The F-35 Lightning II, the product of the Joint Strike Fighter competition, is considered critical to the future of the US Air Force and the US Marine Corps (USMC), and, to a lesser extent, to the US Navy. We've looked at it in several previous Weekend Wings articles (see #3, #6, #8, #21 and #30 - links in sidebar), so I don't need to go into details about the aircraft and its performance here.
The three services had different visions of what they wanted, and were forced to blend their requirements into a composite specification for the JSF competition. This had several awkward consequences for all of them.
- The USAF wanted a strike aircraft (i.e. primarily for bombing and missile attacks against ground targets), with the secondary ability to defend itself if it got into aerial combat. It saw the JSF as a replacement for its A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon strike fighters, and possibly in due course for its F-15E Strike Eagles as well. Indeed, the USAF went so far as to stop buying 'non-stealth' or legacy combat aircraft in the 1990's, 'betting the farm' that the F-35 would enter service on time and on budget, enabling it to replace older planes as they wore out.
- The US Navy planned to replace its earlier-generation F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornet strike fighters and A-6 Intruder strike and electronic warfare aircraft with the F-35C naval variant, which has larger wings and more internal fuel (for longer range) than the USAF's F-35A model. However, perhaps not trusting the 'pie-in-the-sky' predictions of the optimists, it continued to purchase later-generation F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and is now doubtless very grateful that it made that decision. It's also testing the X-47B unmanned aerial system (UAS), which may lead to a follow-on demonstrator capable of carrying weapons, and perhaps to a combat-ready, fully 'stealthy' unmanned aerial system by the mid-2020's.
- The USMC was forced to stop buying F/A-18A/B/C/D aircraft, because it didn't have a budget sufficiently large to 'stock up' on them. The unexpectedly heavier demand on its existing aircraft during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has presented it with a real headache, as they're now likely to reach the end of their airframe fatigue lifespan before a replacement is available. The USMC has not bought newer F/A-18E/F's, like the Navy, because its small budget can't support such purchases over and above the other equipment it needs. It plans to use the F-35 to replace its Hornets, the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, and the AV-8B Harrier II vertical takeoff and landing strike aircraft, and has therefore insisted that its variant, the F-35B, should be capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
The JSF program ended in 2001 with Lockheed Martin's X-35 demonstration prototype beating Boeing's X-32. Since then, Lockheed Martin has been trying to get the F-35 into production - and has been slipping very badly. The F-35 program has encountered problem after problem. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week:
Monthly reports prepared by the Defense Contract Management Agency show that as recently as mid-November, development of the F-35 was in serious disarray. Lockheed Martin and other contractors were producing key components and completing airplanes more slowly, not faster, documents show.
The reports are heavily redacted to prevent disclosure of detailed financial information, but indications of major problems leap off the pages. They include:
Nine flight test aircraft, all of which were to have flown by the end of 2009, were behind schedule by 41/2 to 81/2 months when the report was written, in November. Only one of those planes has flown since then.
The next plane expected to fly is now 11 months behind the schedule that was rewritten in early 2008.
"Initial production" aircraft, a number of which were to be delivered and flying this year for training and further testing, are running months behind schedule and falling further behind each month.
On-time deliveries of parts and components by suppliers, which was 88 percent in April, plunged to 71 percent by September. But the blame isn't just with the suppliers. The reports say many of those delays are caused by Lockheed's many design changes.
One subcontractor that has done reasonably well is Northrop Grumman, which builds the center fuselage section of the F-35. Northrop was told to delay fuselage shipments in November and December because Lockheed could not fit them into the assembly line.
Lockheed was "cannibalizing" parts from fuselages being built by Northrop to repair aircraft on the assembly line and in preflight testing.
Lockheed has already spent several hundred million dollars in reserve funds, money rounded up two years ago by cutting out two test airplanes and 1,400 test flights, which the company and program managers agreed would not be needed. The Pentagon now plans to add test planes to speed up testing.
. . .
