Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

F35B

In Part 3, I looked upon the F35B with an optimistic eye, reflecting on the potential it provides to the UK armed forces.

But, I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that as a programme it is far from rosy, significantly late and over budget which will inevitably lead to a combination of few aircraft, higher unit prices, specifications compromise, cost to back fill whilst we are waiting and a painful gestation that is still not over.

One aspect of the F35B Joint Strike Fighter programme that sets it apart from many others is the degree of transparency and scrutiny this enables.

In general, I think this is brilliant because although there some downsides, the upsides massively outweigh them.

It is a model the UK would do well to emulate.

This transparency does however, result in every last minor problem being amplified, taken out of context and reported on with a negative slant.

We should not forget that the F35 Lightning II is a complex and multinational development programme that is pushing outwards against existing boundaries, the point being that in development, we should expect problems to be discovered, major and minor alike.

On the whole, better to find issues now than when in service (concurrency critics, stand fast at the back for now)

One on hand we have people that think an actuator failing in less than its expected cycle count is grounds for cancelling the whole programme and on the other we have people that think an aircraft with very little weight growth margin and a failure to meet certain key performance parameters is just a few teething problems, move along, nothing to see here.

The reality I suspect, is somewhere in between.

This part of the series is going to look at current status, warts and all, and cost issues

A nice photo before I start

On June 14, 2012, F-35B Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft BF-2 completed the first test flight for the short takeoff and vertical landing variant with an asymmetric weapons load. BF-2 flew with an AIM-9X Sidewinder inert missile on the starboard pylon, a centerline 25 mm gun pod, and a GBU-32 and AIM-120 in the starboard internal weapon bay.
On June 14, 2012, F-35B Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft BF-2 completed the first test flight for the short takeoff and vertical landing variant with an asymmetric weapons load. BF-2 flew with an AIM-9X Sidewinder inert missile on the starboard pylon, a centerline 25 mm gun pod, and a GBU-32 and AIM-120 in the starboard internal weapon bay.

Programme Status

Following the ups and downs of the F-35 Lightning II could easily be a full time job, there seems to be a veritable army of detractors so seeing through the fog is difficult.

For a really good counter to the constant criticism I would recommend a couple of sources’

First is the Elements of Power blog written by SMSgt Mac

http://elementsofpower.blogspot.co.uk/

Second, the F16.net forum and specifically those posts from SpudmanWP and one or two others

http://www.f-16.net/f-16_forum_viewforum-f-22.html

Hang around these places for any length of time and you will see sensible, well argued and credible counters to some of the hyperventilated criticism one can find all too easily elsewhere.

I am not going to wade into the older development history, weight issues for example, but just have a look at issues from the last few months.

The most recent major development in the programme was the release of the Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report from the office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. DOT&E is similar to the UK’s National Audit Office (although much more detailed in its technical reporting) providing independent assessments to Congress and the DoD.

Read it full by clicking the image below (it’s under the DoD section)

http://www.dote.osd.mil/pub/reports/FY2012/

It makes somewhat equally depressing and encouraging reading.

  • Expectations on kinematic performance have been lowered with reduced acceleration and turn rates.
  • Delamination and scorching of the horizontal control surfaces
  • Jitter and light leakage causing acuity problems for the helmet system
  • Structural cracks on the F-35B at 7,000 hours
  • The programme as a whole (to November 2012) had completed 34% of the test points despite it already being in production, or concurrency (more on that later)
  • Regression testing on fixes from previous issues impacted the flight test programme
  • Earlier coolant and fueldraulic protective systems that were removed as part of weight reduction activity results in a ‘25% increase in vulnerability’
  • Other previous weight reductions may result in the F35 not meeting operational requirements for vulnerability
  • Issues remaining with fuel tank inerting (this lead to the lurid headlines about lightning)
  • A new lift fan driveshaft design is in progress and will not cut in until LRIP-7 in 2015
  • Weight growth margins continue to be wafer thin

The worse part wasn’t the ‘flight sciences’ bits and pieces above but the mission systems and software. It is the knock on effects of later delivery of software that cause the most concern because it generates a bow wave of test points that can’t be completed due to software non availability.

