Thursday, July 02, 2015

Maybe That's Why It Was "Buy First, Fly Later."

Lockheed's F-35 joint strike fighter is one for the books.  In fact there'll be several books written examining how it was conceived, developed, built and sold and they'll be studied in aviation circles for generations to come.

To call the F-35 counter-intuitive is a massive understatement.  It's what you might expect of a George w. Bush and Dick Cheney love child.  One quick mistake in the middle of a boozy night and the rest took care of itself.

The idea was to build a new ground attack light bomber that would be not one but two generations ahead of anything else flying.  It was supposed to be so advanced that it would take America's potential adversaries (can you say China and Russia?) decades to catch up, ensuring America's air superiority far into the future.  That was the idea.  From there pretty much everything went very, very wrong.

To rush the world dominating F-35 into service, they would put it into production while it still had years of testing ahead of it.  It would be coming off the assembly lines and into customer's hangars while the Lockheed/US Air Force team were trying to find and fix whatever was wrong with it.  Here's the thing. What is this now, 2015? That testing isn't scheduled to be completed until 2019 at the earliest.  In other words, you build it.  You sell it.  You eventually figure out what's wrong with it and then hope you can fix it.  Imagine walking into some car dealership, pointing to the shiny red thing on the showroom floor and asking the sales guy "what's wrong with this model" only to have him reply "we really don't know yet. We think it's mainly going to be the engine and the steering and the brakes. Oh yeah, there's also that fire thing."  It's such a curious approach that the Pentagon boss who took over monitoring the project coined a special term for it, "acquisition malpractice."

With something this screwed up from the outset, it didn't take long for politics to creep into the F-35 programme.  This is one very political airplane, right up there with Canada's Avro Arrow, only in this case the political wheel of fortune is working to keep the airplane alive.

Two numbers you have to keep in your mind - 22 and 35.  The F-22 Raptor is Lockheed's stealth super-fighter.  It's the one that the White House decided that even America's closest allies could never have.  The US Air Force was supposed to get about 800 of them but the Obama administration shut down the project at about 178.  Now think of that from Lockheed's point of view.  They developed it and got it into production assuming they would recoup their costs with a tidy profit over a run of 800 airframes.  Suddenly the customer, who won't let you sell it to anyone else, says, "I've thought it over and 178 will be plenty so just shut it down."  Talk about being left hanging.

But Lockheed had a backup airplane that could save the day, the F-35.  The Pentagon was looking to buy a couple of thousand of those and there would be several hundred more flogged to America's allies from Italy to South Korea. Salvation.  With that, the F-35 became the biggest and costliest military package in American history.

Unfortunately the F-35 dream turned into a nightmare.  Development problems kept popping up, costs soared and the testing/delivery schedule fell several years behind.  Those foreign customers got nervous, very nervous.  Let's just say that Lockheed, the Pentagon and the White House had their hands full keeping the international market from collapsing.

One thing the foreign customers wanted to know was if they bought the F-35 what else would they have to buy?  The F-35 might be okay at dropping bombs in someone else's back yard but how were they going to defend their own airspace?  With that, the light strike bomber morphed into an air superiority fighter.  Lockheed went to great lengths to tout the F-35 as superior in all respects, including air combat, over the F-15/F-16/F-18/Mig-29/Sukhoi-27 legacy fighters.  There were some who coughed "bullshit" into their hands but Lockheed insisted their stealth bomber fighter could take on all comers.

Which is why Lockheed can't be very happy about the leak of an in-house test report showing that, in the furball of air combat, the F-35 is, as critics have long claimed, a dud.

A Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was outperformed in the type’s first basic fighter maneuvering exercise by a 20-plus-year-old F-16 fighter, according to a leaked Lockheed Martin report prepared by the pilot who flew the mission.

