Sunday, March 14, 2010

The F-35 Lightning II hits some serious obstacles

A week ago, in Weekend Wings #35, I highlighted the problems facing the F-35 Lightning II strike fighter.

Those problems have been dramatically highlighted over the past week in Congressional hearings and other forums. It seems that, pessimistic though I was, I wasn't nearly pessimistic enough!

First, we learn that cost overruns on the F-35 have reached astronomical proportions.

There was an elephant in the room at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Joint Strike Fighter yesterday, and sometime this summer it's going to take a poo on Defense Secretary Robert Gates' office carpet.

Everyone acknowledged that the unit cost has gone up a lot - almost 20 per cent since 2007, as much as 90 per cent since the program started. That 90 per cent is not an exaggeration, and does not even include the inflated systems development and demonstration (SDD) cost.

Cost assessment and program evaluation director Christine Fox said that the average procurement unit cost (APUC) - the cost of production, including overheads and non-recurring production cost, divided by the number of aircraft - was estimated at just over $50 million in 2002 and is now estimated at $80-$95 million, all in base-year dollars (pages 4-5).

The Government Accountability Office gave the same numbers in then-year dollars - $69 million at program start and $112 million today (page 6). The latter figure, a 60+ per cent increase, corresponds to Fox's low-end estimate. At the high end, in today's money, the price tag for a real JSF, including the engine, could be over $130 million.

. . .

But then there is the elephant.

The numbers from Fox and the GAO are based on the on-record JSF production plans, including 2443 aircraft for the Pentagon and 700 for the existing partners, and rising to rates of 200+ aircraft per year in 2015 and beyond. This would be realistic if the customers had 60-90 per cent more inflation-adjusted dollars, euros and kroner to spend on fighters today than they did in 2001.

But they don't, so it's not. Welcome to the death spiral.

The rates and total buy are going to decline and the unit costs will rise. Production capacity will be scaled back, and the program will stabilize at a lower rate and higher unit cost. The USAF fighter force will shrink, and some of the international partners may bail completely rather than get into fighter fleets numbering in the 20s and 30s.

. . .

The problem is that, so far, nobody has the data to make an accurate estimate of where the numbers will end up.

Open questions include where the services set their priorities between now and 2010, and how much they have to spend (on more Super Hornets or life-extension programs) to compensate for JSF delays with IOCs in 2016. How much overrun can the international partners stand? Will Congress will put its foot down on concurrency, further raising costs and delaying FOC? Internally, too, the program will have to figure out unit costs at different production rates.

Some of this information will emerge as Ashton Carter's office completes its Nunn-McCurdy certification exercise and the "should cost" evaluation - so, by this summer, the customers should have some numbers that they can use in their budgets. And the math says that it's not going to look very pretty for JSF.

And let's not forget the F-22 supporters. A key plank in Gates' anti-F-22 platform was the idea that the F-35 was going to be far cheaper than the F-22, but yesterday the gap between the two aircraft became much narrower.

There's more at the link.

I'm particularly intrigued by the cost comparison between the F-22 Raptor (which is, according to one authoritative source, the only aircraft in the Western world capable of taking on the new Sukhoi PAK FA fifth-generation Russian fighter) and the F-35.

F-22 Raptor (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The F-22 is much more powerful, much more 'stealthy' and much better able to defend itself than the stealth-limited F-35. If the former now costs relatively little more than the latter, surely it would make sense to re-visit the decision to cancel the F-22 program, and buy more of them, rather than the hugely-cost-inflated and much-less-capable F-35? Air Power Australia, in a very comprehensive analysis, insists that more F-22's are essential if the US is to preserve its ability to operate in the face of new threats such as the PAK FA.

Next, the F-35B version, capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, is reported to be producing side-effects that call its operational utility into question. Ares reports:

“The flexibility that the STOVL variant of the F-35 will add to the contemporary Marine Air Ground Task Force is amazing,” Marine commandant Gen James Conway said when the first F-35B was rolled out, more than two years ago. “This generational leap in technology will enable us to operate a fleet of fighter/attack aircraft from the decks of ships, existing runways or from unimproved surfaces at austere bases."

But a Navy report issued in January says that the F-35B, in fact, won't be able to use such forward bases. Indeed, unless it ditches its short take-off, vertical landing capability and touches down like a conventional fighter, it won't be able to use land bases at all without some major construction efforts.

The newly released document, hosted on a government building-design resource site, outlines what base-construction engineers need to do to ensure that the F-35B's exhaust does not turn the surface it lands on into an area-denial weapon. And it's not trivial. Vertical-landing "pads will be exposed to 1700 deg. F and high velocity (Mach 1) exhaust," the report says. The exhaust will melt asphalt and "is likely to spall the surface of standard airfield concrete pavements on the first VL." (The report leaves to the imagination what jagged chunks of spalled concrete will do in a supersonic blast field.)

Not only does the VL pad have to be made of heat-resistant concrete, but currently known sealants can't stand the heat either, so the pad has to be one continuous piece of concrete, with continuous reinforcement in all directions so that cracks and joints remain closed. The reinforced pad has to be 100 feet by 100 feet, with a 50-foot paved area around it.

