This story is the final installment in a three-part series on the innovations and the problems of the F-35, the newest warplane entering service in the United States and with several allied nations. Part one is published here. Part two is here.
As the controversial F-35 program is now beginning the slow windup to full-scale production, there is still no strong consensus about whether it's worth its price tab of possibly as much as a trillion and a half dollars, or it is a colossal waste of money.
One way to tackle this is to think of it in terms of cost-benefit analysis: What benefits does the plane bring compared to how much we have to shell out to get those benefits? It's not necessarily easy to really, fully grasp benefits right now because the only assessment that even starts to settle things is how well the plane fares when it's used against a real, live threat.
Lacking any cataclysmic war we could use to really put the plane through its paces, we'll have to figure this out a little differently. Part of the legwork on this is already done. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at what the F-35 is supposed to do. What amazing things does it say on the packaging? Part 2 extrapolates out from the theory to ponder about the operational and strategic implications of the F-35.
The next thing to ask is a critically important question: Does the damn thing actually work?
Although satisfying, that's not a super precise question. Does it work at all? Does it work as well as it's supposed to? How well does it work today? How well will it work? How difficult will it be to make it work? How long will that take? If you return an F-35 to Lockheed Martin, do you get a cash refund or store credit?
One question we can answer with certainty is whether the plane is capable of performing at 100 percent right this instant: Hell no! If developmental work on the plane stopped for good at this very moment, the F-35 wouldn't be at 100 percent. It's still in beta testing.
In fact, there was nobody VICE News talked to on a recent visit to the US Navy's Patuxent River air base, or anywhere else, who wouldn't coyly admit (at least off the record) that the plane has had its issues. There are, or have been, problems with the engines, with the software, with the helmet, the ejection seat, the arresting hook that stops the jet when it lands on an aircaft carrier. Pretty much everything but the inflight entertainment system is all busted and you still can't get decent beverage service.
As Frank Kendal, Department of Defense acquisitions chief, and Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, executive officer for the program, said in their joint statement during an April 26 Senate hearing on the F-35: "Although solid progress is being made... F-35 development is not without technical discoveries and deficiencies, which are expected for a system that has not completed development."
Then again, this always happens. Everything — major defense acquisition programs, adulthood, dating — invariably turns out to be a lot harder and weirder in practice than in theory. Great big engineering projects — from weapons systems to mass transit projects — all end up falling behind schedule and costing more than planned.
Compounding this problem is the fact that, even after it's all out of the testing phase, there are plans for modernization and upgrades stretching out as far as the eye can see. In essence, there won't be a "final" version of the F-35 until the last one is retired for good. It'll easily be a good half century or so of work in progress.
But the Pentagon has a problem to solve now, not in 50 years. It needs to know if the program is solving problems faster than it's burning money, or vice versa. Is the F-35 just going through an awkward teenage phase, or is there need for a serious intervention and maybe time in rehab?
This turns out to be a pretty hard question to answer.
Part of the problem is that the program is so enormous it's all but impossible to really keep tabs on all the moving parts. So you have to rely on offices, organizations, and other "experts" to go suss this all out for us, and then go read their reports. Some of them, like the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, Mikey Gilmore, haven't been the least bit shy about detailing problems. Likewise, the Government Accountability Office has persistently raised concerns about technical overreach, cost, and schedule.
Which brings us to the second problem. The F-35 program has attracted both very passionate supporters and very angry critics. In some ways, these folks have made the signal-to-noise ratio absurdly bad. For every accurate report on the F-35, there's five bad ones and a couple dozen ill-informed articles going every which way. It's like trying to get a calm, cool, reasoned discussion out of a low-rent "reality" television star.
At one end of the spectrum, Lockheed Martin and its apologists are saying the F-35 is stealthy, it does everything, and can take the place of a lot of other airplanes. At the other, opponents led by Pierre Sprey, who played a relevant part in designing the F-16 fighter and A-10 ground attack jet — both supposed to be replaced by the F-35 — call it a dud, a jack of all trades and master of none, and all sorts of names, mostly "ugly." Sprey, for one, has been raising a ruckus about overly complex and expensive aircraft since at least 1971, before the F-16 or A-10 were even on the drawing board.
