Armed w/ only 2-10 missiles, the F-35 will be deemed "combat ready" in 2015, but won't have gun code till 2019, despite 20 million LOC

After burning through hundreds of billions in expenditures (over $300B USD to date) along its much-delayed development arc, the "joint strike fighter" (JSF) -- also known as the F-35 Lightning II -- has earned the dubious distinction of being the most expensive combat aircraft in history.  But according to a new report by The Daily Beast, the spoiled self-proclaimed "superjet" can't even fire its gun.  

I. Duck Hunt: Lack of Gun Leaves  JSF A Pricy Flying Duck

Yes, according to the report, which cites a number of Air Force pilots and senior officials as sources, the JSF -- with an estimated lifetime cost in the trillions -- after a decade of development the pampered project sports a gun that is currently little more than a decoration hanging as dead weight.

F35 JSF gun
The JSF's gun is little more than dead weight at present, USAF sources say.
[Image Source: Firearms World]

You could say after all that throwing good money after bad, in hopes of developing the "fighter of the future", Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) and its subcontractors owe the American taxpayers the most dominant dogfighter in history.

Indeed Lockheed Martin promised the JSF would be a truly unprecedented design -- the first craft to be able to function both as a bomber and as dogfight-ready fighter. And it would have a number of customized designs for various takeoff scenarios and combat environments.  In short, Lockheed Martin promised the mother of all fighters.

But taxpayers shouldn't be holding their breath as Lockheed Martin's $400B USD bid has been stuttering along for well over half a decade now.  And if things aren't going well, the new report suggests the publicly acknowledged flaws are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Notably, the report cites roughly half a dozen USAF sources as confirming that the JSF has been banned from using its machine gun in combat until it receives a software update.  And that update isn't expected to arrive until 2019.  Until then the JSF isn't quite a sitting (or flying, more aptly) duck, but it's close to it.

Duck Hunt
Immobile and with a crucial piece of weaponry crippled, a dogfight with the F-35 is looking less like a fair fight and more like a "duck hunt". [Image Source: lacosta/Deviant Art]

The gun is dead rate because after roughly 25 million lines of code it's written (code, incidentally, China might have stolen for free), Lockheed Martin apparently couldn't be bothered to write in code to connect the JSF's trigger to its gun.  Air Force officials say that Lockheed Martin is telling them that it's going to take another four full years -- until 2019 -- to integrate the seemingly simple code into its web.

In the meantime the "operational" jet will be a bit lame, officials warn.  But, it's a moot point many pilots say, as the craft's engine is too slow and clumsy for dogfights anyhow.

The only problem?  Americans have to pay the bill for a supposed superfighter.  

Enter the JSF, the spoiled superfighter du jour.

II. $400 Billion Dollar Baby

Word of the new issues come hot on the heels of troubling reports of potential problems with hot fuel.  While it was unclear whether or not the fuel concerns were overblown given the Air Force's statement, the issue with the JSF's rotary cannon -- if true -- is arguably an undefensible strike against the already ailing JSF.

To be fair, this problem isn't only on Lockheed Martin, doesn't make the F-35's gun system.  That role was subcontracted to General Dynamics Corp. (GD).  That said, the failure appears to be mainly on Lockheed's front as GD delivered it by 2007 a functional gun that was below the required weight.  But thanks to Lockheed dropping the ball, one system that looked a much-layup for the embattled jet has become the latest costly turnover.

The JSF is outfitted with a single four barrel 25 mm rotary machine gun cannon, located in its underbelly.  Dubbed the 
GAU-22/A, the General Dynamics gun seemed to be a good fit for dogfighting duty as it's a tweaked version of the heavier five-barrel GAU-12 "Equalizer" cannon used in Boeing Comp.'s (BAAV-8B Harrier II jump jet.
F-35 Equalizer

The F-35's 25 mm "Equalizer" machine gun cannon was supposed to be a layup.  Instead it's turned into the latest debacle for the jet. [Image Source: GD]

Lockheed Martin itself already has working code for an Equalizer, as it uses the GD gun in its AC-130 gunship.  Some readers may recall the AC-130 as the primary craft used in USAF aerial directed energy weapons (laser) platform testing.  The AC-130 is a variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane.  And the AC-130 fleet sports working GAU-12 Equalizer cannons.

But for some unexplained reason Lockheed Martin claims it can't come up with code for a design it is already is using in the field.  And it says it won't have that code finished until roughly half a decade from now, 3 to 4 years after the craft was supposed to be fully "operational".