The latest government reports, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, were arriving in the Pentagon just as Gates and other top defense officials were taking a hard look at the inner workings of F-35 development. The reports coincided with several other internal studies critical of F-35 progress.
. . .
Aerospace industry analyst Richard Aboulafia said the data indicate that the program is in worse shape than he believed based on Pentagon officials' comments. "The message that the JSF program would be different than all the others, meet schedule and meet budget, didn't turn out, did it? This is not a good turn of events."
Aboulafia said Pentagon leaders "just have to take very strong action right now" and do whatever has to be done to get F-35 development and testing moving in the right direction.
Winslow Wheeler, defense policy analyst with the Center for Defense Information's Straus Military Reform Project, praised Gates and company for taking on the Pentagon's bureaucracy and demanding a realistic appraisal of the F-35 program.
But Wheeler said it's a mistake to continue buying more F-35s in 2011 and beyond, before all the quirks and capabilities of the airplanes can be determined by extensive testing. That's a view that the Government Accountability Office has voiced repeatedly when it said the F-35 plans were far too ambitious and optimistic.
"Gates is committed to the program and doesn't want to change its fundamental nature, the concurrent testing and production," Wheeler said. "He's crossing his fingers and hoping for the best. This program is going to get far worse than [the Pentagon] is predicting."
The Defense Contract Management Agency documents show that even before the recent internal Pentagon high-level review that led to the program restructuring and management changes, the program management office and Lockheed were already rewriting the development schedule for the sixth time in nine years.
Without new funds, the entire development budget would have been spent before the end of 2011, long before aircraft development and component testing would have been completed. The revised plan is expected to be more optimistic about costs and timetables than the estimates of another internal Pentagon contracting team.
The Pentagon reports indicate that writing and testing critical software for the F-35's highly complex communications, weapons and surveillance systems is slightly ahead of schedule.
But in a report to Congress in January, the Pentagon's weapons testing office said software development was 12 months behind schedule. Writing and debugging software for Lockheed's F-22 took several years.
There's more at the link. The article doesn't cover all the problems, either. For example, Lockheed Martin is currently trying to fix a structural weakness uncovered in the F-35C naval version:
Programme engineers discovered last July a ‘strength shortfall’ in an aluminum structure in the under development F-35C aircraft’s centre fuselage that helps absorb stresses during a catapult-assisted take-off.
To make matters worse, the program costs have ballooned so dramatically that the F-35 program is expected to breach Nunn-McCurdy limits later this year. This will trigger a complex recertification process for the program, and involve additional Congressional scrutiny.
Most worrying of all, from the point of view of the armed services, are the delays that have bedeviled the program almost since its inception. The in-service date for the F-35 has slipped, and slipped, and slipped again. The USAF has now moved its initial operating capability date well into 2015, almost three years later than originally planned - and there's no guarantee that the revised date will be met. Only the USMC is standing firm on its 2012 IOC date for its F-35B variant: and to meet that date, it'll have to accept the aircraft with second-generation software, not the third-generation update that'll be the first to provide full operational capability. The F-35 will only achieve full-rate production in 2016, according to current plans . . . and that's if nothing else goes wrong, to cause further delays. Based on this program's past history, I'd say that's a very optimistic assumption indeed!
There's serious doubt in my mind whether Lockheed Martin can (or even wants to) meet the revised schedule, and have the aircraft in the services' hands even by the newly-delayed dates. It's my personal opinion that Lockheed Martin has been, at best, grossly irresponsible in its handling of the entire F-35 program. To my mind, it's making money hand over fist off the taxpayers whilst doing its best to ensure that no-one else (whether a US or a foreign company) gets a look-in at the 5th-generation combat aircraft market. It's just had a financial slap on the wrist, in that an incentive payment of a little over $600 million has been denied due to its lack of progress; but let's remember, that would have been an incentive payment, not money to cover costs incurred. Basically, Lockheed Martin's delays and development problems have not cost it a cent in real money.
