detect threats — like incoming missiles — often don't know what they're detecting and are returning a high rate of false alarms, Breaking Defense reports. In addition, it is proving difficult to integrate the "threat" data into the fighter's onboard software.
In order to make the alerts more accurate, the plane's system will require highly complex sets of files — called a "threat library" — which then must be incorporated into the onboard system. Creating that "library" requires coordination of data from all across the military's intelligence community, a highly complex operation in itself.
The 2014 annual report by the director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore concluded that, despite improvements to the software, “fusion of information from own-ship sensors, as well as fusion of information from off-board sensors is still deficient. The Distributed Aperture System continues to exhibit high false-alarm rates and false target tracks, and poor stability performance, even in later versions of software.”
— Brian C (@CarletonPlace) March 11, 2013
Thomas Lawhead, a civilian involved in integrating the F-35 for the Air Force, agreed that the fighter's warning system “is still a little too sensitive,” and that the threat information probably won't be ready until just before the planes are scheduled to become operational.
There are different versions of the fighter being developed and the one scheduled to be operational first is the Marine's F-35B which is slated to debut in the summer of 2015. The Navy's is currently expected in 2018, if all goes well.
"Flying Swiss Army Knife" to Cost $1 Trillion
But if history is any guide, there's plenty of reason to believe all will not go well. Since the program to develop the fighter jet began in 2001, it has seen costs soar even as deadlines are pushed back repeatedly. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) — hardly known as an outspoken critic of the military — called the program “one of the great national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars are concerned.”
— Straus Reform (@StrausReform) March 12, 2015
The program has already nearly doubled its original budget to $400 billion dollars in spending — making it the most expensive plane in history. And that doesn't take into account the $5 billion or so the military has spent to extend the existing fleets this plane was supposed to replace or the $650 billion or so in maintenance costs the Government Accountability Office has estimated will be necessary, which would bring the total cost to well over $1 trillion dollars over the next few decades.
Many attribute the difficulties of the program with the overzealous demands from all branches of the military to incorporate features to suit their particular needs all in one plane, with some calling it the Flying Swiss Army Knife. The F-35 is supposed to be a bomber, a fighter, and capable of performing ground support, but some of those capabilities have contradictory needs. Add to it a load of highly complex computer systems and by trying to please everyone, it may end up performing for no one.
In 2008 the RAND corporation — a think tank that works closely with the US military — reported on a series of war simulations involving the F-35 and their analysis was leaked to the press with its pessimistic conclusions. “Inferior acceleration, inferior climb [rate], inferior sustained turn capability,” the analysts wrote. “Also has lower top speed. Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
— FCNL Budget (@FCNLBudget) March 3, 2015
Just recently, another software related error was announced, which means that the fighter won't be able to fire its primary guns until 2019. It will also not have the necessary software to operate one of its precision guided bombs until 2022.
There's also been a lot of concern over the possibility that this supposed state-of-the-art stealth fighter — supposedly designed to evade detection through its size and special coatings — isn't actually very stealthy. Reports in 2014 indicated that the F-35 might actually be vulnerable to Chinese and Russian advances in radar technology.
The planes were also rushed into production before design was even completed, meaning the military has spent billions of fixing already produced aircraft that were faulty.
"This will make a headline if I say it, but I'm going to say it anyway," Frank Kendall, a top Pentagon official, said in 2012. "Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done."
— Billmon (@billmon1) August 6, 2014