Inferior energy maneuverability (EM), a limited pitch rate and flying qualities that were “not intuitive or favorable” in a major part of the air-combat regime gave the F-16 the tactical advantage and allowed its pilot to get into both missile-launch and gun parameters over the F-35. Another drawback was that the large helmet and F-35 canopy design restricted the pilot’s rearward view.

"You got a bogey on your six."  "Okay, what is it?" "Hard to tell, could be just about anybody. Don't worry, it'll all be over soon."

The report confirms the critics' "over/under" description of the F-35 - overdue, over priced and under performing.

The manufacturer and the US Air Force admit the report is genuine but say that, thanks to the F-35's on-board electronic wizardry, it doesn't matter.  The F-35 will shoot down the enemy before it ever has to get into the turn and burn stuff. Sort of like saying "sure, there's a wheel missing but aren't those seats just gorgeous?"

The fact is that Lockheed said their plane could at least outperform those 20-year older fighters and it can't.  Once again Lockheed's credibility is in the toilet and still they expect everybody not to notice the smell.  What else are they claiming that is stretching the truth?  If you ask the critics, well they've got a list.

An F-35 pilot would be damned lucky if all he had to go up against was some vintage F-16 or F-18.  He's more likely to find himself trying to survive an encounter with some Russian or Chinese super-fighter specifically designed and equipped to defeat the F-35 by exploiting its many vulnerabilities.  

The years of delay in developing the F-35 have been a gift to its intended adversaries and they've made the most of it.  For starters, it's no longer invisible. That stealth advantage, for which the F-35 sacrifices speed, range, payload and agility, has been largely negated by new, multi-sensor technology that can detect, track and target the F-35 at long distances.  Worse yet, the other guys now have their own stealth fighters in development aided by generous, unauthorized access to American stealth technology secrets.  Memo to Lockheed: If you think you're onto something really, really good, try to keep it to yourself. 

For Canada, which was planning to blow the budget to acquire a paltry fleet of just 60 F-35s, the leaked Lockheed test results should be enough to at least demand a real flying competition pitting the F-35 against its competitors.  We've been put on notice that the F-35's pitchmen aren't all that reliable.  We need to find out for ourselves what this thing actually will and what it won't do by inviting all the warplanes to Cold Lake for competitive trials under realistic combat conditions.


Lockheed and the US Air Force are going to incredible lengths to downplay the dogfighting report as "not telling the whole picture."  One part of the picture they left out was that the F-35 can't count on having to go up against a 30-year old, vintage opponent.  If it ever comes into service it can expect to cut its teeth on new, far more capable warplanes that are vastly superior to that aged F-16 and are being specifically designed and equipped to counter the F-35's supposed ability to engage and destroy opponents before it can be detected, targeted and attacked.  Those aircraft are much faster, longer ranged, more heavily armed and vastly more agile than the F-35 and the F-16 that trounced it.  Worse yet, three of those warplanes soon to go into service are themselves stealth fighters.  Even worse yet, those adversaries will enjoy the home field advantage, meaning an array of ground based anti-stealth radar and multiple sensor systems.

As each layer of the F-35's stealth cloaking is peeled away, you're left with a marginal performer facing ever increasing odds of having to dogfight vastly superior warplanes.  In those circumstances the F-35 could become the world's most expensive lawn dart.

If you're interested in reading more, you can access the entire report here.  A helpful summary of the highlights can be found here.


Toby said...

"In other words, you build it. You sell it. You eventually figure out what's wrong with it and then hope you can fix it."

American industry is littered with that. When the Americans entered the railway age they were under-financed. Consequently, they slapped down track, ran trains and sold tickets to finance repairs. There were lots and lots of accidents and many failed railways.

Anonymous said...

