The United States Air Force (USAF) cleared its pilots to begin formal training on a small fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters this week. The official decision comes after a 46-day examination of the existing F-35 aircraft systems on aircraft located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
“The team at Eglin went through a rigorous processto lead the way for F-35A training,” confirmed Gen. Edward Rice, the head of Air Education and Training Command.
However, the Air Force’s approval to begin formal pilot training doesn’t mean the F-35A fighters will make their way into combat anytime soon. Indeed, the Air Force has yet to decide when it will declare the F-35 operational, although Wired says the Pentagon is currently eyeing 2018 as a possibility.
The US Marine Corps is also training pilots on its F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing fighters. The only branch of the US military not training already on its F-35 fighters is the U.S. Navy, which has opted to postpone official exercises.
It appears that the F-35 isn’t ready for combat training either – insofar as being able to fire missiles or drop bombs. To be sure, the helmet-mounted sight doesn’t function, while engineers from Lockheed Martin are apparently still making changes to the jet’s design.
Interestingly, the F-35 reportedly has a scrap rate of 16%. Meaning, approximately one out of every six parts on the aircraft in production has to be removed and reworked or completely discarded and replaced. According to the Pentagon, the F-35 scrap rate is almost twice the rate of earlier aircraft in equivalent stages of development.
The Air Force’s plan is to incrementally ramp up training from 36 pilots next year to hundreds of pilots annually. The first dozen pilots to train on the F-35 will be instructors for other instructors, who will eventually be training combat pilots.
Unsurprisingly, a number of analysts have questioned the Air Force’s motives in kicking off official training for F-35 pilots, including Ty Rogoway.
“If the jet’s envelope is so restricted and its mission systems are not even operable then we are paying tens of thousands of dollars an hour to have pilots whiz around in these things, for what? It seems like a PR stunt to me,” he opined.
The estimated hourly cost operate a single F-35 fighter is as much as $50,000 or more.