It's customary when a country buys an ultra-expensive bit of aerial kit to get all the contenders for the contract to bring their warplanes to one place for a competitive fly-off. They go head to head in exercises to determine just how well they perform and hold up in a full range of mission scenarios - air defence, air superiority, tactical strike, ground support, precision bombing, patrol, the whole deal. Each contender is graded on each category. Points are also given for the reliability of the aircraft, how much time it takes to turn it around, how many missions it manages to fly each day over the length of the exercise.
The world's costliest and most controversial light bomber is the only warplane that doesn't "do" competitive fly-offs. That's because it does a few things somewhat better than the others but far more things considerably worse.
Just getting airborne is one of those things that the F-35 doesn't do terribly well. At a recent mock deployment of six of the Lightning II warplanes at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho only one was able to boot up its software on a readiness exercise. One out of six was able to answer the bell. That's 600-million dollars (USD) of warplanes to get just one F-35 into the air.
“The Air Force attempted two alert launch procedures during the Mountain Home deployment, where multiple F-35A aircraft were preflighted and prepared for a rapid launch, but only one of the six aircraft was able to complete the alert launch sequence and successfully takeoff,” Gilmore wrote. “Problems during startup that required system or aircraft shutdowns and restarts – a symptom of immature systems and software–prevented the other alert launches from being completed.”
So, if the Americans can't get the damned things to work at home, what are the chances they'll allow the F-35 to be put to the test abroad for "small order" customers such as Canada? There are some things you just don't do in public. Testing the F-35 is one.
But these are glitches and, of course, the manufacturer and the US military have for years been assuring everyone that they'll all be sorted out in due course only they've been saying this for years and still, today, here we are with more of the same old, same old.
And let's remember, the F-35 is getting old. Its design is closing in on 20-years. The programme itself began in 1994. The Lockheed prototype was selected for production in 2001. Even today there's no expectation that flight testing will be completed before 2019.
Meanwhile the adversaries that the F-35 could conceivably be needed to attack have looked at America's 20-year old idea and figured out ways to counter it, including with stealth warplanes of their own design.
John Ivison may still sing the praises of the F-35 but, then again, he writes for the National Post which means his credibility is genetically impaired.