By the way, any area where an F-35B may be stopped with the engine running - runway ends, hold-shorts on taxiways, and ramps - also has to be made of heat-resistant concrete to tolerate the exhaust from the Integrated Power Pack (IPP), which is acting as a small gas turbine whenever the aircraft is stopped.

This follows the revelation that the US Navy is worried about the exhaust damaging ship decks.

Lockheed Martin pooh-poohs the report, saying that it was based on "worst-case" data and that "extensive tests" conducted with prototype BF-3 in January (after the report was completed) showed that "the difference between F-35B main-engine exhaust temperature and that of the AV-8B is very small, and is not anticipated to require any significant CONOPS changes for F-35B."

What do "very small" and "significant" mean? In VL mode the main engine on the F-35B is producing some 15,700 pounds of thrust, while a Harrier's aft nozzles deliver about 12,000 pounds of thrust. (The fore-aft split is roughly equal.)

But the F135's overall pressure ratio is almost twice as high, which would point to a much higher jet velocity (which LockMart doesn't mention), the JSF nozzle is much closer to the ground, and the Harrier has two nozzles, several feet apart.

Again, there's more at the link.

This report is particularly troubling in that the US Marine Corps is the driving force behind the F-35B variant. The US Navy doesn't want it, because it has a shorter range and can carry less weaponry than the conventional variants. Britain's Royal Navy wants it, because its smaller aircraft carriers (present and future) don't carry catapults to launch heavily-laden aircraft, and it'll need the vertical- or short-take-off capabilities of the F-35B to replace its current Harrier fleet. However, if the F-35B will suffer from the shortcomings outlined in the Ares report, why should it be built at all? Why not simply equip the Marines with more attack helicopters and conventional strike aircraft, capable of operating from carriers and/or conventional runways? Why spend so much money on an aircraft that may not be capable of fulfilling the requirements of its customer(s)? And, if the F-35B variant won't be capable of fulfilling requirements, why proceed with the -A and -C variants (for the USAF and USN respectively) when considerably cheaper alternatives are available?

I repeat my conclusion from Weekend Wings #35: it's time for a far-reaching reassessment of the entire F-35 program. If the cost and timetable can't be considerably improved, the program should be considered for outright cancellation. I personally believe it's become a millstone around the necks of the US armed forces, promising much, but comprehensively failing to deliver on those promises. Furthermore, I don't believe that the F-35 will be able to operate in the face of future air defense systems and threats.

Let's see whether the administrators in the Pentagon, both military and civilian, have the guts to do what's necessary.



tom said...

They could always just build more Ospreys and they can have short takes off capabilities and crash a lot at the same time, with low misison readiness and a branch of the military that mostly would rather have Sikorsky full flying crashes :-)

If the wing is moving faster than the airframe you have either a serious problem or a helicopter or auto-gyro, so you may as well make your VTOL aircraft GOOD at it, but If it's VTOL and/or STOL and needs to jump from carrier ramps or else it can't take off from a carrier, it also crashes well.

I'm old fashioned and grew up USAF...neighbor was USAF SOCOM and Air Commandos after graduating fighters, and he never put an aircraft back on the ground except when he WANTED to, Korea and VietNam included with communist efforts to ruin his record...So I'm a smart-arse.

They did not have the guts to kill the V-22 and even sent it ON BOATS to Afghan because it COULDN'T MAKE IT THERE ON WING unless it was crated in a C-5 to operate in a partially mountainous area where it can't VTOL worth a flip or hover worth a flip and may have killed more people if only by mostly not flying when a decent helocpter could and soaking up resources...draw yer own conclusions.

If you study operational records, we would have been better off building more Skyraiders than F-105s and more P-47 Thuds than Mustangs and Lightnings. In real life, people got stroked politically and things went through that were less than ideal. Patton was crossing the Rhine when nobody else was and asking Ike why everybody else got gas and he didn't have any. About this time of March in 1945, as I recall.

A FEW people in the USMC pushed through the Osprey, with the worst combat or even airworthy readiness of any recently fielded aircraft, this one will also go through. SR-71s had better mission readiness as did F-117s in most cases, and they are both flying disasters waiting to happen.

No offense to Grunts, but a lot of them have been "self deploying semi-autonomous crash and explosion testing dummies" since anyone can remember and I can personally document it back to the era of the Johnson Rifle, which was a FINE rifle, but not for issue in the Pacific theater.

Every military needs it's occasional Dieppe Raid so that historians can laugh at the follies. Shame about the casualties it always causes but the Monty types of the world don't care. Our protests never count, nor do those of the grunts that have to fly and ride in such things.

reflectoscope said...

It isn't the JSF which must go, it is the whole corrupt stinking mess that is the acquisitions community. I refer you (probably again) to Kelly Johnson's bio re how to manage a project like that.

Think about it: The SR-71 broke 40+ years ago, and as far as we know there has been nothing like it since.