$397 Billion Spent on The F-35 Fighter Jet, Is It Worth It?!
Several years late and considerably over budget, the development of the F-35 Lightning II, Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has become the most expensive aircraft program in history.
$84 billion has been spent without a single contracted aircraft being delivered. The Government Accountability Office has estimated a total sum of $397 billion, twice the initially projected cost. (1)
Recently, persistent software issues and testing delays have pushed back fielding of the aircraft at least another year. The Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) is a software program that monitors the internal diagnostics for mechanical issues, and it has the ability to ground itself, regardless of operator or maintainer input. While it is intended as a high tech safety measure, ALIS has repeatedly proven itself to make poor decisions by disenabling serviceable aircraft. The Defense Department is working with the idea of allowing human personnel to override the system, and a software update has been released. (2)
Another recently publicized setback is the helmet that not only displays flight data, but allows the pilot to “see through” the aircraft as a result of sensors and multiple cameras. The technology has been streaming jittery signals as a result of aircraft vibrations. Developers began funding on an alternate helmet, but supposedly the issue has been resolved. The list of major issues with the F-35 regarding safety and performance is lengthy, and some just seem ridiculous to be occurring this far into development. For instance,
- The afterburners cannot be used without damaging the aircraft. (11)
- There will be no ROVER feed available for ground troops even though the fighter’s role includes CAS.
- The F-35C takes 43 seconds longer than an F-16 to accelerate from Mach 0.8 to Mach 1.2, and in order to achieve top speed of Mach 1.6, it will have to take a series of complex maneuvers that will exhaust nearly all on board fuel.
- Besides being slow, the aircraft does not maneuver well.
- The F-35B is too heavy and unbalanced for it’s intended role of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL). Titanium may have to be replaced by lighter aluminum, and many of the safety features have been removed to lighten the aircraft.
- The distributed Aperture System (DAS) that is supposed to detect, track, and target hostile fire, confuses the F-35′s own flares for incoming missiles.
- Radar and navigation systems do not work.
- High susceptibility to lightning (ironic, considering its name).
- Undisclosed concerns with the effectiveness of its stealth capabilities.
That list is by no means complete. Many of the major performance issues stem from the F-35B variant, designed for the Marine Corps. In a recent article in War is Boring on the website Medium, the authormakes a strong case for the incorporation of VTOL technology being the main reason the JSF program is failing. (3) They set out to make something to do everything, but in the end, it can do none of it.
In the article, the author argues that VTOL is a more novel than practical technology, and the added mass of the engine inhibits the potential for the aircraft in many areas of performance. He calls it a “gimmick” that Marines feel is part of their identity, and goes on to cite the Harrier Jump Jet’s flaws including short mission duration, limited payload, and the infeasibility of VTOL use because of the threat of foreign object damage to the engine. From the article:
“A plane taking off vertically gets no lift from the wings. All the flight forces must come from the downward engine blast. Forcing the motor to do all the work results in three design drawbacks: a big, hot engine with almost no safety margin; an unsafe airframe that must be thinly built, with tiny wings, in order to keep the plane’s weight less than the down-thrust of the engine; and minimal fuel and weapons load, also to save weight.”
The added bulk also reduces the pilot’s visibility making situational awareness in a dogfight impossible. This lack of visibility is supposed to be made up for by the augmented reality technology helmet, but besides not working correctly, pilots have suggested that the lower resolution images are no substitute for a the naked eye scanning the sky for the tiny dots that could be quickly approaching hostile aircraft.
There had been talk about totally dropping the F-35B and focusing on the conventional takeoff Army and Navy variants, but it’s not realistic because those models are built into the same bulky fuselage that is already incorporated for the engine. They would still suffer from the effects of the added bulk, and if you switched out the engine and changed the shape, there wouldn’t be any resemblance to the plane Lockheed Martin was originally contracted to build.
Regardless of what you think about the necessity of VTOL, the Marines see the importance, and they need to fill the role of the Harrier. While they will still maintain an operational Harrier fleet, the F-35B is its intended successor. They’re not the only ones. Britain has retired their Harriers, and is also in line for the F-35.