AC-130 firing flares
Lockheed has code for an almost identical cannon working for its AC-130 gunship (pictured), but somehow porting that code to the JSF codebase is supposedly taking 15+ years of labor.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The USAF source vented frustration over the SNAFU to The Daily Beast, grubmling:

There will be no [option to fire the] gun until [the Joint Strike Fighter’s Block] 3F [software], there is no software to support it now or for the next four-ish years.  Block 3F is slated for release in 2019, but who knows how much that will slip?

In other words, it would seem that by digitizing what was once a simple mechanical function, it appears that Lockheed Martin has warped simple machine gun trigger pulling into a decade-and-a-half development process.

But the failure grows even more bizarre, when you consider that Lockheed has working code for a nearly identical machine gun in use in other planes designed.  That's right -- if the report is to be believed -- Lockheed Martin reportedly is claiming to needs more than 15+ years of coding to port the logic to fire a fixed machine gun cannon with one less barrel and a slightly different firing rate.

If one were paranoid they might suspect that such a farcical seeming claim might be a fabrication designed to obfuscate the apparent failings of the jet's engine design -- failings that have severely limited its speed and maneuverability.  But we'll take the report at its face value, and assume that if true it's just a matter of gross incompetence on Lockheed Martin's part.

II. Coding a Clusterf*ck, or How to Write a 24+ Million Line Code That Can't Do Its Duty

It's not altogether surprising to hear the source of this latest black mark, given that software has been one of the biggest problems on the relatively long list of issues with the Defense Department's spoiled jet.  Part of the problem is simply size.  

In layman's terms the craft's code is what professionals might refer to as a "clusterf*ck", a technical term muttered in cases like these under bated breaths to colleagues.  

F-35 sensors

The F-35 sports unquestionably the most advanced collection of combat avionics ever formulated, but most of its systems appear to be buggy and broken to various degrees.

And how could it not be?  At over 20 million lines of code, the JSF's codebase is one of the largest pieces of software ever created and is perhaps a textbook definition of an overambitious doomed design.

Lockheed packed the JSF with an unprecedented array of sensors, but struggled to put them to use in a meaningful way as code
ballooned to 24 million lines.  While Lockheed Martin has said it hopes to trim down the existing code while adding more functionality, the pace of patches has been reduced to a snail crawl given the size.

Simple changes in the code can literally affect tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lines of code, potentially introducing hundreds of mission-threatening bugs.  It's questionable whether it's even possible to thoroughly bugcheck such a massive code.  There may be a way, but it's become increasingly clear in recent years that if there is a way, Lockheed Martin is unlikely the one to channel that coding magic mojo.

Bugs aside, it also appears Lockheed Martin has lost touch of the fighter's combat needs, in terms of prioritizing features.  According to the report, even with its well over 20 million lines of code, there's no code yet to connect the pilot's trigger to the rotary cannon, so the cannon is essentially dead weight.

F-35 GAU-22/A

Lockheed F-35
Lockheed won't comment on its bizzare inability to integrate GD's machine gun cannon.

Further, the report says this isn't just an issue with the USAF variant, the F-35A.  While the USAF's version might be hoped to be the only version with a dead gun -- given that it's the only version with an internally housed gun (housed by the engine inlet) -- it turns out that the more traditionally mounted guns are also not working, according to the report.
F-35 internal gun

The report  states that the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variant (targeted at the U.S. Marines) and the carrier-based F-35C variant (targeted at the U.S. Navy) also have crippled guns.  And like the USAF codebase, it sounds as if the fixes for the variants are rather far away:

Neither Lockheed nor the F-35 Joint Program Office responded to inquiries about the status of the jet’s gun... The Navy and Marine Corps versions of the F-35 have differing configurations and rely on an external gun pod. The software won’t be ready for those jets for years, either.
The F-35B (vertical takeoff version; pictured) and F-35C (carrier version) reportedly also have dead guns.

A USAF official suggested Lockheed's refusal to promise a working gun until nearly half a decade from now, may be a sign that the project is in far more trouble than Lockheed Martin will admit.  While the craft will fly, its functionality as a combat fighter is truly in question, the source indicates, remarking:

To me, the more disturbing aspect of this delay is that it represents yet another clear indication that the program is in serious trouble.  Lockheed Martin is clearly in a situation where they are scrambling to keep their collective noses above the waterline, and they are looking to push non-critical systems to the right in a moment of desperation.

