Alarming news for F-35 users: unforeseen one-year delay looms ahead

The delivery of F-35 fighter jets is on hold and may take up to a year to resume, according to a recent Government Accountability Office [GAO] report. Lockheed Martin has about 80 F-35 jets ready for delivery since last fall. These jets have the new Tech Refresh 3 [TR-3] computer upgrade, which is still being tested. Because of this, the government hasn’t accepted any jets yet, and they remain parked. For security reasons, the number and location of these jets are not disclosed. 

Alarming news for F-35 users: unforeseen one-year delay looms ahead
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

The GAO report states that once deliveries start, Lockheed Martin plans to deliver 20 F-35s each month—about one jet per business day. However, the highest rate so far has been 13 jets per month, as noted in the GAO’s May 16 report. 

The report concludes, “Even at this faster rate, delivering all the parked jets will still take about a year after the TR-3 software is completed and certified.”

Markham welcomes two new British F-35s, expanding fleet to 30
Photo credit: British MoD

Accumulation of inventory

If they manage to deliver 20 fighters per month, it will take four months to clear the backlog. But remember, new fighters will keep being made, each needing the “DD250” certification—confirming they meet all checks before delivery. This means the total number of fighters waiting for delivery will keep growing. 

Supplies won’t start immediately. The F-35 steering group, which includes members from U.S. services, foreign partners, and international users, has agreed to accept a “shortened” version of the TR-3 software. This interim solution would allow deliveries to start again, but further hardware and software updates will still be needed after the full TR-3 package is tested and certified. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

A spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office said they will release this streamlined software only when it’s stable, meaning it won’t crash or need frequent restarts during missions. The JPO hasn’t provided a timeline for when this stability is expected.

Additional risk

Parking these aircraft brings extra risks, as noted by the GAO report: “If some or all of the parked aircraft are damaged, it creates unique financial and scheduling risks for the Department of Defense.” Unusually, so many critical DOD aircraft are waiting for acceptance instead of being stored at military locations worldwide. 

The threat of sabotage is real and cannot be ignored. Look at what happened in 2012 when Taliban fighters infiltrated the Marine Corps Base Bastion in Afghanistan. They destroyed six AV-8B Harrier II jets and severely damaged two others. These planes, worth over $30 million each, were destroyed using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and suicide vests.

The Tech Refresh 3

The Tech Refresh 3 [TR-3] upgrade for the F-35 is a significant modernization effort aimed at enhancing the aircraft’s computing power, sensor capabilities, and overall performance. This upgrade is crucial for maintaining the F-35’s edge in modern combat scenarios, where advanced threats and rapidly evolving technology demand continuous improvements. 

One of the core components of the TR-3 upgrade is the introduction of a new Integrated Core Processor [ICP]. This new ICP significantly boosts the computing power of the F-35, enabling it to process more data at faster speeds. This enhancement is essential for supporting advanced software applications and future upgrades that require higher computational capabilities. 

The sale of 35 F-35 stealth fighters to Germany is in progress
Photo credit: Pixabay

Another key feature of the TR-3 upgrade is the enhancement of the aircraft’s memory and storage capacity. The increased memory allows the F-35 to handle more complex mission data and store larger amounts of information, which is vital for long-duration missions and operations that require extensive data analysis and storage.

A substantial leap in technology

The TR-3 upgrade also includes improvements to the aircraft’s display systems. The new panoramic cockpit display offers pilots better situational awareness by providing clearer and more detailed information. This upgrade is designed to reduce the pilot’s workload and enhance decision-making capabilities during critical missions. 

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

Compared to the previous version, the TR-2, the TR-3 upgrade represents a substantial leap in technology. The TR-2, while advanced for its time, had limitations in processing power and memory that are addressed by the TR-3. The TR-3’s enhanced capabilities ensure that the F-35 can integrate and utilize new technologies and systems that were not possible with the TR-2 configuration.

The Lightning II

The F-35, also known as the Lightning II, is a family of single-engine, stealth multirole fighters developed by Lockheed Martin. It was designed to perform ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defense missions with advanced stealth capabilities. The F-35 program includes three main variants: the F-35A [conventional takeoff and landing], the F-35B [short takeoff and vertical landing], and the F-35C ]carrier-based catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery]. 

RNAF's 'green' initiative: F-35s to take flight with biofuel
Photo credit: RNAF

The dimensions of the F-35 vary slightly between its variants. The F-35A has a length of approximately 51.4 feet, a wingspan of 35 feet, and a height of 14.4 feet. The F-35B and F-35C have similar lengths but differ in wingspan and height due to their specific operational requirements. The F-35B has a wingspan of 35 feet and a height of 14.3 feet, while the F-35C has a larger wingspan of 43 feet and a height of 14.7 feet. 

The propulsion system of the F-35 is centered around the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, which is a turbofan engine capable of producing up to 43,000 pounds of thrust. This engine provides the necessary power for the aircraft’s advanced performance, including supersonic speeds and vertical takeoff and landing capabilities for the F-35B variant. The F-35’s propulsion system also includes an integrated lift fan for the F-35B, which aids in vertical lift. 

Cutting-edge technologies

There will now be six air-to-air missiles in the F-35 'belly'
Photo credit: Aviation Week

Technical characteristics of the F-35 include its stealth design, which minimizes radar cross-section and enhances survivability in contested environments. The aircraft is equipped with advanced avionics, including a sophisticated sensor suite that provides pilots with comprehensive situational awareness. The F-35’s airframe is constructed from composite materials and advanced alloys, contributing to its durability and stealth capabilities. 

The F-35 is equipped with a variety of advanced avionic systems. These include the AN/APG-81 AESA radar, which provides long-range detection and tracking of airborne and ground targets. The Distributed Aperture System [DAS] offers 360-degree situational awareness by providing real-time imagery to the pilot’s helmet-mounted display. Additionally, the Electro-Optical Targeting System [EOTS] enhances targeting accuracy and situational awareness. 

Components of the F-35 include its advanced flight control systems, which provide superior maneuverability and stability. The aircraft’s avionics are integrated through the Autonomic Logistics Information System [ALIS], which supports maintenance and operational planning. The F-35 also features a sophisticated electronic warfare suite that enhances its ability to detect and counter threats.

F-35's helmet sights: A key advantage over the F-22 in visual combat
Photo credit: Royal Navy

The ‘firing’ helmet

The F-35 is equipped with a range of specialized equipment designed to enhance its operational capabilities. This includes the Helmet-Mounted Display System [HMDS], which provides pilots with critical flight information and targeting data directly on the helmet visor. The aircraft also features an advanced communications suite that ensures secure and reliable data exchange with other platforms and command centers. 

The armament of the F-35 is versatile and includes both internal and external weapon stations. Internally, the aircraft can carry a variety of air-to-air missiles, such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and precision-guided munitions, like the GBU-31 JDAM. Externally, the F-35 can be equipped with additional missiles, bombs, and other ordnance, depending on mission requirements. The F-35A variant also features an internal GAU-22/A 25 mm cannon for close-in combat.

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