Unfortunately, the F-35 is intended to replace not just the Harrier, but also the F-16, F/A-18, F-117, and the A-10. In fact, the A-10 Warthog, the Air Force’s most cost efficient CAS aircraft, is being retired early in order to save the failing JSF program. The talking points from those responsible would have you believe that future wars are predictable, and the A-10 will not play a foreseeable role. Senators(the ones who’s pockets aren’t being stuffed by Lockheed Martin’s lobbyists) and soldiers alike, are fuming over the absurdity of such a move. (4) If you’ve ever been outgunned in a firefight in Afghanistan and had A-10s arrive on station, you’d know that the game will quickly change in your favor. Incredibly low strafing runs rattling the ground with the unmistakable “BRRRRAP” of the 30mm rotary cannon is undeniably a better force multiplier than a mystery explosion from an unseen and distant aircraft. Regardless of any arguments against the effectiveness of the A-10, retiring an aircraft before its replacement is in service is just ridiculous.
We are left with many gaps in our air arsenal, and we only have faith in the JSF program to fill it. In fact many of the world’s nations that I would consider “the good guys” are depending on this program for the security of their borders and interests abroad. South Korea just committed to buying 40 of the F-35s after a two year competition that weighed price and capability (5). Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of business development for the F-35 program called the competition an “open, transparent process.” That must have been one ugly competition if the jet that won it doesn’t actually work. South Korea is now the tenth nation to officially get on board the F-35 bandwagon. The other nations are US, Britain, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan, Israel, and Turkey.
To me, that list indicates that there is no way that the F-35 program will be scrapped. That doesn’t mean that potential buyers aren’t getting cold feet, and that other manufacturers aren’t seizing the opportunity. France is trying to jump the gun and sell Canada their own jet. (6)
Canada is looking to retire their fleet of CF-18s within the next five years, and had tentative plans to buy into the F-35. France recognized this opportunity, and has offered to sell Canada their combat proven Dassault Rafale fighter along with the intellectual property that would allow Canada to create an entire industry around the platform, thus creating jobs and boosting the economy in the process. Canada has also been eyeing the Boeing Super Hornet, Saab Gripen, and the Eurofighter Typhoon as possible replacements for the CF-18. The point being here, that Lockheed Martin is running the risk of losing very important sales with the delays and setbacks.
Italy had previously reduced its investment in the F-35 program from 131 to 90 jets, and is currently considering making additional cuts to the size of their order.
Boeing is pushing hard to fill the niches with their very own aircraft. They suggest that the less stealthy, but extremely agile and heavily armed F/A-18 Super Hornet can do as good of a job or better than the F-35 for less than half the cost to produce as well as maintain, and it’s combat proven and ready to go (9). They are also lobbying their EA-18G Growler variant as an aircraft who’s electronic warfare and jamming capabilities far exceed that of the F-35 and its “limited,” according to Boeing, stealth capability(8).
Alarmingly, lost business and gaps in our air fleet aren’t the only major issues with the setbacks. The delays are also giving our rivals time and opportunity to bridge the technological gap. According to a Washington Times article, the Chinese are now implementing various technologies stolen from the F-35 program into their Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 stealth fighters via cyber attacks in 2007 (7). China’s acquisition of these fifth generation technologies was confirmed by both the Pentagon and a Chinese government news source. Some of the newly acquired tech could be seen in photographs from a recent demonstration of the J-20. Obvious body shape modifications for the purpose of reducing radar detection were apparent as well as a new radar absorbing coating was added. Other upgrades based on stolen F-35 technologies include: an electro-optical targeting system, giving the J-20 better strike capabilities at a broader range of targets, a fire control array radar system, and the J-20 also added a divertless supersonic inlet and a thrust vectoring nozzle. These are immense upgrades to the engine, boosting both power and reliability. Up until now China has been lagging behind in their jet engine program because of a stagnation in aircraft technology development. The article also hinted that some of the stolen technologies were too secret to mention. This could be disastrous, as the F-35 targeting sensor technology was to operate on the assumption that the enemy aircraft would be ignorant of and unable to counter the technology. The Chinese were practical in their application of the designs, and purposefully left out the VTOL ability and all the headaches that come with it. The new jets are on track to become what the F-35 was supposed to be, and could put their air capability on the level of the F-22 Raptor.
This got me thinking… What ever happened to the F-22 Raptor? Isn’t that supposed to be, still to this day, an unrivaled aircraft? Well, F-22 production was halted because of “high cost of the aircraft, a lack of clear air-to-air missions because of delays in Russian and Chinese fighter programs, a ban on exports, and development of the cheaper and more versatile.” That’s a pretty painful statement, being that the F-35 will eclipse any cost of the F-22, the Chinese and Russians now have our technology, and we will surpass the newest 2015 deadline for putting the JSF into service.