One must ask the obvious question -- if the gun can't fire on any F-35 variant -- what does the craft have to defend itself with

III. Pilots Better be Good Shots or be Skilled at Fleeing From Enemy Jets

That's a pretty important question, given that the Pentagon recently cheerfully declared that the craft Lockheed Martin's deputy general manager of the JSF program, Jeff Babione, claimed to reporters in Sept. 2014 that the craft would be "combat ready" (become operational) by "mid-2015".

F-35 operational
After many delays the F-35 is supposedly will be "operational" next year. [Image Source: Lockheed Martin]

Well, the glass-a-tiny-bit-full is that it turns out that it may indeed be able to fire something in a dogfight.  While the rotary cannon is its primary dogfighting weapon, the F-35 does have some secondary air-to-air weapons that reportedly are working -- namely a pair of missiles.  

F-35 upside down

F-35 jet

The F-35 isn't entirely defenseless; it packs up to 10 air-to-air missiles.

The F-35's wingtips act as external hardpoints that can carry AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles (AAM).  The current codebase reportedly supports firing those two missiles at aerial targets.

F35 missiles

The F-35 boasts some mean missiles or bombs on its wingtips.

The craft also has four underwing pylons on each, which are capable of carrying a total of eight AIM-120 AMRAAM BVR air-to-air missiles (AAM) in its full air-to-air combat configuration.  It's unclear whether those missiles are currently ready to fire, but the reports seems to suggest they may be.

So the F-35 has at best, at present ten shots.  If the enemy is able to field more than ten fighters per F-35, the best outcome the F-35 can hope for is a hit-and-run.  That's a major concern, given that lifetime costs per jet are over $600M USD at current estimates.  Of that, about $170M USD is currently in the up-front purchase cost.  By contrast, Russia's Mikoyan MiG-29 has a per-unit cost of around $28M USD, based on recent purchases.

So you can buy six MiG-29s for the up front costs of one JSF.  Or if you prefer something a bit more modern you can get Russian Sukhoi Su-35 jets for around $40M USD (which would buy you roughly four per JSF).

F-35 internal missiles
It can also pack up to eight AMRAAM missiles for dogfights.

Given that the JSF has only ten missiles, the pilots better be solid shots or they may find themselves swatted by masses of the older, less expensive, less complicated MiG interceptors.  With the JSF, the old Revolutionary War Swamp Fox adage, "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day," might apply.  

Unfortunately, the JSF appears to be heavier on the running and lighter on the fighting side of the equation, according to Air Force pilots quoted in the report. And the problem is it's not particularly good at running away, so it might not survive after all, according to pilots.  In other words, it might be better off staying where it's spent so much of its time in recent years -- at home on the ground.  The skies are a dangerous place after all.

IV. Ground Support?  Nah...

Dangers aside, the lack of a gun creates secondary problems.  More specifically, the flaw seriously endangers the JSF's from assuming its long-promised, long-delayed role in ground combat as well.  

In recent years the USAF has been forced to realize what it should have known from way back in World War II -- that in many combat scenarios, you need a smaller caliber weapon to precisely target ground combatants.

The USAF has leaned on F-15 and F-16s for strafing targets fighting in close proximity to U.S. forces.  In such situations, the kinds of GPS-guided bombs that the JSF can carry on its hard points are useless, as they would likely result in massive friendly fire casualties.

A USAF pilot told The Daily Beast:

GPS-guided munitions with long times of fall are useless when the ground commander doesn’t know exactly where the fire is coming from, or is withdrawing and the enemy is pursuing.  GPS munitions are equally useless when dropped from an aircraft when the pilot has near zero ability to track the battle with his own eyes.

And this isn't just a "whoopsie".  It's a potentially defect with potentially deadly outcomes.

Given that the USAF is racing to phase out its fleet of F-15s and F-16s, pilots warn that only the F-22 will available for such ground strikes, given the F-35s woes.  And that puts the lives of American soldiers on the ground at risk by leaving soldiers in close-quarters combat without a viable air-strike option in some cases.

One pilot comments:

Lack of forward firing ordnance in a CAS supporting aircraft is a major handicap.  CAS fights are more fluid than air interdiction, friendlies and targets move... Oftentimes quickly. The ability to mark the target with rockets and attack the same target 10 seconds later is crucial.

Could the F-22 make this shortcoming a moot point?  Perhaps, but that raises problems of its own.

With the F-22s already tasked with picking up the F-35s slack in dogfighting, in a combat scenario against a well outfitted enemy with a workable air force, the USAF might be forced to save the F-22s for ground support, which in turn likely would force a grounding of the pricey F-35 bombers to avoid putting it at risk.  This would also endanger lives as ground soldiers fighting at a greater distance might not have the air support they need against artillery.

