In April 2018, after almost twelve years and approximately $60 billion spent on testing, the F-35 single engine fifth generation light fighter completed flight tests related to its System Demonstration phase (SDD) - a considerably milestone in the aircraft’s development. U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mathias Winter, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, stated on April 12th 2018 regarding this development: “Completing F-35 SDD flight test is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication from the joint government and industry team.” Vice President of Lockheed Martin and General Manager for the F-35 program Greg Ulmer stated following the completion of testing: “The F-35 flight test program represents the most comprehensive, rigorous, and the safest developmental flight test program in aviation history.”
While the F-35 did complete combat testing, what was little mentioned was that the U.S. military’s Joint Program Office was forced to cancel a number of test points, thus lowering standards to allow the fighter to belatedly reach its performance goals - at least on paper. With the new combat jet’s development significantly behind schedule, and the F-35 failing to meet the standards required of it, this was critical to avoiding further delays and further expenditures. By lowering targets for the jet’s performance the U.S. military would be delivered a considerably less capable fighter than that they had initially planned to induct - a sacrifice made to reduce development costs delays in the aircraft’s delivery.
Completing flight tests under the System Demonstration phase (SDD) promptly was essential to pave the way for the aircraft to start independent initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) to fully assess the fighter’s combat readiness - the second part of the SDD phase. Only afterwards would the Pentagon be able to approve full rate production, which both the U.S. military and the fighter’s developer are eager to see happen as soon as possible - with the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines between the set to induct approximately 2,300 fighters. While Lockheed Martin is already producing approximately 85 fighters per year, including a number being delivered to export clients such as South Korean and Japan, reaching full rate production will mean a considerable expansion to meet the requirements of the United States and its allies for all three variants of the F-35 in a timely manner. While the U.S. Air Force and Marines have declared their first fighters operational before SDD was complete, a tenuous claim at best given the many yet unresolved issues plaguing the jets, the U.S. Navy has refused to declare its own variant of the fighter, the F-35C, combat ready until it has completed the System Demonstration phase - hence why the F-35C is set to enter service considerably later than the other two variants.
With the F-35 program today being by far the most costly weapons program in world history, estimated at approximately $1.6 trillion, it has long been considered too big to fail. With this in mind, it was never a question of if the stealth fighter would pass the System Demonstration phase, but rather when and how it would do so. With completion of the SDD stalling after a number of the consecutive delays, the Pentagon decided to ”˜re baseline’ the F-35 program entirely - essentially shifting the goal posts to allow the fighter to pass the testing phase. With the fighter having been expected to enter full production at least half a decade before 2018, and the aircraft markedly underperforming in testing, this appeared the only way to avoid unacceptable further delays.
Alongside lowering the requirements for the F-35, to allow the fighter to pass SDD a number of test points were reportedly deleted entirely while potentially flawed data on the aircraft’s performance was accepted. As late as September 2017, the fighter’s software had dozens of known deficiencies despite having been declared ”˜fully combat capable’ which seriously affected its performance. Reports indicate that the Joint Program Office has watered down software requirements for several years to meet testing objectives and avoid further delays, with the new ”˜3F’ software also failing to meet full combat capabilities. Flaws in software have reportedly impeded the performance of weapons systems, making the fighter’s cannon widely inaccurate for example, while also impeding the aircraft’s ability to properly display information to pilots and to other F-35 jets in the air. Marine and Navy pilots operating the stealth fighters have complained that these flaws have dangerously affected their ability to fly the aircraft at night. Hypoxia-like symptoms among pilots flying the Air Force’s F-35A have also been reported.
Lowering standards has done much to speed up the F-35’s entry into frontline service, as well as facilitating faster deliveries to America’s allies - many of which have long eagerly awaited the induction of their first fifth generation fighters. The risks both to pilots’ lives and to the capabilities of the U.S. military’s aerial warfare capable and those of its allies however are great indeed, and a flawed F-35 operating in a contested combat zone may well find itself more vulnerable than expected to enemy attacks. While the fighter was never designed for air to air combat, and retains only limited defensive air to air capabilities, the F-35 is nevertheless likely to face advanced enemy combat jets in the air during its lifetime - particularly since the U.S. cancelled the F-22 program prematurely and is considering retiring its F-15C/D Eagles, thus severely reducing its air superiority capabilities which will leave the trouble F-35 more likely to have to fend for itself in air to air combat. While it is a given that the F-35, like any lightweight single engine multirole fighter, would struggle against a dedicated heavy air superiority platform deployed by potential adversaries, with the fighter far less capable than initially planned it may well struggle to engage even older enemy light fighters such as the Russian MiG-29M and Chinese J-10B. Restricted to low altitudes little over 15km, and currently by far the slowest modern fighter in the world with speeds of just Mach 1.6, the F-35 already struggles in air to air combat - an issue set to be compounded as standards for the fighter’s performance are lowered to allow it to enter service sooner. Whether later production variants of the stealth fighter entering service from the mid 2020s will be able to compensate for these shortcomings remain to be seen, but with over 1000 early production variants planned these fighters’ performance shortcomings will likely continue to remain a major issue for their operators for decades to come.