The “multi-role” F-35, and its multiple, expensive failures are so big that they will set the Department of Defense back for the next fifty years. Its unsurprisingly behind schedule, way over budget price tag is sucking dollars away from every other DoD program, and it can’t even beat its replacements in many of their primary roles. Designed to replace many legacy aircraft nearing the end of their life cycles, it is the biggest weapons program ever, at $1.5 trillion dollars. The price tag could run the ENTIRE DoD for over two years, which makes the aircraft the poster boy for a military-industrial complex with no accountability. And, it just looks ugly, which as the best aircraft designers know, makes it likely to fly ugly. Why hasn’t it been cancelled yet?
Note: This is a long article; I put a few TL:DRs in this article, for those who get bored with technical mumbo-jumbo. Skip to them if you must.
Designed to replace the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10, the Navy’s F/A-18, and the Marines’ AV-8B (Harrier), clearly the Pentagon bit off way more than the engineers at Lockheed could chew. They went about this by splitting the program into three variants, one for each branch; “A” for the Air Force, “B” for the Marines, and “C” for the Navy. The idea was to achieve cost savings by having similar aircraft that share common components (concurrency), but don’t tell me you’d ever actually expect a defense project to save money.
All three models were designed around Marines’ requirement of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL/STOVL), which held back the performance of the other two variants. You can see this in the bulge behind the aircraft’s cockpit where the lift fan in the “B” variant is. The large bulge is what obstructs pilots’ rearward visibility and inhibits performance of the aircraft, and it is merely replaced with fuel tanks in the “A” and “C” models to keep concurrency between platforms, and supposedly “keep costs down”. Bear in mind, the “A” is 70% of the proposed force, with the “B” at 14% and “C” at 16% each.
So 14% of the biggest weapons program ever ends up holding back the other 86%. How did the engineers not think this one through? Even the shitty Chinese knock-off of the F-35 has no lift fan bulge and the twin engines the Navy wanted. How did the Chinese get this part right, while we screwed it up with “concurrency”?
The “B” variant is everything the Marines could ask for and more than replaces the Harrier. What about the other two models? The Navy doesn’t even want all of its F-35C’s because of the high cost taking away from other platforms, and it will have to work with F/A-18s anyway because of its small payload. And the Air Force’s “A” model is worse in within-visual-range (WVR) combat and dogfights than the F-16, and only bests it in beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat and stealth-essential bombing runs. Most importantly, none of the models in question can adequately replace the A-10 at all.
TL:DR the last four paragraphs: the “B” model is excellent and as advertised, and its requirements made the “A” and “C” model overpriced garbage.
What now? The Marines will love their “B” model, and the Navy will try to weasel its buy to as few “C” models as possible, with a big question mark around the Air Force’s “A” model. The Air Force originally intended to replace the F-15/F-16 duo with the F-22/F-35A. A successful tandem for over 30 years, the larger, more expensive F-15 was designed around speed and interception in an air superiority role, while the smaller, cheaper F-16 was designed around maneuverability and a multi-role (air-to-air and air-to ground) capability. While the F-16 isn’t quite as good as the F-15’s 105-0 record in air-to-air combat, it still has some unique advantages over the F-15 and can compete with it in the air-to-air role, and doesn’t “need” the F-15 to operate. The larger size, range, and payload of the F-15 led to the development of the F-15E, a two-seat variant with the air-to-ground role that the F-16 already had built-in. It is important to note that all of these jets and many variants have been exported to allies around the globe.
After some (many) problems, the F-22 took its place head and shoulders above the F-15 in every single aspect – the F-15C just can’t compete with it at all, except in the price tag. But, with the end of the cold war, the need for a dedicated air superiority fighter was reduced. The order was reduced from 750 to 648 to 339, before being finally cancelled by the Obama administration at 187 copies, in favor of the “do-it-all” multi-role F-35A. By canceling the aircraft purchase early, the development costs were stretched across fewer aircraft, similar to the B-2 Stealth Bomber, and the unit cost was estimated at $412M a copy, even though the last plane off the line was produced for about $90M.
So Obama (and Bush, and everyone else, to be fair) went all-in on the F-35A replacing the remaining F-15s and F-16s, even though it wasn’t even a finished product. They further banned export of the F-22, despite our allies desperately wanting to buy them, using its superiority against it as a “too-good-to-export” plane. The proposed FB-22 was also cancelled, an F-22 with less maneuverability, but greater range and payload, similar to the extremely popular F-15E exported abroad. But in reality, they were really just protecting Lockheed’s F-35 baby and allowing them to export it globally, marketing it as a “cheaper” (read: inferior) alternative to the F-22.