Who's right, or at least less wrong? On one hand, recent reports reveal that the plane won't boot up most of the time. On the other hand, it finished its first carrier trials ahead of time. So, instead of wading through all of that and arbitrating every single fleck of data, let's sneak up sideways with a frank and honest talk about the plane's... performance issues.
And that starts with a question of metrics.
The prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, has asserted that the plane is "at least 400 percent more effective in air-to-air combat capability than the best fighters currently available in the international market." Yet, test pilots VICE News spoke to at Patuxent River said that the basic design requirements for speed, turn rate, and so on were that the F-35 be roughly comparable in performance to the F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s in US inventory.
Opponents are quick to cite a leaked test report that saw an F-35 pitted against an F-16 in a series of dogfights, and the F-35 got its ass handed to it — a lot. This generated a slew of defenses, explanations, and counterarguments about how it wasn't a realistic and/or fair fight, about the F-35's role in air-to-air combat, and about the future of dogfighting. One less remarked-upon but more interesting theory just chalked it up to pilot experience. The F-35 guy had (by definition) less time flying his brand-new plane than his counterpart did with the F-16.
Then, lo and behold, a Norwegian test pilot who spent a lot of hours flying F-16s wrote an indirect rebuttal to complaints about the F-35's dogfighting abilities, noting that there were some areas in which the plane was far better at that sort of fight than his old F-16; it was just a matter of learning how to use it properly.
Now it's all he said/she said between different test pilots, and what the hell are we supposed to make of that?
Well, one important thing to note is that comparing one plane to another is always a bit sketchy. It's pretty much impossible for an F-35 to imitate a F-16 better than the original plane itself. But just as the F-35 doesn't make a convincing F-16, the F-16 sure as hell doesn't make a very good F-35, either. Even if the F-16 can completely dominate the F-35 in a dogfight (and if it can't, it's very likely that other brand-new fighters designed for that one job can), it doesn't axiomatically make the F-16 a "better" plane. Likewise, the fact that the F-16 is a horrible stealth aircraft compared to the F-35 doesn't mean that the F-16 is garbage. They're just different. One's better at one thing and one's better at another.
And that gets back to the part about trying to figure out context and how the plane is supposed to be used. The whole F-35 idea isn't based on making a newer F-16 that's even more F-16-ier, but getting to some desired end state and what tools you use to get there. The F-35 is trying to tackle the whole problem of how to blow up the things it wants to blow up without getting shot down — using a very, very different approach than the F-16.
The moral of the story is that the F-35 pilot and their opponent will know that the F-35's strength isn't in dogfighting, and will do their level best to avoid. Imagine that!
The more important question is whether the F-35 is any good at what it's supposed to do, which is (among other things) leverage information to avoid getting tangled up in a dogfight in the first place. Or to put it another way, it's supposed to do all its air-to-air killing before its pilot even sees the other guy: beyond visual range, or BVR. And critics of the F-35 have some good, strong historical reasons for concern on this point.
Ever since the first workable air-to-air missiles and radars were mounted on combat aircraft, promoters of those missiles and radars have sworn high and low that the era of true, real BVR combat was upon us. For example, the F-4 Phantom, which debuted in 1960, didn't mount a gun — only missiles — because it was thought that guns had become a quaint anachronism in this brave new world of advanced missiles and radar. Then the US took those F-4s up against the North Vietnamese, who disabused the world of that silly notion by shooting down a number of US jets in dogfights. Next thing you know after Vietnam, all fighter jets have guns again, like in World War I. Yes, even the F-35.
In the following half century, the debate about whether or not BVR combat has truly arrived has continued to rage on. There may be reasons to believe that BVR is really here and we can finally let go of dogfighting; then again, that's a line folks have been trying to sell for decades. Still, airpower has a long, healthy pedigree of fantastic visions that were decades ahead of their time. It took 70 years — until the 1991 Gulf War — for precision bombing to start catching up with the promises of its earliest advocates. So, yeah, real BVR might happen eventually, but like the next Cubs World Series victory, I'll believe it when I see it.
