One thing that is absolutely a racing certainty is that weapon system developments will be more expensive and take longer than the various elaborately constructed project plan diagrams, PowerPoint presentations and weighty definitions documents would have you believe.
In this respect I am not surprised about the problems with the F35 Joint Strike Fighter; it’s just business as usual, even though I think the UK has better things to spend its scarce and dwindling defence budget on.
However, at what stage does one say enough is enough.
The bad news just keeps on coming.
The cost estimates have risen by between 30% and 90% depending on how and from when you measure, the JSF was marketed as affordable and that was one of the key points used to justify the inclusion of so many nations. These estimates are also based on planned acquisition from all the partner nations that conveniently forget the global economic situation. It does not take a genius to work out that volumes will be reduced and we all know where that ends, a procurement death spiral where increasing development costs have to be spread over fewer and fewer production orders driving the cost up and so on.
The reality is no one actually knows exactly how much it is going to cost but one thing is absolutely true is the direction of travel is only one way.
In addition to being 2 years behind schedule, at least, the programme will likely breach the so called US Nunn McCurdy limit which will trigger a serious re structuring.
The UK originally planned a purchase of 150 aircraft, subsequently reduced to 138 and now, various mutterings that the final buy could be in the order of 50.
All this is bad enough and would be almost bearable if the aircraft themselves were offering a serious step change in capabilities, were on target development wise, but sadly this does not appear to be the case.
Some parts if the programme are pushing ahead but other problems seem to keep coming out of the woodwork with alarming regularity, even accepting that it is still in development.
Just a couple of snippets to illustrate these problems…
Reported in DoD buzz is the decision to remove a series of fuses and fire extinguishers as a means of reducing weight, cost and risk. Tests have shown that without these features the aircraft becomes much less survivable against hostile gunfire.
The high velocity and high temperature heat wash issue isn’t going away either. How much of this is actually a real and significant problem is open for debate but it is certainly something to be concerned about. Whilst the USMC are happily using flying their Harriers from forward locations comes a story about the design specifications for handling areas to support the F35B. Describing the specifications the report notes that to support vertical take-off or landing operations the surfaces will be exposed to Mach 1 exhaust at temperatures of over 900 degrees Centigrade, much beyond the current capabilities of temporary surface sealants and portable surfaces like ALM matting. Whilst the true vertical take off or landing is actually rarely used now, the rolling landing and take off that is currently the norm with Harriers do use downward thrust and there is no reason to believe this won’t be the case with the F35B. Not being able to use semi austere facilities is not a ‘deal breaker’ but it does compromise the flexibility of deployment and operations. The report may be incorrect LM protest that it is based on worse case data and not reflective of test data, hope so.
The F35B is the logical choice for the UK because it allows the RAF and FAA to share training and logistics, recognising that flying off the CVF will not always be the mode of operation and expeditionary planning generally calls for the initial flying to be done with CVF with follow on operations moving the aircraft to land bases that can support more sustained operations. It makes a lot of sense from an operational and perhaps more significantly, cost perspective.
If the F35B becomes so expensive that the UK can only afford a very few the whole thing starts to look like an exercise in futility, 2 large carriers and their supporting assets with very few aircraft to fly off them, more than a little embarrassing. An extremely expensive combination, that actually delivers nowhere near the promised effect.
When is enough, enough?
The main problem with the F35 is that it is too big to fail, there is no Plan B.
What are the options for the UK if the F35 is cancelled or more likely becomes more expensive than the much maligned Typhoon?
In earlier posts we have questioned the benefit of the CVF, not in basic terms, but in the context of an overstretched budget. There is no doubt about the utility of carriers but they are not worth the cost if they lead to a dangerously top heavy force structure that the RN seems to be going towards.
Is there another alternative?
The Harrier, like the Sea King, is an exemplar for the ability of military equipment to remain viable through constant upgrades. Speak to any UK FAC’s in Afghanistan and they will continually sing the praises of the Harriers in the care of the Joint Force Harrier, a superb Close Air Support combination.
Could the Harrier’s effective life be extended by a couple more decades with an affordable and modest set of upgrades, combining re-manufactured structural components that address fatigue issues with new avionics and other systems. We already have many of the sensor and avionic components available in the Typhoon design, take these and transplant them onto a new build airframe.
No composites, no supersonic speeds, minimal stealth and a few tweaks could be a model for cost effective capabilities that could be obtained in a quantity that provides for a worthwhile effect.
The scope of such an upgrade would need to be limited to constrain costs but is it achievable?
Does the UK really need a Day 1 attack combination beyond an increased buy Storm Shadow on Typhoon and Nimrod and submarine launched Tomahawk?
Questions, questions, questions