How much cheaper? Well, it’s not really “cheaper” at all. Look at the F-22’s costs above. The F-35A, the cheapest F-35 variant, is estimated to cost $148 million a copy. But that is BEFORE you add in production costs, as Secretary Gates did to the F-22 when using its high price tag to justify its cancellation. Even worse, they are planning on building over 2300 of them for use by the US and in the export market! The last F-22 off the line is going to wind up being the same cost, or possibly cheaper, than an F-35A.
The F-22 even looks better than the F-35… mostly because it IS better
The worst part about the plane’s performance? As many predicted, even some of its buyers, the F-35A can’t do the job of replacing the F-16. It is essentially a souped-up F-117, which was retired in 2008 as redundant; a miniature stealth bomber with little to no air-to-air capability. If overwhelmed by numbers or otherwise forced into within-visual-range engagement where it can’t “be” stealthy, the F-35 can’t compete with the F-16, and probably can’t compete with even the 1950s era MiG-21. Unlike the F-16 with the F-15, the F-35A “needs” the F-22 to survive and operate; as our own generals have stated, it can’t stand tall on its own, like the F-16 can.
TL:DR the last five paragraphs: The US would have been better off just building more F-22s and/or FB-22s, and never producing the F-35A variant at all.
Yet, the worst part of the F-35A is its effect on a troop favorite, the A-10. Proving its worth in Desert Storm and nearly every single conflict in the war on terror, the A-10 has been a combat success story for years. It was designed and built around its monster 30mm gun, yet it still carries an assortment of other offensive weapons. Heavily armored and with excellent low-speed maneuverability, the A-10 is essentially a flying tank. Often specifically requested by troops under fire, the A-10 is a low-cost, low-tech close air support (CAS) aircraft that has been instrumental in fighting our low-cost, low-tech enemies in the war on terror, who fear its sight on the battlefield. It is an ISIS killer, and one of this country’s most effective air platforms in the war on terror, and one of the cheapest to boot.
The Air Force is bullshitting everyone, trying to sell the F-35A as being able to replace the A-10, despite not having the survivability and low-speed maneuverability essential to CAS. It should not be surprising that a stealth fighter such as the F-35 will not be as good at CAS as a purpose-built flying tank, and even its own pilots admit as much. Everyone hates Congress, and yet they have heard so much opposition to cancelling the A-10 that they’ve had to step in to save it from the boneyard. The Air Force, who has been foolishly trying to cancel the A-10 Warthog for years, are now using the cost of 30 F-35A’s to justify mothballing the entire 300-aircraft A-10 fleet. Is anyone really surprised that the Air Force is still in denial about what the F-35 really is??
It all makes sense when you simplify the F-35A – it is essentially a small, expensive, “stealthy” bomb chucker with very limited air-to-air capability, which is only really useful as overpriced export to other countries without stealth capabilities we don’t feel comfortable selling the F-22 to. Why should the US bother focusing on maneuverability and air-to-air at all, if you could have just build a dedicated small stealth bomber with greater range and payload? The F-35A is a failure in the air-to-air part of its mission, a failure at saving money, and its astronomical cost is taking away from every other expenditure the DoD incurs on a daily basis.
It should also be frightening that the liberal media, who are all staunchly against defense spending, can hardly be bothered to mention the F-35, even after chirping so loudly about the F-22’s price tag. Which, at $62 billion, is just 4% of the F-35’s $1.5 trillion tab. Rachel Maddow wouldn’t shut up about how awful the F-22 was and how Lockheed spread its costs over 44 states, yet she has been totally silent about the F-35’s costs being spread of 46 states, limiting her mentions of the much more expensive program to a one-sentence complaint about a 2nd engine. Bill Maher, who complained loudly about the F-22 on many occasions, even after it was cancelled, hasn’t said much more than a couple sentences about the F-35. So it is fair to ask; has the liberal media taken a payoff from LockMart to keep quiet about the F-35? And was their F-22 criticism just a part of Lockheed’s ploy to protect the inferior F-35 for export?
TL:DR the last four paragraphs, or the whole article: No matter what your feelings are on defense spending and the military-industrial complex, everyone should agree that the F-35 is a failure on multiple levels. It is taking away from cheaper defense programs, other government spending, and lower taxes, or whatever you want out of government. No matter what you think the next step is, the first step is cancelling this waste of money ASAP.
Note: Tyler Rogoway’s writing, frequently cited in this post, was what drove me to write my own bit on the F-35. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the Gawker network, he thankfully now writes for his own subsidiary of The Drive, called “The War Zone”. He is a very well informed and premier content provider in the area of military analysis. If this piece interests you, I highly recommend that you check out his content.