In the 7 years I have been dribbling my thoughts into Think Defence there are a few things on which I have been consistent; the ISO container is the greatest invention since the Bailey Bridge, commonality is not a dirty word, logistics are critically important, and, the F-35B is worth it.
Yet to be discovered tribes in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest could not have failed to notice the untrammelled hype that surrounds the F-35 in general, and the STOVL F-35B in particular. The amount of coverage is staggering, some of it informed, some of it not. Being developed under the un-staring eye of social media and a long line of people who seem to live for being critical has exposed every developmental misstep to ruthless criticism. Reports are often selectively quoted, conclusions drawn without context, over-simplification of complex subjects is rife and correlation confused with causation.
It is also an extremely polarising aircraft, read anything on-line and it seems you are either a Lockheed Martin shill or thick as mince critic who knows nothing.
I suspect, the reality is somewhere between, whilst the F-35 is not the cure for cancer, it is not cancer either.
Although I have written about the F-35B many times, including this 5 part series, this is the first for a while
Into this toxic environment I go, a look at the F-35B.
Concept v Execution
PowerPoint concepts are easy to create, but the hard yards are done by those bringing the concept to fruition. What is absolutely a truism is that the conceptual vision rarely matches the hard world of reality at the first pass, there are always problems, they are always delays and there are always, without fail, let downs.
No longer are we developing wooden wonders; modern combat aircraft are complex, they require primary research, cutting edge materials, software engineering at an unprecedented scale and fabrication that is mind boggling in its accuracy and precision.
We need all things because that is what delivers combat success in a modern environment, it really is that simple.
Winners don’t have great moustaches and dashing trousers, they have information and technological dominance allied with well-developed tactics, training and a huge amount of backup.
Doing hard things is therefore, hard.
So we must look upon the difficulties with cutting edge developments like the F-35 with some degree of sang-froid.
Let’s not dismiss the missteps though, let’s not forgive the blatant over promising and under delivering that seems stock in trade for the defence industry, but please, let’s put things in perspective.
What of the concept?
The concept of the F-35 is very well thought through; a family of combat aircraft with a high degree of commonality to drive down operating costs, low purchase costs through automated fabrication, large quantities and concurrency, reduced observability against modern defence systems, data from its (and others) many sensors tied into an information processing architecture gives the pilot an advantage not available to others and finally, an ability to share with others.
All good, except realising the vision has been beset with problems.
It is probably fair to say the marketing hype has oversold the initially realisable attributes of the aircraft.
That the F-35 is six years late and much more expensive than planned is a matter of record.
One of the very first posts on Think Defence asked if anyone knew how much an F-35 would cost, there was no answer.
One can read about flyaway non recurring costs in inflation adjusted dollars set against a set of future financial and economic conditions that may or may not actually be relevant, they may include development costs amortised over a number of final production aircraft that might be fewer or less and then just when you think you have it, someone pops up and tells you the engines aren’t included.
The reality for the UK is this, we, as in the public, won’t know the Joint Combat Aircraft programme costs of until the National Audit Office update their major projects reporting to Parliament.
US costs are not the same as UK costs, this is important to understand, but there is a wealth of information on US costs to form an estimate, but that is the problem, the wealth of information.
Estimating F-35 costs is the full time work of several hundred people, most of them disagreeing with each other! Lockheed Martin, the Joint programme Office and the Government Accountability Office all disagree but no one is saying they will be cheap, on that there is broad agreement. Anywhere between $100m and $140m seems to be reported range. I am not going to try and sift through the multiple methods of calculating costs but will simply say, it won’t be cheap and it will be much more than originally claimed.
The original predicted cost of 40-50 million in 2014 dollars each has proven to be somewhat wide of the mark.
We have all read the ‘can’t dogfight’ claims and the counter-claims, we have observed the controversy on the USMC declaration of IOC but whilst all this was happening an interview with the Secretary of the US Air Force slipped into the open with barely a ripple of interest.
On concurrency, she said;
The biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it. People believed we could go faster, cheaper, better by designing and building the F-35 concurrently, and that the degree of concurrency would work. Indeed it has not worked as well as we had hoped and that’s probably the understatement of the day. It has taken us too long, it has cost us way more money than we ever imagined possible. We’re very focused from now on to driving the cost down per unit and they are coming down.
Whilst concurrency is a perfectly normal and acceptable means of controlling cost and development timescales in complex projects one does have to wonder if the boundary has been pushed a bit too far on the F-35 programme?
She went on to say about the current problems;
I would sum it up in one word – software
IOC is merely a point on a line to the all-important Full Operating Capability (FOC) but the software issues are significant, they are not insurmountable of course, but with much of the aircraft’s utility reliant on software the seriousness of software issues is the main concern.
Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation said of the recent testing;
Right now, inside the 2B software, we have some latency issues with trying to tie all four airplanes together. There’s no latency at all with the first two airplanes; there’s no latency problems with ships three and four, It’s when I try and tie all four together that sometimes a target is kind of slightly misplaced on the ground, or it’s not but I’m not confident in 100 percent of the cases exactly where it’s supposed to be.
