CDI: Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot In The US Defense Meltdown

While its illusion as an “affordable” multi-role fighter-bomber is alive and well in Washington D.C., the F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter” is already a disaster, and the bad news has barely begun to roll in. Internationally recognized combat aircraft designer Pierre Sprey and Straus Military Reform Project Director Winslow Wheeler summarize the many failures in a new opinion piece that appears in the Sept. 10, 2008 issue of Janes Defence Weekly and is reproduced below.

“Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot in the U.S. Defense Meltdown”

by Pierre M. Sprey and Winslow T. Wheeler

Politicians in the US are papering over serious problems in the country?s armed forces. Equating exposure of flaws with failure to ‘support the troops’, Congress, the presidential candidates and think-tank pundits repeatedly dub the US armed forces “the best in the world”. Behind this vapid rhetoric, a meltdown – decades in the making –is occurring.

The collapse is occurring in all the armed forces, but it is most obvious in the US Air Force (USAF). There, despite a much needed change in leadership, nothing is being done to reverse he deplorable situation the air force has put itself into.

The USAF’s annual budget is now in excess of USD150 billion: well above what it averaged during the Cold War. Despite the plentiful dollars, the USAF?s inventory of tactical aircraft is smaller today than it has ever been since the end of the Second World War. At the same time, the shrunken inventory is older, on average, than it has been ever before.

Since George W Bush came to office in 2001, the air force has received a major budget ‘plus up’, supposedly to address its problems. In January 2001 a projection of its budgets showed USD850 billion for 2001 to 2009. It actually received USD1,059 billion – not counting the additional billions (more than USD80 billion) it also received to fund its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the ?plus up? of more than USD200 billion, the air force actually made its inventory troubles worse: from 2001 to today, tactical aircraft numbers shrank by about 100 aircraft and their average age increased from 15 years to 20, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Not to worry, the air force and its politicians assert, the solution is in hand; it is called the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. It will do all three tactical missions: air-to-ground bombing, air-to-air combat and specialised close air support for ground troops – and there will be tailored variants for the air force, navy and marines. Most importantly, it will be ?affordable? and, thus, the US can buy it in such large numbers that it will resolve all those shrinking and ageing problems.

Baloney. When the first official cost and quantity estimate for the F-35 showed up on Capitol Hill in 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) predicted 2,866 units for USD226 billion. That is a not inconsiderable USD79 million for each aircraft. The latest official estimate is for a smaller number of aircraft (2,456) to cost more (USD299 billion). That represents a 54 per cent increase in the per-unit cost to USD122 million, and the deliveries will be two years late. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that the US can expect the costs to increase some more – perhaps by as much as USD38 billion – with deliveries likely to be delayed again, perhaps by another year. That is just the start of the rest of the bad news. The price increases and schedule delays cited above are for currently known problems.

Unfortunately, the F-35 has barely begun its flight-test programme, which means more problems are likely to be discovered – perhaps even more serious than the serious engine, flight control, electrical and avionics glitches found thus far.

Take the F-22 experience; it was in a similarly early stage of flight testing in 1998. Its programme unit cost was then USD184 million per aircraft but it climbed to a breathtaking USD355 million by 2008. Considering that the F-35 is even more complex (19 million lines of computer code compared to 4 million, and three separate service versions compared to one), the horrifying prospect of the F-35?s unit cost doubling is not outlandish.

The last tri-service, tri-mission ?fighter? the US built, the F-111, tripled in cost before being cut back to barely half the number originally contemplated. The DoD currently plans to spend more than USD10 billion to produce fewer than 100 F-35s per year at peak production. USAF leaders would like to increase the production rate and add in a few more F-22s. That plan is irresponsibly unaffordable (which contributed to the recent departure of the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff). The unaffordability will become even more obvious when the unavoidable F-35 cost increases emerge.

The inevitable reaction, just as in past programmes, will be a slashing of annual production, the opposite of the increase the air force needs to address its inventory problems. The DoD fix is simple: test the F-35 less and buy more copies before the testing is completed. Two test aircraft and hundreds of flight-test hours have been eliminated from the programme, and there is now a plan to produce more than 500 copies before the emasculated testing is finished. This approach will not fix the programme but it will help paper over the problems and make the F-35 more cancellationproof in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

It gets even worse. Even without new problems, the F-35 is a ?dog?. If one accepts every performance promise the DoD currently makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be: ? Overweight and underpowered: at 49,500 lb (22,450kg) air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 lb of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight ratio for a new fighter. ? At that weight and with just 460 sq ft (43 m2) of wing area for the air force and Marine Corps variants, it will have a ?wing-loading? of 108 lb per square foot. Fighters need large wings relative to their weight to enable them to manoeuvre and survive. The F-35 is actually less manoeuvrable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 ?Lead Sled? that got wiped out over North Vietnam in the Indochina War.

? With a payload of only two 2,000 lb bombs in its bomb bay – far less than US Vietnam-era fighters – the F-35 is hardly a first-class bomber either. With more bombs carried under its wings, the F-35 instantly becomes ?non-stealthy? and the DoD does not plan to seriously test it in this configuration for years.

? As a ?close air support? attack aircraft to help US troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces for sustained periods as they manoeuvre on the ground. Specialised for this role, the air force?s existing A-10s are far superior.