I think that needs to change. If I were in the Pentagon, I'd be looking for ways to penalize Lockheed Martin very heavily indeed for taking the US armed forces (and the US taxpayer) for so expensive a ride - perhaps by barring them from competing for new contracts for the next decade, for a start. I'd also be imposing stricter penalties for every deadline the company fails to meet from now on.
I'd also be looking hard at alternatives to the F-35 program as a whole. The only service that insists it simply has to have the F-35 (because no similar alternative is available) is the USMC, which claims it needs the short take-off and vertical landing capability of the F-35B model. However, the USAF's F-35A and the US Navy's F-35C variants could very easily be replaced by a mixture of 'legacy' and future unmanned aircraft developments. Let's look at some alternatives.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is still in production, in variants far more advanced than any in USAF service (such as, for example, the Block 60 variant sold to the United Arab Emirates, or the F-16IN proposed to India for its current Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft competition). There's no reason why the USAF could not order a number of these very advanced aircraft to replace older-generation F-16's. They could be made even more capable by fitting them with the larger 'cranked-arrow' delta wing tested on the F-16XL prototype, shown below, which was developed in the early 1980's for the Enhanced Tactical Fighter competition. It offered far greater weapons and fuel capacity and a lower wing loading than the standard wing. (It was beaten in the competition by the larger, twin-engined, more capable - and much more expensive - F-15E Strike Eagle. However, that doesn't mean the F-16XL wasn't very capable in its own right, and with upgraded systems and weapons, would be even more so, at a relatively low cost per aircraft.)
F-16XL (top) with F-16A (bottom) in 1982
The F-16 could even be fitted with a thrust-vectoring engine, as tested on the F-16 VISTA prototype, shown below in a 1994 photograph.
All of these developments have already been tested, proven and paid for, so further costs to integrate them into production would be minimized. Together with current electronics (perhaps including some of the strike software being developed for the F-35 program), such an aircraft would undoubtedly be as capable as (in some aspects, more capable than) the F-35 in all areas except stealth and supercruise. They'd also cost less than half as much per aircraft, even with all the improvements I've mentioned.
Boeing hasn't been backward in developing its F-15E Strike Eagle, either. Although much larger, heavier and more expensive than the F-16, it's also more capable, and is still in production for our allies. New versions for South Korea (F-15K) and Singapore (F-15SG) are more advanced than any in USAF service. In 2009 Boeing announced the F-15SE Silent Eagle, a 'semi-stealth' version of the F-15, which it claimed could offer the same level of stealth in its frontal aspect as an F-35.
If true, this is a remarkable upgrade to an airframe that's almost half a century old! The F-15 is much closer in cost to the F-35, but if the USAF wanted that level of capability, and if Boeing's claims of increased stealthiness are valid, then the F-15 Silent Eagle offers another alternative to the troubled F-35 program. The USAF is facing a critical shortage of air defense aircraft as older airframes reach the end of their service lives, but the F-35 will not have been produced in sufficient numbers to replace them. In that light, alternatives might be very wise things to consider . . .
The US Navy is better positioned than the USAF to find alternatives to the F-35. Its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are considerably more capable than the earlier Hornet models, and more powerful engines could be fitted to the airframe to make it even more capable. The EA-18G Growler electronic warfare derivative (shown below) is in the process of replacing the Navy's ageing EA-6B Prowlers, and is notable for being the only US military aerospace program (as far as I'm aware) that is both on time and within budget.
Australia (one of the largest international customers for the F-35) has ordered 24 F/A-18E/F's, with the last 12 of them to be pre-wired for conversion to the EA-18G variant in future, if desired.
The USN has also noted that the F-35 will cost many thousands of dollars more per flight hour to operate than its existing fleet of F/A-18's and AV-8's. If it decides to 'dump' the F-35, it could continue to order F/A-18E/F's, perhaps with more powerful engines, to replace its legacy fleet of F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets. It's also (as mentioned earlier) pursuing an interesting 'stealthy' UAV program, the X-47B, that may lead to an operational variant by the mid-2020's. It could therefore 'skip' the F-35 generation of aircraft altogether, and operate a mix of advanced Super Hornets and unmanned 'stealth' strike aircraft from its carriers.
