Is The F-35 Being Kept Alive Just To Fleece The Foreign Buyers?

Is The F-35 Being Kept Alive Just To Fleece The Foreign Buyers?

by David Archibald, author of Australia’s Defence, Twilight of Abundance, and American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare

16 October 2016


The signs are pointing to the F-35 program being kept going just to fleece the foreign buyers, by getting them to commit to a block buy and then the US will abandon the program. Consider these words from this article from Breaking Defense:

Will the Air Force buy its full complement? Harrison was skeptical.

“I don’t think it’s plausible that we’ll actually buy that full amount in the long run, but they don’t need to change their plans right now, they don’t need to scare the foreign partners by signaling that right now, it wouldn’t make sense to do it now,” he says. “You don’t have to make that decision on the total quantity, you don’t even have to make the decision on the full-rate production, until four or five years from now. So you can wait four or five years, more of the foreign partners will get deeply invested in the program, and then they can scare them.”

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla. May 2013

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Florida, in May 2013.

In this article General Bogdan, who is in charge of the F-35 program, says that the US won’t participate in a block buy until the Lot 13 production run — which is scheduled to start in 2019, but foreign buyers are welcome to be part of a block buy in Lot 12. The program is currently in Lot 9 production, though pricing for this lot between Lockheed Martin and the Department of Defense has yet to be settled on. Taken at face value, this means that foreign buyers would be getting their aircraft cheaper than the Department of Defense from the same production run. If the Department of Defense was in the F-35 program forever, why would they let that situation come about unless they were maintaining the option of walking away from the F-35 at any time?

Then consider these words from the US Air Force Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan:

Failure to adopt agile acquisition approaches is not an option. The traditional approach guarantees adversary cycles will outpace U.S. development, resulting in “late-to-need” delivery of critical warfighting capabilities and technologically superior adversary forces …

Additionally, the Air Force must reject thinking focused on “next generation” platforms. Such focus often creates a desire to push technology limits within the confines of a formal program. Such efforts should be accomplished within the S&T portfolio and proven through effective prototyping, harvesting when mature to a sufficient level for transition. Pushing those limits in a formal program increases risk to unacceptable levels, resulting in cost growth and schedule slips. This put such programs at risk of cancellation due to their nearly inevitable underperformance, and results in delivery of capabilities “late to need” by years or even decades.

That describes the US Air Force’s experience with the F-35. The words “risk of cancellation” are predictive. But when will it be cancelled?

The F-35A while being towed at the Inauguration Ceremony on July 7th, 2006.

The F-35A being towed at the Inauguration Ceremony on July 7th, 2006. Ten years later, it is still not ready to fight.

Damage is accumulating every day the F-35 program continues. The defense establishment has woken up to the shortcomings of the F-35, and expressed an interest in restarting F-22 production. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 directs the Department of Defense to report on F-22 restart costs in early 2017. What might kill the F-35 sooner is hard data, which Lockheed Martin has been careful to avoid providing.

Lockheed Martin were given charge of evaluating their own product in a Verification Simulator, which is supposed to provide multiple ultra-realistic, thoroughly test-validated pilot cockpit simulators operating together to enable operational testing of multi-ship tactical scenarios with large numbers of advanced threats. To quote a POGO report on the failings of the F-35:

It’s the only way to test many of the F-35’s capabilities because the test ranges cannot realistically replicate the full spectrum and quantity of targets and threats the F-35 combat formations would confront. Beginning in 2001 Lockheed Martin engineers were under contract to create this complex simulator facility, but the project had fallen so far behind that DOT&E (Director Operational Test & Evaluation) questioned whether it would be ready in time for operational testing. Rather than reinvigorating that project, the JPO (F-35 Joint Program Office) moved the entire simulator development to a Navy lab. That lab is now in the throes of trying to take over this monumental design, fabrication, and verification testing task.

According to the memorandum by the Director Operational Test & Evaluation, the Verification Simulator will not be ready for the currently planned IOT&E start date in 2018 — and perhaps not until two or more years later. That is after the planned start of full rate production in 2019.

Lockheed Martin were given $250 million to conduct the Verification Simulation but produced nothing useful. In the absence of that, a retired Air Force officer has provided an assessment of how a multi-ship engagement would go:

In recent years countermeasures have improved faster than beyond-visual-range missile technology, e.g. digital-radio-frequency-memory jammers, towed decoys, ability to turn away and even out-maneuver a missile. The GSh-301 30 mm cannon of the Su-35  has been reported to have chaff rounds.

To make matters worse, all western beyond-visual-range missiles have active seekers, and the ‘light-up’ range gives enough warning time for effective countermeasures.  Not so Russian beyond-visual-range missiles and their Chinese copies – missiles such as the R-27 and R-77 have infrared-seeker variants. So, an enemy beyond-visual-range missile can arrive without warning, especially from the rear aspect away from radar coverage.

What is really lost on the F-35 promoters is that if you are engaging in beyond-visual-range air combat with two missiles, maybe four, and the opposition has 10 weapons station.  The likely Su-35 load-out is two within-visual-range missiles, four beyond-visual-range, active-radar missiles and four beyond-visual-range infrared missiles, fired in active-radar infrared pairs as per the Russian doctrine and the switch setting in the fire control system.

So, look at an engagement where aircraft numbers are equal — let’s say 10 on 10. The F-35 fires its two missiles, and given modern countermeasures, expect the probability of kill to be less than 15 percent.  So, if target sorting is perfect and the F-35 gets first shots (also not guaranteed if the enemy has a 20,000 foot altitude advantage) the best case is that after the beyond-visual-range missiles are fired, then seven enemy strikers remain.

The “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run” F-35s then have to egress.  They have 70 missiles and seven guns to evade.  Since we have yet not worked out how to egress flying backwards, the F-35s will expose a large rear aspect radar cross section and infrared signature, and the much vaunted (but not proven) APG-81’s countermeasures cannot be effective.

Against aircraft like the Su-35 and the T-50, with far superior range and speed, there is no escape and all Mach 1.45 F-35s are run down and killed with beyond-visual-range missiles, then within-visual-range missiles and finally, if there are any survivors, guns. Not the case for the F-22A, where even if all of its six beyond-visual-range and two within-visual-range missiles miss, they can still cut and run.

So, the best case for F-35s is 10 losses and three kills, or a loss-exchange ratio of 3.3 to 1.

In the interim, how has Lockheed Martin fared in the making of the F-35? As Spengler recently noted:

It is typical of rent-seeking that Lockheed Martin’s stock price has tripled during the past three years, and payment to its top management team has risen from $12 million a year to over $60 million a year, while Lockheed Martin’s F-35 languishes in cost overruns and deployment delays. Produce a lemon and get rich: that’s Washington.

Spengler also notes that the FBI director who declined to prosecute Mrs. Clinton for mishandling of classified material returned to government after a stint at Lockheed Martin.

It is quite possible that Lockheed Martin, aware that the F-35 could be killed off soon, wants to lock in some last profits by getting customers  into a block buy contract and thus put off the day of reckoning. The US Air Force is too smart to commit to that but some foreign buyers might be stupid enough to sign up for it. This is not the way to run a great nation.