I love the language, “kind of slightly misplaced on the ground”
Availability rates were also much lower than expected, most weapons are not integrated, the helmet and streaming video not ready either.
Depending on where you sit on the spectrum of F-35 love/hate these can either be described as development issues to resolve whilst the aircraft is in, you know, development, or, a disaster that means the whole programme should be cancelled.
A well designed and executed operational test and evaluation programme should find all sorts of issues, that is what it is there for, but the scale of these problems surely goes beyond what would normally be found in operational testing so the reality is again, somewhere between the ‘nothing to see here’ and ‘the world is about to stop turning’
The next few years will need Lockheed Martin to resolve the current software issues, integrate national and international complex weapons, deliver enhanced capabilities with new software releases, ramp up production to drive down costs and resolve the problems with the maintenance and logistics system.
A great deal is riding on the next few years and it would be foolish to say there is no risk to delivery or cost.
And yet for all this, recent testing has confirmed the potential of the aircraft, there is momentum in the programme and some measure of confidence that a corner has been turned.
What about the UK?
Many of the criticisms of the F-35 fail to recognise that it operates in a team, as in fact, do other aircraft.
At the tip of the iceberg is the aircraft and pilot, but the rest of the iceberg is what allows it advantages to be exploited. Weapons development, training, tactics development, expeditionary logistics support, intelligence analysis, airspace battle management and the ability to move data from numerous sources, analysis it, transform it into useful information on which decisions can be made.
When discussing the F-35 therefore, the aircraft has to be placed in a much wider context.
Operating concepts are developing all the time, teaming the F-35B with Typhoon and other systems has not yet begun but there are opportunities we probably haven’t even thought of yet that will eventually be exploited.
For the UK, all these supporting strands need to be developed or modified to allow us to make the most of our existing and future planned investments in the F-35.
The Challenge Ahead…
The USN, USMC and USAF have their own problems and issues to deal with regarding the F-35 but for the UK at least, the path forward is clear.
The next five years are going to be challenging for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, there are many moving chess pieces on the table, but current plan is achievable and manages risk well.
After the rancour of SDSR 2010, the RAF and RN have played a smart game, ultimately realising that they need to work together for the benefit of each other. There is much to observe that is positive in the current RAF/RN relationship and long may it continue.
One of the biggest challenges we will face is making sure the manning pipeline for air and ground crew can be aligned with the aircraft as it comes into service. This is an often underestimated challenge in online discussions but one that is vital for success.
With our partners in the USMC the next five years will see the F-35B gradually come into service with the RAF and RN. Let’s hope the obvious synergies between the UK and US (and Italy) can be exploited to improve outcomes for all and we can learn to ignore the shrieking when a USMC or Italian F-35B squadron sails aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Spain and Italy operate the Harrier. Italy is on board with the F-35B and if Spain wishes to replace their Harriers there really isn’t any other option for them other than the F-35B.
It would seem to make obvious sense in these difficult budgetary conditions to increase pooling and sharing, there is no reason why UK F-35B’s could not operate from an Italian navy vessel, or a possible future Spanish F-35B squadron work from a Royal Navy carrier.
Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands are also F-35 partner nations who will be purchasing the aircraft. In addition to the already announced and developing European maintenance arrangements there is significant potential for sharing resources under a NATO umbrella for operational development and training.
The F-35B for the UK is a JOINT aircraft, it is not for the RAF and not for the RN, it is for both. Introduction timelines will change over the next few years as other programmes change and manning falls into place but it is probably fair to say the ‘land’ role will take priority in the near team with carrier strike following soon after.
This isn’t a bad thing.
It is also easy to forget that by 2018, the planned production rate will be peaking at 160 aircraft per year, by the end of August this year, BAE will have delivered 200 rear fuselage assemblies. The UK is a Tier 1 Partner and has invested a couple of billion of the Queen’s Pounds in the development of the aircraft, much British know-how, experience and technical expertise is being used.
What the UK’s final numbers and purchase profile remains to be seen
There is a huge amount of speculation about how many F35B’s the UK will purchase with some expectation of clarity in SDSR 2015. I am not sure the purchase profile is all that important but the final numbers are of course very important.
Final numbers will be dictated by final price; that much is certain. The current duty rumour is an initial purchase of around 50-60 with additional purchases later. It is this split purchase rumour that has prompted speculation about a split buy of B and A models, or even B and C (for the refuelling probe and other factors) but this would be a mistake.
Fleets within fleets don’t seem to be a great idea.
Block 4 software, in its various forms, will include additional UK weapons but much of this is subject to confirmation and some way off, 2019 to the mid 2020’s in a number of incremental releases.
In this period, there are also big things happening with the other RAF fixed wing combat aircraft.
A Brother from Another Mother
With the focus on the F-35 it is easy to almost forget we have the Typhoon in service.
