A guest post from Chris.B
In the coming years the F-35 Lightning II is set to become the latest aircraft to take to the skies as a member of the British Armed Services. There have been few defence procurement projects however that have been as much maligned as the tale of this plane.
Ok, apart from maybe the Nimrod MR4A.
Yeah, and the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.
I know, and the Daring-class, Type 45 Destroyers.
Ok I get your point. Alright then, the Lightning is just the latest in a long line of many much maligned defence procurement projects. But it’s fair to say that with the international nature of this project, the reach of its malignance is greater than any other project in the Western world. Like many of these projects, much of the blame is being thrown at the contractor; in this case the US company Lockheed Martin. But like many of these recent contracts, the problems often begin before the contractor is even involved in the process.
To set the background we have to leap all the way back to the late 60’s.
The United States Air Force (USAF) was planning for its future need for an air Superiority Fighter, the “F-X“ project. The original goal had been to build an aircraft similar to the F-4 Phantom, in that it would be a missile armed fighter with a powerful, long range radar. However experience in the air war over Vietnam and misinterpreted intelligence concerning the Russian Mig-25, NATO reporting name “Foxbat”, was to change all that.
The assumption of the preceding years had been that aircraft in the future would sweep the skies with their radar, find targets, lock them up and then shoot them down, all without ever coming into the kind of close contact that had been a feature of air-to-air combat in both World War Two and the air war over Korea. Such engagements came to be known as Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat. However this assumption proved horribly wrong in the face of actual combat conditions as a culmination of problems tore down the theoretical model.
Primary among these was a cluttered air space full of incoming and outgoing friendly traffic which, combined with unreliable communications, lead to restrictive Rules of Engagement (ROE) that dictated that pilots must make visual confirmation of any potential target before it could be fired upon. The whole concept of BVR combat was “shot down” from the start.
What followed were deadly struggles in the skies; with aircraft rolling, turning, climbing and diving in a fatal ballet. Pilot skill, training and situational awareness were key ingredients, but so were the aircraft themselves. The clunky F-4’s proved ill at home in such a close quarters environment, being too heavy and subsequently lacking agility.
This fact was recognised by USAF Pilot and engineering graduate Colonel John Boyd. Along with mathematician Thomas Christie he created the theory of Energy-Manoeuvrability with which to model the performance of combat aircraft in terms of their thrust, weight, drag, wing loading and other characteristics. They shared their theory with other notable individuals in the defence sector, including Pierre Sprey, who would go on to play a major part in the highly successful A-X project which eventually produced the magnificent A-10 Thunderbolt.
The close-knit advocacy group that was formed would eventually come to be known as the “Fighter Mafia”.
They were asked to re-evaluate the USAF F-X project in the context of their theory of Energy-Manoeuvrability, and in light of the intelligence regarding the new Russian “Foxbat” fighter. Pictures had been acquired that suggested the Foxbat, with it’s large tail surfaces and vertical fins, would be a highly manoeuvrable combat aircraft. It wasn’t understood at the time that the Foxbat was actually designed to be a high altitude, high speed interceptor, and that the design of its tail was necessary to avoid an often lethal phenomenon known as “Inertia Coupling” that occurred in the distinct high-end performance envelope for which the Foxbat was designed.
The ultimate fruit of the F-X project was the F-15 Eagle; a twin engined fighter with thrust in excess of its now than lower previously envisioned weight, with a low wing loading (weight vs. lift producing surface area) and yet still with powerful radar. But even then Colonel Boyd and the Fighter Mafia were not satisfied. They believed that an aircraft could be built that matched their design goals even closer and that would cost less than the reasonably expensive F-15. Thus the Lightweight Fighter Program (LFP) was born.
It was argued that the LFP would produce a much cheaper, more numerous aircraft, which naturally appealed to politicians. The idea was that the F-15 would make up the high end of the USAF’s capability spectrum, while the new LWF filled a slightly lesser role. The program eventually singled out two designs; the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop – later McDonnell Douglas (and now Boeing) – YF-17. The YF-17 would go on to become the F/A-18 Hornet for the navy, whilst the YF-16 would become simply the F-16 Fighting Falcon for the USAF. (good background here)
Everything about the Falcon was what you would expect from a cheaper, low end aircraft. Built largely from aluminium alloys (over two-thirds), with some steel and a few composites, plus a dash of Titanium, the F-16 was lighter and cheaper to build. To save money on production and to introduce some maintenance commonality to the USAF fast jet fleet, it used a slight variation of the F-15’s engine. The radar was smaller and slightly less capable, but adequate for the job. The F-16 may not have been a match for the F-15 performance wise, but then it was never supposed to be.
It’s at this point that we now finally fast forward back to the present. Well…
Actually we need to stop off briefly in 1981 as the USAF has just issued its Advanced Tactical Fighter requirement. Ten years later this would produce the F-22. A year after that the USAF and the United States Marine Corps (USMC) would formally agree to jointly develop the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF), which would eventually become? You guessed it, the F-35.
