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tv   America Tonight  Al Jazeera  August 1, 2015 2:30am-3:01am EDT

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that's "inside story".
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thanks for joining us. tonight, a special report on the "hurledded and very expensive f 35 fighter. with a price tag in excess of a trillion dollars, it is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the united states. the pentagon says the f-35 will ensure america's air superiority for decades. it will bring cutting edge technology. critics have called it a hot mess and one of the biggest white elephants in history. we begin at nellis air force base in nevada. one place the f-35 is being tested. at outskirts of las vegas is where american pilots learn the art of aerial combat. here the full array of u.s. air
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power is on display from proven work horses like the f -15 and f-16 to more modern aircraft like the f-22. you will also find the latest addition to america's military arsenal, the f-35 is the most expensive weapons program in american history. according to one pentagon report, it has a price tag of $1.4 trillion. so far the pentagon has bought almost 150 f-35s with more on the assembly line. even though the air force and navy versions are a year or more away from being cleared for combat. eventually the air force is expected to buy more than 1700 f-35s with the navy and marines purchasing nearly 700 more. ones modified for them. why
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buy so many f-35s? congress and the military believe the plane can be refined as more are being built. >> you can't touch the airplane. >> from its futuristic shape it's a complicated beast. like get into a racing car. >> it is. >> you get in it, you strap it on. >> the f-35 is being tested. benjamin bishop is one of the test units commanders. >> how do you compare the f-35 to the f-15? >> the f-35 is a monumental leap in capability. the f-15 is something our nation needs. >> that might be what you might expect to hear. other reviews have been far less positive. the plane has been so playinged by design flaws, rarely a week
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goes down without a negative headline. there was bad news in january, courtesy of this report. it was written by dr. jay michael gilmore, the pentagon's direct earl of operational test and evaluation. that's the d.o.t.n.e. his report detail sos many problems, one defense industry publication called the f-35 a hot mess. >> let's look at why this pilot. >> okay. the report doesn't make for easy reading. sol we asked pierre to take us through it. an engineer who once evaluated planes for the pentagon, he was part of the team that designed the f- 16. he's since lift the defense department. he's spoken with pilots. he says chief among their concerns is the plane's safety.
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>> live fire test and evaluation, confirmed the expected vulnerabilitities of the fuel tank structure. what does that mean? >> they implemented tests where they took pieces of the plane and shot at them with ammunition. they found it's bad. >> they catch fire, burn and explode. >> there is too much flammable stuff located in very poor locations. think of this engine as a blow torch surrounded by fuel. that's what it really is. >> the plane's propensity to catch fire when shot at, perhaps the biggest concern in combat, is just the beginning. the report lists many other safety concerns including the potential for arcing and shorts in the electrical wiring that powers the plane's flight controls. problems protecting the plane from lightning, requiring it to stay 25 miles away from bad weather.
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and troubled with so-called roll-off or wing drop. a problem which forces the plane to roll down towards the ground when making certain turnings. >> when the report uses catastrophic and cascading, what does it mean? >> it means you start with a small problem and you get leaking fuel. >> the thing can blow up. >> absolutely. there goes the airplane, there goes the pilot. >> these safety concerns are just theoretical. >> we are dumping heat into what's already flammable. >> in june 2014, an f-35 bursts into flames taxiing for takeoff because an engine part cracked in previous flights. the air force just released these pictures of the incident. >> one of the sets of fans inside the engine rubbed against the casing and the crosswalks caused one of the fan blades to
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break off, the fan explodes like shrapnel. thank got it was on the runway. >> the entire fleet was grounded for three weeks and the plane missed its international debut. despite that, general mark welch was adamant the air force's plane was still on schedule. >> i'm confident that the program will remain on track. >> when you read the evaluation, what do you see? >> i see a program that should have been held up. >> from 2001 to 2005, tom christy was the director of operational tests and evaluation. he spent more than 30 years at the pentagon as a high-ranking official in evaluation. >> they are producing 40, 50 airplanes a year. to me that's full scale production. that's a tragedy, because god knows what we have to do to fix all these aircraft.
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>> to this day, test pilots are operating under severe restrictions. unable to fly the plane at high speeds or maneuver aggressively for fear the engine problem could happen again. according to the d.o.t.n.e., a design to fix the problem was not complete at the time the report was written. the major general commands the air force wear fair center. his unit is testing the air force's version for battle. >> can i ask you what your reaction was? >> we have to be concerned. we have a long history of a sound, safety program. so i have no safety concerns. since i have to fly it, i have to pay personal attention to those safety concerns. >> he's the highest ranking office to qualify on the f-35. >> i have about 50 hours flying in it now. >> when we met him, he was returning from a test flight.