Maintenance issues also seem to be numerous.

I would encourage you to read the sections of the report on this.

Were there any bright spots?

  • Flight testing estimates were exceeded for the year
  • Ballistic tests completed so far show good results

On the whole though, its 42 pages of more or less unremitting misery.

Right up to date we have the grounding of the F-35B fleet following an aborted take-off caused by a failure of a Rolls Royce supplied ‘fueldraulic’ nozzle that caused a fuel leak in the area near the bearing swivel module. The aircraft had just come out of maintenance so current investigations will focus on that in addition to all the usual engineering analysis. The last thing one needs is leaking fuel near the hot parts although the same could be said of aerospace hydraulic liquid.

But hold on a cotton picking minute

This is an aircraft in development, and aircraft programme that sits under an umbrella of unprecedented scrutiny and is blessed with a vast array of engineering talent.

Aviation Week ran a good article in response to the bad news;

http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/lockheed-addresses-pentagon-f-35-dote-report-381218/

The article notes that the JSF programme office has already ‘taken action’ on six of the DOT&E recommendations although the definition of ‘taken action’ remains a bit vague.

It also described how some of the issues raised in the report are well underway to resolution, that weight growth margin in the F-35B had actually increased and it tried to take some of the heat out of the situation.

Did it succeed?

No, I don’t think so.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter remains a programme that despite suffering from a tsunami of doom and gloom, recent and accelerating progress on many fronts and the simple fact that is still being developed still looks like it has several large mountains to climb.

It is fair enough to have confidence in the developers and I think most of us would believe that it will get there in the end, but will it be on time and within an ‘affordable in quantity’ envelope.

My answer to that question is I haven’t got a clue.

Which, brings me on to costs and quantities

Numbers and Costs

When I sit down and write these long posts I like to indulge in a spot of blogging nostalgia, looking back at what I have written on the subject in the dark recesses of TD towers, sometimes it is completely wrong, often it is barking, more so ill-informed and naïve but occasionally an old post seems remarkably prescient.

One of the very first TD posts from me was a question about the JCA/JSF/F35 cost.

In March 2009 I asked;

Does anyone know how much they will cost?

An extract below;

Despite what many think, the final price will dictate the in service numbers, not operational requirements. As costs escalate as they inevitably will it is likely that we will be operating with as as few as 50 airframes or some other low number, far from the 150 first mooted or as 138 currently stated

The rest of the article, reading back now, seems a bit doom laden and I think I was in my ‘Cancel the Whole Lot’ period

But, the main point was the final cost of the JCA, JSF or Lightning II will not be known, at least for the UK, until decisions are made through the gated acquisition process.

Various Main Gate and Decision Points will seek clarity on final costs taking into account the cost of any modification to any low rate initial production aircraft we end up buying.

Whilst we can scratch at every last piece of contract award or MoD business plan to try and gain some insight, extrapolate forward and pretend to have uncovered some great revelation it would all be wasted effort.

Despite the numerous hints, rumours and acres of print, the simple fact is the number of JCA will be determined at the Main Gate 4 decision point.

The National Audit Office Major Projects Report 2011 was quite clear.

The number of units to be procured on Joint Combat Aircraft has not yet been determined

The 2012 report confirmed continued participation in the development programme and purchase long lead items for the fourth UK aircraft in LRIP 7.

It also confirmed that the first 3 aircraft costs were fixed but subsequent ones are not, hence final numbers of UK F35-B’s will be determined by costs, I know this is obvious but it is worth saying.

The System Development Demonstration phase has a fixed cost defined by the US/UK memorandum of understanding so no matter how much the development costs of the F35 rise, the UK’s share will remain. There will of course be other costs that are not covered by this agreement, Ship Borne Rolling Landing for example was deleted after the swap with a projected saving of £31m, this will, one assumes, have to be re-costed. Reading the NAO report highlights all manner of cost profile changes, including deletion of the internal Brimstone carriage requirement to save £41m. This continual change is no doubt happening right now.

The current duty rumour is about 50 aircraft, down from the initial ‘about 150’ at the start of the project. The number of 48 was mentioned by Phillip Hammond whilst in the USA taking delivery of the UK’s first F35B in July and confirmed by the MoD

Am I alone in being wary of what politicians say on the subject?