And this fact is reflected in the design of the US Air Force's advanced, dedicated, stealthy air-to-air combat machine, the F-22. For all the stealth and fancy kit, the plane is still designed to be deadly as can be in close quarters. Originally, the F-22 was intended to be the air combat complement to the F-35's strike capabilities, which says something about how the US Air Force sees the future of air-to-air combat (yes, there could be dogfights) and some of the areas where the F-35 just isn't dominant (like dogfighting).
The US isn't necessarily alone in this assessment either; Japan, another buyer of the F-35, is developing its own technology for a future stealthy, advanced, air-to-air combat specialist. Which is something that makes a lot of sense if they don't want to rely on the F-35 to establish complete air dominance all by itself. Together, these programs seem to hint at a broad (if quiet) consensus that the F-35 can fight air-to-air, but it's nowhere near its best when fighting tooth and nail in a dogfight. Maybe the era of dogfighting is over, maybe it isn't, but if you absolutely, positively have to blow someone out of the sky, the F-35 might not be your first-choice, go-to killing machine.
Even at long distances, the F-35 has some inherent limitations in air-to-air combat. The big tradeoff here is that the F-35 can't be both stealthy and carry tons of missiles, bombs, and extra fuel the way that older aircraft can: hanging from the wings. This has been an obvious concern for the F-35's designers, so they've incorporated an ability to attach pylons to the wings to carry more stuff if the need arises and circumstances permit — although it costs the plane it's stealthiness. Point being, if the amount of weapons and fuel the aircraft can carry internally wasn't of at least some concern, would the design include this ability to trade stealth for more payload?
Which brings us to another study that's achieved quite some notoriety during the F-35 debate, a widely cited 2008 report from the RAND Corporation, which calls the F-35 "double inferior" and includes a damning bullet point that has become a mantra for F-35 opponents: "Can't turn, can't climb, can't run." Well, yes, that's a direct quote from the report... but it's relevant only to kinematic dogfighting performance for combat within visual range in a very prescribed scenario, based on two very specific measures of performance: wing loading and thrust loading, which mostly affect agility and speed.
What's truly and deeply unfortunate about all this is that the F-35 commentary is barely a side note in a much larger and more interesting discussion. That report games out air-to-air combat in the event of a serious attack on Taiwan from mainland China and makes incredibly generous assumptions about the effectiveness of the US air-to-air missiles (they're 100 percent effective), and also assumes that the Chinese missiles are completely incapable of shooting down a stealth aircraft (but the Chinese shoot off a whole bunch anyways.) Even under optimistic conditions bordering on the hallucinogenic, the study suggests that the stealthy US jets would run out of missiles faster than the Chinese run out of planes. This problem gets a lot worse when you look at where the US can base aircraft in the Western Pacific. China's home-field advantage really comes into play, because the US may be unable to get enough aircraft in the air fast enough to stop a full-on Chinese onslaught. The hordes of advanced non-stealthy Chinese jets each carry a bundle of missiles, while stealth limits the payload of the few US jets that can get to the fight in time.
Given that scenario, talk about using the F-35 as a battle manager to steer in missiles fired from less stealthy older planes or other F-35 aircraft in low-stealth, high-payload mode starts to make a lot more sense. It may be the only way that the US can get enough missiles in the air to shoot down that Chinese Sky Horde. This, in turn, suggests that a mix of brand-new, cutting-edge stealthy aircraft and older non-stealthy jets loaded with weapons is going to be a fact of life going forward.
This gets us back to the leading opponent of the F-35 and the biggest voice in the quantity versus quality debate, Pierre Sprey. One of his contentions is that asking the F-35 to be supersonic, stealthy, and also be able to take off vertically — like the Marines' F-35B version does — are such wildly different design objectives that it just isn't possible to come up with a satisfactory solution that meets all three criteria.
There's definitely a point to the concern. Stealth and supersonic aerodynamics can be made to play well together, and the F-22 has done a great job at that, but adding in short and vertical take off and landing (STOVL) really complicates things. Until the F-35, no STOVL-capable aircraft has been either stealthy or able to break the sound barrier, let alone both.
