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JSF’s Ill-timed Red Stripe

by Ward Carroll on January 23, 2013

Late last week all 25 Marine Corps F-35Bs were grounded due to a fuel leak that was discovered during a training flight out of Eglin AFB, according to a Reuters report.  The other JSF variants were unaffected by the action, and ground testing of the VTOL version of the jet continues.

At the same time, Business Insider reports that the next-gen fighter/bomber — all models of the Lightning II (ironic, ain’t it) — could explode in midair if hit by lightning (and I can tell you as an airborne lightning strike vet (thrice in the Tomcat) it happens enough to be a valid concern).

These are bad days for these sorts of events and realizations.  The Pentagon has started acting on anticipated budget shortfalls even as the sequestration debate gets pushed to the right by several months, and after the Department of Defense works it’s way through downsizing end strength, freezing civilian hires, and cutting its benefit payouts, they’ll walk the crosshairs onto the acquistion programs of record … especially those that have dubious programmatic histories in terms of cost, performance, and schedule.

This most recent Red Stripe issued by NAVAIR on the F-35B is strike two for the program.  As documented in a recent DOT&E report the program halted durability testing late in 2011 when cracks were found after 2,000 hours of flight time on a bulkhead that was designed to last at least 8,000 hours.

Some of this is just the nature of test, of course.  Every great weapons system has had problems during development — every one.  And every program has fought budget pressures along the way.  But what’s different these days is the magnitude of the budget pressure added to a Congress that’s sort of feeling like the Pentagon had a blank check for the last 12 years (except for lawmakers with defense corporations in their districts, of course).

And if a variant has to go, it’s going to be the Marine Corps one.  The Corps’ love of amphibious warfare and CAS flown from dirt airfields close to the action yielded the Harrier (thanks, General Miller), and the AV-8’s history is as much defined by mishaps and groundings as it is VTOL utility in the field.  (It’s super-cool at airshows, though.)  So, when the budget axe hits the requirements side of the house — and only one service is pleading its case — it might get ugly for our pilots-in-green.

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