US F-35 faces modernization hurdles, sparking legislative changes

US lawmakers have openly recognized the persistent hurdles facing the F-35 modernization program. On Wednesday, several members of the House Armed Services Committee revisited the “issues” plaguing the F-35. They are advocating for a series of amendments to legislation aimed at mitigating these barriers. 

British F-35 fighter jet
Photo credit: Royal Navy

Over the next five years, lawmakers have requested a series of reports to be prepared by the US Secretary of Defense, with the first due by April 1, 2025. These reports are expected to detail any corrective actions, acquisition strategies, and performance updates related to the F-35. This initiative was championed by Tactical Air and Ground Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman. 

Wittman commented to local reporters, saying, “This is the moment. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment” highlighting the accumulation of over 100 incomplete F-35s by Lockheed Martin, the escalating cost exceeding $2 trillion, and the ongoing modernization challenges.

F-35's helmet sights: A key advantage over the F-22 in visual combat
Photo by J. Michael Peña

More feedback

U.S. lawmakers believe that addressing the myriad issues with the F-35 requires more extensive feedback. In fact, Washington is already working on a plan to transition F-35 oversight from the Joint Program Office to individual services by 2027. 

However, on Wednesday, members of the House Armed Services Committee asked the secretaries of Defense, Air Force, and Navy to provide an update on this plan by March 1, 2025. 

Washington wants an extension of the arms embargo against Iran
Photo credit: VOA

“The committee recognizes that each branch may have specific needs, especially concerning sustainment, during the shift to service-specific management,” the amendment notes. The update should cover “timelines, risks, and preparations to meet the requirements for maintaining the unique components of each service.”

Accumulation problems

The F-35’s transition to the TR-3 standard has introduced some recent challenges. However, the F-35 program has been grappling with issues for years, a situation reported as early as 2019. Back then, a detailed report presented to the Pentagon aimed to uncover the underlying problems, but it seems that developers, users, and legislators didn’t see these issues as critical to the aircraft’s future. 

Norway: We don't have enough mechanics to support the 52 F-35s
Photo by Monica White Martinsen / NRK

In 2019, the development of the F-35 faced 800 documented problems, with 13 identified as critical. Among these issues was a significant concern with the transfer of information, which reportedly led to the advancement from the TR-2 version to the TR-3. 

The report also highlighted several other serious concerns: a shortage of spare parts, cases of pilot barotrauma in the cockpit, incorrect computer calculations under very cold conditions, structural damage at supersonic speeds, and difficult control of pitch, roll, and yaw in certain maneuvers. Additionally, F-35 pilots experienced a green glow in their helmets, green streaks in some night vision sensors, radar issues with visualizing larger areas, and a lack of engine thrust during vertical flight in hot weather.

Upgrade TR-3

Italy will assemble 24 of the 36 Swiss F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters
Photo credit: Info Aero Quebec

It’s widely recognized that issues with the TR-3 upgrade are currently under intense scrutiny. Experts anticipate that these problems could hinder the production targets for the F-35 this year and may also delay the delivery of jets that are already built. 

This upgrade is a critical part of the Block 4 modernization initiative. A major component of the TR-3 upgrade involves integrating a new, more powerful processor, which will vastly enhance the jet’s computational capabilities. Additionally, the TR-3 will bring improvements to the aircraft’s memory and data storage systems. 

Moreover, the TR-3 upgrade focuses on enhancing the F-35’s sensor suite, ensuring it can incorporate new weapons and software capabilities. This will enable the F-35 to carry and deploy a broader array of advanced munitions more effectively.


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