V. Russian Su-35S Jets Enjoy Nearly Twice the Firing Time at a Fourth the Price

And according to the report, the JSF's gun issues will hardly be solved by the enabling of the gun, sometime in the somewhat-distant future.  The article points out that even after the gun is enable 3 to 4 years after the craft is deemed "operational", the gun will remain an ineffective tool, given how fast it fires.

The F-35 packs a number of weapons stations, but the gun is among the most crucial to ground strafing and dogfights.

The gun 3,300 rounds per minute -- a deadly barrage.  The only problem is that the USAF variant (the F-35A) carries only 180 rounds in its ammo pods.  

F-35 gun pods

F-35s carry up to 220 rounds, w/ capacity varying by model (image's 225 round figure is outdated).

The other two variants used by the U.S. Navy and Marines (the F-35B and F-35C) carry 220 rounds.  So in its two forms, the pilot has around 3.3 seconds (F-35A) to 4 seconds (F-35B/C) of firing time... maybe enough for several quick flicks of the trigger.

F-35 gun
The F-35's rotary cannon fires at a much faster rate than rival designs, but does not carry a bigger magazine. [Image Source: Baidu]

A possible solution would be to lowering the firing rate.  Lockheed's AC-130 gunship was forced to do exactly that for similar reasons.  It reduced the rate of fire from the blistering 3,600-4,200 rounds per minute mark, down to 1,800 rounds per minute.  If the F-35 adopted a similar firing rate, it could stretch its firing time to 6 seconds (F-35A) to 7.3 seconds (F-35B/C) -- somewhat better.

To return to the MiG-29 analogy, its onboard cannon, the 
GSh-30-1 30 mm cannon, fires at 1,500 rounds per minute and has 100 rounds in current variants -- good for 4 seconds of fire time.

You can buy roughly six MiG-29 fighters (pictured) or four Sukhoi Su-35 interceptors for the price of one JSF.  And they have working guns to boot.

So when Lockheed does at last activate the cannon, it will only match the MiG-29's firing time, unless it slows the firing down.  And the Su-35 boasts a 150 round magazine @ 1,500 rounds per minute, so it will have nearly twice the firing time of the JSF unless Lockheed and GD slow down the firing rate.  At best, the JSF will have a similar total firing time to the Su-35, at four times the cost.

Of course, the F-35 has a lot of countermeasures that should give potential combatants fits in dogfights.  But the compelling question is whether Lockheed's code will even be able to make the high-tech deterrents effective, given all the problems with basic functionality like the gun.

Further the F-35 -- with its problem-plagued monolithic single engine -- isn't looking overly agile.  When you consider it will face potentially four Su-35s or six MiG-29s, the picture isn't pretty.  At best the Pentagon will have to outspend its foreign rivals.  But it's hardly getting bang for its buck.

Sukhoi Su-35

The Sukhoi Su-35 is among Russia's deadliest fighter designs. [Image Source: Takeoff Magazine]

Maybe that's why some former "top guns" like retired Australian RAAF officer WGCDR Chris Mills (AM, BSc, MSc(AFIT)) claims that the JSF might be smoked by fully outfitted Su-35S in one-on-one combat (in a scenario where F-35s were mixed with Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors in a combined squadron).

The USAF ardently attacked that claim, as did Lockheed Martin.  And at the time, sentiments seemed to be in their favor.  Most -- even Rand Corp.,  the company conducting the study behind that claim (the 
August 2008 Pacific Vision simulation) -- seemed to agree that the Australian conclusions seemed a bit overblown.

But ironically they might not have been.  The simulations were performed before the dead gun came to light.  And they were also performed before the rash of engine troubles that have triggered a series of operational limits downgrades that have severely constrained the craft's speed and turning capabilities.

A 2008 simulation suggested a quartet of Sukhoi Su-35 interceptors could hold their own with a mixed quartet of F-35s and F-22s. [Imae Source: CzechAirSpotter]

It'd be pretty interesting to see how the 2008 simulation (with both crafts fully outfitted with missiles and machine gun rounds) would play out, if the guns in the JSF went dark.  Based on the statements from pilots, it sounds as if the JSF in its current state (a mired mess) might be lucky to perform as well as it did in the 2008 simulation, in that it'd be essentially dead wet, leaning on the F-22s in the squadron.

