The Heritage Foundation recently released a report by John Venable, Senior Research Fellow in the Center for National Defense, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, entitled The F-35A Fighter is the Most Dominant and Lethal Multi-Role Weapons System in the World: Now is the Time to Ramp Up Production. According to Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor for the combat aircraft, the F-35 is “a 5th Generation fighter combining advanced stealth capabilities with fighter aircraft speed and agility, fully-fused sensor information, network enabled operations and advanced logistics and sustainment.” As an experienced fighter pilot, Venable utilized his knowledge of the industry and craft to develop a technical backgrounder based off of interviews of 30 pilots from the nation’s first F-35A fighter squadron and operations and maintenance leaders that focuses on four key areas: the aircraft, simulator, maintenance and logistical support and operations.
While described as the “the most dominant and lethal multi-role aircraft in the world,” the F-35A still needs years of refinement to reach its full potential. The aircraft has several distinct features from third and fourth generation combat aircraft. Third and fourth generation fighters generally flew in tighter formations that allow for mutual support and coverage of pilot “blind spots.” The F-35A’s advanced sensors provide pilots a 360 degree aerial view which allows for wider flight formations that increase accuracy when locating targets.
Fourth generation aircraft also have external stores of weapons and fuel tanks that can impact maneuverability in a combat situation. The F-35A has no external stores so its maneuverability remains constant during threat situations. As a result, pilots would often choose the F-35A over fourth generation aircraft in long range threat scenarios. Venable notes that recent software and hardware upgrades improved the aircraft’s ability to detect and engage surface to air missiles and its weapons portfolio. Pilots interviewed for the report expressed some concerns about how the F-35A performs routine tasks at night, particularly as it relates to use of the helmet mounted display system.
According to the Heritage report, the F-35A’s simulator software has not kept up with the recent upgrades made to the aircraft. Pilots were so concerned about the lag between updates to the aircraft software compared to the simulator software that they felt the simulator may provide training that could impede their abilities in actual combat. As a result, simulator training was viewed as an ineffective replacement for flying time. The F-35A does have embedded training capability that creates a “live/virtual simulation” combat threat. Unfortunately, the training is difficult to use and sometimes “too generic.” The report recommends investing in making improvements to the F-35A simulator and embedded training systems.
From an operations standpoint, the report notes that the F-35A will experience growing pains in the coming years. As the number of squadrons increase, the Air Force will have a difficult time recruiting and training aviators, wingmen, flight leads, instructors and mission commanders, while also strengthening the experience of existing personnel. Pilots already need to fly more sorties per month to develop and maintain their skills. There are also issues related to the F-35A’s operating system, or Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), that can sideline planes. The ALIS system triggers requests for parts supplied by Lockheed Martin that can suffer from shortages. Although, Lockheed Martin recently announced that it was moving its F-35 “suppliers to longer term Performance Based Logistics contracts and Master Repair Agreements to enhance supply availability and reduce sustainment costs.” The Government Accountability Office released a report describing some of the existing challenges related to F-35 parts supply. The Heritage report is a balanced critique of the F-35A program that would appeal to a diverse audience.
At a live-streamed event on the report, Venable noted that most of the organization’s supporters were individual donors not corporations or other entities connected to the defense industry. The report is uniquely appealing because it can be digested by a lay person with an interest in national security and defense. Venable provides background information regarding the evolution of aerial combat and aircraft, pilot training techniques and standards, and combat air squadron operations that are digestible and helpful for lay readers. At the same time, he offers technical expertise and analysis that is useful for defense acquisition personnel, especially those seeking to better understand the benefits and challenges specific to this aircraft.