F-35 Ejects Pilot, Flies Solo: Advanced Stealth Fighter Again Under Scrutiny
5 October 2023
An F-35 jet flew over US territory in a zombie mode for several hours in September 2023 after the pilot ejected following a malfunction. The jet, known for its advanced stealth capabilities, gave the US military a real test before it could be located and its debris recovered. A series of crashes in recent times point to the larger flaws within the F-35 program.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is perhaps best known for its stealth capabilities. Hailed as one of the fighter jet’s standout attributes, stealth often works in the U.S. military’s favour, that is until one of the planes gets lost. A hair-raising incident that occurred in September 2023 saw the 100-million-dollar warplane flying pilotless for about 100 kilometres before crashing. The Marine Corps discovered the wreckage at the Williamsburg County, South Carolina (SC), following a lengthy search.
The fiasco ensued after a malfunction on the single-seat F-35B fighter plane forced the Marine Corps pilot to eject to his safety and parachute down over North Charleston, SC. The F-35 series of jets have been reported to have suffered at least six mishaps in recent times. The recent incident has prompted observers to question the aircraft’s purportedly advanced capabilities. Meanwhile, several politicians have sought a rationalisation for trillions of dollars of taxpayer’s money spent on the F-35’s development.
F-35 Series of Fighter Jets: A Primer
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, is the latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft operated by the U.S. military for the past 17 years. The F-35A is operated by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and intended as a replacement for the ageing fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcon and the A-10 Thunderbolt. The F-35B variant is operated by the U.S. Navy Marine Corps. The F-35C, which recently crashed in SC was inducted into the U.S. Navy in 2019 and has been tailor-made for operating on its aircraft carriers.
The F-35 series is widely termed as the most advanced fighter jet in the world. The F-35 jets are equipped with formidable stealth and electronic warfare capabilities. The USAF for instance claims that the F-35A sensor suite can collect, fuse, and distribute more information than any fighter in history. Its sensor fusion capacity allows operators to gain a complete picture of the threat environment and make effective decisions. This gives the operators an edge over their opponents. The U.S. military expects the F-35 to serve as a vital instrument in future wars including irregular warfare and joint and coalition operations.
The F-35 symbolises a new form of international collaboration with nine nations taking part in its development (the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Australia). The F-35 also brings together critical multinational relationships, lowering costs by minimising duplication in research and development and offering global access to technologies. In this vein, the F-35 will use a range of U.S. and ally armaments.
Who Owns the F-35?
The F-35 already has a significant number of takers in the international defence market. Many European states are particularly keen to upgrade their stealth fighter capabilities in the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Romania is set to purchase 32 latest-generation F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin for USD 6.5 billion. Germany will purchase 35 F-35 fighters to replace its aging Tornado fleet, marking the first major defence contract since Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed a 100-billion-Euro military upgrade in reaction to the Russia-Ukraine war. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has also inked a USD 5.6 billion deal for purchasing 24 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, as well as a slew of weaponry, spares, and equipment.
Among other prominent U.S. partners, Canada and Israel have already moved on procuring F-35s for their militaries. Canada concluded a contract to purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets in an USD 14.2 billion programme to replace its outdated fighter fleet. This marks the most significant expenditure in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 30 years. Meanwhile, Israel was the first country outside of the U.S. to acquire the F-35. According to its air force chief, Israel was the first to operate the jet in combat in May 2018. On top of being a customer for the fighters, Israel also has an agreement with Lockheed Martin and engine producer Pratt & Whitney to collaborate on the production of airplane components with Israeli firms. Israel has announced a USD 3 billion contract to purchase a third squadron of these fighter planes, which will boost the total number of F-35s in Israel’s air force to 75.
Program Flaws Causing a Series of Crashes?
It is not the first time that an F-35 jet has crashed or been affected by a mishap. The first crash of an F-35 jet is reported to have occurred in 2018 in SC. The F-35B which crashed during a training exercise is estimated to have cost the Pentagon at least 100 million USD. In a following instance in 2021, an F-35 that took off the UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier fell into the Mediterranean Sea. Three crashes occurred in the year 2022, with two of them occurring in January 2022. Following the malfunctioning of landing gear on a jet operated by a South Korean pilot, an F-35A had to make an emergency belly-landing at a nearby airbase. Seven personnel were injured when an F-35C crash-landed into the deck of US aircraft carrier, deployed at South China Sea. Meanwhile, an F-35B crashed in Texas in December 2022 after the pilot ejected owing to a malfunction.
A number of flaws in the programme were pointed out recently by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report highlighted various factors that negatively affect the jet’s mission capability (MC) rates, including a shortage of storage capacity, issues with access to technical data, availability of components, and over-reliance on contractors for maintenance. MC here pertains to when an aircraft can fulfil one of its functions. The GAO calculated the average MC rate for the F-35 to be 55%, which stands considerably lower than the F-35A’s target of 90% and the B and C variants’ targets of 85%.
Shortage of storage depot capacity alone accounts to around 10% reduction in the MC rate. The situation essentially forces the Pentagon to send at least 73% of the F-35 components back to the industry for repair and maintenance. Meanwhile, the pace of maintenance of hardware and software is also slowed down because the Department of Defense does not have assured access to technical data.
A relook at the program and its priorities may be prompted in light of the string of mishaps in recent years and the identification of flaws. The Pentagon as well as the F-35 contractors may look at the costly crash as an opportunity to learn and work towards improving the jet’s capabilities. It is imperative for such learnings to be incorporated in existing and future F-35s for the jet to live up to the U.S. military’s grand expectations.
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
Abhyuday is the resident Defence and Security Fellow for Trivium Think Tank's StraTechos website. He is pursuing a postgraduate degree in Defence and Strategic Studies from Bareilly College, M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. His areas of interest include defence affairs, international relations and geopolitics.