The F-22 was expensive, and did have a few persistent issues that we wont delve into here. Yet, it worked, and it really is an untouchable aircraft. As the cliche goes, hindsight is 20/20, but isn’t it more of a common sense issue that trying to build a super stealth war plane from the ground up, during a poor economy, for the sake of saving money may not be a good idea? Now we are stuck with a less capable(not capable as of now) air craft for the same unit price as the F-22, or more if you want a pimped out carrier model or the Navy F-35C variant with heated leather seats, winter floor mats, and clear coat.
Any projected sales costs from Lockheed Martin refuting this is bogus, and is nothing more than the result of millions of additional dollars spent lobbying to put a salvageable spin on things.
Lockheed Martin’s failings have led to a strain in relations with the Pentagon. The defense budget cannot afford to continue bailing out the company. Washington has made Lockheed Martin cough up some of the additional costs, which seems like a good idea, but will only lead to larger contracts in the future in order to deal with unforeseen setbacks. Therein lies the problem. Lockheed Martin has been in cahoots with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for multiple decades, ever since the development of the F-117. That foot-in-the-door has given them somewhat of a monopoly on contracts because of the lack of competition resulting from their access to DARPA’s vast technological resources and healthy funding. While they have continued to come out with awesome stealth jets and unmanned stealth aerial vehicles (not to mention the secret stuff we don’t know about), one must ask the question: How would the US go about separating Lockheed Martin, a company so interwoven with the secret fabric of the Pentagon and mostly dependent on gigantic government contracts, from DARPA, in the event of their stagnation or plateau of technological development without rustling the jimmys of some of the richest, most powerful people on the planet? You don’t.
In “The Jet that Ate the Pentagon” video at the top of the article, some good points are made, mainly about the problems of lobbying and the inability to audit exactly how and where these crazy sums of tax dollars are being spent. Yet, other points brought up are just flat out dumb.
For example, one of the speakers suggest that the money would be better spent funding education, and he sounded like he meant it. I’m not downplaying the importance of education, but defense budget is defense budget. At no point, ever, will the funding that we trim from defense be allocated to education. What about the active duty families that sacrifice the most for our nation? Troops are taking pay cuts(10), the commissaries are closing, health benefits are being slashed, and the overall quality of life for those that sacrifice the most is plummeting. If you’re cutting 100,000 plus service members from the fighting force, wouldn’t you think that the remaining few would be able to sustain a better quality of life while the government still saves considerably on the budget? Yet, they are being told they must choose between being properly outfitted in battle or being able to make ends meet. Meanwhile, we’re shoveling billions, as quickly as possible, into the sinking ship that is the F-35.
Another poor argument from the video is the moral implications of war profiteering. Although I am a little bitter about Dick Cheney making millions operating porta-johns in Iraq, while I probably never cleared a hundred thousand in two extended tours of fighting my ass off, this isn’t that. Air supremacy is a key factor in this never ending battle for world dominance. We are the United-frigging-States of America, and if we don’t have the biggest and the best, we will fall. The idea of world peace or a neutral America is unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous. Humans are a warring species. If violence wasn’t an imperative evolutionary trait, it would have been bred out of us by now. Today’s availability and speed of information has shown us that we are not the shining beacon of purity and freedom that we claim to be, but many of these self-righteous saints do not fathom the hypocrisy in their ability to get on a soap box and flaunt their soft, morally superior objections.
To them I say: It is the military industrial complex’s evil exploitation and manipulation of other nations and their resources across the globe that has given you the conveniences and comforts that you take for granted. Your education, your health, and your way of life are all a result of our imperial, militarized government making others fear us enough into giving up what is theirs for our benefit while deterring other empires from doing the same to us. That same sinister military industrial complex has also given you the ability to hold your soft, and proudly defenseless position on the sanctimonious high ground as you exonerate yourself from any responsibility, while slamming those that afford you that right, without threat to your own safety.
So what I am saying is that regardless of your thoughts on war being bad and how much we spend on defense, America and her allies need these fifth generation, multi-role fighter jets in the sky, yesterday. We need the ability to maintain our borders and our interests abroad in this increasingly volatile world. I really want the JSF to work, and would like to see Lockheed Martin make all of us naysayers eat our words, but as of right now, we are in serious trouble.
(Will / Funker530)