Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tomcat and F-35 Development

I noted the other day that the F-35C is slated to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2019 (history says that won’t happen!).  That lead me to take a quick look at the JSF developmental history.  The JSF developmental contract was issued in Nov 1996 with first flight occurring in Dec 2006.

In comparison, the F-14 Tomcat development effort began in 1968 with the issuance of a Request For Proposals.  A contract was awarded in Jan 1969 with first flight occurring in Dec 1970 and IOC in 1973.  The plane entered squadron service in 1974 with VF-1 and VF-2 aboard USS Enterprise.  The last Tomcat was finally retired in 2006.

Are you grasping the differences in developmental times?!

From program initiation, here are the elapsed times for the two programs.

First Flight:     F-14 = 2 yr,  F-35 = 10 yr
IOC:                F-14 = 4 yr,  F-35 = 23 yr

Are you kidding me??!  23 years to achieve F-35C IOC even assuming that the 2019 IOC date is met, which it won’t, versus 4 years for the Tomcat. 

In terms of technology, this plane will be pushing three decades old by the time it enters squadron service!  After three decades we were retiring the Tomcat.  After three decades, the F-35 will be just entering service.  Yikes!

F-14 Tomcat

I know someone is going to pound out a reply that the F-35 is far more complex and technically advanced.  Bilgewater!  The Tomcat was every bit as revolutionary and advanced for its day with variable geometry wings and the Phoenix missile system which allowed it to engage multiple targets simultaneously at long range.  Plus, the Tomcat development did not have the advantage of today’s powerful computer modeling and simulations or computer aided drafting and design.

I am continually blown away by the magnitude of the F-35 debacle.


  1. The author overlooks a lot of issues in his attempt to compare F-35 and F-14.

    The original F-14 requirement can be traced back to the failed TFX (F-111B) program – which actually started in the late-1950s. Navy leadership wasn’t happy with the F-111B (poor flight and carrier landing characteristics) and awarded Grumman a studies contract in mid-1966.

    The F-14A which IOC’d in 1974 was plagued with performance, maintenance and safety issues.
    - The swing wings were a maintenance nightmare.
    - The AIM-54 Phoenix missile never lived up to its performance expectations.
    - The TF30 engines was grossly underpowered leading to extremely poor dog-fighting characteristics.
    - Compressor stalls and turbine blade failures led to very high mishap rates.*

    The above problems with the F-14A weren’t corrected until the introduction of the F-14B (with the F110-GE400 engine), which didn’t occur until late 1987.

    My point in all of this is NOT to defend of F-35 - which is well and truly fouled up. I am simply pointing out that “four year to IOC” for the F-14 is a gross oversimplification.

    The F-14A was pushed rapidly into the fleet before it was ready. It wasn’t until the F-14B that the Navy got the fleet interceptor that they originally wanted and which we all remember fondly. That’s about 20 years.


    * My father-in-law was an F-4 RIO in the late 1970s, and told me that guys were literally getting out of the Navy rather than take orders to an F-14A squadron. F-14s were seen as death-traps.

    1. My brother worked at the Naval Air Development Center back in the '80's - they had a team working on the F-14 engine stall problem. IIRC they were working on a way for the good engine to throttle back ASAP so the plane wouldn't go into that death spin- but yeah- never really fixed- except when the F110 was introduced.

      Also- the F14 was Grumman taking the best of the F111B and using their naval experience to come up with something that could actually land on a ship. So maybe some of THAT development should be counted. I also believe that the Phoenix grew out of the F-108 fighter program and went back to the Canadian Arrow era.

  2. CNO, I'm here to pound out my reply that the F-35 program as a whole is far more complex and technically advanced than the F-14 program -- if we look at all relevant facets of each respective program.

    I will speculate that if we did a function point analysis of all facets of the overall F-14 development program, including development of its support infrastructure and including all technical and programmatic activities needed to initially field that airplane in a combat operations environment -- and if we did a comparable function point analysis for the F-35 program -- we would find that the F-35 program has somewhere between five and ten times the total end-to-end project workscope of the F-14 program.

    Back in 1996, when I was working for Boeing, I attended a presentation concerning the Joint Strike Fighter which described in some detail the very ambitious programmatic and technical performance objectives of the JSF program, including the objectives for automating its maintenance and operations support infrastructure.

    Those doing the presenting stated that ~2800+ of these JSFs were to be acquired by the United States at a targeted unit cost of 35 million per airframe, flyaway + R&D.

    I don't believe that anyone sitting in that room in 1996, including those doing the presenting, truly believed that a program this ambitious could be done for $35 million per airframe. But those were the figures that DOD's senior managers were expecting to hear, and who was going to tell them anything different?

    Eighteen years ago, after the presentation was concluded, I asked one of my compadres who had been sitting next to me, an expert in technical project risk management, what he thought off the top of his head the unit cost for the JSF would eventually be. His guess at the time was $80 million per airframe stated in 1996 dollars.

    If an F-35 Unit Cost Program Implosion Event (UCPIE) occurs, the unit cost figures will go well beyond what my colleague was predicting in 1996, stated in 1996 dollars.