The USMC is in a more difficult situation, thanks to its insistence on STOVL capability for its next generation of strike aircraft. If this is, indeed, a 'must-have', then the F-35B is the only aircraft likely to satisfy the Corps' requirements. However, is it really an essential element of the USMC's requirements? At present the service operates AV-8B Harrier II strike aircraft from its assault ships and from forward operating bases. There is the possibility that new, high-speed helicopters might at least partially fill this role in future. Both Sikorsky (X-2) and Piasecki (X-49) are working on prototypes to demonstrate high-speed flight in helicopters, and both programs are looking very promising. In five to ten years, attack helicopter versions may be developed that might prove capable of taking on the role currently filled by the AV-8B - at a much lower cost per airframe than the F-35B. For example, the USMC was, at one time, considering applying the technology of the Piasecki X-49 to its attack helicopters. Flight Global reported in 2008:
Interest ... remains high from the US Marine Corps, in part because of the service's need for an armed escort that can keep up with the 240kt Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey.
Piasecki officials say the Marines had earlier shown interest in a VDTP version of the Bell AH-1 Cobra, but withdrew support for the programme so as to not compete with its UH-1Y and AH-1Z upgrade programmes.
Piasecki says performance parameters for the compound Cobra included 245kt cruise speed, 1,330km (720nm) range and 3,605kg (7,950lb) useful load at a cost of $12 million per copy.
If that reported unit price is correct, the USMC could have bought seven or eight of those attack helicopters for the cost of a single F-35B, at the latter's current program prices! Boeing is also considering X-49 technology to upgrade its AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and/or for use on a successor to that aircraft. That might also be of interest to the USMC (and doubtless the US Army as well).
Other attack roles might be filled by USMC squadrons equipped with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It might behoove the USMC to give very careful consideration to this option, rather than have its budget strangled by the very high costs of the F-35 program.
There are those who claim that the 'non-stealthy' nature of 'legacy' aircraft such as the F-16 and F/A-18 render them incapable of facing modern defenses, penetrating to a target, hitting it, and getting out safely. This is, of course, absolutely false. Israel has no 'stealth' strike aircraft at all, yet it successfully carried out Operation Orchard in 2007, when its Air Force penetrated Syria's (relatively capable) air defenses to bomb a suspected nuclear weapons site. They did so by using electronic countermeasures to 'blind' enemy radars, navigating carefully through areas where radar coverage was less than optimum, and employing a mix of aircraft and weapons carefully tailored to the mission. They couldn't possibly have been more successful if they'd used stealth aircraft; they could only have done as well as they did with older, 'legacy' airframes. Food for thought, that.
Furthermore, the development of true 'attack drones' - unmanned aerial vehicles with full stealth capability, plus the ability to carry and deploy weapons operationally - is well advanced. The US Navy's X-47B program has been mentioned. Boeing has revived its dormant X-45 demonstrator and developed it as a private venture into what it calls the Phantom Ray (shown below), which will begin test flights at the end of this year.
I doubt very much whether a hard-nosed commercial organization such as Boeing would have invested a very considerable amount from its own resources into the Phantom Ray project unless it was confident that it would reap a return on its investment!
There have also been interesting developments in so-called 'black' (i.e. secret, off-budget) projects that have only recently come to light (or have been rumored, but not officially confirmed). For example, Lockheed's RQ-170 Sentinel UAS project (shown below) was revealed (through the publication of unauthorized photographs) only a few months ago, and is currently operational. It appears to have been flown in close proximity to both Iran and North Korea/China. Any bets that so stealthy a design stayed outside those borders? I wouldn't take one . . .
Highly informed speculation suggests that Northrop Grumman may have received a substantial sum in 'black funds' to develop a prototype of what used to be called the New Generation Bomber (NGB), which may be a manned or unmanned system. This program is now at a standstill - officially - but 'black funds' (by definition) aren't open to public scrutiny. Who knows what developments are continuing behind a veil of secrecy?
