Monday, April 03, 2017

Lockheed's Never Ready Warplane

There has been a spate of feel good stories about the F-35 over the past few months. Stories about how the warplane was already in combat service with the Israeli air force or how Norway would soon be using its 35s to keep the Russian bear at bay or the deployment of U.S. F-35s to Japan just in case the White House decides enough is enough with Kim Jong Un. With each report the airplane's critics seemed to melt away. Except one.

Before Dr. John Gilmore retired from his post as the Pentagon's Director of Test and Evaluation he left a parting gift - a 62 page report on the state of Lockheed's F-35 light attack bomber. It seems like someone has been telling some pretty big whoppers about this never-ready warplane.

Dr. Gilmore's conclusion - the F-35 is barely fit to fly.

Here are the highlights of the report:

Electronics Used to Justify Cost Not Delivering Capabilities
Ineffective as a Fighter
Ineffective as an Interdiction Bomber
Ineffective as a Close Air Support Platform
Navy’s F-35 Unsuitable for Carrier Operations
Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35
Combat Effectiveness at Risk
Can the F-35 Be Where It’s Needed, When It’s Needed?
F-35 Reliability Problems
Officials Hiding Truth about F-35’s Problems and Delays from Taxpayers

 The F-35 is being sold to the American people based in no small part on its mission systems, the vast array of sophisticated electronics on board the jet. ...Based on the actual test performance of these systems during developmental testing, however, it appears the electronics actually interfere with the pilot’s ability to survive and prevail.

Overall, problems with the F-35’s sensors, computers, and software, including creating false targets and reporting inaccurate locations, have been severe enough that test teams at Edwards Air Force Base have rated them “red,” meaning they are unable to perform the combat tasks expected of them.

One system, the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), was singled out by pilots as inferior in resolution and range to the systems currently being used on legacy aircraft.  ...But the limitations of EOTS, including image degradation with humidity, force pilots to fly in closer to a target than they had to when using earlier systems just to get a clear enough picture to launch a missile or take a shot. The report says the problem is bad enough that F-35 pilots may need to fly in so close to acquire the target that they would have to maneuver away to gain the distance needed for a guided weapon shot. Thus, the system’s limitations can force an attacking F-35 to compromise surprise, allowing the enemy to maneuver to a first-shot opportunity. Surrendering the element of surprise and enabling an opponent to shoot first is what we want to force the enemy to do, not ourselves.

The report lays to rest the USAF and Lockheed's claims that the new plane is as maneuverable as the old jets it's intended to replace. Nope. 

All three variants “display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing.” One such problem is known as wing drop, where the jet’s wingtip suddenly dips during a tight turn, something that can cause the aircraft to spin and potentially crash.

Transonic speeds, just below the sound barrier, are the most critical spot of the flight envelope for a fighter plane. These are the speeds where, historically, the majority of aerial combat takes place. And it is at these speeds where the F-35 needs to be the most nimble to be an effective fighter.

The air force and Lockheed have been quick to praise the F-35's stealthiness but curiously reluctant to put it to the test.

The 2016 DOT&E report describes some official foot-dragging that has delayed putting the F-35’s penetrating ability to the test. For instance, the program is only now starting to receive the critical ground radar simulator equipment, which mimic enemy radar systems, that are needed to conduct robust testing of the F-35’s effectiveness in highly contested, near-peer, scenarios. It’s only receiving that equipment because it was sought and procured by DOT&E when it became clear that the Services and the JSF Program Office were not going to pursue a test infrastructure adequate for replicating the near-peer threats the F-35 is expected to be able to counter. Deliveries of this equipment have begun but will not complete until early 2018. The JPO has not planned or budgeted for developmental flight-testing against it.

In other words they were going to ship these supposedly stealthy warplanes out the door without realistically testing that the stealth systems worked. "You pays your money and you takes your chances" seems like an odd way to market an uber-costly warplane. Caveat Emptor.

As for the close support role, defending friendly troops under hostile fire, the F-35 is a dud.

An effective cannon is essential for many CAS missions where any size bomb, guided or unguided, would pose a danger to friendly troops on the ground or where there are concerns about collateral damage, such as in urban environments. The cannon is even more crucial when our troops are being ambushed or overrun by enemies only meters away, in “danger close” situations where only pinpoint effects delivered by the most highly accurate fire can help our side and kill or disperse the enemy.