STOVL puts a lot of design pressure on the aircraft, and this is also the first time that an aircraft has been designed with both STOVL and conventional versions in mind. The STOVL gear not only adds complexity and weight, it also occupies some key real estate right in the center of the plane. For older STOVL jets, like the AV-8 Harrier, weapons, fuel, and payload could be carried externally, so while the heavier jet paid a penalty in terms of total amount of gear it could carry, the penalty was survivable. But since stealthiness means external storage is a no-go, the penalty for the F-35B could be a lot more severe.
Normally, stealthy aircraft use the center of the plane as, essentially, a bomb bay. But on he F-35B the best spot for storing missiles and whatnot is taken up by STOVL gear. Further, that design trade propagates out to the other variants, so they just don't carry as much as they would if there weren't a STOVL design requirement.
Considering what that RAND study had to say about running out of missiles against the Chinese, anything that reduces payload could ultimately prove to be a pretty critical issue. The decision to include STOVL means you'd better get pretty darned good at cooperative targeting, or you might find yourself in a lot of trouble.
And don't forget that the inclusion of the STOVL gear has forced the F-35 to adopt a less svelte shape than it would have otherwise. That's had a whole bunch of trickle-down aerodynamic effects, most notably in maneuverability and dogfighting, which we covered earlier. And a larger aerodynamic cross section should have further implications for range and speed.
Yet, according to GlobalSecurity.org, it might not be that clear-cut. Their numbers give the three variants of the F-35 about double the effective combat radius of the particular legacy aircraft they're replacing. On top of that, the decision to include a STOVL variant roughly doubles the number of ships the US can use to launch the F-35. Not to mention that it opens up the possibility of further allied use of the F-35 onboard their carriers. So it's not entirely clear how all those trades work out. But whether other countries choose to do that is going to be influenced in part by how many of the planes they can afford to buy.
In the beginning, the fact that the F-35 was going to have different variants for the Air Force, Marines, and Navy (the F-35A, B, and C, respectively) was supposed to save lots of cash. The original plan was that the planes would share 70–90 percent of gear and equipment, allowing for some pretty major economies of scale. Beyond that, avoiding replication of a lot of research, development, and testing was supposed to save another big chunk of change. In reality, it looks like the planes only have about 19 percent of their parts in common. It's unclear how similar the software package and "mission systems" are, but some unconfirmed chatter suggests they're nearly identical, so there may still be some hope for savings on the enormous software and support package.
A 2013 report by the RAND Corporation took a look at whether making this a "joint" program (i.e. having two or more services go Dutch on a program) actually saved money, or whether the increased complexity and tougher design problem hurt the program instead. The short answer: The increased complexity of the joint venture drastically cut into any potential savings. Past programs (including the widely-criticized F-111) have made for a pretty spotty history of joint aircraft development. Meanwhile, adoption of aircraft by another service after it's developed has met with modest success. It short, it seems that when the design team has to answer to many masters, they end up with a compromise that leaves no one ecstatic.
So, is trying to get one plane for three services a good idea? So far, the signs don't look great. However, if predictions about the F-35 are a bit uncertain, making a counterfactual prediction about three imaginary planes for the services downright delusional.
I suspect that at some point (perhaps in the not-too-distant future), the decision to go joint is going to be a lot more important and concrete than hypothetical alternate developmental program. Could a cyberattack end up shutting down everyone's aircraft because they were relying on some common software elements? Maybe. Could it pay dividends in power projection and coalition building? Maybe. It seems like the jury is still out on this, even if things maybe a bit shaky at present.
This idea of using one aircraft for three services is a very close mirror to another big complaint about the program: It's supposed to do everything so it does nothing well. The thesis here is that the F-35 is supposed to fill so many roles that it actually ends up sucking at all of them.
If we were comparing this aircraft to the level of specialization that the US had, let's say, in the 1940s, this might be a valid point. But the US has scooted away from that hyper-specialized approach these past several decades. The F-15, originally built as an air-superiority fighter, first upgraded its air-to-air capabilities in the F-15C, and then reemerged as the F-15E Strike Eagle, a true fighter-bomber. The F-16, for all the praise it gets as a dedicated dogfighter, is generally considered to be a multi-role aircraft, frequently used in a ground attack role. Then there's the Navy and Marine Corps F-18, which the two services are apparently trying to use for just about everything: It's a fighter, a bomber, an electronic attack plane, even a tanker. It's really only missing a pizza-delivery variant.
