Is the F-35 a lemon? Implications for US military superiority
For over the last 70 years the US has been the world’s preeminent military power, primarily due to her economic and technological development. However, it is becoming evident, despite tremendous outlays of money, that America’s military hegemony is eroding, particularly when it comes to its technological advantage over other nations. Case in point the F-35 multirole stealth fighter jet.
The F-35 is a highly advanced fifth generation warplane. It is highly stealthy, possesses state of the art avionics, is equally capable of conducting ground attack and air defense missions, and some variants have short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) abilities. We are told by military officials and experts that the F-35 will dominate the battle of the future. One would hope so, as it is the most expensive weapons system ever, projected to have total costs of over $1.5 trillion, and as of 2014 was already $163 billion over budget.
However, there have been many critics of the F-35. One of their main criticisms is that the primary focus on stealth and STOVL has made the F-35’s dogfighting performance inferior to that of fourth-generation fighters, such as the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18. There are other problems as well, which have been shown to be well founded by none other than the Director of the Operational Test & Evaluation Office of the Secretary of Defense, Dr. J. Michael Gilmore. In a recent report, Dr. Gilmore concluded, in contradiction of the Air Force previously declaring the F-35A as “ready for combat”, that the latest version of the F-35A is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded threats.” In effect the F-35A is not ready for combat.
The problems with the aircraft are numerous. First of all, due to software problems, the F-35A can only carry internally 2 air-to-air missiles and 2 bombs. Quite the payload for a $100 million weapons platform! If additional weapons payload were carried externally then this would compromise the aircraft’s much vaunted stealthiness. But it gets even worse. The utility of the F-35A’s internal cannon is questionable, as when the cannon’s protective door opens before firing, this changes the drag of the aircraft causing it to turn slightly, but potentially enough to miss the intended target.
The F-35A’s persistence on the battle field is limited, as it has a high fuel burn rate. It requires high maintenance, only able to fly a sortie once every five days. Problems with data fusion causes a single targeted airplane to be seen as two targets in the pilot’s helmet mounted sight. In other words it suffers from double vision. Its complicated maintenance and operations software system, known as ALIS, is highly time consuming when the F-35 is deployed to a new base. It can takes 24 hours to transfer data from one plane to the ALIS system.
These are just some of the problems that Dr. Gilmore identified that hamper the F-35A’s combat effectiveness. To add injury to insult, since his report, 15 F-35A fighters were grounded due to problems with an avionics cooling line. It is almost impossible to believe that a weapons system that is the supposed technological crown jewel of the US Air Force, Navy and Marines, is beset with such problems. The F-35 seems more like a lemon than a technological marvel. It also appears that the US’s ‘next generation’ stealth warships, the Zumwalt class destroyers, are having their own problems.
While the US fumbles with its military technologies, its enemies are progressing. According to a Lockheed test pilot, Nate Jaros, China’s J-20 stealth fighter will be able to outclass fourth generation US fighters and threaten carrier groups. Such a warning could be easily dismissed if the F-35, which is a fifth generation warplane, meets its expectations, but at this point that seems highly unlikely. Interestingly, many believe that the J-20 was designed based on data the Chinese stole from the F-35 project itself. Another example of what foreign countries can do with stolen American technology is Iran’s recently unveiled Saeqeh stealth drone, which was re-engineered, with help from China, from a commandeered RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone.
One may wonder what exactly is the cause of America’s recent problems with developing new and advanced weapons systems. In my view there are four factors. Firstly the US’s obsession with maximizing stealth capabilities has been detrimental to other aspects, some of which are very important, of the weapon system in question. In the case of the F-35 the preoccupation with stealth leads to a reduced weapons payload, increased fuel consumption, diminished maneuverability and an inaccurate cannon. While stealth may be a highly desirable quality, the Russians and Chinese are working on countermeasures, that could very well negate the main strength of many American weapon systems. Without its stealth the F-35, with the exception of its avionics, is a particularly impressive aircraft.
The second problem results from another obsession of US military planners, their desire to replace multiple older weapon systems, each with specific roles, with a single new system able to a jack of all trades. In effect the objectives and requirements of new weapons programs are so lofty and extensive that no group of engineers can meet them. The F-35 is intended to perform close air support (replacing the A-10), to take out enemy aircraft and bomb ground targets (replacing the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18), take off from an aircraft carrier (replacing the F/A-17), take off vertically (replacing the AV-8B) and to suppress enemy air defenses (replacing wild weasel aircraft). Further it must be highly stealthy and have advance sensors and avionics to integrate all sensory input from a individual aircraft and from other aircraft. When the F-35 program is viewed in light of the diverse roles it is intended to perform, is it any wonder that it is failing short of expectations.
Does any one really believe that the F-35 will be able to perform a specific role better than an aircraft that is designed specifically for that role? By analogy do you expect an athlete who trains for both a marathon and a sprint, to be able to defeat athletes who specifically train and devote themselves to only one of these races. Just look at the physiques of sprinters compared to the those of long distance runners, the one is optimized for short bursts of explosive power, the other for endurance over prolonged periods. Training for both will only guarantee that you will succeed in neither. Thus the American obsession with multifunctional is leading to sub par weapon systems.
The third problem is the US military industrial complex. There appears to be no incentive for companies such as Lockheed to produce a functioning aircraft. What I mean is that if they fall behind schedule or do not meet requirements, are they significantly penalized monetarily? Rarely. Instead they continue getting tens of billions in contracts from the government. Part of the problem is the monopolization of the military industrial complex. Decades ago there were numerous companies that could design and produce a capable warplane. Now there is effectively only two, Lockheed and Boeing. Minimal competition coupled to the lobbying practices of the big defense companies helps to explain the ‘junk‘ that these companies are producing.
The final problem lies with the US military itself. Many people may consider the military to be the most honorable and functional department of the US government. And while to some extent that may be true, in reality the US military is as corrupt and profligate as any other government department, possibly more so. For instance, it has been reported by the Department of Defense Inspector General that the Pentagon cannot account for $6.5 trillion!
Not billions, but trillions of dollars are missing from the Pentagon. This is almost unfathomable. How is it possible for trillions of dollars to go missing or unaccounted for. A few days before the September 11 attacks Donald Rumsfeld admitted that $2.3 trillion was unaccounted for at the Pentagon. This means that over a 15 year period a further $4.2 trillion has disappeared, which amounts to $280 billion per year. These amounts are so large that one can’t help but speculate that this money was funneled into secret black project, but such conspiratorial speculation is topic for a future post.
What is important the missing trillions, is that if the US military handles its resources in such a profligate, undiscerning and corrupt manner, is it any wonder that their management of a complex program such as the F-35 is basically in disarray?
Ultimately the problems with the F-35 result from the US military’s obsession with stealth and multifunctionality, there ineptitude and corruption, and from the power and greed of the military industrial complex. As such even though the US defense budget for 2015 was $598 billion, a sum greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 10 nations with the highest military spending, it still is possible, even likely, for America’s technological military edge to erode away. In effect the more money the US spends the more it wastes.