None of the three F-35 models in the current fleet can use cannons in combat. In fact, none of them are even close to completing their developmental flight tests—much less their operational suitability tests—for airframe safety, accuracy, and target lethality. Even worse, based on preliminary test experience, it appears that the severe inaccuracy of the helmet-mounted gunsight on all three F-35 versions that makes the cannon ineffective in air-to-air combat will also make it ineffective in CAS—and that the helmet’s accuracy problem may be technically inherent and incurable. Note that the cannon accuracy requirements for CAS are considerably more stringent than for air combat: when shooting in close proximity to friendly troops, even minor accuracy problems can have tragic consequences.


Due to its small, overloaded wings, the F-35 cannot maneuver adequately at the slow speeds that searching for concealed and camouflaged targets requires—and being completely unarmored and highly flammable, it would suffer catastrophic losses from just the small rifle and light machinegun hits inevitable at the low altitudes and slow speeds required. In sharp contrast, the A-10 was specifically designed for excellent low and slow maneuverability and, by design, has unprecedented survivability against those guns, and even against shoulder-fired missiles.

Due to having to pack everything on the inside to maintain any degree of stealth, F-35 designers had to find creative ways to stow fuel. One was to develop a large fuel bladder that is draped around the engine hot section. That fuel bag gets hit that warplane is going down, in a fireball. Ask yourself if that's a confidence builder for the pilot who has to fly that plane up to and over enemy troops?

Then there's the cost problem. The air force has said the price for the basic model, the one being sold to most of America's allies, has come under $100 million but that seems as dodgy as all the other boasts and promises. The US government's figure is closer to $120-million a copy. That's a bare bones, drive it off the lot today, number. It doesn't include any of the support costs or the major upgrade costs to retrofit fixes for the lengthy lists of already discovered deficiencies. You can get the airplane but it's going to cost a tonne of dineros to fix and upgrade it.

DOT&E reports that there are “17 documented failures to meet specification requirements for which the program acknowledges and intends to seek contract specification changes in order to close out SDD [System Development and Demonstration].” That means there are 17 key combat capabilities the F-35 program can’t yet deliver and that the program office is attempting to give Lockheed Martin a pass on delivery until the later in the advanced development process.

Although no one has publicly stated which 17 combat capabilities won’t be included now, they were all functions the F-35 was supposed to have, and for which the American people are paying full price. So we will be paying more money in the future to upgrade F-35s purchased now so they can perform the functions we already paid for.

The $119.6 million unit cost for the F-35A in 2016 is a gross underestimate, and the additional costs will not be fully known for years. Those who pretend the cost in 2016 is somewhere below $100 million each are simply deceiving the public.

Pilots will have trouble staying at the top of their game when assigned to the F-35.

In every first-rate air force, turning out superior fighter pilots requires them to fly at least 30 hours a month to hone and improve their combat skills. Here lies the single largest cause of the F-35’s lack of combat effectiveness: because of the plane’s unprecedented complexity and the corresponding reliability and maintenance burdens, pilots simply cannot fly them often enough to get enough real flying hours to develop the combat skills they need.

Pilot skills atrophy if the pilots can’t get enough flight hours. Even with superior technology, less skilled pilots could be outmatched in the sky by highly trained pilots flying less sophisticated aircraft. ...Given its inherent complexity and the associated cost, it is highly unlikely the F-35 will ever be able to fly often enough to turn out winning pilots.

Reliability is another documented nightmare. The F-35 is currently running at 60% availability. On a "fully mission capable" basis, that number plummets to 29%.  In one test it took ground crews 55-hours to remove and replace an F-35 engine, a task that on a legacy fighter takes 6-8 hours.

This airplane was supposed to be in operational testing in 2008. It won't be there until at least 2020. And, once it clears all the difficult tests that remain (so far they've been doing the easy stuff) these airplanes will have to go back for repairs to the litany of defects still being logged.

So much money is being sucked into the F-35 black hole that the warplanes America has that do work have been getting old - and neglected. Nearly two-thirds of the Navy and Marines' F-18s are down waiting for overdue maintenance and parts. The Air Force is in somewhat better condition.

"40 Second Boyd" and Pierre Sprey to the rescue. From the outset, the F-35s biggest critics have been the old "fighter mafia" who brought the USAF the massively successful, lightweight, and (relatively) cheap F-16 and the potent A-10.

Sprey has been ridiculed widely by American generals and Lockheed for his criticisms but Dr. John Gilmore, the Pentagon's own Director of Test and Evaluation, has vindicated Sprey's views. Dr. Gilmore may just be America's biggest whistleblower of all time.

So what are the options? First is an emergency programme to extend the life of America's old fighters that the F-35 is nowhere near ready to replace. This means the fleet of F-18s and F-16s. They also need to rebuild the aging A-10.

The Americans have to concede that the F-35 has no place in close support, defending friendly troops under fire. Everything about it - payload, range, loiter time, survivability - is inadequate. 