Yes Phil Hammond said about 12 being the normal compliment and it being operated by the RAF and FAA the simple fact is things change and no future government can be bound by its successor.

It would of course be great to have a gazillion F35’s but the simple reality of UK defence economics means one always has to rob Peter to pay Paul, increases in capability in one area always means a decrease in another.

This means we come to a trade-off, x number of JCA versus y numbers of Type 26, for example. Now that might be somewhat of a simplistic view of things but the MoD has a finite budget and a new found fiscal discipline.

Are there other priorities to fund from the creaking defence budget, of course there are.

In general, I would prefer a less fast jet focussed view of air power with a greater priority given ISTAR and Air Transport. At one point the MoD had plans for 232 Typhoon, 150 Joint Combat Aircraft and a replacement for Tornado but with an air transport fleet comprising ONLY 25 A400M’s.

A rather shockingly skewed allocation of resource

Things have changed in the last few years, the move to Combat ISTAR for example, but even so, in a world of priorities there are other things to consider.

So if the expectation of around 50 are proven right that would seem a reasonable force, more than capable of operating within the constraint of UK defence planning assumptions and not likely to cause undue distortion to other priorities.

Perhaps 20 or 30 more to provide a sustainment quantity but not many more

Many people see the bare numbers, lusting after as many as possible almost for the fanboi sake of it, assuming that more is always better but blanking out the impacts on other capabilities as unimportant. The defence planning assumptions are deceptively simple but lead to all manner of complex calculations behind the scene but fundamentally, we have to accept the very low likelihood of operating alone and even if we did, we should be realistic about at what scale.

Accepting that there is a degree of uncertainty and unpredictability about the future, the likelihood of the UK having to go it alone against a competent first or second world force ‘at scale’ is low. With a future that sees European nations having to shoulder a greater burden of NATO collective defence as the US focuses elsewhere the counter is evidently for more.

Again, it would be hey ho pip and dandy to have a couple of hundred F35’s but the UK armed forces have many competing demands of the defence pound so 50 to 80 seems about right to me.

A final cost issue is that of industrial participation, the F35 supply will be supported by over 130 UK companies, each of them collecting VAT and paying Corporation Tax, to the tune of about a billion pounds per year.

This will secure 25,000 jobs, every one of them paying income tax.

It’s not just BAE either; a smaller example is Survivetec who provide all the integrated single seat life rafts for every single F35.

Our £2b investment as a Tier I partner looks to me like the deal of the century.

Most people will not see the connection between one and the other but it is still real nonetheless.

The F35B will be the most expensive variant of a very expensive programme, no doubt

So what

If the UK is to retain its technological superiority over potential enemies and fit within the operating umbrella of NATO it needs to stay with the state of the art.

Increasing costs may well mean that we sacrifice numerical overmatch but this is where we have to drag ourselves right back to reality grounded in defence planning assumptions and the simple fact that for the vast majority of operations the UK will be operating in a coalition, probably a coalition of other F35 operators.

The F35B will be expensive but I don’t think significantly more so than other modern aircraft but as I said above, the UK should not let the F35 dominate the defence equipment plan.

Summary

The reality seems to be that the JSF programme has experienced significant cost and time issues but is now back on track and catching up.

Equally, it seems it has a long way to go

Will it meet every single expectation, probably not, at least not in a short timescale

Will it be as cheap and cheerful as originally intended, unlikely

But if anyone is surprised then they have obviously never read any history about complex engineering programmes.

All that said, for many reasons it remains the only sensible choice for the UK.

It is the costs that will drive unit quantity, not sortie rate, how many missiles it carries, operational requirements tend to be moderated by how many we can afford.

The latest indication of around 50 sounds reasonable to me, maybe push that up to 60 or 70 in a later batch but I think in the absence of a significant uplift in defence spending there are other priorities for the UK.

The next post will look at operating models and how the UK can maximise its investment in the F-35B.

Other posts in this series

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 1 (Introduction)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 2 (Dredging Up the Past)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 3 (The Promise)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 5 (By Sea By Land)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 6 (Summary)

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