Serious concerns raised about F-35 jet and Australia's $24 billion commitment

Troubled: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. A senior Pentagon official providing his yearly assessment of the program said the F-35 couldn't win a dogfight against an older jet.
Troubled: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet. A senior Pentagon official providing his yearly assessment of the program said the F-35 couldn't win a dogfight against an older jet.

A SENIOR Pentagon official has slammed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, saying it could not win a dogfight against an older jet, could not meet its test and evaluation deadlines, and could not fly unsupported against a threat.

Pentagon director of operational test and evaluation Michael Gilmore warned that producing and developing the F-35s at the same time meant 500 jets expected in 2019, including jets bound for Australia’s major F-35 base at Williamtown, would require a “still to be determined list of modifications”.

The unaffordability of some of the modifications “may potentially result in left-behind aircraft with significant limitations for years to come”, Mr Gilmore said.

A schedule to complete test and evaluation by late 2017 was “unrealistic”, he said.

Mr Gilmore’s widely-anticipated annual report raises even more serious questions about Australia’s $24 billion continuing commitment to the program, which has blown out from $12 billion in 2014, and is the subject of a Senate inquiry taking submissions until February 19.

The Joint Strike Fighter has failed to meet test and evaluation milestones to gain Initial Operational Capability (IOC), with Mr Gilmore warning that just one block of developmental flight testing was terminated in May last year, delivering an aircraft with “deficiencies and limited combat capability”.

If used in combat the aircraft would “need support from command and control elements to avoid threats, assist in target acquisition, and control weapons employment for the limited weapons carriage available (i.e., two bombs, two air-to-air missile)”, Mr Gilmore found.

He criticised a proposed “block buy” process requiring foreign partners including Australia to purchase substantial numbers of aircraft, with the possibility that commitments to the “block buy” would be made before operational testing is complete.

Mr Gilmore questioned whether such an approach was consistent with a US code requiring a full operational test and evaluation report to Congress before a commitment to full rate production.

Tests of a pilot escape system in July and August last year resulted in “failures of the system to successfully eject a manikin” that weighed 103 pounds.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry into the Joint Strike Fighter program, the Australian Department of Defence’s former director general for test and evaluation, Dr Keith Joiner, criticised an over-reliance on American evaluation processes, and warned of a looming deadline for the retirement of Australia’s ageing Hornet jets.

Significant problems with the Joint Strike Fighter meant Hunter jobs and the economic benefits of a $1 billion redevelopment of Williamtown were at risk, Dr Joiner said.

“There’s no guarantee that America’s going to be able to deliver us this project in 2019 and if it’s not managed better from the Australian end, then those Hunter jobs are at risk,” Dr Joiner said.

The Senate inquiry is considering what future air defence needs the F-35 is intended to fulfill, aircraft performance in testing and potential alternatives to the Joint Strike Fighter. It will report back to Federal Parliament in May.

Submissions to the inquiry from former senior RAAF officers, including Dr Joiner, say the more serious issue facing Australia is the failure to get the F-35 from the test and evaluation stage to initial operating capability (IOC) status, against a looming deadline for the retirement of Australia’s ageing Hornet jets.

“We committed to the F-35 as an off-the-shelf aircraft but the decision was made while it remains under development in the US. The test program has not met its milestones, and the belief that on paper and in simulation it would meet our requirements and is good value for money is not being backed up,” Dr Joiner said.

In early 2014 Liberal backbencher and Joint Strike Fighter critic Dennis Jensen said Australia should have “at the very minimum, waited until the aircraft passed operational testing evaluation in America” before committing to the project.

His comments came two years after a damning Senate inquiry into Defence procurement that found it was “an organisation that seems incapable of learning from past mistakes”, and was “destined to repeat them” unless that changed.

It was also an organisation with “a mindset that simply cannot, or refuses to, comprehend the meaning of independent advice”.

In his submission Dr Joiner, who retired from Defence in January last year after a career that included a period working at Williamtown, said he unsuccessfully raised his concerns about the test and evaluation strategy for the F-35 directly with the Joint Strike Fighter project office.

“Of the more than 100 draft government submissions I reviewed, this was the most difficult for me because it was my own service,” Dr Joiner said.

Retired RAAF wing commander Anthony Wilkinson was one of several former Defence personnel to question the choice of the F-35 in a submission to the inquiry.

“The aircraft may be full of classified electronic equipment but the unclassified fact remains that it can’t fly unrefuelled from Sydney to Darwin,” Mr Wilkinson wrote.

Retired Air Vice Marshal Kym Osley, who headed the Joint Strike Fighter program for the Department of Defence, told Hunter business leaders in November that the decision to base the jets at Williamtown meant Defence investment in the Hunter for many decades.

“It is not a decision that can be easily undone, and the next time the decision will come up will be decades in the future, perhaps around 2050,” Mr Osley said.

Dr Joiner welcomed the Senate inquiry as an opportunity to debate the commitment to the Joint Strike Fighter, particularly after the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau withdrew his country from the project.

He was not against the F-35, but recommended Australia commit test and evaluation staff to the American evaluation process after resourcing was found to be an issue. Other partner countries should also commit test and evaluation staff, he said.

“It’s not black and white. There’s lots of things we can be doing, and that includes having a much more open and mature debate instead of just saying ‘She’s alright’.”

A spokesman for the American F-35 program executive office, Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, said there were no surprises in Mr Gilmore’s report.

“All of the issues mentioned are well-known to the Joint Program Office, the U.S. services, international partners and our industry team,” he said.

“Although the director of operational test and evaluation 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.

“Our government and industry team has a proven track record of overcoming technical challenges discovered during developmental and operational testing and fleet operations, and delivering on program commitments.”

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