A report in the US publication Defence News said the F-35 was still marred by flaws and glitches that could cause risks to pilot safety and also affect the jet's ability to carry out key parts of its mission.
A list of the issues was provided to the Defence Department by iTWire. But a Defence spokesperson insisted: "The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter is the most capable and best value fifth generation multi-role fighter to meet Australia’s air power requirements."
Australia ordered 14 F-35As in November 2009. A second batch of 58 was ordered in April 2014; 28 more are expected to be ordered to bring the figure to 100. There are three versions of the plane: the F-35A is for conventional takeoff and landing; the F-35B for short takeoff/vertical landing; and the F-35C for aircraft carriers.
Eleven countries — Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the UK — are buying the F-35 as their future fighter of choice. Nine partner nations have contributed funds to the plane's development. Canada pulled out of the program.
Defence News said F-35B and F-35C pilots had to observe speed limits to avoid damaging the plane's airframe or stealth coating. Cockpit pressure spikes caused ear and sinus pain and issues with the helmet-mounted display and night vision camera made the task of landing the F-35C on a aircraft carrier difficult.
These are all category 1 deficiencies or major flaws that affect mission effectiveness or safety.
Australia took delivery of two planes in 2017, reportedly at a cost of $120 million each. But no price was mentioned openly, leading some to comment that the only thing stealthy about the F-35 is the price, News Limited reported.
Given the delay in delivery, Australia has already had to buy some F/A-18 Super Hornets to avoid degrading its capabilities while it waits. The original timetable was for the planes to enter limited service in July 2019 and be fully operational by 2023.
The US Defence Department will be deciding soon whether to shut the door on further development and go into full production by the end of the year. The DoD's policy is to eliminate major issues before going into full production, in order to avoid retrofits after planes are delivered.
Defence News quoted Vice Admiral Mat Winter, the DoD's F-35 program executive, as saying of the issues identified, "None of them, right now, are against any of the design, any of the hardware or any of the manufacturing of the aircraft, which is what the full-rate production decision is for. There are no discrepancies that put at risk a decision of the department to approve us to go into full-rate production.”
The 13 issues identified were:
- The logistics system has no way for foreign F-35 operators to keep their secret data from being sent to the US.
- The spare parts inventory shown by the F-35’s logistics system does not always reflect reality, causing occasional mission cancellations.
- Cabin pressure spikes in the cockpit have been known to cause barotrauma, the word given to extreme ear and sinus pain.
- In very cold conditions — defined as at or near minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit — the F-35 will erroneously report that one of its batteries have failed, sometimes prompting missions to be aborted.
- Supersonic flight in excess of Mach 1.2 can cause structural damage and blistering to the stealth coating of the F-35B and F-35C.
- After doing certain manoeuvres, F-35B and F-35C pilots are not always able to completely control the aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw.
- If the F-35A and F-35B blows a tire upon landing, the impact could also take out both hydraulic lines and pose a loss-of-aircraft risk.
- A “green glow” sometimes appears on the helmet-mounted display, washing out the imagery in the helmet and making it difficult to land the F-35C on an aircraft carrier.
- On nights with little starlight, the night vision camera sometimes displays green striations that make it difficult for all variants to see the horizon or to land on ships.
- The sea search mode of the F-35’s radar only illuminates a small slice of the sea’s surface.
- When the F-35B vertically lands on very hot days, older engines may be unable to produce the required thrust to keep the jet airborne, resulting in a hard landing.
At the beginning of 2017, a total of 158 category 1 issues were noticed, all of which could cause injury or death. Among these were issues that could be re citified by updating the applications on a smartphone.
Hardware upgrades were needed to fix others, while still others called for extensive rebuilding, addressing the vulnerability of the rear engine compartment and tail structure. Some other issues called for fixing the pilot’s oxygen supply and making the jet’s ejection seat safe.
At the time the aircraft was not allowed to fly near lightning.