by David Archibald
10 October 2018
One benefit of reading leftie websites is that they inform you of things you would otherwise be unaware of. Market economy-oriented sites tend to spend most of their effort looking backwards and reacting to events that impinge on the echo chamber. Leftie sites are most likely also far better funded as part of that side’s Kulturkampf.
Thus Foreign Policy tells us that the current US Secretary for the Air Force, Heather Wilson, is headed for the chop. We knew she was no good over a year ago. Basically she is just an agent for Lockheed Martin, having accepted a US$10,000 per month retainer from the then Lockheed-run Sandia labs that Lockheed had to refund to the US Government. Someone who has accepted close to half a million dollars from a defence contractor, for doing next to nothing, was then made Secretary for the Air Force. Lockheed’s CEO earned her US$43m annual salary when she went into a meeting with President-elect Trump in January 2017, when Trump did not have a nominee for that position, and Heather Wilson was announced a week later.
Thus Lockheed’s F-35 program has continued on untroubled by the fact that it is almost completely useless and keeps falling short of the performance required by legislated standards.
The US Department of Defense’s problem is that, with a war with China on the cards, they have to use real world data in running conflict scenarios rather than wished-for capabilities. Using real world data has the F-35 being shot out of the sky at a great rate as predicted by the the 2008 Rand Study Air Combat Past, Present and Future. Similarly, modelling of Australia’s F-35 fleet has the last one being shot down on day three of conflict with a near-peer competitor.
The F-35 is effectively unarmed, carrying only two radar-guided missiles and two 2,000 lb bombs in its normal configuration. There is a perception that a target aircraft is doomed once a missile is fired at it. The reality is that most missiles miss. A radar-guided missile has a 70% chance of hitting a non-maneuvering target. That falls to 8% if the target aircraft attempts to avoid the missile. So in normal combat a loadout of two missiles would give you about a 15% chance of downing an enemy fighter. Thus this report of a F-35 firing two missiles at a F-4 Phantom converted to a target drone with both missing. The F-35 has a gun as a backup, but real fighter aircraft can out-turn it so an F-35 will never be in a position to fire its gun effectively.
Ideally the US Secretary for Defense would be making sure that failed weapons programs would be axed, replaced by programs that worked. Unfortunately that position is held by General Jim Mattis, who we also picked as a bad egg over a year ago. That was easy enough, in that anyone who supports global warming and the Paris climate treaty, as Mattis does, is a globalist hater of Western Civilisation. On top of that he had wanted to hire Anne Patterson, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, when she was the US ambassador to Egypt, in a role in his department. A confirmed bachelor, Mattis has a strange affection for transsexuals despite their 50% suicide rate and their devastating effect on unit cohesion. Mattis’ nickname is “Mad Dog”, a triumph of marketing over substance in the American tradition. But President Trump has taken to calling him “Moderate Dog”. There are reports that Mattis will also be fired after the midterm elections.
If those two firings come to pass then the new appointees might actually want to win the US’ next war. First order of business would be replacing the F-35 with something that works. The swamp still has a firm grip on Congress though. Congress keeps voting to increase the number of F-35 built each year in excess of what the Department of Defense puts forward in its budget. For the 2019 budget, Congress upped the build from the 77 the Department asked for to 93. Lockheed employs 88 lobbyists in Washington, about one per each F-35 built annually.
The F-35 is just about perfect from a weapons manufacturer’s perspective. The governments buying the F-35 have paid for its development but don’t own the IP associated with it. Lockheed does. And the US Government has yet to negotiate the terms of access to the IP it paid for. Buyers can’t do their own maintenance. The plane has to phone home to a Lockheed facility in Fort Worth, Texas after each flight. Supposedly the F-35 can go a month without doing that before it refuses to fly, but it could be much shorter in reality. F-35 users are not encouraged to stock spare parts and are required to rely upon just-in-time delivery by Lockheed. When a war breaks out Australia will find that problematic.
An article on the history of Israel’s Lavi fighter effort sheds a lot of light on why that country, after taking its allocation of F-35s, wants to buy more F-15s. Israel gets US$3.0 billion worth of military equipment annually from the US free of charge under the Camp David accords. It did not have any choice in taking the F-35, twelve of which have been delivered to date. From that article:
Despite this seeming success, however, the IDF has reportedly prioritized the purchase of 20-25 additional, non-stealthy F-15I fighters-bombers to overcome the payload and range limitations of the supposedly superior, stealthy F-35.
Those are the two main shortcomings of the F-35 necessary for the thing to fly at all. Lack of payload means that it is ineffective as a weapons system. More could be carried on its wings but that would mean that its stealth is negated, the point of the exercise in the first place. And because the F-35B needs to suck enough air through its engine to be able to take off vertically while stationary, all F-35 variants burn about 25% more fuel than equivalent fighter engines. That explains the lack of range for an aircraft having 38% of its takeoff weight as fuel.
The article goes on to describe what you have to do to get respect from US weapons manufacturers — you have to make a credible effort towards your own weapons system. For example the UK started a secret stealth fighter effort called Replica in the 1990s. It was cancelled in 2005. This is a still from a video of the aircraft being moved:
It is upside down most likely as a result of being tested on a radar range. The design is similar to the YF-23, which lost out in the fly-off against the F-22 in the early 1990s. But the UK got a better deal than any other F-35 customer. Again from the article on the Lavi:
To this day, the U.K. is the only foreign F-35 customer that is authorized to perform its own repairs on the airplane’s stealth coatings and features. All other customers, including Israel, are required to return damaged or worn components to a U.S.-managed depot for repair or replacement.
Returning parts to Lockheed is an excuse for them to gouge us. Japan, another F-35 customer, is unhappy with it and wants a real fighter aircraft for its defence. So it started its own stealth fighter effort – the Mitsubishi Shinshin which first flew in 2016. In July this year:
The Japanese government was briefed on a unique opportunity to participate in the development of an F-22/F-35 hybrid, featuring an airframe derived from the stealthy F-22 air superiority fighter, with an avionics suite derived from the more recent F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
So again, if you make a credible effort then you get a better deal than anybody else is offered.
The significance of the potential change out of Mattis and Wilson is that the F-35 program might be killed off sooner than expected and Australia, and a lot of other countries, will be scrambling to find a replacement. It need not be a stealth fighter. Stealth relies upon enemy fighters relying upon radar to find you. But using radar is a beacon advertising your location for 200 km in each direction so it can’t be expected to be used. Stealth fighters are optimized to defeat detection by radars operating in the X band. Theoretically Australia’s Wedgetail AWACs aircraft, operating in the L band, can detect the F-22, F-35, Su-57, J-21 etc.
Buying more Super Hornets is not the solution to Australia’s fighter capability gap. That plane is a light bomber development from the original F-18A fighter and will get shot down at the rate of 8:1 if it goes up against the Su-35, such as the ones that Indonesia is getting. Similarly, Saab’s Gripen E would shoot down 20 Super Hornets for each Gripen E lost. It would be better to send our existing fleet of Super Hornets out to sea, to deliver antiship cruise missiles, where they won’t get molested by real fighter aircraft.
The best solution for Australia is to sign up for Saab’s Gripen E and take the same deal that Brazil took for domestic manufacture. We used to make fighter aircraft and their engines here. We can do so again. We need to, in fact.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare