Gripen for Australia: the Solution to the F-35 Nightmare
by David Archibald
9 April 2021
The F-35 has many problems, one of them being its software. The plane runs on 9 million lines of code. There were a further 17 million lines of code in the logistics software program called ALIS, but that could not be made to work. ALIS was abandoned and a more traditional approach to parts management has been adopted.
Lockheed Martin won the contract for the F-35 development and production almost 20 years ago, on 26th October, 2001. Because the initial design is 20 years old, it needs updating with technological developments. And because of the way its software is structured, that is quite expensive and tedious. For example the Block 4 upgrade of the F-35’s software and computer hardware is now delayed two years to 2026, with cost rising by US$1.5 billion to US$12.1 billion. That delayed schedule may not be met as the US Government Accountability Office, in a recent report, has declared that the Block 4 modernisation schedule is “not rooted in reality”. A recent software drop saw only 64% of planned work completed and only 69% of the planned functionality delivered on time, according to the report.
A computer safe in its hangar
Does any of this matter when the plane is not expected to leave the hangar much anyway, and it is such a bottomless pit with respect to expenditure? The USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles Brown, has likened the F-35 to a Ferrari, saying “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays.” As we recently pointed out, an RAAF F-35 costs $50,000 per hour to operate, much higher than expected. With only 13 flying hours per month now instead of the requisite 20, our pilots won’t be proficient enough to fly the aircraft in combat.
The software problem is important because it will stymie a recent Australian Government initiative to develop guided missile design and manufacture in Australia, at least for our fielded combat aircraft. Of Lockheed Martin’s foreign customers, only Israel has been given access to the software that runs the F-35. Which means that Lockheed Martin will have to be paid to perform the weapons integration of any Australian-made missiles to be fitted to the F-35. Which in turn means that it is going to be horrendously expensive, because it must not upset any of the existing nine million lines of code, if it can be done at all. So while the Government’s initiative for guided missile manufacture is a good one in concept, it shouldn’t bother to produce anything except for the Loyal Wingman — for which we have co-ownership of the code with Boeing, presumably.
By comparison, the Gripen E Saab uses a layered approach to avionics. The software on the Gripen E separates flight-critical functions from mission-critical functions, with the result that if you wanted to add an application with a few thousand lines of code, you don’t have to recertify the millions of lines of code the whole aircraft runs on, as in a traditional aircraft system.
With respect to the concept of stealth, Saab’s view is that stealth in the X-band of radar isn’t worth the performance compromises necessary to achieve that. Ground-based and airborne threats are moving to low-frequency operation where they can detect aircraft shaped for stealth in the S and X bands. The Su-57 has sensor arrays of low-frequency radar on the leading edges of its wings which will detect stealthy fighters.
L-band radar in a wing slat of an Su-57
The F-22 doesn’t infrared-search-and-track (IRST) while the F-35’s IRST is pointed at the ground for its bombing mission. The result is that the Su-57 can detect the F-22 and F-35 by radar and in the infrared while these two aircraft can’t detect the Su-57 except visually.
There is another Saab design principle which makes it particularly suitable for Australia. This is that Swedish combat aircraft
operate according to the constraints of its dispersed wartime basing systems to be able to take off and land on road runways in the hinterlands and be turned around, rearmed and refueled by a team of conscripts. Design features call for the rapid field removal and replacement of engines, the ability to access aircraft systems by ground crews wearing gloves in the coldest of winters and an auxiliary power unit that keeps aircraft systems and communications up and running during the turnaround process so that the aircrew can maintain situational awareness of the air battle above while they are still on the ground.
The F-35 has some particular shortcomings with respect to operating in northern Australia. It requires plugin power in the hangar of a particular voltage, and plugin airconditioning at a particular temperature and humidity. When operating below 20,000 feet it has to open its bomb bay doors every 20 minutes to let the heat out.
The F-35 needs a long runway to land. Lockheed Martin has not stated what runway length the F-35 needs, but the runway at Williamstown RAAF base was lengthened from 8,000 feet to 10,000 feet so that F-35 pilots could train there. Modern fighter aircraft can take off in 2,000 feet by comparison. The following graphic shows our understanding of relative takeoff distance requirements:
The practical impact of that is that there are only a handful of airfields in northern Australia from which the F-35 could operate, as shown by this graphic:
There are many reasons to dump the F-35. The inability to use our own guided missiles is added to the list.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare.