Defense News reported that the F-35 Joint Program Office conveyed category-one deficiencies—those which may keep it from performing its primary mission. The incidents occurred in 2011 after the F-35 B and C variants flew at about Mach 1.3 at high altitudes that almost reached the limits of their range. Inspectors reported “bubbling [and] blistering” of the paint along both sides of the tail of the plane. This suggests that they can only do supersonic speeds for short bursts of time, about 50 seconds, before causing damage that can only be repaired in depots. The jets were coated with a new paint that could better withstand the high temperatures, but due to the many sensitive pieces of equipment on the limited frame they did not make further changes.
This leads to some analysts concluding, again, that the plane is fatally flawed. Some analysts say that the basic concept of a next generation plane that can engage other aircraft at long distances ignores the lessons of Vietnam. Pilots in that conflict experienced greater air-to-air casualty rates as they relied on long-range methods and their short-range dogfighting capabilities eroded. Of course, this leads others in turn to remind readers that the F-35 lost a dogfight to a much older F-16 as recently as 2015.
One retired naval aviator said that limiting the after-burn rates of the F-35 unacceptably limits its capabilities. Other pilots add that it’s unthinkable that a plane is supposed to stay a certain distance away from threats and if it tries to evade them it starts to burn its own plane. This would be especially difficult for the Navy which operates away from ports for as many as eight months. If an F-35 gets damaged like this in the second week of the conflict it reduces the operational effectiveness for the rest of those eight months.
But this sounds much more like sour grapes. This event literally only occurred once each for the B and C variants of the plane almost ten years ago. It happened at the edge of their range and couldn’t be recreated in tests when they tried to assess the problem. If pilots couldn’t cause this problem when they tried it suggests that peeling off the paint for after-burning too long is a very unlikely scenario. Despite what critics say, the pilots report that as they become familiar with the capabilities of the plane the F-35s overcome doubts. Contrary to those that pigeonhole the F-35 as a plane that has to stay a long range or can’t fight close, pilots counter by saying its performance is rather impressive at any range. It is especially good at remaining invisible until it closes to a fatally close range with other fighters.
This problem is simply part of knowing the limitations of the plane. The problem makes for rather scary headlines, but the workhorse F-18 Hornet had similar after-burner limits that pilots knew about, and this seems like a resembling non-issue with the F-35. The problem seems so unlikely that in combat there are 15 other things likely to fail before this becomes an issue.
It’s important that we assess the tools in America’s arsenal, but also that we do so in a way that is more judicious. The F-35 has had numerous issues and cost overruns, but it is finally delivering on its promise in combat missions. This problem has been so rare, and from ten years ago it seems more like clickbait to promote it as a serious flaw.