It’s at this point that the story more or less catches up with the present, but sadly the protagonists detach themselves from reality. The idea of building an aircraft that was capable of Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) to replace the USMC’s fleet of AV-8B Harriers – but could also be modified slightly to replace the USAF’s F-16 fleet – should have been killed off with a swift blow to the back of the head, like a poorly Russian hamster that was then returned to its cage so the children could wake up the next morning and believe that it had passed away peacefully in its sleep (My Dad. A pair of pliers. Years of secrecy. That’s all I’m saying).
The combining of the words “affordable”, “STOVL” and “modified” into one sentence should have been enough to throw up alarm bells left, right and centre. It should have been apparent from the very start that designing a replacement for a technically challenging aircraft like the Harrier would have added a significant (and expensive) development cycle to the whole project, one which was supposed to be producing a low cost partner to the new F-22.
As time went by, namely a year, it was also decided to add the Navy into the program by designing a carrier capable version that could be launched and recovered using the Navies standard Catapult Assisted Take Off, But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) system. Another type. More development work. More cost. All that was needed now was an additional expectation for the aircraft to replace the A-10, have an advanced radar, to achieve “sensor fusion” as part of the “Network Centric Warfare (NCW)” capability of the US armed services, and to also leverage Low Observable (LO) design techniques from the F-22 and the cost could really go shooting through the roof…
Remember at the start I was talking about how these kind of projects often go awry before the contractor even gets involved? Well here we are. Sitting in front of us now is a design specification to build an aircraft that will;
a) Replace the AV-8B Harrier in USMC service,
b) Replace the F-16 in USAF service,
c) Replace the early model F/A-18 Hornet’s in United States Navy (USN) service,
d) Replace the A-10 Thunderbolt in USAF service,
e) Incorporate the latest advances in LO “Stealth” technology,
f) Incorporate an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar,
g) Incorporate advanced sensor fusion capabilities,
h) Cost approximately $50 million per plane.
Sorry, say that last one again?
h) Cost approximately $50 million per plane.
Starting to see the problem? It’s one that comes up commonly in military procurement projects, with the MoD being particularly prone to this issue. It’s akin to walking into a Michelin star restaurant and ordering the Beef Wellington, then expecting that it will be delivered in the time it takes McDonalds to produce what they call “a Hamburger” and for the same price. Nobody in their right mind would look at this example and believe that it was the fault of the restaurant for failing to deliver on time and on budget. You would simply laugh at the fool who ordered the meal for their wildly inappropriate expectations.
And yet this is where we find ourselves now, trying to build a Rolls-Royce on the budget for a Datsun.
Now to be fair, at least some attempt has been made to keep down the cost of the engines by recycling the engine from the F-22. Which might have worked if it wasn’t for the modifications designed to extract an additional 5,000 pounds of thrust. And of course, the whole lift fan thing.
But never fear. At least a saving can be leveraged on the radar. After all, in order to save cash and increase commonality you can simply use the same AESA in the F-35 as was used in the F-22 or even the unit designed for the F/A-18 E/F? Right? What about the unit from the newer versions of the F-16? I mean, isn’t that the aircraft that the F-35 is planned to replace? So a comparable radar would work right?
What? Sorry? Did you just say no? You want to build a completely brand new radar, one that will surpass even that of the F-22? Erm, but doesn’t that defeat the whole point of the F-35, to essentially design and produce a lower cost, numerically superior version of the F-22?
Am I the only one that finds this odd? Should I stop using question marks now? I think I should, poor key is taking a hammering. Anyway, so now here we are. Staring down the barrel of the worlds most expensive “cheap” combat aircraft. In time it’s expected that cost savings will be made as aircraft production is ramped up and new efficiencies can be found in the manufacturing process.
But as it stands, we’re looking at anywhere between $100-120 million per jet, depending on which source you use, which source you believe, which day of the week it is, and which phase the moon happens to be in at the time.
The question then becomes, will it be worth it?
I should point out before we begin that I am not, NOT, an F-35 fan boy. I have an interest only in trying to find out which is the right aircraft for the United Kingdom (which I prefer to “Great Britain” because it sounds more regal and I’m a staunch Royalist).
The reason I mention this is because I want to try and tackle the F-35 debate in a sensible manner, which I fear doesn’t happen very often. People who have issues against the F-35 will always find some contrived – and sometimes downright ludicrous – argument against it.
Personally I believe in free and open democracy (and Royalty), but for that to work people need to be given the facts.
Spurious claims and baseless speculation serve only to distort the true argument and to cloak important issues in a veil of suspicion, conspiracy, mistrust and disinformation.
Take the most common argument for instance, in one of it‘s many forms;
“Two F-35’s against six Typhoon’s equals both F-35’s going down in flames!”
Or words to that effect. The question that should immediately come to your lips is this; “under what circumstances are we expecting to find two Lightning’s up against 6 Typhoons?”
