Monday, March 23, 2015
Lockheed, You Blew It. Start Over, Do It Right.
For all the wholly deserved criticism of the F-35 light attack bomber, there are some things that Lockheed and its partners got right. What they didn't get right was the airplane itself.
The Brits used to operate an aircraft carrier, HMS Invincible. By American carrier standards the British ship had undersized elevators - the hydraulic platforms that move aircraft between the hangar deck and the flight deck. Lockheed designers had that problem in mind when they designed the F-35 which is why it's kind of short, a little stubby even. Britain's new carriers have larger elevators but, no matter, the design is done.
Lockheed designers knew that they had to come up with an airframe that would accommodate three variants; a basic, land-based version for the air force, a strengthened version for the navy, and a VSTOL or vertical landing/short take off version for the US Marine Corps and the Royal Navy.
The VSTOL version packs a vertical lift engine in addition to the standard flight engine in that airframe. That's why the F-35 is a bit squat, tubby. And because it's such a wide brick it carries a big drag penalty which leaves it incapable of achieving the jet fighter sine qua non, supercruise. It'll go moderately fast but only when its engine is in fuel-guzzling afterburner. In other words, unlike the competition it won't go fast very far. Unfortunately, because there's only one basic airframe design, the drag penalty dictated by the Marines' VSTOL variant also degrades the air force and naval versions.
All in all, the F-35 is a horribly compromised design. It has a serious weight problem that has left it unable to meet the specified landing and takeoff requirements. The answer was to move the goal posts, lower the standards. So desperate was Lockheed to "make weight" that at one point the company removed the internal fire suppression system. If there was ever a plane that needed that protection, it's the F-35.
In addition to the weight problem, the F-35 has a fire problem, several in fact. There's been an engine fire problem that's believed to have been caused by turbine blades coming into contact with the duct shroud. In order to give the aircraft at least passable range, it was necessary to install innovative fuel bladders in the wings, fuselage and even wrapped around the engine. This leaves the F-35 vulnerable to fire and explosions from lightning strikes which is why it's not allowed to fly near storms. A recent report from the US Secretary of Defense faulted the fuel system as also very vulnerable to ground fire. A stray bullet could be enough to make the jet go BOOM. That might limit your enthusiasm for risking the world's most expensive warplane down in the weeds supporting friendly troops against outfits like the Taliban.
There are other problems, myriad issues. The F-35 has a low altitude heat problem. It just can't cool itself which leaves it easier to detect and attack by modern infra-red systems. At higher speeds, if the F-35 has to maneuver quickly to avoid an attacker or a missile, it can develop wing-drop which means the loss of controlled flight which could turn the mega-million dollar warplane into the world's most expensive lawn dart. I could go on but I think you get the picture of an airplane with some very serious, sometimes intractable problems.
But still ...we're hearing hints of magical systems the F-35 will bring to the battlefield including a cyber-warfare pod that's apparently designed to transmit powerful viruses into an enemy's air defence computers. It's also reported to have a variety of novel sensing, targeting and communication systems. Taken together these wonders of wizardry are said to redeem the F-35 despite its many other flaws.
The illogic to this argument is that it ties these electronic warfare systems to a very compromised airframe with serious performance issues. Why, if they're that good can they not simply be installed in a better airplane, one that is more capable and survivable than the F-35? Why not retrofit them to an upgraded, twin-engine, long range, high speed and very maneuverable airplane, something like a modernized F-22?
There are some F-35 customers who will want to stick with the airplane, warts and all. Israel, for example, needs it soon if it is to attack Iran. The Marines, Royal Navy and other small carrier forces still need the VSTOL version, the F-35B, so those orders would remain valid. The US Air Force will still want some of the A-models just as the US Navy will still need some of the navalized, C-models. Yet both services are already clamoring for a new, 6th generation fighter (the very sort of thing I'm suggesting).
Recognizing the F-35's many flaws isn't going to make it one bit better or worse. It's not going to harm "the programme." It's just that, given the chance to build a new design incorporating the magical electronic systems without the compromises required for the "one size fits all" joint strike fighter, Lockheed's designers would come up with something that looked a lot different than the F-35.