An F-35 jet sits on the tarmac at its new operational base Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah. Two F-35 jets touched down Wednesday afternoon at the base, about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City.

An F-35 jet sits on the tarmac at its new operational base Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015, at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah. Two F-35 jets touched down Wednesday afternoon at the base, about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City. AP / RICK BOWMER

The F-35’s Terrifying Bug List

The Pentagon’s top testing official has weighed and measured the F-35 and found it wanting.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs the most expensive military program in the world, is even more broken than previously thought. The jet can’t tell old parts from new ones, randomly prevents user logins into the logistics information system, and trying to eject out of it will likely result in serious neck injury and maybe death. A Pentagon office is warning that the plane is being rushed into service.

The Pentagon’s office of testing and evaluation on Monday released a report detailing major problems, or “deficiencies” with the aircraft. The report follows the release of a December memo by Michael Gilmore, the Department of Defense's director for Operational Test and Evaluation, or OT&E. The report goes on to question the logic of pushing other governments to purchase large blocks of the aircraft until the issues are fixed.

The Air Force is currently scheduled to announce their version of the plane is ready to begin flying, known as “initial operating capability,” in August or December at the latest. That follows the Marines declaring their version flight ready last summer. After that, the next F-35 milestone is the initial operational test & evaluation phase, scheduled for 2017, in which program watchers test of the plane is operationally capable but also effective. That 2017 projection is unrealistic unless the Air Force takes some serious shortcuts in testing, according to the new report.

So what’s wrong with the F-35?  Below are some of the report’s key findings.

The Version That the Marines Are Using Is Very Buggy

The Marines rushed to finish testing their version of the aircraft in May of 2015 in order to declare initial operating capability by July. The report describes serious problems with the computer software, (the Block 2B version of the software) in the Marines’ F-35 variant. Those software problems include “in fusion, electronic warfare, and weapons employment result[ing] in ambiguous threat displays, limited ability to respond to threats, and a requirement for off-board sources to provide accurate coordinates for precision attack.”  

After the report came out Monday, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, of the F-35 program executive office, issued a statement to cast the report’s findings in a rather more flattering light. “Once again, the annual DOT&E report points out the progress being made by the program,” the statement read, as though responding to a different report altogether. “This includes the U.S. Marine Corps declaring Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in July 2015. The USMC declared IOC with Block 2B software because it provides increased initial warfighting capability. Marine F-35s have the necessary weapons to conduct close air support, air interdiction and limited suppression/destruction of enemy air defense missions.”

That means that the $90 to $180 million Joint Strike Fighter shares many—if not necessarily all—of the same close air support capabilities as the $18.8 million A-10.

ALIS Is Still Terrible, Perhaps Even Getting Worse

In a 60 Minutes segment, reporter David Martin in 2014 made famous problems with one of the  F-35’s key computers, the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, the internal diagnostic system on the plane that was supposed to keep track of the health of virtually every part.  The system was heavily resistant to human overrides. After the segment aired, the Joint Program Office claimed that the override issues had been fixed.

Unfortunately, ALIS’s various updates have left many of the old problems intact and added new ones, according to the report. “Each new version of software, while adding some new capability, failed to resolve all the deficiencies identified in earlier releases,” it states.  

The program executive office acknowledges software bugs remain “the program’s top technical risks … There is more work to accomplish in both mission systems software and ALIS before the end of the development program.”

Lockouts, Confusion, etc.

What forms do these bugs take and what can they do the plane? Here a few of the more alarming finds:

  • The F-35 doesn’t know its new parts from old parts. The computerized maintenance management System, or CMMS, “incorrectly authorizes older/inappropriate replacement parts.”

  • The F-35 fails to detect  if it’s been flying too fast or what effect that might have. “The Integrated Exceedance Management System, designed to assess and report whether the aircraft exceeded limitations during flight, failed to function properly.”

  • The plane “randomly prevented user logins into ALIS.
  • The plane doesn’t know how broken broken parts are: “The maintenance action severity code functionality...designed to automatically assign severity codes to work orders as maintenance personnel create them—did not work correctly.”
  • The plane’s crews need to phone Lockheed Martin tech support because the plane can’t handle the data it needs to process in order to run missions. “Managing data loads associated with mission planning required extensive contractor support.”

The F-35 Will Kill You If You Try and Eject From It

Even more terrifying than flying an F-35 is trying to get out of one by ejecting from it.The entire ejector system is incredibly flawed, as Defense News has pointed out previously.

Pilots under 136 pounds aren’t allowed to fly any F-35 variant. Pilots under 165 pounds have a 1-in-4 chance of death and 100 percent chance of serious neck injury upon ejecting, according to the testing office.

“The testing showed that the ejection seat rotates backwards after ejection. This results in the pilot’s neck becoming extended, as the head moves behind the shoulders in a ‘chin up’ position. When the parachute inflates and begins to extract the pilot from the seat (with great force), a ‘whiplash’ action occurs. The rotation of the seat and resulting extension of the neck are greater for lighter weight pilots,” the report states. Ouch.

It’s a lot to fix. Yet the program executive office insisted that they could remain on schedule to reach operational test & evaluation by the end of the summer of 2017. “Although the DOT&E report is factually accurate, it does not fully address program efforts to resolve known technical challenges and schedule risks. It is the F-35 Joint Program Office’s responsibility to find developmental issues, resolve them and execute with the time and budget we have been given,” Bogdan stated.

Stop Block Buy

Perhaps the most important item on the report’s to-do list is to stop pushing the so-called block buy program wherein partner governments agree to buy a larger number of planes up front, in a “block,” rather than incrementally. The testing office saw that as a recipe for huge numbers of faulty aircraft and bugs becoming harder and more expensive to fix.

Block buy, defense companies like to argue, is one means for pushing down the per unit cost on the incredibly expensive planes, helping the program push out 450 for the United States and partner nations between 2018 and 2020. But the savings realized through block buy might be illusionary, according to the testing office.

“Is it premature to commit to the ‘block buy’ given that significant discoveries requiring correction before F-35’s are used in combat are occurring, and will continue to occur, throughout the remaining developmental and operational testing?” the report asks.

Governments wishing to lock in those savings have to agree to the block buy this year. In light of the new report, they may be asking some similar questions in the months ahead.