Lockheed's F-35 joint strike fighter is one for the books. In fact there'll be several books written examining how it was conceived, developed, built and sold and they'll be studied in aviation circles for generations to come.
To call the F-35 counter-intuitive is a massive understatement. It's what you might expect of a George w. Bush and Dick Cheney love child. One quick mistake in the middle of a boozy night and the rest took care of itself.
The idea was to build a new ground attack light bomber that would be not one but two generations ahead of anything else flying. It was supposed to be so advanced that it would take America's potential adversaries (can you say China and Russia?) decades to catch up, ensuring America's air superiority far into the future. That was the idea. From there pretty much everything went very, very wrong.
To rush the world dominating F-35 into service, they would put it into production while it still had years of testing ahead of it. It would be coming off the assembly lines and into customer's hangars while the Lockheed/US Air Force team were trying to find and fix whatever was wrong with it. Here's the thing. What is this now, 2015? That testing isn't scheduled to be completed until 2019 at the earliest. In other words, you build it. You sell it. You eventually figure out what's wrong with it and then hope you can fix it. Imagine walking into some car dealership, pointing to the shiny red thing on the showroom floor and asking the sales guy "what's wrong with this model" only to have him reply "we really don't know yet. We think it's mainly going to be the engine and the steering and the brakes. Oh yeah, there's also that fire thing." It's such a curious approach that the Pentagon boss who took over monitoring the project coined a special term for it, "acquisition malpractice."
With something this screwed up from the outset, it didn't take long for politics to creep into the F-35 programme. This is one very political airplane, right up there with Canada's Avro Arrow, only in this case the political wheel of fortune is working to keep the airplane alive.
Two numbers you have to keep in your mind - 22 and 35. The F-22 Raptor is Lockheed's stealth super-fighter. It's the one that the White House decided that even America's closest allies could never have. The US Air Force was supposed to get about 800 of them but the Obama administration shut down the project at about 178. Now think of that from Lockheed's point of view. They developed it and got it into production assuming they would recoup their costs with a tidy profit over a run of 800 airframes. Suddenly the customer, who won't let you sell it to anyone else, says, "I've thought it over and 178 will be plenty so just shut it down." Talk about being left hanging.
But Lockheed had a backup airplane that could save the day, the F-35. The Pentagon was looking to buy a couple of thousand of those and there would be several hundred more flogged to America's allies from Italy to South Korea. Salvation. With that, the F-35 became the biggest and costliest military package in American history.
Unfortunately the F-35 dream turned into a nightmare. Development problems kept popping up, costs soared and the testing/delivery schedule fell several years behind. Those foreign customers got nervous, very nervous. Let's just say that Lockheed, the Pentagon and the White House had their hands full keeping the international market from collapsing.
One thing the foreign customers wanted to know was if they bought the F-35 what else would they have to buy? The F-35 might be okay at dropping bombs in someone else's back yard but how were they going to defend their own airspace? With that, the light strike bomber morphed into an air superiority fighter. Lockheed went to great lengths to tout the F-35 as superior in all respects, including air combat, over the F-15/F-16/F-18/Mig-29/Sukhoi-27 legacy fighters. There were some who coughed "bullshit" into their hands but Lockheed insisted their stealth bomber fighter could take on all comers.
Which is why Lockheed can't be very happy about the leak of an in-house test report
showing that, in the furball of air combat, the F-35 is, as critics have long claimed, a dud.A Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was outperformed in the type’s first basic fighter maneuvering exercise by a 20-plus-year-old F-16 fighter, according to a leaked Lockheed Martin report prepared by the pilot who flew the mission.
Inferior energy maneuverability (EM), a limited pitch rate and flying qualities that were “not intuitive or favorable” in a major part of the air-combat regime gave the F-16 the tactical advantage and allowed its pilot to get into both missile-launch and gun parameters over the F-35. Another drawback was that the large helmet and F-35 canopy design restricted the pilot’s rearward view.
"You got a bogey on your six." "Okay, what is it?" "Hard to tell, could be just about anybody. Don't worry, it'll all be over soon."
The report confirms the critics' "over/under" description of the F-35 - overdue, over priced and under performing.
The manufacturer and the US Air Force admit the report is genuine but say that, thanks to the F-35's on-board electronic wizardry, it doesn't matter. The F-35 will shoot down the enemy before it ever has to get into the turn and burn stuff. Sort of like saying "sure, there's a wheel missing but aren't those seats just gorgeous?"
The fact is that Lockheed said their plane could at least outperform those 20-year older fighters and it can't. Once again Lockheed's credibility is in the toilet and still they expect everybody not to notice the smell. What else are they claiming that is stretching the truth? If you ask the critics, well they've got a list.
An F-35 pilot would be damned lucky if all he had to go up against was some vintage F-16 or F-18. He's more likely to find himself trying to survive an encounter with some Russian or Chinese super-fighter specifically designed and equipped to defeat the F-35 by exploiting its many vulnerabilities.
The years of delay in developing the F-35 have been a gift to its intended adversaries and they've made the most of it. For starters, it's no longer invisible. That stealth advantage, for which the F-35 sacrifices speed, range, payload and agility, has been largely negated by new, multi-sensor technology that can detect, track and target the F-35 at long distances. Worse yet, the other guys now have their own stealth fighters in development aided by generous, unauthorized access to American stealth technology secrets. Memo to Lockheed: If you think you're onto something really, really good, try to keep it to yourself.
For Canada, which was planning to blow the budget to acquire a paltry fleet of just 60 F-35s, the leaked Lockheed test results should be enough to at least demand a real flying competition pitting the F-35 against its competitors. We've been put on notice that the F-35's pitchmen aren't all that reliable. We need to find out for ourselves what this thing actually will and what it won't do by inviting all the warplanes to Cold Lake for competitive trials under realistic combat conditions.