Typhoon is our strategic risk hedge, it allows us to have two types of fast jet in service that complement each other perfectly.
But we need to keep our foot on the Typhoon pedal in the next few years.
Tornado is without a doubt still the ground attack king of the hill, it can fire Brimstone and Storm Shadow, carry the RAPTOR pod, drop Paveway IV and deliver superb close air support. They are big boots to fill, in fact, I think Tornado could be argued as one of the finest aircraft the RAF has ever had.
But Typhoon will fill them, contracts are in place or delivered for Brimstone, Storm Shadow and Paveway IV integration, Meteor and CAPTOR E-Scan are on the way and a few additional developments like the conformal tanks and aerodynamic enhancement package are ready to go should we need them.
In the next few years, pending any additional extensions, Tornado will be phased out of service as Typhoon completes it enhancement programme. The main outstanding issue is what to do with the extremely valuable RAPTOR pod but there are many potential options here.
This then provides the UK with swing role aircraft that can just as easily duke it out with Russian (or Indian) Flankers as it can stomp on ISIS pickups!
The 2030 OSD for Typhoon may well be extended, I hope it is. If anything, I would like to see us picking up an extra couple of dozen Tranche 3b Typhoon and push the Tranche 1’s out of service as soon as possible if they are costing us a disproportionate amount of money to maintain.
Perhaps they could be gifted to the Baltic states?
What about the but?
There are two words we should be thinking about when discussing the F-35B, risk and balance.
Although the risks around the F-35B are diminishing as the aircraft progresses but there is a risk that unit prices may not fall as predicted and development milestones missed.
The US is reportedly reconsidering their purchase volume and many of the partner nations have yet to commit to quantities, including the UK of course. Costs are predicated upon production volume so there is a risk the F-35 can only be afforded in smaller quantities.
Joining the commercial risk is technical risk, again, although relatively small as the aircraft programme pushes through it development milestones there is uncertainty simply because we cannot predict the future, uncertainty gives rise to risk.
This brings us to balance.
I have some sympathy with the viewpoint of US critics of the F-35B that it is consuming a disproportionate amount of the USMC’s finite budget. This has resulted in many other essential capabilities being cut, curtailed or delayed. From this side of the pond it looks like the USMC has their funding equation skewed far too far to the F-35B and not enough on their other programmes, armoured vehicles for example.
The UK must not repeat their folly.
To restate from above, the aircraft is the tip of the iceberg and so in a world of finite budgets we should ensure that the pursuit of aircraft numbers does not rob these vital enablers of funding. Much better to have a smaller number of F-35’s supported by a functional training pipeline, sufficient logistics to keep them flying and a range of complementary systems and capabilities to extract maximum value than a higher number of aircraft without any of these things.
The F-35B must also compete with other capabilities across all three services that need introducing, maintaining or modernising.
Risk and balance means the UK should not bet the farm on the F-35 and maintain investments in the Typhoon, E3, complex weapons integration, realistic collective training, ISR collectors and the means to analyse and disseminate and distribute intelligence information.
I would also like to see greater investment in offensive electronic warfare, standoff decoy and jamming systems and even roll on roll off systems for transport aircraft. Developing Reaper and a modest increase in fleet size would seem sensible, all whilst continuing our investments in the joint UK/French FCAS programme.
Spreading investment across multiple areas increases resilience and flexibility.
What might this look like in practice for the F-35?
An initial purchase of enough F-35B’s for a couple of squadrons to be sustained, maybe around 60 or so.
This gives us enough for continuous at sea training on the carriers with USMC and European partners, flexibility to mix and match with Merlin, Apache, Wildcat and Chinook in whatever form Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) takes, a simultaneous land-based capability to complement Typhoon and the ability to surge onto the carrier(s) to create a larger strike package if needs dictate.
This is achievable within a balanced budget, a budget that has to cover many other requirements.
It might not be enough, it might not be the final number purchased, but it does mean we are not distorting the rest of the equipment plan.
Finally, although it may be unfashionable, I would also like to see the austere location operating concept developed further with increased investment in expeditionary airfield combat engineering and logsitics.
The F-35B is not a lemon, it will eventually provide the UK and our allies with an expensive, although extremely capable aircraft that meets the UK’s requirements to a tee.
In order to reduce risk and maximise our investment in it, we should plot a prudent course and balance the desire for aircraft numbers with investment across multiple complementary capability areas and sustainability i.e. the underwater part of the iceberg.
Typhoon will remain for some time an extremely potent aircraft and developments in the pipeline will allow it to fill Tornado’s big boots.
Complex weapon development and integration is planned, unmanned systems in development and whilst stand-off capabilities remain an area for additional investment, the picture looks good.
This is what the UK is doing.
After the 2010 B to C to B again wobble, the MoD and RAF/RN have plotted a clear and sensible way forward that is prudent and recognises there is much more to capability than an aircraft, however good it is.
For that, they need to be congratulated.