Another interesting project is General Atomics' Predator C or Avenger UAS (shown below), which appears to offer at least some degree of 'stealth' engineering.
A private project, developed with company funds, it's already attracted a great deal of interest, and orders may be placed for it very soon by both US and foreign air arms.
Taken together, all these developments indicate that a fully 'stealthy' strike-capable unmanned aerial system may not be as far away as was thought a few years ago. It's entirely possible that by the mid-2020's, such aircraft may be fully operational. The F-35 won't achieve initial operational capability with the USAF and USN until 2015/2016 at the very earliest, and probably won't reach full operational status for up to a decade after that . . . so it may not be so great a loss to the services to kill the program now. That would free up the funds that would otherwise be spent on this bloated, under-performing, overdue and over-budget program, allowing them to be applied to a more economical (and probably more capable, in the long run) mixture of replacement 'legacy' aircraft and unmanned strike aircraft.
For that matter, the F-22 Raptor production line is still in operation, although winding down and scheduled to close in 2012. In my opinion, this is a monumentally stupid decision, based more on flawed and mismanaged USAF budget priorities than operational requirements. (The USAF's insistence that it needs twice as many Raptors than have actually been budgeted for was steamrollered by Defense Secretary Gates.) The Raptor is a far more 'stealthy' aircraft than the F-35, and can be upgraded with some of the latter's software suite to perform the strike function, if necessary. It has greater speed, longer range, and is vastly more capable in the air-to-air function than the F-35, and would probably better suit the needs of allies like Australia. Why not purchase a couple hundred more F-22's to handle the air superiority mission, and to deal with potential opponents like Sukhoi's PAK FA prototype fifth-generation fighter? They could clear the way for stealthy UAS's, or less- or non-stealthy conventional strike aircraft, to follow them in to a target and neutralize it (just as Israel did in Operation Orchard, as mentioned above). That would be just as operationally effective, and substantially less expensive, than continuing the F-35 program.
Finally, there's the question of whether the F-35 will be capable of handling the threats it's likely to face in an operational environment. Lockheed Martin and the program's boosters insist it'll do well against them. Others aren't so sure. In particular, the Australian think tank Air Power Australia has published three highly technical and very critical reviews of the F-35, in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Their latest report stated flatly in its abstract:
The Joint Strike Fighter is demonstrably not a true stealth aircraft in the sense of designs like the F-117A, B-2A and F-22A, as its stealth performance varies much more strongly with aspect and threat radar operating frequency band.
The degradation of the initially intended Joint Strike Fighter stealth performance occurred during the SDD program when a series of design changes made to the lower fuselage of the aircraft resulted in fundamental shaping changes in comparison with the X-35 Dev/Val prototype aircraft. The Joint Strike Fighter SDD design departs strongly from key stealth shaping rules employed in the development of the F-117A, B-2A, and F-22A, or the never built YF-23A and A-12A designs.
As a result the tactical options available to Joint Strike Fighter users when confronted with penetrating modern Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) are mostly those necessary to ensure the survival of non-stealthy legacy aircraft types.
The result of these limitations is that the operational economics of a fighter force using the Joint Strike Fighter will be much inferior to a force using a true all aspect stealth aircraft such as the F-22A Raptor.
As with claims made for Joint Strike Fighter air combat capability, claims made for the Joint Strike Fighter concerning the penetration of IADS equipped with modern radars and SAMs are not analytically robust, and cannot be taken seriously.
Moreover, it is clear that future Joint Strike Fighter users will pay a significant price penalty for a stealth capability unable to deliver much, if any, return on such investment.
Air Power Australia also points out that the F-35 is not nearly so capable - on paper - against current and projected future opponents as its advocates have claimed. They're very negative about the program, and appear to have good reasons for their perspective.
