Lockheed Martin has boasted the successful elimination of critical bugs that could endanger pilots’ lives and about nine tenths of the other serious flaws threatening the planes’ mission capable status, Bloomberg has reported.
Jon Ludwigson, top F-35 analyst at the Government Accountability Office, the US government watchdog which found some 111 ‘Category 1’ issues (i.e. those that can injure or kill pilots or otherwise jeopardize the plane’s security) in 2018, told the business outlet that the Pentagon’s F-35 programme office has “done a good job at working” with the military “to really prioritize what needs to get fixed versus what would be just a helpful thing to the pilot – getting to the actual things they need to get at.”
Ludwigson also promised that the military and Lockheed “have procedures in place to work around” the issues that remain.
Eight ‘Category 1B’ bugs, designated as those that could present a “critical impact on mission readiness,” remain, with five expected to be fixed by Christmas. These issues include ear-damaging cabin pressure problems, obscured night-vision issues and a glitch which limits the plane’s capability to carry out search at sea operations using its radar. The latter issue isn’t expected to be resolved until 2024.
The F-35 is also said to still have 860 ‘less serious’ bugs, 85 percent of them said to be software-related, with the issues classified as yet to be fixed or verified as fixed. That number has actually grown from 855 in the GAO’s January 2018 report.
The F-35 programme has been on thin ice amid US officials’ search for wasteful Pentagon spending, with 100+ ‘Category 1’ flaws and hundreds of less serious flaws discovered in 2018, years after the planes began to be introduced into the services in 2015. In 2019, the GAO reported that just over a quarter of the F-35s already delivered were actually fully mission capable, citing lack of spare parts, breakdowns and unexpected problems, such as sensitivity to lightning strikes.
The latest fixes come ahead of plans by the Pentagon to determine next year whether the F-35 should continue to ramp up production to the potential 3,200 planes expected in total. To date, only about 520 of the planes have been delivered, and these will need to be refitted to fix the glitches and design flaws, a proposition that will require billions more in spending.
With an estimated lifetime price tag of a staggering $1.5+ trillion, the F-35 is easily the most expensive weapons project in history, and among the most controversial. Many of the plane’s design issues stem from the Pentagon’s attempts to create a one-size-fits-all fighter platform to replace its fourth-generation fighter designs. The US plans to buy over 2,600 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Multiple US allies have also ordered the plane, including the UK, Australia, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and Japan. Turkey was unceremoniously booted out of the programme last year amid the spat over Ankara’s purchase of a Russian-made air defence system.