Now you can interchange the word “Typhoon” with “Flanker”, “Fulcrum” or what ever your personal choice of aircraft is, but let’s be real here. Fighter aircraft do not go up and fly around in 6 ship blobs. Bombers maybe. But fighter aircraft? And if there’s six incoming fighters on the radar, why are there only two Lightning’s going up in response? What are the rest of them doing? Who put Mr. Bean in charge of the QRA?
Fantasy flights aside, what about the “Stealth” features and avionics?
Well avionics is one that has come up quite a bit lately. The big criticism I see at the minute is the field of view, which apparently is limited to 120 degrees in the forward arc, compared to the wider fields of other modern, mechanically scanned systems. What I find most amusing about this argument is that 120 degrees is by no means a meagre range.
Just think about it practically for a second. Even better, get a protractor and show yourself what 60 degrees off either side of your centre line looks like. Now imagine that field of view stretching off into the distance over a hundred kilometres. That’s a fairly sizable amount of sky that can be covered just by one aircraft. I’d imagine also that if they were on a patrol they’d be doing more than simply flying in a straight line all day.
Of course my favourite argument is when the subject of Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS) comes up. It seems that when a debate of “F-35 vs. …” arises, every country in the world suddenly possess this fearsome AWACS capability, except presumably the country that is operating the F-35, at which point all friendly AWACS aircraft slink off into the clouds never to be seen or heard from again. While our enemies enjoy unrestricted use of their support assets for remote targeting, the F-35’s are left to go it alone, which to me is just not cricket.
Then we have the weapons issue. People scream blue murder at the top of their voices about the fact that an F-35 can only hold four air-to-air weapons in it’s internal bay, meanwhile the skies are roaming with hostile aircraft carrying at least 8 each. When any has the temerity to suggest that the F-35 could carry external weapons to, we’re told that this “compromises the stealth characteristics”.
The trouble with this argument is simple; the term “compromises” is often confused with “turns it into a Boeing 747”. For some reason nobody stops to ask how big the Typhoon carrying 8 weapons externally would appear on radar compared to an F-35 carrying four weapons externally and four internally. Yes it would lose some of its stealth characteristics, but it would still fundamentally be a difficult aircraft to detect and track on radar.
Remember at this point that there is a difference between “we can see it on radar” and “we know what it is and can shoot at it”. The F-35 in air-to-air configuration is likely to be able to successfully detect, track, target and engage the Typhoon before the opposite occurs.
All this is of course a rather mute point. In modern warfare most enemy radar will be gouged from the Earth by cruise missile strikes. Aircraft hangars and runways are sure to follow next. But at least the F-35 can play a role in this, delivering (so we’re told) two Storm Shadows along the way, with the potential to then carry on into enemy airspace carrying bombs to prosecute additional targets. I’ll wait to see it before I get all excited though.
The only knock I have (other than cost) against the F-35 is the nature of it’s LO design. What I’m getting at is the fact that it’s based on materials technology coupled to design technology. As soon as someone cracks the DaLowObservable code, what your left with is an aircraft made up of certain design compromises that is now largely pointless.
One answer might be the “Barnaby-Smythe Sweep”, or as it’s known outside of the few Think Defence commenter’s who happened to see that particular discussion; Multi-Static Radar. It should be pointed out here that Bi-Static radar is the use of one radar to transmit a signal and a second to receive it (“Bi” meaning two, “static” meaning, uhm, static). Multi-static radar involves the use of multiple transmitters and receivers.
The idea is to take advantage of how one part of the design of LO aircraft works; deflecting as much radar energy away from the point of origin as possible. Naturally that energy has to go somewhere, such is the laws of physics. So if you can manoeuvre a second radar into position to receive some of those deflected energy waves, then we’re in business.
This could take the form of two aircraft, or pairs of aircraft, at opposite ends of a patrol area. They would then turn to roughly face each other and switch on their radars. One aircraft transmit’s a pulse (Barnaby) while the other at the opposite end listens in for the return (Smythe).
With the advent of modern AESA radar that can tune their aerials to different frequencies, it’s entirely possible that both aircraft could be transmitting and receiving simultaneously. Or – even clever-erer-erer – you could have an AWACS aircraft sending out a powerful signal (Barnaby), and several fighter aircraft listing for the return (Smythe). As long as they’re not F-35’s or F-22’s themselves of course, in which case there would be no AWACS available.
The Joint Strike Fighter program has – unfortunately like so many other projects – suffered from being poorly planned, poorly conceived, poorly budgeted, and from a not inconsiderable amount of lies, damned lies, and poorly researched statistics. If you honestly believe this program will not go ahead now then there is probably something wrong with you. But chin up my friends. The F-35 is not as bad as the haters make out. It may not be the silver bullet that its mouth-foaming supporters would have you believe, but it’s not a bad bit of kit overall.
And look on the bright side, as the colonialist’s might say “it’s going to make a kick-ass Airfix model!”