House panel wants probe of F-35 breathing issues

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A House Armed Services Committee subpanel wants the Pentagon to examine breathing issues faced by F-35 fighter jet pilots.

In its portion of the annual defense policy bill, the tactical air and land forces subcommittee is asking the Defense Department to review the F-35’s breathing system after a NASA study released earlier this year “had some pretty concerning findings” on the issue, committee aides told reporters on a background call Wednesday.

The NASA study focused on why F-15 and F-18 pilots were having physiological episodes related to breathing issues.

But researchers also had the opportunity to “review and analyze a limited amount of F-35 pilot breathing data,” NASA wrote in a post about the study.

Researchers found that the F-35’s breathing system delivered “an unpredictable amount of flow at the beginning, middle and end of each breath and that it changed from breath-to-breath.”

“Such rapid changes in the breath-to-breath supply forces the pilot to continually compensate by adjusting breathing rate, volume, and exhalation/inhalation force,” the study said.

House Armed Services Committee staffers reached out to the Pentagon’s F-35 office to get their perspective on the study, an aide told reporters Wednesday. “They kind of discounted it” because it was based on limited data and wasn’t “formally sanctioned” by the department, the aide said.

As such, the subcommittee’s portion of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would require the Pentagon, in consultation with NASA, to “investigate, assess and implement corrective actions for the F-35 breathing system initially noted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Engineering and Safety Center Technical Assessment Report on the F-35 pilot breathing system,” a summary of the bill said.

“Unfortunately it’s taken Congress to get the department to look at those issues and take action,” the aide said, citing past congressional action on physiological episodes related to F-22, F-18, T-45 and T-6 aircraft.

There have been 40 physiological episodes associated with the F-35, the aide said.

“We want to make sure that instead of the pilot having to adapt to the jet, the jet needs to make sure that it complies with the military specifications required for pilot breathing systems,” the aide said. “The pilot shouldn’t have to think about breathing in the airplane. It should just come naturally so that they can focus on the tactical employment.”

Known as the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system ever, the F-35 program is expected to cost $1.7 trillion over its lifetime.

Some lawmakers, most notably House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have recently raised the prospect of making cuts to the program as they question its sustainment costs.

For example, when talking about the F-35 earlier this year, Smith said he wants to “stop throwing money down that particular rathole.”

In that context, the House Appropriations Committee’s Pentagon spending for fiscal 2022 for the first time in years did not add any F-35s beyond what the Biden administration requested in its budget.

Asked Wednesday if the tactical air and land forces subcommittee’s portion of the NDAA weighs in on how many F-35s to buy, aides said that is an issue for the full committee since it is related to funding.

The subcommittee is scheduled to consider its portion of the bill Thursday afternoon.

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