Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Campaign to Rehabilitate the F-35 Has Begun

If you felt relieved that the Harper authority had given up on the F-35, think again.   That the stealth light attack bomber is still very much alive in the bosom of the Harpies is obvious from the remarks of MacKay's parliamentary secretary on CBC's The Current:

The first thing to note, there's not going to be a real competition for a replacement for the CF-18.   There's not going to be any competitive fly-off for the rivals to show their stuff.   There won't be any Canadian pilots sitting in cockpits wrenching these things around to see if they're as good as their manufacturers claim.

Why not?  Why aren't we even getting a chance to kick the tires?  Because, as I explained yesterday, Lockheed is years away from being ready to compete head to head, in the air.   So the only way you can rig the "competition" is to have the manufacturers tell you what they want you to hear and go from there.

And there'll be no real competition on cost either.   The others - Boeing, Dassault and Eurofighter can give you fixed figures.  They can tell you what their planes cost to buy, to maintain and to operate.   Lockheed can't.   Lockheed can project a figure but it will be based on a bucketful of optimistic assumptions.   Remember when Peter MacKay said we had a fixed deal on a price for the F-35.  He lied.   He knew there was no such thing.

Why can't Lockheed give a price for the F-35?   That's because it doesn't know what it will cost to make the F-35 and the price will vary from customer to customer.   A lot hinges on the American military's orders.  Lockheed is supplying the F-35 in three variants for the US Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps.  The Air Force is the biggest customer but its approach speaks volumes for the uncertainty of F-35 production costs.   The Air Force approach is that it has X dollars to spend and it wants to get as many F-35s as it can for that much money.   That sounds entirely backwards and it is.

The price Lockheed will extract from its foreign customers depends on the number of F-35s it is able to sell to the American military.  The more airframes it sells at home, the better the cost for everyone else.   But it doesn't know how many it is going to be able to sell at home.   There are some in Congress who would like to see the whole F-35 programme scrapped outright.   Imagine what that would do to foreign customers.

The price also varies according to when your particular airplanes are built.   Early on the prices are higher.   Later on they're supposed to drop.   But the difference between early and later is also going to be influenced by how the American military grooms its orders.  So, again, there's another potentially costly factor of uncertainty added to the already murky mix.

And then there's the price to fix the airplane.   Fix a brand new airplane?  You got it.  The F-35 is an airplane that has been ordered into production years before testing was completed.   Who in the Pentagon had that brainfart isn't entirely clear.  It was a really stupid mistake, one that accounts for a lot of the cost overruns and years of delays that have plagued the warplane.

The usual (sane) approach is to design an airplane, build a few prototypes, and discover what's wrong and where it can be improved.   Then, once you get the bugs worked out, you come up with a cost and go into production.

The F-35 (insane) approach has been to design the airplane, put it into production and then start looking for what's wrong and what needs fixing.   And then those airplanes you have already produced and sold get the added cost of having to be repaired and modified after the fact.   If this sounds wonky to you well the current Pentagon procurement Czar agrees.   He calls it "acquisition malpractice."   A nice term for an insanely costly mistake.

That's why there'll be no genuine competition on price.   The F-35 testing will be going on for at least another three years beyond the initial timeframe.  Some estimate the testing and defined repairs won't be finished until 2019.    How can you know what the F-35 is going to cost when the final repair sheet is drawn up in 2019?  Once again you're dropped straight back into that murky mix.

But what about the F-35's ace up the sleeve, its stealth advantage.  Yeah, what about it?   Even Israeli and American defence planners agree it's a  "perishable" technology that will probably be effectively neutralized within five years.   It's all sizzle and no steak.   The F-35's potential adversaries, Russia and China, think they've got it sorted out already.

A real competition would place very little emphasis on the limited stealth technology in the F-35.  It needs to be discounted for many reasons.  One, it really works only from the front aspect.   From the left or the right, above or below, and behind, the F-35 isn't very stealthy at all.   As a fighter, the F-35's stealth is further marginalized because fighters have to maneuver in combat.   All six aspects are in play, not just the frontal plane.   And when your opponent can readily target you in five of the six aspects, then you're really only one-sixth stealthy at best.   It's a brittle or perishable technology that may not even work from the frontal aspect by the time the F-35 ever reached Canadian hangars.