Some argue that the F-35 is vital to many US allies, who are planning to buy it to upgrade their Air Forces. However, there are alternatives to the F-35 from both US and other sources. It's not as if killing the F-35 would mean that other air forces would suddenly grind to a halt. As James Hasik points out:
The JSF is just not militarily vital. Several years ago, I asked the head of strategy at a European aircraft manufacturer why his company had no obvious plans for a fighter beyond the current model. “All our customers,” he said, “have enough fighters for chasing Cessnas for the next fifty years.” The next generation of unmanned strike aircraft is alluring, but the air sovereignty mission is just not so compelling today. For frankly, there’s just no threat anywhere that calls for such a huge fleet of land-based fighter aircraft.
Consider the United States, just to start. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps together have not just the most powerful air fleet in the world, but also the largest in number of jet-powered combat aircraft. The next largest armadas is probably Russia’s, with almost 2200 aircraft. Even if Russia were a plausible opponent, the rest of NATO has its air force outnumbered even without the US on board. And given Russia’s long-term finances and demographics, that number will be shrinking. China’s air fleet is of comparable size — read, smaller than America’s — but it’s also remarkably unimpressive. China’s most numerous jet fighter is a copy of the MiG-21. Then again, one doesn’t fight the Chinese without necessarily having either the Japanese or the Taiwanese — and their significant air forces — on board. After that, the ranks thin out fast. Sidestepping India (another implausible opponent), the next largest air force is North Korea’s: more than 600 aircraft on paper, but not so many that are flyable or fueled. Besides, South Korea has over 500 aircraft, and of far better quality in men and materiel. Iran? Not half that many flyable machines.
Worst of all, the F-35 definitely fails to address the biggest deficiency in combat aviation today: electronic warfare. There’s no plan yet for an EF-35, and the idea of mating jamming pods to a stealthy airframe could be a little strange. Besides, as Shalal-Esa of Reuters noted, the FY11 budget has more EF-18G Growlers because “military commanders considered them an urgent need.” The JSF? Not so much.
It’s notable that this anxiousness over flight line numbers doesn’t quite get called a gap. Not so with naval fighters, for naval aviation is far more important than land-based aviation. Go back, for the moment, to the point about China. If one does fight the Chinese, comparatively short-ranged land-based fighters like the F-35A won’t be of much help. Where would they fly from? Taiwan is over 1400 nautical miles from Guam. Worse, as a group of researchers at RAND noted in 2001,
the current USAF base at Kadena [on Okinawa] is nearly 500 nautical miles away from the Strait. As a result, F-15 or F-16 fighters operating from that base would probably need to maintain combat air patrol (CAP) orbits near Taiwan, since they could not launch and transit in response to warnings of a Chinese air attack headed for Taiwan. This is in contrast to, say, a carrier stationed 50 nautical miles off Taiwan’s east coast, whose aircraft would need to fly only about 175 nm to get to the centerline and could therefore be more responsive to incoming raids.
Kadena may also suffer from limitations in its ability to support high-tempo operations by a large force of combat aircraft. The base currently hosts two squadrons totaling 48 F-15C fighters, a special operations group, an air refueling squadron, a reconnaissance squadron, an AWACS squadron, and a search-and-rescue squadron. In addition, it is an important transit point for airlift activity in the Western Pacific. Kadena is, in other words, a busy place even day to day, and it is not clear how many more aircraft could be operated out of the base under combat conditions.
Change the phase to “two squadrons totaling 48 F-22 fighters,” and the result isn’t much different vis-à-vis the F-35A. That airfield is also an easy target for a SCUD-type missile, as the nearest Chinese territory is only 450 nautical miles away. So, until the American government develops the intestinal fortitude needed to actually offer the Taiwanese a USAF fighter wing on its home soil, there’s no point in talking about the utility of the F-35A against China.
