Monday, 16 December 2013

Joint Strike F**k-Up

Right, back to writing again. At last. And today I'm going to cover a topic that has been a hot button issue for many years, and which I suspect will remain so for many years to come; the F-35.

This is not going to be a long and exhaustive look at the program. This will not be another article to join the many, many (many!), articles and discussions online that go into the minute details of which systems are functioning and which are not, whether the aircraft can fly 500 miles with an internal payload or 550, or how many F-35's it would take to change a lightbulb etc. I just want to sit back and give my thoughts on the program overall.

In brief, I suspect the F-35 will go on to do rather well considering how advanced it is and what it's likely to be used for, I just don't think the F-35 was really the right solution to the problem that was posed back during its genesis, and all things considered a more cost effective program could have been organised.

I know people like to get into the fine details of sustained G-force in turns etc, but that's not something that especially bothers me. The US and the UK have their main air superiority platforms, notably the F-22 Raptor and Typhoon respectively.

If we go back to the Gulf War in 1991, the F-15 was the primary fighter platform used by the US to engage the Iraqi air force. Even though F-16s were eventually present in significant numbers, the bulk of the combat air patrols were still handled by the larger and more capable Eagle. So I suspect a future US air campaign would be fought, with the F-22 taking the lead and the F-35 slotted in where needed.

And lets face it, the F-35 does represent quite a capable platform. It's signature reduction features make it harder to spot for the enemy, while its powerful radar makes it much more capable at finding and engaging the enemy than pretty much anything that has come before it. Could an F-35 take down the latest Russian heavy fighters? Perhaps a more pertinent question would be how likely is it that the F-35 would actually be required to do such a thing?

Meanwhile the advances in pilot-aircraft interface represent quite a leap forward for the time and information management capabilities of US and allied pilots going forward. The new ability for the pilot to organise his main screen in a manner that suits him personally and to prioritise the displaying of the most relevant information throughout different phases of the mission promises to make pilots lives much easier, their reactions much quicker, and to allow them to spend more time flying the aircraft and less time with their heads buried deep in their consoles.

The problem I have with the F-35 is that all of this has come at a cost and doesn't really fit very well with the ethos of what the F-35 was supposed to be.

The original thinking around the aircraft stemmed from a number of programs, all of which seemed to have two main goals in mind; delivering an affordable aircraft and delivering an aircraft that maintained a degree of commonality across multiple services, which in itself is a goal designed to save costs.

All of this was eventually formalised in the Joint Strike Fighter program. Which is where things started to go a little wayward right from the start. Building a common platform for use by multiple services is actually quite a good plan in concept. The problem has always been delivery. Aircraft that are expected to take off and land from aircraft carriers have always required certain design sacrifices to accomplish this, such as the additional weight generated by strengthened under carriage and the addition of an arrestor hook, just to highlight the most obvious.

That's not an insurmountable challenge by any means, as demonstrated by the French Rafale, which comes in both land restricted and carrier capable types, both of which are excellent jets. However, putting a lift fan into a design and trying to make it take off and land vertically is a little different. 

Fundamentally the F-35 had to be built around this requirement, as did its early Boeing challenger, as this represented the most complex part of the program to achieve. One of the major issues with the Boeing experimental proposal was its difficulty in achieving the vertical take off and landing phase of the demonstration flight program.

And so right from the very beginning the cost and competitiveness of the whole program had been skewed by the Marine Corps requirement for a Harrier replacement. This still hurts my head a little when I think about it. The second that the air force became involved in the project it should have been clear that they would inevitably (along with foreign customers) become the major operators in terms of numbers. 

From that point onwards the project should essentially have been an F-16 replacement that could also fly off carriers a la F-18, something which the Marine Corps could still make use of (I'll leave the arguments about Marine Corps aviation in general for others to discuss).

And as an F-16/F-18 replacement there should have been just one concern above all else; cost control. The F-16 was, and always has been, a supplementary aircraft to the F-15. The F-15 was the big, powerful air superiority fighter. The F-16 was the cheaper and more numerous compliment to it. The F-22 was the big bad replacement for the F-15. The F-35 really should have been to the F-22 what the F-16 was to the F-15..

The advanced radar, the distributed aperture system, the helmet mounted system that permits all around viewing of the terrain outside the aircraft, all of these things are nice. But they're not really consistent with the principle that underlies a program like the F-35. 

It should have been an aircraft that essentially took the F-16 like performance and wrapped it up in a lower signature airframe with slightly better range, engine power and radar, based on normal advances in technology. Making something that was better than the F-16/F-18 that it replaced, but while keeping costs low enough to be a truly affordable, numerous compliment to the F-22 should have been the goal from the start, and it's in that regard that I consider the F-35 a failure.

Some of the major problems that have delayed the project and pumped significant amounts of additional cost into it over the last few years stem from the desire to turn the F-35 into an all singing, all dancing, futuristic dealer of death.

It happens all the time in military procurement it would seem. And it will probably continue to happen for a long time still to come. A project that should have been simple and low cost, a replacement for an old design incorporating some newer systems, has effectively morphed into a technology test bed where contractors can de-risk various pieces of technology with taxpayers footing the bill for the development costs.

Ultimately, as I said earlier, the F-35 should prove to be a match for most things out there that likely enemies currently possess, or will possess in the lifespan of the F-35. But my argument would be that this has come at too great an expense, that once again taxpayers (on both sides of the Atlantic) have been fleeced rotten by defence contractors (with essentially implicit help from military officials who have failed to control this program adequately), and that a less ambitious, lower cost version of the F-35 program could have delivered an in-service aircraft quicker, likely in greater numbers, and it would still have been adequate for the envisioned roles.

Perhaps the Marine Corps would have had its feathers ruffled. Perhaps some people would complain that the F-35 will fall behind the enemy by 2040 or whatever. Undoubtedly people would have compared it unfavourably against the sort of threats that realistically you would expect the F-22 and its future successor to handle. 

But at least it would have cost a more reasonable amount and been delivered in the kind of numbers that are needed for it to truly serve as an F-16/F-18 replacement.

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