One Pentagon pilot familiar with the F-35A testing said to The Daily Beast, regarding the dead gun:

The jet can’t really turn anyway, so that is a bit of a moot point.

Another commented:

The JSF is so heavy, it won’t accelerate fast enough to get back up to fighting speed.  Bottom line is that it will only be a BVR [beyond visual range] airplane.

"What do you call a fighter that can't fight in the air?" 

"A joint strike fighter."

It sounds like a bad punchline, but it's increasingly looking like an accurate summary of the situation.

VI. "
Hey Baby There Ain't No Easy Way Out (I Won't Back Down)"

General Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command is among the JSF's sternest defenders.  And he raises some good points of why abandoning the fighter -- damaged goods and all -- would be a disastrous outcome for taxpayers.  That said, he also has seemingly admitted that some of the criticisms of the design are valid.

Gen. Mike Hostage
USAF Gen. Mike Hostage has vowed to battle "to the death" cuts to F-35 orders. [Image Source: AP]

In Jan. 2014 that he vowed "to the death" to avoid cuts to the USAF's planned 1,763 jet purchase.  He was adamant about phasing out the trusty F-15 and F-16 from active duty, in lieu of the alluring, but mercurial JSF.

Technical Gen. Hostage is right about one thing.  He says that if Congress forces the Pentagon to back away from the JSF, it will show allies that the craft is "weak in the knees."  Indeed, this is the case. If the JSF purchase orders in the U.S. are trimmed, there's little reason to believe most allies won't respond even more aggressively in cutting their orders.

And that's not necessarily good news for U.S. taxpayers, as -- remember -- they've already paid $400B USD, an expenditure which was justified by the promise of foreign orders cutting the cost of Pentagon orders.

There's no easy escape route for the F-35, given the massive amount already spent.
[Image Source: Lockheed Martin]

On the other hand, if the JSF can't even fire its guns it's questionable whether keeping it is a good option either.  Even the USAF seems to recognize the deep hole it's dug itself into with its massive spending. Gen. Hostage in his defense of the craft ultimately said something rather damning about it -- he admitted that the JSF was not meant as an air-superiority fighter.

That's a pretty interesting admission, given Lockheed's claims of its air-to-air prowess.

The Bomber That Wanted to be a Real Fighter

While the JSF isn't dead, its problems put the USAF between the metaphorical "rock and a hard place."  It appears that the U.S. taxpayers have been rickrolled into an overpriced new stealth bomber masquerading as a jet fighter.  The old phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" comes to mind when examining the JSF, but that's perhaps a bit harsh.  The JSF should be a passable bomber and air-to-ground missile platform.

The problem, though, is that the Pentagon didn't exactly need a new bomber -- it had plenty of functional designs already.  The real issue isn't the JSF's capability to do something in combat, rather it's that Lockheed Martin convinced the Pentagon to pay boatloads of money for a craft that was billed as a terrific bomber and fighter jet rolled into one.  The latter part increasingly appears to be a misleading claim at best.

Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy; the F-35 wanted to be a real fighter.  Both had a tendency to fib now and then.  Pinocchio, happily, became a real boy in the end.  Unfortunately the F-35 might not have such a cheery fairy tale ending. [Image Source: Disney]

The senior USAF who questioned whether the program was in deeper trouble also acknowledged to The Daily Beast the apparent truth:

From an air-to-air standpoint, an argument could be made that the F-35A not having a functional gun—or any gun, for that matter—will have little to no impact. Heck, it only has 180 rounds anyway.  I would be lying if I said there exists any plausible tactical air-to-air scenario where the F-35 will need to employ the gun. Personally, I just don’t see it ever happening and think they should have saved the weight [by getting rid of the gun altogether].

In other words, however "good" the JSF is in its true roll -- as a bomber -- it could have been better (more maneuverable) and cheaper if it had just been forthright about its limitations and try to be the best bomber it could be.  Then again, Congress might never have authorized the record-setting project were it not billed as a boon to air superiority, a claim that by the sound of it, even Pentagon officials are now quietly admitting was malarkey.

F-35 fighter
A battle tested F-16 (foreground) babysits its replacement, the overpriced, spoiled fighter jet.  It needs the help -- were it to get in a real airfight, the F-35 can't turn quickly due to its broken engine and reportedly has no working machine gun. [Image Source: USAF]

With the engine struggling along and with its gun dead, one can only hope that the F-35 is guarded by a large contingent of F-22 Raptors who can coddle and protect the vulnerable, spoiled Lockheed superjet.

Source: The Daily Beast

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