Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Flying Boondoggle

I have previously made known my less than favorable opinion of the F-35 joint strike fighter. The new plane is intended to replace several aging airframes in the U.S. arsenal. It's supporters argue that it can be both an air superiority fighter (goodbye F-15 and F-16) and a ground support platform (adios A-10 Warthog). It even has short take-off and vertical landing capability (so long, Harrier). I get the efficiencies gained by standardization. Training, maintenance, logistics, all those good things will be simplified and less costly. But I am firm in my conviction that one plane cannot perform three disparate functions as well as three specialized ones. When it comes to winning wars, penny wise is indeed pound foolish.

There are also concerns about the airworthiness of the F-35.

Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’
The Pentagon has had to temporarily ground F-35s no fewer than 13 times since 2007, mostly due to problems with the plane’s Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine, in particular, with the engines’ turbine blades. The stand-downs lasted at most a few weeks.

“The repeated problems with the same part of the engine may be indications of a serious design and structural problem with the F135 engine,” said Johan Boeder, a Dutch aerospace expert and editor of the online publication JSF News.

Pratt & Whitney has already totally redesigned the F135 in an attempt to end its history of frequent failures. But there’s only so much engineers can do. In a controversial move during the early stages of the F-35′s development, the Pentagon decided to fit the plane with one engine instead of two. Sticking with one motor can help keep down the price of a new plane. But in the F-35′s case, the decision proved self-defeating.

That’s because the F-35 is complex — the result of the Air Force, Marines and Navy all adding features to the basic design. In airplane design, such complexity equals weight. The F-35 is extraordinarily heavy for a single-engine plane, weighing as much as 35 tons with a full load of fuel.

By comparison, the older F-15 fighter weighs 40 tons. But it has two engines. To remain reasonably fast and maneuverable, the F-35′s sole F135 engine must generate no less than 20 tons of thrust — making it history’s most powerful fighter motor.

All that thrust results in extreme levels of stress on engine components. It’s no surprise, then, that the F-35 frequently suffers engine malfunctions. Even with that 20 tons of thrust, the new radar-dodging plane is still sluggish. The F-35 “is a dog … overweight and underpowered,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

In 2008, two analysts at the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank that works closely with the military, programmed a computer simulation to test out the F-35′s fighting ability in a hypothetical air war with China. The results were startling.

“The F-35 is double-inferior,” John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue concluded in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press. The new plane “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,” they warned.
Then there's the F-35 program itself. It is over budget and behind schedule. That by itself doesn't mean  much in the world of defense contracting. But the overruns and delays are staggering.

Why Is The US Military Spending So Much Money On The F-35 Fighter Jet?
The Joint Strike Fighter has been touted as a technological wonder that will dominate the skies but it has suffered one setback after another, putting the project seven years behind schedule and $167 billion over budget.

As a one-size-fits-all plane, and with US allies invited to take part, the program originally was touted as a money-saving idea.

But the program's costs have snowballed, for an estimated 68 percent increase over its initial price tag. The Pentagon now plans to spend $391.2 billion on 2,443 aircraft, with each plane costing a staggering $160 million.

When taking into account the cost of flying and maintaining the F-35 over the course of its life, the program could surpass a trillion dollars, according to the Government Accountability Office.
So if it isn't airworthy, and if it costs an arm and a leg, why on God's Green Earth are we pushing forward with this boondoggle? Cost savings is the explanation trotted out by the politicians and God-level military brass. But, like so many other things today, the F-35 program is a form of corporate welfare and political kickbacks.

This Map Shows Why The F-35 Has Turned Into A Trillion-Dollar Fiasco
The Pentagon has stuck with the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter program despite dozens of technical problems and delays, strategic concerns, and massive cost overruns that have nearly doubled the initial cost estimate, raising the cost of building the planes to around $400 billion with a lifetime cost of up to $1.5 trillion.

One reason why the project has become such a boondoggle is that many states and countries are significantly invested in the plane, relying on its production for income and jobs.

Every U.S. state but Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Wyoming has economic ties to the F-35 ... Globally, another nine countries have major ties to the F-35.
Click to embiggen.

I can live with the cost overruns and the program delays. I'm not happy with them, but I can live with them. But my greatest fear is that we as a nation are putting all our air superiority eggs in one very shaky basket. Russia, China et al. aren't just sitting around twiddling their thumbs. They're busy at work upgrading their air power, while we pour dollars and days down a rat hole. America has ruled the skies since WWI. I hate to see us give up that crucial strategic advantage just to keep slimy politicians and sleazy defense contractors fat and happy.

For an in-depth analysis of the F-35 program go here.


Well Seasoned Fool said...

The legacy of Robert Strange McNamara lives on.

Anonymous said...

Phew! The stench, it gags me. And it's getting worse(:. Much worse.

CenTexTim said...

WSF - McNamara has much to answer for, not the least of which is defense contracting. Ike was right when he warned us about the military-industrial complex.

Anon - You got that right.