Of course, the F-35C — the tailhook shipboard version — could be very helpful, but that aircraft is said to have significant structural problems at this late stage in the game. Still, as the Royal Navy and the US Marines know, there is more than one way to send fighter aircraft to sea. It may be useful for Lockheed’s opponents to concede the value of the F-35B as a short takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. If crassly, it’s the one variant that directly offends neither the American (Boeing) nor European (Saab, Dassault, EADS) branches of any anti-Lockheed coalition. Indeed, as an Anglo-Italian-American airplane, it provides plenty of work to BAE Systems and Alenia. Encouraging the DoD and the MoD to pour their money into that corner could lessen enthusiasm for the F-35A, which is the least essential airplane for the Americans, and the only one that anyone outside those three countries wants.
What everyone wants, though, is not just aircraft, but that which the JSF program explicitly denies. The F-35 offers no operational sovereignty to overseas customers. All three European alternatives to the JSF — Eurofighter, Rafale, and Gripen — come with access to software codes that the US government steadfastly refuses to provide. Without those, the F-35 is not locally upgradeable. Worse, the JSF program expects everyone’s aircraft to fly to Texas for servicing, which means that it’s not locally maintainable either.
There's more at the link. Bold and italic print is Mr. Hasek's emphasis.
It's for you, readers, to make up your own mind about the F-35 program and its future. From this author's perspective, it's time to undertake a major re-evaluation of whether the amount of money so far invested in (and the monstrous sums required for future purchases of) the F-35 can still be justified. I believe the time has come to do three things:
- Impose serious, far-reaching sanctions against Lockheed Martin for its abysmal and cynical mismanagement of the F-35 program;
- Examine alternatives to the F-35;
- If the F-35 program can't be speeded up and its cost substantially reduced, then in my opinion it should be terminated.
There are sufficient alternatives to the F-35 to make its termination a viable proposition at this time. Whether that will still be the case in two to three years time, after the F-22 production line has shut down and several billion more dollars has been thrown after what's already been spent on the F-35, is another question.
I hope someone in the Pentagon has the courage to take a very long, hard look at the situation, and make the right decision for this country and for our allies.
There will be a serious look at alternatives in the near future, as part of the Nunn-McCurdy certification that will be required for JSF funding to continue. How honest that will be remains to be seen. The services are so heavily invested in JSF at this point that alternatives would certainly be disruptive. The challenge is not so much in basic airframe (with the embarassing exception of the structural design errors in the F-35C recently uncovered), but in the systems integration, which will be both horribly expensive and seriously magic-producing. I see no way to reduce the program cost, except for buying fewer production models.
The more I read about the JSF, the more I'm reminded of the Convair B58 Hustler, a plane that had hard points incompatible with (then) current weapons inventory attachments, and cost overruns that would have been less if the airframe been made of solid gold.
Dropping the F22 Raptor from production is a terrible mistake. The Russians, barring a total collapse of the global economy, are within their manufacturing capabilities of bringing the Sukhoi PAK FA to production as long as oil and gas prices stay high.
The whole fiasco that is the "acquisitions community" is proof that we need Kelly Johnson back only a very little less than we need Reagan back.
One point on low-observable aircraft: Is there any procedure on the books for performing a patch to a bullet hole that won't utterly mangle its RCS? Perhaps an F-22 can keep trouble far enough out that it doesn't face too much chance of coming back with more holes than it had when it left, but if the F-35 is meant to be an attack aircraft, then it faces a much more tangible threat of battle damage.
This is yet another project, managed to death. Read Johnson's bio if you want a very succinct description of how to manage a project, and how to screw one up.
The use of drone aircraft presumes that the US can dominate in their control of the electronic spectrum and can maintain satellites in orbit.
While I do understand that the performance of the next generation (VI) fighter will be severely limited by the presence of a pilot, I think that putting our eggs completely into the drone basket may be embarrassing at some point.
There has been complete "Joint-think/speak" in the Pentagon for a long time when services should have been able to select an aircraft other than the F-35. I understand the need for commonality in parts, etc. but we were not in a place to finance the F-35 and we don't have the apparent acumen to make necessary changes during the development cycle in a timely basis.
Yes, we need another Kelly Johnson.
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