Older F-35s 'On Life Support,' But Training Chief Isn't Worried

An F-35 Lightning II streaks across the sky while doing maneuvers to the Eglin Air Force Base runway, Nov. 2, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)
An F-35 Lightning II streaks across the sky while doing maneuvers to the Eglin Air Force Base runway, Nov. 2, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

It's not unusual that the Pentagon's newest F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is already showing signs of aging after only a decade of service, the Air Force's head of training said last week.

Lt. Gen Steven Kwast, head of Air Education and Training Command, said because of how complex the entire F-35 aircraft system is, setbacks are natural even as pilots begin training on the platform.

"When you take a look at the history of every program we've ever had, whether it was the B-1 or the F-16 [Fighting Falcon] or the F-15 [Eagle], when you rewind the tapes, every single one of them suffered from these same growing pains," Kwast said during a breakfast in Washington, D.C. on May 24.

"It's just natural for a system that complex, that capable, that not everything is perfect," he said, adding that's the same for a brand new-aircraft like the F-35.

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Earlier this month, Military.com reported that some of the older-generation F-35As at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, were in bad shape, posing hindrances to training because of older software configurations, among other problems. The commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, the leading training wing for F-35A student pilots, said it's one of his many concerns with training students on some of the oldest Block 2B planes.

"Everybody's aware that that fleet is on life support right now, and they need to kind of crank up the machine a little bit if they plan on extending the utility of this fleet another five or 10 years," said Col. Paul Moga, who also oversees the maintenance training units at Eglin.

The fifth-generation stealth plane arrived at Eglin in 2011 and made the 33rd Fighter Wing the first U.S. F-35 training unit. The first class of student pilots started training in 2013.

The fleet at Eglin has only just now begun catching up with needed integration upgrades, Moga said.

Even after seven years of hosting the F-35 at Eglin and declaring F-35A initial operational capability in 2016, Kwast said the Air Force is still at "the very early stages of this F-35 becoming a perfectly mature weapons system" overall.

Kwast also noted he would like to see a common combat configuration for fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 and the F-22 Raptor for students in the pipeline.

"It all comes down to the money, and we would like them all to be to the same standard. And that is whatever is on the frontline of the combat edge is also the environment that any trainer is a part of so there's no negative learning," Kwast said, echoing Moga.

"That's the nirvana," he continued. But "the amount of money and time that it takes to build out and code it's disconnected. The training aircraft are not the same load necessarily as the frontline aircraft."

Kwast said leveraging programs like Pilot Training Next, or the Air Force's push to use more technology and artificial intelligence for its next set of flyers, helps to fill that gap.

But the service is still carving out how to best deal with its F-35 woes as a program overall, the general said.

"You learn as you go, you evolve as you go, and get better as you go, so we're used to a very mature F-16 [or] F-15 fleet, for example, where we've worked out all those kinks," Kwast said.

"Yes we still stumble on kinks like the longeron in the F-15 for example, but generally speaking we've ironed out the kinks," he added, referring to structural problems in the legacy fleet. "Historically this is not unexpected," Kwast said.

Kwast compared the F-35 "growing pains" to the B-1 Lancer in that President Jimmy Carter stifled through the program which ended up becoming "a national crisis."

Carter at the time cancelled the first iteration B-1A bomber program in favor of shifting priorities to intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as the air launched cruise missile program. The Reagan administration restored the bomber initiative, known to become the B-1B, in 1981.

"And now the B-1, even though its big, it is incredibly capable," Kwast said of its current multirole mission.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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