Wednesday, March 6, 2013

F-35 design poses risk of being shot down, U.S. pilots warn

From radars that don\'t work, to blurry vision from the aircraft\'s sophisticated helmet, to an inability to fly through clouds, a newly released report on the F-35s, which includes pilot comments, paints a picture of a jet nowhere near ready for real-life operations.
From radars that don't work, to blurry vision from the aircraft's sophisticated helmet, to an inability to fly through clouds, the report, which includes pilot comments, paints a picture of a jet nowhere near ready for real-life operations.PHOTO: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: March 6, 2013, 12:30 pm
Updated: 3 mins ago
OTTAWA — It seems U.S. fighter pilots have lost that loving feeling for their new F-35 stealth jets.
At least that’s the impression given in a scathing Pentagon report leaked this week that identifies a huge number of problems facing the U.S. military’s F-35 fleet — including fears that it can easily be shot down.
From radars that don’t work, to blurry vision from the aircraft’s sophisticated helmet, to an inability to fly through clouds, the report, which includes pilot comments, paints a picture of a jet nowhere near ready for real-life operations.
F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin is refusing to comment, but the report’s revelations will likely give Canadian military planners pause as they continue assessing options for replacing Canada’s aging CF-18s.
The February report from the Pentagon’s chief testing office is based on trial run at the U.S. military’s Eglin Air Force Base in Florida from September to November of last year.
The testing, which was supposed to determine whether aircraft the U.S. had already bought from Lockheed Martin were good enough to start training U.S. fighter pilots with, was actually supposed to take place in August 2011.
But it had to be postponed because a number of critical issues were identified in the aircraft — the majority of which remained unresolved more than a year later.
Because those problems — including issues with the ejector seat — hadn’t been resolved, only experienced U.S. Air Force pilots were allowed to participate in the two-month test.
In addition, a second aircraft had to follow the first at all times, and engine starts had to be monitored with a special equipment to reduce the likelihood of a fire.
Even then, the testing was extremely basic and “did not cover . . . in essence, everything that makes the F-35A a modern, advanced fighter,” reads the report, obtained by the Washington-based watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.
“Aircraft operating limitations prohibit flying the aircraft at night or in instrument meteorological conditions,” the report reads, “hence pilots must avoid clouds and other weather.
“These restrictions are in place because testing has not been completed to certify the aircraft for night and instrument flight,” the report adds. “The aircraft is also currently prohibited from flying close formation, aerobatics, and stalls.”
The report also notes that the F-35A, which is the version the Harper government had intended to buy, “does not yet have the capability to train in . . . any actual combat capability, because it is still early in system development.”
Meanwhile, feedback from the four pilots chosen to take part in the testing was also extremely critical of the aircraft.
The pilots, all of whom had at least 1,000 hours in other U.S. fighter jets, complained that the radar was often not working, their state-of-the-art helmets gave them double-vision or blurry vision, and their flight suits were too hot.
They also blasted a design feature that made it difficult if not impossible to see “aft,” or behind them — a serious threat to the aircraft’s ability to fight.
“The head rest is too large and will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements,” one pilot was quoted as saying. “Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned (killed) every time.”
The report also found problems with maintaining the F-35s.
For example, mechanics are supposed to be able to remove the aircraft’s engine and install a new one in two hours, but the mean time was 52 hours — or more than two days.
The aircraft also experienced difficulties when the overnight temperature dropped below 15 degrees Celsius — an occurrence that will be extremely common in Canada.
“To mitigate this problem, maintenance crews put jets in heated hangars overnight,” the report reads.
“Moving jets in and out of a hangar to keep them warm involves five personnel for three to four hours per shift. The parking of flyable jets in hangar also interfered with maintenance because these flyable jets occupied space that would otherwise be used for jets requiring repair.”
The report also found the aircraft were not as reliable as expected as many required more maintenance than anticipated.
The entire U.S. F-35 fleet was grounded two weeks ago when a crack was found in a test aircraft’s engine, the second such grounding in as many months. The F-35s are now allowed to fly again.
The report comes at a critical time as the U.S. Defense Department is facing billions in budget cuts and there are concerns the stealth fighter, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, will become a casualty.
The Harper government pushed the reset button on its plans to purchase the F-35 last year after National Defence put the full cost of Canada buying and operating 65 of the stealth fighters until 2052 at more than $45 billion.
This came after years of criticism over what has been seen as the Conservatives’ refusal to fully disclose how much the F-35s would cost, and after the auditor general raised serious concerns about the Defence Department’s handling of the file.
Bureaucrats have been ordered back to the drawing board to again examine what missions Canada’s jets will perform in the future, what threats they will face, and what fighter capabilities are currently available.
The Royal Canadian Air Force will lead the review with support from other federal departments, while a panel of independent experts has been tasked with monitoring the process to ensure it is rigorous and impartial.
While no timelines have been laid out, a final report will be produced to guide the government as it contemplates the next step in replacing the CF-18s.

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