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Entire US Air Force Fifth-Generation Fighter Fleet Grounded

August 17, 2011

US F22 Raptor

In what has become a travesty and embarrassment for both the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programs, a series of unfortunate events is keeping all fifth-generation aircraft operated by the US Air Force grounded. The tale of woe begins with the F-22 Raptor and its malfunctioning On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS). The OBOGS developed by Honeywell Aerospace is being faulted for polluting pilot bloodstreams with harmful chemicals during flight and causing side effects like hypoxia. It’s believed the unreliable OBOGS even led to an F-22 crash in Alaska on November 16, 2010, though this is unconfirmed. There are also numerous incidents where pilots lost their oxygen supply in mid-air. For a complete history of the F22’s problems, this Los Angeles Times article is very helpful.

Since May 3, the entire 158-plane F-22 fleet sits unused, unflown, and unimpressive across US airbases. Worse, the same fate is now shared by the vaunted F-35, a multirole fighter that’s scheduled to replace the USAF’s entire air arsenal–more than 2,400 are scheduled to be built with several hundred more for export. The problem with the F-35, however, is different. Earlier this month a flight test at Edwards Air Force Base went awry when an F-35 blew its integrated power plant (IPP), another crucial working part that could have jeopardized its performance or caused an accident.

To date, there are 40 F-35’s currently grounded until a viable fix is undertaken to get them airworthy again. While such measures are necessary to ensure pilots operate safe and effective aircraft, it does tarnish the reputation (or mythical aura) of the fifth generation fighter concept. It’s important to keep in mind that neither F-22s or F-35s have been deployed on combat missions, yet the former already suffered losses due to accidents. It also damages the credibility of both aircraft as future warfighters when their operational history during peace time is rife with technical problems.

The most painful part of this tribulation is, of course, the cost. The development, purchase, and maintenance of the F-22 and F-35 combined already rank as the most expensive weapons systems in the world. If they prove to be white elephants, then further ignominy awaits–as if the controversial (but very suspicious) RAND Corporation F-35 simulation didn’t convince the doubters of its shortcomings long ago.

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