The F117 came and went, produced in only small numbers.
Likewise the B1 & B2 bombers.
The F22 had it's numbers reduced add to this the F35 has problems with performance and cost.
Could it be, as I suspect, that the stealth concept is just that?
Due to the rapid pace of electronic warfare can any of these weapons ever be effective?
I smell failure in everything but the manufacturers profits.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, the saddest part is that the F-35 fiasco invites us to throw out the baby with the toxic bathwater. There's a lot of electronic wizardry that's been developed for this warplane that is terrific. The best course, in my opinion, is to salvage that technology and design an uncompromised fighter for it.

The F-35 has always been a "beta" design. That's evident from how so much had to be sacrificed to get it into service - range, speed, payload and agility. America and her allies would be enormously better off if the manufacturers could be ordered to start over and, this time, get it right. That will never happen.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that airborn,drones, ECM,s will make any such aircraft redundent?
As the Russian are reportedly having problems with their latest aircraft maybe we will see, in future conflicts, an F35 or F22 for that matter, landing along side a SU32 ; the pilots leaving the aircraft and duking it out on the airstrip?
History shows that the military industrial complex will take advantage of the taxpayer at the drop of a hat.
We have seen faulty concepts before such as the XB 70.

ThinkingManNeil said...

The US and its allies have been sold a bill of goods with this POS _ I hesitate to call - airplane. The only ones rooting for it, other than the Suits in Lockheed-Matin's corporate offices, are the ticket punchers in the Pentagon and DND-HQ who are brown nosing their way through their illustrious military careers to become high-end lobbyists for L-M and its contractors, so they need to deliver this rancid turkey to land those plum jobs. And while the Suits are laughing all the way to their Swiss bank accounts, Kelly Johnson, patron saint of Lockheed and innovative aviators everywhere, is spinning in his grave.

Also turns out that shoveling billions of $CDN into this stealth money pit is a handy dandy way to de-fund things Reichsfuhrer truly detests; $36B cut to healthcare, anyone?


The Mound of Sound said...

Time will not be the F-35s friend even as we're promised it will be our front-line "fighter" for upwards of the next forty years.

When you look at any warplane from the day the first rolls out of the factory to the day the last emerges, you'll see vast changes. They never get faster or lighter as more gear is added to meet evolving challenges. Vanes and bumps show up all over the airframe, that sort of thing.

These sorts of lifetime changes in the F-35 would be hugely problematical. It already has a weight problem that has left it unable to meet its design requirements for take off and landing. So severe was it that Lockheed tried to get away with stripping out the onboard fire suppression systems. More weight will also adversely impact its already marginal agility.

I have been struck by how prototypical the F-35 seems. It's like a technology demonstrator where combat essential qualities such as range, payload, speed (remember, no supercruise) and agility have been sacrificed for the sake of supposed stealth cloaking that is frontal-aspect only. It's sort of a "look what I can do, dad" airplane that's hard to take seriously.

The Americans don't seem to learn from their own mistakes. Recall the F-4 Phantom, originally nicknamed the "Missileer." It was designed without a gun or essential dogfight systems. It was limited to long-range missile intercept. Let's leave out the fact that the early Sparrow technology was terribly unreliable.

The Americans thought they could dictate the terms of combat in which the F-4 would operate. Therefore the F-4 didn't need versatility. It was never going to be in a dogfight - until it was and until its lack of a gun left a lot of Migs unkilled and a lot of F-4 pilots in Vietnamese prisons.

Now the F-35 boosters are doing much the same thing. We simply won't be in dogfights. We'll either evade all the threats or, if need be, we'll take out the defenders (a couple anyway) with missiles before they even know we're there. How do you hope to satisfy those assumptions over a service life we're told will be upwards of 40-years? That's just plain nuts.

When the F-35 was designed no one contemplated how it would fare against a new generation of hostiles with similar stealth ability and none of the F-35's performance and combat shortcomings.

What it comes down to is that someone, or a lot of someones, did not think this through. Too much of the decision making on this thing has been political.

Anonymous said...

The political decisions cannot keep pace with the realities of conflict.
The political decisions can keep pace with the realities of commerce and re election.