    And when the lessons learned document is written for the F-35 program, there will not be a single lesson-learned on the list which hadn't been seen any number of times before in managing large-scale technical development projects.

    1. “”””I don't believe that anyone sitting in that room in 1996, including those doing the presenting, truly believed that a program this ambitious could be done for $35 million per airframe”’

      So the program was based on fraud and deceit from the beginning

      “”””But those were the figures that DOD's senior managers were expecting to hear, and who was going to tell them anything different? “”

      How about an honest person, or were they all fired?

  3. Scott, yeah, I figured you might jump to the defense of the JSF based on its complexity and you know what? - blogging hyperbole aside, I'd be willing to concede that the JSF was probably more complex if for no other reason than the fact that much of its technology was (and still is!) non-existent.

    Of course, the main takeaway is not the relative complexity of the two programs, it's the time from initiation to operational capability and the reason for the difference.

    The two programs offer an excellent case study of the merits of aiming just a bit lower on the tech scale. The Tomcat was evolutionary but technically achievable. The bits and pieces of required technology all largely existed and just needed to be assembled into a new function. The result was a significant advance in combat aviation that could be delivered in a very short period.

    By comparison, the key JSF technology was largely non-existent and it's taking decades to deliver, if it ever does. Had JSF aimed a bit lower it could have produced a Tomcat - an aircraft that still represented a significant combat aviation advancement and could have been delivered 20 years ago.

    What do you think?

    1. CNO, I think that if the F-35 program continues along its current path, it will eat USAF TACAIR along with much of the rest of the USAF before it's all done. It will also eat much of USN TACAIR, and much of the USN's operational budget, if it is allowed to.

      Three factors are/were paramount in DOD senior management's underestimation of the true scope of work needed to produce the JSF as it was originally envisioned: (1) the levels of automation being applied to all facets of combat operations and maintenance/support operations; (2) the numerous technical and performance tradeoff management issues being directly spawned by mixing an STOVL airframe with two CTOL airframes; (3) the number and complexity of the technical and administrative interactions which must occur among the various technical facets and the various programmatic facets of the JSF program, interactions spawned in large part by attempting to mix airframe types with very different mission sets, thus causing the total project scope of work and complexity to go exponential.

      Everything that has happened with the JSF program from 1996 onward was fully predictable from Day One; and was in fact fully predicted by people possessing the necessary background of experience needed to make those kinds of judgements.

      All of this was foreseen in the mid-1990s by those who built combat aircraft for a living, but DOD's senior managers decided to push forward with the JSF program anyway, regardless of its known and very predictable risks. As a designer of combat aircraft, either you went along with DOD management's decisions, or you found something else to do for a living.

      These very predictable risks are now being realized in a big, big way; but of course DOD senior management is still playing the same game it was playing eighteen years ago, and largely for for the same reasons -- most important among those reasons chasing unicorns in the service of effecting a massive transformation in America's airpower force structure.

      But to what purpose, ultimately?

    2. Scott, an excellent comment. The saddest part of this affair is not the failures but, rather, as you point out, the fact that it was all predictable. In fact, many, many people pointed out the problems all along the way. Military leadership had endless opportunities to recognize what so many of us saw and back out of the program before it became too big to terminate.

  4. An aircraft that is taking this long to come into service and isn't a massive quantum leap over everything else isn't worth it.

    In the F-14A example it might not have been the greatest of planes until the re-engining, and that was mostly politics, but it was in service and operational. With the F-35 they're building and buying jet that are literally mistakes that will have to be upgraded before they can be used.

    Question: who pays for the corrections? Is that included in the initial price or is that tacked on later?

    1. The re-engining wasn't really politics. The F-14A (with TF30) was grossly underpowered. It had a thrust-to-weight ratio of about 0.56. This compared poorly to both the F-15A (0.85) and F-16 (1.07).

      There were also lots of safety issues with compressor stalls (made famous in "Top Gun"). The F-14A was actually considered a very poor dogfighter and a bit of a deathtrap.

      As to who paid for it - that would be the taxpayer. Grumman gave the Navy exactly what they asked for with the F-14A.


    2. I'm sorry. I meant who was going to pay for the corrections to the F-35's that are being built now.

    3. There was a "60 Minutes" pieced on the JSF a couple weeks back.

      At one point, the general in charge of F-35 program (LTG Bogdon) was informed by his staff that Lockheed Martin had installed a part wrong and it was going to delay production.

      I was encouraged that the general essentially told his staff that the government wasn't going to pay for LM screw-ups and delays. Granted it could have just been showmanship for the camera.

      I really don't think performance of the JSF is the problem. For example: if the F-35C delivers to the specifications, it should be better than the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The real problem is that It's just too darn expensive for what it delivers.


    4. TF30 was always intended to be an interim engine, but funding to field an optimal powerplant was consistently pushed to the right, mainly to fund other priorities - I suppose it was felt that TF30 was "good enough" at the time. Eventually, the cost to operate/sustain F-14 proved too great, and it (and its premiere -D variant) was retired. So here we are with F-35, an aircraft that promised to be less than F/A-18, and turns out to be twice as expensive to acquire and operate, with a powerplant that will need to be replaced with a more efficient ADVENT engine a few years into IOC - to gain back range lost to weight growth and over optimistic assumptions. Who knew...

