To call the F-35 fighter project a debacle would almost be a term of endearment. Recent estimates have suggested that the total costs of the F-35 may rise higher than the estimated total of $1.4 trillion because of the costs and time needed to develop a new data processor with additional capacity.
Currently, the aircraft’s data processor is operating at maximum capacity and there will be a need to upgrade this capacity for the first increment of Block 4 to operate. In addition there is an acknowledgment that such a processor upgrade might not even be available until the second increment of Block 4, which would clearly impact the testing and delivery of the first increment of Block 4 capability. This would then mean that the Department of Defence would effectively be negotiating prices for those aircraft without knowing if or when the more advanced capabilities will be delivered and whether they will even be operational.
For a mere few million dollars and around 9 to 12 months testing, the project could have lowered the risk of pilot death or injury from 22 to 0 with respect to ejector seats and yet incredulously this was declined despite these minimal costs and associated timescales. In addition it has been reported that pilots and military planners alike have reported concerns about activating the ejection seat mid-flight which could snap a pilot’s neck, especially those that weigh around 150 pounds.
Since 2011, more than a dozen F-35A pilots have experienced breathing difficulties due to an improper mixture of oxygen and other gases during flight. The risk of hypoxia increases with altitude and therefore pilots require the correct mix and pressurised air to take such altitudes into account. Work is underway to seek to resolve these issues.
But perhaps the most damning aspect is that the US Department of Defense is considering retiring more than 100 F-35s from combat duty rather than upgrade them with a new software configuration. Currently 108 fighters are in need of a software upgrade from Block 2B platform to the combat-ready Block 3F. These upgrades are understood to be time-consuming and expensive with around 150 modifications needed in every aircraft to bring them up to the required standard. The fact that it might actual be cheaper to retire such F-35s from combat duty would seem to be an incredible oversight.
After 25 years of development, the F-35 has yet to enter into combat missions on a single occasion. Full production is slated for 2018 but given the history of this fighter aircraft we are not going to hold our breath.