It was another banner week from the Pentagon’s most expensive—and most maligned—weapon system. At a congressional hearing this week, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester testified that early operational versions of the F-35 will not be able to provide close air support to ground forces as well the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the 1970s era aircraft affectionately known as the “Warthog.” At the same hearing, Michael Sullivan of the Government Accountability Office testified that the yearly spending on the Joint Strike Fighter would average $12.7 billion a year over the next two decades as the Pentagon ramps up its yearly production rate.
Both the cost and suspect close air support capabilities of the F-35 have been well known. It seems, however, that the program’s problems may be spreading.
Tyler Rogoway of the website Foxtrot Alpha reported this week that a Navy amphibious carrier built specifically to handle the U.S. Marine Corps’ vertical landing version of the F-35 will require forty weeks of upgrades to prepare it for F-35 vertical landing operations. The major problem is, as Rogoway explains, the deck of the USS America cannot handle the heat emitted from engine of the Marines’ F-35B. The America was ostensibly built to handle the heat fromm the vertical landing version of the F-35 because older amphibious carriers could not do so. However, Rogoway continues:
The F-35B’s hot exhaust has the capability to not just scorch these ships existing decks, they can melt right through them like a cutting torch, the purpose-built USS America included. As a result, intricate structural members have to be added underneath spots seven and nine (F-35Bs will only be able to land on these two spots!) aboard the America, and a new deck surface coating must be added in hopes of keeping the jet’s high heat signature at bay.
Veteran military aviation reporter Bill Sweetman noted this problem last year, comparing the F-35B to the Harrier Jump Jet family of aircraft that have been used for vertical landings for decades.
The F-35B—the version of the Joint Strike Fighter that the Marines and the British are buying—is designed to take off in a few hundred feet and land vertically, like a helicopter. Its advocates say that will allow the Marines to use short runways worldwide as improvised fighter bases, providing air cover for expeditionary forces. But to do VL, the engine thrust must be pointed straight downward, and the jet is twice the size of a Harrier. Result: a supersonic, pulsating jackhammer of 1,700-degree F exhaust gas.
In December 2009, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (Navfac) issued specifications for contractors bidding on JSF construction work. The main engine exhaust, the engineers said, was hot and energetic enough to have a 50% chance of spalling concrete on the first VL. (“Spalling” occurs when water in the concrete boils faster than it can escape, and steam blows flakes away from the surface.)
Vertical landings on the America also present a number of other obstacles as well. As Rogoway notes, there are items on the deck of the ship such as “antennas, life rafts and other components that are located in the path of the F-35B’s powerful and hot downwash.” And, of course, the deck’s resiliency is only one problem the planned upgrades will address. Rogoway also explains that the ability of the F-35 and the ship to share information with one another also needs to be overhauled.
Even with its lackluster capabilities and spiraling—and apparently spreading—costs, the Marines hope to declare the F-35B’s “initial operational capability” by July 1st. Apparently it does not matter how many costly upgrades and redesigns the F-35 needs, or how poorly it performs even its most basic tasks. The program really might be “too big to kill.”