Once you eliminate or discount the stealth factor, a real competition becomes far more possible.   Then it's possible to compare range, payload, fuel capacity, speed, climb and turn rates, reliability and redundancy.   And that's where the F-35's Achilles' Heels (plural, it has many) really come through.

The Lockheed contender doesn't have the range of its rivals. That means to remain stealthy it has to rely on its internal fuel.  That, in turn, leaves it dependent on fuel tanker support that will have to be forward positioned where the tanker itself is vulnerable.

You have two internal weapons bays.  Since it is not really a fighter but a light, first-strike attack bomber, those bays will be holding some sort of smart bomb, which leaves you with very little space to fit in air to air missiles for defence.

This is where speed comes in.   The F-35 is a little slower than some of its competitors but that's not its speed weakness.   The real problem is that it lacks "supercruise."   That is a term for being able to cruise at supersonic speeds without having to rely on fuel-gulping afterburner power.   Because the frontal stealth aspect leaves the F-35 with a wide, bulky shape it incurs a drag penalty that leaves it incapable of supercruise.

Since the F-35 is designed to operate in hostile airspace against sophisticated air defences, it has to get in undetected and get out fast.  Because it will be loaded with bombs it doesn't have many missiles to shoot its way in or out.   And because its potential fighter adversaries have more range, way more missiles and are faster (and far more numerous), the F-35 in a defensive mode is at several huge disadvantages.   Without supercruise if it needs to go fast to try to get away it has to go into afterburner and suck away its already limited fuel.   Or it can simply go slow and get overtaken and shot down.  It's just not a good place to be for the F-35 pilot.

If you're going to give the F-35 points for stealth then you have to deduct as many points or more for its lack of supercruise.   After that you can go head to head on range, speed, payload, turn and climb rates, dual-engine survivability and reliability - all the qualities that make a great warplane - but then the F-35 wouldn't even be in the running.

But as MacKay's parliamentary secretary revealed, there's not going to be a competition in any case.   These guys are proven dissemblers, hucksters and fixers.   They're bent the lot of them from Harper through MacKay and on down.   For the last three years they have lied their asses off, time and time again.   They lied their way through the last election.  It's the only way they can function and they know it.

The only way to keep their hopes for the F-35 alive is to make damned sure there is no competition.


Owen Gray said...

Canadians should know by now that it would be unwise buy a used car from these guys.

The problem is that they -- for the moment -- are the only dealer in town.

Sixth Estate said...

All of these are very good points, but it seems to me that there's an even more basic one still which makes a "genuine" fighter competition impossible: we have still not come to any public decision, after years and years of dissembling, about what Canada would actually need from a future fighter program.

I realize what you're saying: that whatever the competition is, the F-35 isn't in any shape to compete (either not yet, or maybe just plain never will be). But we couldn't even hold a competition without the F-35 right now, at least not with what's been put out in public. How can we decide the tradeoffs between price and performance if we haven't agreed upon what our performance requirements actually are?

Hugh said...

It's beyond me how we or the US can think about this, being swamped in deficits and debt already.

The Mound of Sound said...

Every soldier who has ever spent hours under the hot sun drilling on a parade square knows what to do, 6E. You mark time. In this case that probably suggests going for something like the Super Hornet or Rafale. What you don't do is march into the wall in front of your face.

Anonymous said...

Why are the Conservatives so obsessed with purchasing the F-35? It's an overpriced, under-performing flying piano which does not in any way satisfy Canadian requirements.

So why the obsession? Follow the money? An aircraft like the multi-engine Super Hornet would be a much better, and economical, choice for Canada.

Anyong said...

Just visible over the horizon...Peter MacKay will be put into another department or eliminated all together...the government has to have a fall guy for the lies.