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>> the report highlighted there are concerns with the plane as it currently exist. how does that impede your aability to basically advance this airplane? >> certainly there are limitations right now that the fleet is working through from the engine incident that happened. so we are slowly working through expanding the operational envelope of the airplanes. >> isn't it likely as you expand that envelope, you find more issues? >> certainly likely. it's certainly likely. it's because of what we do. we take it and put it in operationally representative conditions. so when i put it in those conditions, i learn how it acts in a combat scenario. >> we wanted to ask the pentagon why it's continuing to purchase a plane with so many problems. lieutenant general is the officer in charge of the program. his office told us his schedule didn't allow for an interview in time for our report. however, in a statement he says
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this is the optimal time to discover issues through testing so we can provide solutions early. he also says the report contained no surprises. and that his office already addressed several concerns before the report was drafted. despite all the problems, those discovered and still unknown the marine corps declared its version ready for combat. the air force plans to follow suit in 2016. the navy in 2019. what does it mean if the marine corps declares ioc? >> it's a sham. that's what it means. the program has been embarrassing and they are just at the point to say, we are going to take whatever we get. >> when we come back a closer look at the marine corps version of the f-35 and a test pilot's complaint that the plane is a dog in a fight.
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readiness of the f-35 for combat, including the marine corps version. do you think this plane is combat ready? >> no, absolutely not. that combat capability is years away, in my book. >> the marine corps version of the plane has safety problems,
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some so severe they could have flight critical effects. >> let's look at why this airplane is so dangerous to the pilot. >> okay. former engineer says beyond safety issues, the f-35 is also crippled by flaws which limit its utility in combat. problems stemming from the design requirements of the marine corps. the marines want a so-called jump jet, able to accompany troops on the lines. >> the airplane could rise virtually, could land virtually on a column of jet air. that air is so hot, you can't even land on the main runway at the airport. the air will explode the concrete. >> what do you have to land this thing on? >> you have to get special high temperature ceramic type concrete. yet the whole excuse of this was the marines needed vertical takeoff so you could get up
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close to the troops. >> vertical takeoff and landing creates another problem. necessitating an enormous fan mounted in the plane's mid section that compromised the speed and agility. >> all the other services have to put up with that. to go super sonic, you have to go long and slender. sitting up here is a great big fan. it's huge. so this thing starts with a fuselage that's as fat as a pig. >> since all verges of the f-35 share the same frame, the performances are affected, too. >> the truth of the matter, we could never be a fast acceleration. >> in this defense department memo leak in june, a test pilot writes about a mock dogfight held in january pitting an f-35
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against a 20-year-old f-16. it was meant to test high range angles of attack. according to the f-35 pilot, his plane remained at an energy disadvantage for every engagement. in other words, the f-35 couldn't climb or turn fast enough to either kill or evade the f-16. the f-16 was even at an aerodynamic disadvantage weighed down by the fuel tanks on its wings, while the f-35 was flying clean. the maneuver ability was inferior to the f-15 e, another aging, but proven air force work horse. >> it's heavy, it has small wings. it takes a lot of wing area to create lift and turn and put you
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in a winning position. this airplane is like a rock when it comes to maneuvering. >> one popular military blog in its account of the mock dogfight went so far as to describe the f-35 as dead meat. that prompted a swift reply from the pentagon saying it does not tell the entire story. according to the defense department, it was not equipped with the software or weapons common to newer versions of the plane. it's designed to kill enemies from long distances, not necessarily in visual dogfighting situations. it's not just former pentagon insiders like tom chris ity that are skeptical. a former defense minister. u.k. that plans on buying the f-35s, said the plane might be
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one of the biggest white elephants in history. how is it that u.s. taxpayers have bought 150 f-35s with more in the pipeline? christy has seen this playbook before. they team up with a defense contractor promising lots of jobs. tempted, members of congress vote for the weapons to keep coming. lockheed martin even has a website which boasts about the enormity of the plane's economic footprint claiming the plane rico. >> you don't stop one of these things. >> literally, the plane has left the tarmac. >> yes. >> one more thought, courtesy of the report, it says the pentagon has been massaging the numbers when it comes to the f-35's performance. according to the report, some recent pentagon claims about the plane's improve reliability is not because it is getting
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better, but because not all failures are being counted. in other words, the bad news about the f-35 could be a whole lot worse. when we come back, a vermont community that says no to the f-35.
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the incredible journey continues.