However, what, the advocates will protest, of the F-35?s two most prized features: its ?stealth? and its advanced avionics? What the USAF will not tell you is that ?stealthy? aircraft are quite detectable by radar; it is simply a question of the type of radar and its angle relative to the aircraft. Ask the pilots of the two ?stealthy? F-117s that the Serbs successfully attacked with radar missiles in the 1999 Kosovo air war.

As for the highly complex electronics to attack targets in the air, the F-35, like the F-22 before it, has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based air-to-air combat that has fallen on its face many times in real air war. The F-35?s air-to-ground electronics promise little more than slicker command and control for the use of existing munitions.

The immediate questions for the F-35 are: how much more will it cost and how many additional problems will compromise its already mediocre performance? We will only know when a complete and rigorous test schedule – not currently planned – is finished. The F-35 is a bad deal that shows every sign of turning into a disaster as big as the F-111 fiasco of the 1960s.

In January the US will inaugurate a new president. If he is serious about US defences – and courageous enough to ignore the corporate lobbies and their minions in Congress and the think-tanks – he will ask some very tough questions. These will start with why an increased budget buys a shrinking, ageing force. After that the new president will have to take steps – unavoidably painful ones – to reverse the course the country is now on.

The man who best deserves to be inaugurated next January will actually start asking those questions now.

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11 thoughts on “CDI: Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot In The US Defense Meltdown

  1. “The man who best deserves to be inaugurated next January will actually start asking those questions now.”

    Well … it appears that the man inaugurated has not asked these questions. Nor is there any sign he ever will. And there is no sign that any candidate with a realistic chance of victory will either.

    • As I said before (maybe not here): problem is not the man, problem is the system. There is only so much an individual can do, and people tend to overstate how much that exactly is… maybe because that way they can delude themselves that they are not as irrelevant to the powers that be as they are. And in a grand picture of things, humanity as a whole is irrelevant.

      • There is that to consider. The system would never produce a leader, someone who wanted to radically change everything. That type of person would never have gotten that far in the system.

        That being said, I do think that a remarkable person has the ability to inspire. Obama … as a person did have that potential. He was a good speaker (and it showed during the 2008 campaign) at times, but yeah, he was up against a system determined not to do anything. Witness for example Franklin Roosevelt. Or Kennedy’s proclamation that the US would go to the moon. It wasn’t so much that he did it as much as the many engineers and other personnel. That accomplishment also raised excitement as well, encouraging others to get into science, research, and had a lasting impact on research spending in the US. Neither of these 2 people were perfect – far from it, but they did leave some lasting legacies.

        Perhaps its fairer to say that its both people and the system. You have a bad system so only people who don’t fight the system ever get any positions with real power.

      • I dare also offer Clinton as a example of a good president. In-spite of his public personal failings he was able to balance the US budget and actually leave the US budget in the black. In fact I think most of the Lewinsky scandal was to tarnish his image and prevent Al Gore from winning and thus start an era of central-left domination in US politics that would have seen the military lobbies shrunk, public healthcare reformed, public education reformed, renewable energy on the rise etc. Instead we got Bush, through a very questionable procedure and actually the loser of the public vote, who put the US in the biggest debt ever, put the World in crisis, gave the World two unending Wars, gave the biggest budget in history to the DoD while US education struggles with a budget of 19 billion barley 5 times bigger then that of education in Romania which has a population 15 times smaller and revitalized central-right or neo-liberal politics and economics which have nothing in common with democracy and everything in common with oligarchy.

  2. @Andrei

    I’m not so sure for Obama, leaving the budget in the black was realistic. Given the state of the US economy after he was elected, he was going to come in with a massive deficit no matter what. In the case of defense, he had to make massive cuts and begin a withdraw of the wars – which is going slower than it should. The US military needed massive reforms.

    Other serious issues that the US has failed to address
    – The unsustainable trade deficit
    – Ongoing militarism and the militarization of the US
    – Failures of neoliberal politics
    – Civil liberties and the gross violations
    – Long term declines in quality of life for a large proportion of the population

    And the list goes on.

    Perhaps most notable of all is that America’s reputation remains tarnished around the world. When an American politician speaks, they can no longer be trusted with any credibility. That’s true for politicians of many nations, but even within the Western world, the US seems to be particularly bad in this regard.

    • @Chris
      I was talking about Clinton, not Obama. And as I rember the 90s he was on the right track with most of what you put on the list: trade deficit was sustainable, militarism and militarization of the US was decreasing, neo-liberal politics were at an all time low, nobody was threatening civil liberties and the quality of life in US was increasing, at the end of his term the notorious bad areas of LA (Compton for example) and NY (Harlem, Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen ) were beginning to loose their bad reputation and grow into the chick areas that they are today, all because the of the increasing quality of life of people living in those areas.

      • If you are comparing say, Clinton to Bush – there’s no real comparison. I disagree though about neoliberal politics in decline in the 1990s. In particular, finance regulation was being rolled back by Larry Summers and several others representing Goldman Sachs and a few of the other top banks. Manufacturing outsourcing was also accelerating. But yes, the economy did recover somewhat, although it led to technology bubble that crashed near the end of Clinton’s presidency.

        More importantly, it could have set things in motion for Gore. I mean had Gore become president (I emphasize that he “won” the popularity vote, along with after the recounts were factored in, the vote in Florida), the US would likely have taken a different turn – and we would not be talking about the long term self-inflicted problems (at least not to the same extent).

  3. You know, all of this makes you go, how would the world have ended up, had Eisenhower’s warning been properly heeded?

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