To be sure, the A-10, an infamous tank-killing beast, is one aircraft that has remained both fairly specialized and immune to easy replacement. The debate on whether the F-35 can really replace it as a plane that efficiently supports ground troops has been raging for years, but really deserves its own free-standing treatment.
But the jack-of-all-trades debate really gets down to a question of approach. If the problem is blowing up an enemy radar site or airfield, how do you kill that without getting killed yourself? Essentially, different aircraft want to have the same effect, but may not produce that effect the same way. You can get a pizza from delivery or heat up a frozen pizza in the oven. But you don't complain about the delivery folks making a bad frozen pizza or frozen pizza guys not coming to your house and making the pizza for you.
A critical component to that identity — almost a defining feature, really — is stealth. Many critics of the plane are quick point out that stealth isn't perfect and betting the farm on the F-35s stealth is a pretty risky proposition.
There's a good point here: stealth isn't invisibility, it's camouflage. In some instances, versus some old systems, it might as well be invisibility, but the point is that having sunk a huge amount of time and effort into it, China and Russia are getting better and better at cracking the stealth code. There's a lot of back and forth about how good the counter-stealth systems have gotten. But nobody in the public debate seems to have really rock-solid information on how much better they are.
But this is something that's been on the radar of planners for a while. Critics of the F-35 often argue that this negates the F-35's essential reason for being. But just as stealth doesn't promise actual invisibility, better radar or sensors won't be a perfect counter to stealth any time soon. It's like suggesting that everyone should have given up on submarines once sonar was invented. The prospect of sneaky aircraft came before stealth (with low-level flight, for instance) and will continue to be an area of interest as long as not being spotted means not getting shot at.
Which, more or less, brings us to a reasonable close on talking about whether or not the F-35 can deliver as promised. Is it the end-all, be-all flying machine? Nah. Hell, it doesn't even work right yet. But if and when they get all the kinks ironed out, and assuming that people aren't complete idiots about the plane's strengths and weaknesses, it might not be that bad after all. But it will certainly take a number of years for that question to start getting properly resolved.
No look at the F-35 would be complete without getting around to cost. Cost is the other huge area of concern with the program, and people active in the debate are pulling all manner of shenanigans, like conflating developmental costs and operating costs, and completely ignoring what all drives that. Alternately, others have a laser-like focus on the cost per jet, as if all the extensive R&D and testing somehow came for free in a box of cereal.
Through it all, the most passionate advocates and detractors seem to be unwilling to really grapple with the idea that when you buy 2,500 of any modern combat aircraft and run that fleet for a half century, there's no pricing option other than "staggering." You can't pretend that it's not going to be a huge amount.
When people talk about cost in this way, it's not really about absolute cost, but about opportunity cost. What will the Pentagon or even US government have to skip in order to foot the bill for a couple thousand jets? Sure, it's expensive. But more expensive than what? And that question of prioritization is so very, very subjective.
So, should the program managers all be strung from lampposts? Should everyone start panicking and prepare to begin sucking up to their new Chinese and Russian overlords? Nah. Don't get me wrong, the plane definitely has its issues, but it's a bit premature to crucify anyone for the performance of the product before it's actually ready for prime time (which it isn't). If I were the top guy responsible for this program, I'd probably sleep just fine, but be super jittery about any middle-of-the-night phone calls, because the program hasn't been absolved of all wrongdoing and any program this size lives under constant suspicion.
The bigger question of whether it's "worth it" or a boondoggle involves a different calculus and arrives at a different answer for each country, or even each user within a country. Given the fact that this program isn't out of the woods yet and that people will still be discovering new ways to employ the plane for years to come, I think the only thing I can say about cost is that it's still too early to tell. I think the plane already does a lot and has an immense amount of downstream potential. It's just a question of realizing that potential before naysayers can strangle it in the cradle. Until then, the F-35 is mostly a big ball of hypothetical benefits nestled in an even bigger cloud of things that have yet to fully unfold.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via Flickr