Pentagon Mulls Restoring F-35 Safety Gear to Reduce Risk

The Pentagon may restore safety equipment on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter after an analysis found that removing the gear to save weight made the jets more vulnerable to enemy fire.

The equipment, removed in 2008, weighs about 43 pounds (20 kilograms.) It includes a two-pound valve intended to shut off the flow of a flammable liquid.

Computer analysis last year of the pared-down F-35 design determined that the aircraft’s vulnerability to fires ignited by enemy bullets or missile fragments increased 25 percent over a 2008 assessment before the equipment’s removal, according to data from the Pentagon’s weapons testing office.

“If the aircraft is hit, it will be 25 percent more vulnerable to” onboard fires “and overall more vulnerable than most” older aircraft it’s replacing, Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for the testing office, said in an e-mail.

She also said “the F-35 has several features, including stealth and advanced avionics that should decrease the probability” of being detected by an adversary and hit if it’s fired on.

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer should work with the F-35 program office to “immediately reinstall” the safety equipment, Representative James Moran a Virginia Democrat and a senior member of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, said in a Feb. 5 letter.

The analysis last year showed that the program office’s “actions have increased aircraft vulnerability,” and “that is simply unacceptable,” Moran wrote to Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

Developing Solutions

The F-35 program office is reviewing the test data and “vulnerability concerns” and whether to reinstall the equipment, spokesman Joe DellaVedova said in an e-mail.

The F-35’s continuing development phase “is intended to reveal issues through testing so we can develop solutions,” he said.

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Melinda Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Kendall would respond directly to Moran.

The Pentagon estimates the cost for development and production of 2,443 F-35s will be $395.7 billion, a 70 percent increase since the initial contract with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin was signed in 2001.

The F-35 is designed as a stealthy fighter that can avoid being detected by enemy ground and aerial radar. It’s intended to replace the F-16, A-10, F-18C/D and the Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jump-jet.

Vulnerability Assessments

The military services have yet to set firm dates for when their first F-35 units will achieve “initial operational capability.” The original goal for the Marines was April 2010; for the Air Force, June 2011; and for the Navy, April 2012.

The 2008 and 2012 computer analyses are part of vulnerability assessments performed on all weapons programs to assess their capability to recover from a hit and continue a mission.

Every aircraft has vulnerable areas that, if hit by a bullet or fragment, could disable or destroy an engine, fuel tank or the pilot. The testing is intended to calculate which areas are susceptible. The F-35 analysis assessed the jet’s vulnerability to an on-board fire.

The shutoff valve removed in 2008 was designed to prevent a fire by detecting leakage of liquid used to cool the F-35’s computerized avionics and stopping the flow from a damaged fuel line.