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>> now available, the new al jazeea america mobile news app. get our exclusive in depth, reporting when you want it. a global perspective wherever you are. the major headlines in context. mashable says... you'll never miss the latest news >> they will continue looking for survivors... >> the potential for energy production is huge... >> no noise, no clutter, just real reporting. the new al jazeera america mobile app available for your apple and android mobile device. download it now millions of lines of computer code inside that act as an artificial intelligence, it's being hailed as the future of combat aviation. result .but many residents see it as a real
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danger. >> the burlington airport is not a suitable venue for the f-35. the airport is a commercial airport. it is not a military base. the people were here first. >> roseanne is a leader of a group fighting to keep the f-35 out of her local airport at burlington, vermont. burlington is home to the vermont air national guard. it's scheduled to receive 18 f-35s by the year 2020. it will be the first air national guard unit in america to get the plane, replacing a unit of aging f-16s. the burlington airport has homes built right up to its perimeter. there are towns on both ends of its runway . a working class community of some 7,000 people. >> i have been here in the backyards of people who live
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here. and it is astounding to see how low the planes are over their homes. you could recognize people in the cockpit, that's how low they are. >> to get a better sense of the concerns, consider the record of the f-16. in its introduction in 1975, the u.s. air force lost more than 320 of them in crashes and mishaps out of a fleet of 2,230. that's one in seven. >> if something happens with takeoff and landing of the f-35 it is probable that it will land in this area here. it's a recipe for a disaster. it's almost horrendous to about. >> contrast burlington's airport with luke air force base in arizona where the air force will train pilots to fly the f-35.
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the surrounding fields act as a buffer zone. a point reinforced when an f-16 went down just outside of the base. no one, including the pilot, was seriously injured. >> it's all populated. it goes right over that. >> she isn't just an activist, she's a colonel. she specialized in strategic intelligence and arms control. she says the f-35 pose as threat far greater than earlier generation war fighters. like many modern military planes, the f-35 is largely made up of composite material, carbon and graphite, held together with resins and glues. >> if it doesn't land on top of them, there is danger of the smoke and fumes that come off the burning wreckage. >> according to this engineering textbook on the flackability of composite materials, inhaling
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smoke can cause acute and delayed health problems, even death. it says long-term health risks include cancers and tumors. in the 1980s and '90s, several workers at area 51 in nevada reported being ill after inhaling burning stealth material. result. >> back in 2008, 2009, i started developing back problems. eventually had to remove the vertebrae out of my back from the cancer. >> jason is one of the few people in america who has been within feet of a burning aircraft. >> i brought up could it have been from this. they were having a hard time trying to identify the cancer. it's still to this day unknown. >> he was the leader of a search
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and rescue team in new mexico . witnesses had seen a huge fire ball. flesher assumed it was a plane crash, but was told nothing. >> normally, we are told the plane, the type of plane. >> you didn't know how to protect yourself? >> no, no. >> did you have a respirator? >> no. smoke? >> right. it would be weeks before flesher found out the reason for the secrecy. the plane that crashed was an f-117 a, the air force's first true stealth aircraft. all of this only came out after a local newspaper reporter began investigating. so this says in the aftermath of the crash, the air force issued a warning that the smoke from the burning plane might have been toxic. do you remember that? >> i remember it coming out days later. >> days later. this also says that there was a
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paper delivered at a nasa conference in 1994, an air force paper, that says some materials may have burned pose serious health risks. radar absorbed material, and a carbon graphite used for reinforcement. knocked said anything about that to you. >> no, no. >> you got a letter? >> i got a letter from a gentleman who was retired, but worked on the project, the stealth project. >> in this letter he talked about his own experience working on the development of the plane. >> correct. and having to be under full protective hazmat suit, full respirator, any time anybody worked around the project. >> he can't help but wonder if his exposure caused t after reading the articles, he asked the air force for regular medical evaluations but was denied. to this day the air force hasn't been forthcoming about the health
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effects of the burning wreckage. he believes that lack of transparency is a lesson and warning for the rest denies of burlington. the air force is developing the operational playbook for the plane, not just how to fly the circumstances. >> but is the community writing a playbook as regards to hazards in. >> where would you base a fighter bomber? >> roseanne and her group aren't waiting for that. refiled a lawsuit in federal court challenging the air force's decision to base the f-35 in burlington. the city council voted unanimously to join that lawsuit. we wanted to speak with someone, anyone, about the decision to base the f-35 in burlington. but the pentagon, the air force, the air national guard, vermont senators, even burlington's
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mayor all turned us down. as for grekko, she's left fighting the military. afraid their expensive new weapon may spell disaster for her town. and that's america tonight. tell us what you think at tonight. and talk to us on twitter or facebook. and come back, we'll have more of america tonight tomorrow. >> i'll ali velshi, on target. america's asylums where the mentally ill are likely to land
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