America's F-35 fighter seems to have overcome another setback and is set to be headed back into the sky. But could deeper problems already be emerging?
Last week, the Department of Defense pulled all F-35s from flying. In a statement released on February 22nd:
"A routine engine inspection revealed a crack on an engine blade of the F135 engine installed in F-35A aircraft AF-2 operating at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Engineering teams are shipping the engine's turbine module and its associated hardware to Pratt & Whitney's Engine Facility in Middletown, Conn., to conduct more thorough evaluation and root cause analysis."
In a press release by the F-35 Joint Program Office and Pratt Whitney declaring the planes now ready for duty:
"The engine in question is part of the F-35 test aircraft fleet and had been operated for extended time in the high-temperature environment in its mission to expand the F-35 flight envelope. Prolonged exposure to high levels of heat and other operational stressors on this specific engine were determined to be the cause of the crack.
No additional cracks were found during inspections of the remaining F135 inventory. Within the current DoD inventory, 17 F-35s are employed in test and development at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Edwards Air Force Base; the remaining aircraft are assigned to Eglin Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and comprise the initial F-35 training fleet."
While the F-35 may have a clean bill of health, for now, what does the future hold for the $396 billion dollar program?
One possibility: problems in the internal operation of the F-35 program itself.
Recent comments by Air Force Lieut. General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program manager, certainly seem to show all is not well — and we are not talking about the plane's engine blades:
"What I see [F-35 builder] Lockheed Martin and [F-35 engine-maker] Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine and are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine. I want them both to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years. I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I’m not getting all that love yet."
I am not exactly feeling the love myself. The program manager taking to task the very folks who manufacture the plane is certainly not a good sign. Could there be some sort of problem in the relationship between the very principals who are tasked with ensuring the program's success? If so, what does this say about the actual program itself? Technical issues could be the very least of its problems.
Lockheed Martin spokesperson Laura Siebert responded to the comments in a written statement, explaining that company "is fully committed to delivering the F-35’s unprecedented 5th Generation capabilities to the men and women of our Armed Forces and those of our allies.” She also noted the company was “singularly focused on properly executing the F-35 development, production and sustainment tasks laid out in our various contracts. We do this in partnership with Lt. Gen. Bogdan and the entire JSF Program Office and strive daily to drive costs out of the program."
And here we were worrying about fan blades.
The F-35 is quickly becoming the jet everyone loves to hate. And with the sequester now the talk of the town, big programs like the F-35 naturally have large targets on their backs. The program needs to do all it can in the public sphere to show its cost are justified. Comments like the above can only make matters worse. Private squabbles in such large programs are common, taking them public is quite a different matter altogether.
Such criticism could not come at a worse time. With America's Cold War arsenal of F-15, F-16 and F-18's slowly beginning to show their age in the face of ever advancing Russian and Chinese fighters, America needs a successful F-35 program to ensure its technological edge. With the F-22 production lines closed years ago, there is not much of an alternative.
Truth be told: the F-35 is a highly complex machine that is truly an engineering marvel. Full disclosure — I consider myself a big supporter of the program. There will be technical glitches down the road that may very well ground the planes yet again, maybe even a few more times. Engineers and technicians I am sure are making constant adjustments to ensure in-flight safety as well as smoothing out any rough edges. I doubt we even hear about every glitch or problem. However, with recent problems and a harsh budgetary environment, the F-35 can ill afford anymore bad press — especially self-inflicted wounds that don't heal quickly.