The jet that's supposed to make up more than 90 percent of America's combat aviation fleet may have become a lot easier to shoot down.
Lockheed Martin, makers of the Joint Strike Fighter, has been under huge pressure to stabilize the jet's skyrocketing costs. Production prices have nearly doubled on what was supposed to be an "affordable" fighter. R&D money is up another 40 percent. Some analysts predict the program could run as much as $388 billion for 2,400 jets.
So Lockheed decided "to trim 11 pounds and $1.4 million from each aircraft by removing shutoff valves for engine coolant and hydraulic lines and five of six dry bay fire-suppression systems," according to InsideDefense.com.
But those cuts made it much harder for the Joint Strike Fighter to withstand a hit from an anti-aircraft weapon. "When you have something full of fuel under high pressure, some of it very hot, flowing close to hot metal parts and 270 VDC electrical components, your shutoff and check valves and fire suppression in the dry bays (places fuel will spray into) are your only defense," a knowledgeable observer notes.
Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department's chief weapons tester, recommended in a letter to Congress last month "that these features be reinstated." The amount saved by trimming these components, he noted, would be more than made up, if just two aircraft were lost.
"Live-fire ballistic testing has demonstrated that the JSF is vulnerable," added Lt. Gen. George Trautman, the Marines' deputy commandant for aviation.
Now, one of the JSF's now selling points was that it wouldn't have to worry to much about taking on anti-aircraft fire; the jet would be so stealthy that the ground-to-air guns would never find it. But according to a report published by Air Power Australia, the plane is easier to spot than originally advertised. In fact, it is "demonstrably not a true stealth aircraft."
Locheed says a recent "technological breakthrough" has fixed all that: a fiber mat that can blend stealthy qualities right into the composite skin of the aircraft.
And in an e-mail to Danger Room, Lockheed spokesman John Kent basically said the Pentagon tester was all wrong about the plane's vulnerability.
"Rigorous combat analysis revealed that the survivability improvements afforded by the engine fuses and fire extinguishing features were very small," Kent wrote. "These changes were thoroughly reviewed by the F-35 Operational Advisory Group and approved through the joint JSF Executive Steering Board, which includes membership from all nine JSF partner counties. All agreed that the weight saved by the elimination of these components would be better utilized in maintaining the performance capabilities of the aircraft. The present design meets the JSFPO's expectations for vulnerability."
Well, yeah. That's true. "With the exception of a 30mm high-explosive incendiary round typically associated with light anti-aircraft artillery," Trautman wrote. Like the kind Russia has, and sells all around the world.