The Pentagon has established a “red team” to address considerable shortcomings with the F-35C, the carrier-based naval variant of the most expensive weapons project in history.
The F-35, subject to cost overruns and delays throughout its production, reached an initial state of military readiness with its US Air Force and Marine variants in 2016, but the US Navy’s variant lags behind in part due to an issue with its nose gear during catapult-assisted takeoffs from aircraft carriers, Inside Defence uncovered on Wednesday.
Australia has a commitment of around $35 billion to the F-35 project, but that applies to the F-35A, the core model of the fighter and not one affected by this particular problem.
The issue is detailed in a US Navy report with data dating back to 2014 and deals with rough departures from an aircraft carrier that hurt and disorient pilots at the critical moment during takeoff.
The Pentagon’s red team found the problem was due to several factors central to the plane’s design, and recommended several fixes that will take several months to several years to fully fix. The report states that long term actions to address the problem will not take place until 2019, at which point they will take 12-36 months to implement.
Redesigns to the plane, as well as to carriers, may be necessary to fully address the problem.
A Pentagon deficiency report in 2015 stated that extreme movements in the cockpit during launch risked pilot health.
One hundred and five pilots completing catapult launches rated their level of pain or discomfort on a scale of one to five. Of the 105, 74 pilots reported “moderate” pain or a 3, 18 pilots reported “severe” pain or a 4, and one pilot reported “severe pain that persists” after launching from an aircraft carrier.
“The oscillations shake the pilot’s head sufficiently to impair their ability to consistently read flight critical data, which poses a safety of flight risk,” reads the report cited by Inside Defence.
This pain, more than a mere inconvenience, threatens the ability of pilots to read flight-critical data as they perform the complicated task of launching from a moving platform at sea. Exacerbating the problem, some pilots locked down their harnesses to avoid jostling around during the launch, but this makes it more difficult for the pilot to eject, should they need to.
At a roundtable discussion in December, F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan assured reporters that F-35C takeoff problems only occur when the planes takeoff with low weight load outs, saying ” you don’t see this problem at all” when the plane is more laden with ordnance or fuel.
A representative from Lockheed Martin told Business Insider that all the catapult launches they had monitored were successful.
The F-35C was the most expensive variant of the Joint Strike Fighter program for the most recent Low Rate Initial Production contract. The Navy currently operates ageing F-18s, nine of which have crashed or majorly malfunctioned in the last six months of 2016. The Aviationist’s David Cenciotti attributes this to the age of the planes.
Meanwhile, the Navy awaits the F-35C’s groundbreaking capability as other world powers invest heavily in their naval and anti-ship capabilities. President-elect Trump has expressed interest in building dozens of new ships, taking the US Navy’s total from 272 to 350 operational ships, as well as confronting China in the heavily militarised South China Sea.
F-35 pilots have told Business Insider that the F-35s stealth characteristics make it absolutely vital to operating in heavily contested airspace like the South China Sea, the Baltics, and lately Syria.
Lockheed Martin told Business Insider that it will look into the Inside Defence report. This post will be updated with the company’s future comment.
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