Above all else, it's past time for Lockheed and the Air Force to come clean. John Gilmore's report proves that. This has been a stacked deck. They haven't been honest. 

As for Canada, it's time Trudeau went back to his initial posture - no F-35. If he still intends to have the F-35 compete with other aircraft, hold a realistic fly-off competition that will include testing in air superiority, air defence (interception), interdiction (bombing) and close support with multiple missions daily over a 5-day test run. Test the planes for range, speed, agility as well as readiness, reliability and maintainability.

Tell the bidders to assemble with their aircraft at Cold Lake and put them through a gruelling test regime. If Trudeau did that, I know of one airplane that wouldn't show up. 


rumleyfips said...

US fighter jets are not about acceptable performance. They are merely a way of subsidizing American aviation companies . This smokescreen allows US aircraft builders to hoot and holler about government subsities in other lands. Meanwhile, like Scrooge McDuck , Boeing, Lockheed et al executives take baths in dollar bills.

The Mound of Sound said...

There's a rich history of military boondoggles, Rumley, but this one takes the cake. The F-35's intended adversaries, China and Russia, are said to be delighted at the prospect of America and her allies getting saddled with the F-35, leaving them unable to afford to replace it when it turns out to be the turkey Pierre Sprey claimed.

Anonymous said...

US military aviation has always subsidised commercial airflight.
Historically the USA has been able to balance that with decent military aircraft( at times) but they have never been put to test against their peers.

The Red Flag chummy get togethers with penis waving combatants is a military show worthy of Farnborough.

The USA wins conflicts the old and tested way of overwhelming the opposition, not by technical superiority.

Whilst the USA will suffer from the boondoggle of the F35 the UK will be devastated.
They are building two aircraft carriers based upon the use of this 'false news' aircraft.


The Mound of Sound said...

Oddly enough, TB, it's the vertical lift model that alone makes sense. The Brits were going to buy it (the Marine Corps version), then opted for the cheaper naval version but, I seem to recall they've gone back to their first choice. It was the vertical lift version that caused the air force and naval versions to be so compromised. With their new carriers, the 35B would make sense.

Anonymous said...

f-35 lockheed martin
The fifth Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Short Take Off/Vertical Landing flight test aircraft delivered to the Marine Corps arrives at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Md.,Liz Kaszynski/Lockheed Martin

The F-35B did not maintain "residual inerting after flight for the required interval of 12 hours, which is a lightning protection requirement." In other words, the plane would be vulnerable to lightning strike if it were forced to fly twice in a 12-hour span, unless the fuel tanks were frequently "purged" with "external nitrogen."

That's apparently an unacceptable additional layer of maintenance. If a solution is not found, F-35Bs will require the development of alternate lightning protection methods.

Flight control problems
F-35 Weapons Pylons
Andy Wolfe/US Navy

The F-35B encountered difficulties carrying out attacks at certain angles during intense aerial conditions due to a degradation in the flight control system as missions progressed.

Helmet display issues
Michael Jackson/US Navy

Onboard testing on the F-35C revealed problems with the helmet, which is designed to display critical information related to the aircraft.

During basic offensive and defensive maneuvers, the conditions negatively effected the display, a problem that could have "the greatest impact in scenarios where a pilot was maneuvering to defeat a missile shot."

Numerous components of the aircraft are unreliable
f-35 b
An F-35B test aircraft completes its 100th flight with Lockheed Martin test pilot David "Doc" Nelson at the controls.Flickr/US Navy

The F-35 has a number of components that require maintenance more frequently than desired.

According to the Pentagon report, all variants have reliability issues with their avionics processors, landing gear tires, thermal management systems, ejection seat assemblies, cockpit display electronics unit, helmet display units, seat survival kits, igniter-spark in the turbine engines, and on-board oxygen generating systems.

The unreliability of these systems increases maintenance time and costs on an already expensive plane.

The Automatic Logistics Information System (ALIS)
F-35 In Flight
Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago/US Air Force

By the time the F35B has got its arse off the carrier it has little left of use.
Like the other variants its range is limited with external weapons and the huge energy required for VTOL makes it less useful.
VTOL has it's use but not on aircraft carriers.
The only use aircraft carriers have no matter who builds them is to pummel third rate nations ( preferably brown non WASP people) to give up natural resources.
Against even second tier nations such as Iran they would be vulnerable.
It would seem easier to design and build defencive SAM's than to design and build huge ships.


After thought.
The USA is still using B52's ( not the drink)
They are in the fifty years of age category yet they can still be useful.
Quantity overcomes quality!
Was it Stalin that said that Quantity has it's own quality?