    5. Unknown, you're quite right about us having to pay twice for the F-35 as corrections, fixes, and modifications are back-fitted to the aircraft already produced. Sadly, this will continue on into the future. For example, the recently revealed severed bulkhead will entail some sort of rework to all the aircraft already produced. This is the concurrency issue that we've frequently discussed.

      I don't know the details of the contract but I'd assume that reworks that are not the fault of the manufacturer are solely the responsibility of the government. Other additional costs are generally shared between the manufacturer and government.

  5. The reasons why the F-35 is taking longer are many fold:\
    1. Software: This is the primary driver for development and testing time. The F-14 did not have any kind of data fusion, integrated avionics, etc. Once a part worked, it was put into the plane without the need to do major integration.

    2. Three F-35 versions: Self explanatory

    3. Rigorous testing procedures: Every aspect of every part and how it interacts with every other part is tested. They simply did not do that “back in the day”.

    4. Increased Safety: Everything is baby steps now as we are hyper safety conscious. We NEVER go supersonic in the first few flights anymore. Funny how many malign the F-35’s timeline yet ignore its stellar safety record, especially compared to the F-14 (1st plane crashed on second flight).

    5. It’s not a US phenomenon: Look at both the Rafale and Eurofighter (both of which are less complex than the F-35) and you will see that their development timelines were similar to the F-35.

    6. Fully functional at IOC: Taking a lesson from the F-22 program, on what not to do, the DoD/JPO required that IOC (Block 3) be fully functional, with all hardware included. They could have easily gone the route of the F-22 and gone IOC sooner without some of its avionics, EOTS, Full EODAS, etc, but could have also fallen prey to the “we’ll add it later” problem that the F-22 now has. How’s that F-22 HMDS, IRST, etc going? They also learned their lesson from the F-16 program. Instead of producing hundreds of pre-Multirole planes (pre block 30/32), they decided to declare IOC and FRP with Block 3.

    7. Final Hardware to IOC: Unlike the F-14, the F-35’s Block 3 hardware is fully complaint with the KPPs. The F135 meets spec and while a future ADVENT engine would be nice, it’s not required and certainly would not be here prior to 2020 (likely 2025 given budget issues). The plan from the beginning is to make incremental hardware upgrades (called Tech Refreshes) every-other Block Upgrade (odd numbered blocks ie 1/3/5). For example, TR1 went from single core processor cards to quad core cards. Details about TR2 (coming with Block 3i) are not known other than some basic info like “The hardware per aircraft includes new radar modules, new Integrated Core Processor modules and rack, and new electronic warfare modules.”

  6. As to the F-35. Yes, there are reasons. I guess I question whether the reasons justify a 20 odd year cycle. At the end of this will the stealth tech last another 5 years in the face of advancing radars that have been moving ahead while the JSF has been in development hell.

    For acquisition, I read this:

    They say that the Ship Characterstics and Improvement Board allowed the CNO to weigh in on issues and prevent scope creep and cut red tape.

    If this is so, what happened to this board? Coudl it be resurrected?

  7. Also, given the F-35's capabilities, what about the RAND report where they were beaten so badly. Is that completely bogus? In the back of my head I wonder if we'd be better off with a jet that is just 'really good' and some awesome missiles flown by our very well trained pilots, rather than things that resemble X-wings.

    Even with the X-35 our air wings don't have quite the range they used to. And with a2/d2 that makes them more vulnerable and less useful. IMHO

    1. The Rand Report was retracted and the author fired.

      “Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from the RAND Corporation were involved. Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft.”

    2. Jim, as a reminder, we covered the RAND report in a post a couple months back (see, RAND Air Combat Report. The short of it is that the report did not attempt an air combat modelling. It was just an exercise in numbers versus quality. There were some observations that related to the F-35 but no specific combat modelling.

    3. I've seen the slides from the wargame. Very poor analysis - was surprised it made it through RANDs peer-review process.

    4. Anon, I thought the analysis was very good given that it was a simple math exercise to look at quantity versus quality. What did you find wrong with it?

    5. CNO - yep, the analysis was done to show just how bad an air campaign would go for the US even if every missile had a p(k) of 1.0!


    6. You use the term campaign. This was far from campaign analysis.
      The scope and scenario were so narrow that the results are meaninglness.

      Mr. Stillion et al looked at air-to-air conflict in complete isolation -- perhaps as one should expect of fighter pilots. War doesn't tend to work that way.

      Taiwan has one of the most effective air defense systems in the world. Any Chinese aircraft venturing into the Strait are prime targets - particulary the non-stealthy variety. Yet the author completely ignored it. Same goes for the ROC Navy which has good AAW.

      The authors also completely ignored the ROC Air Force - which is equally modern and possesses something like 150 F-16s. One would think they might be involved in defense of Taiwan.

      The analysts essentially proved that the F-22 (or F-35) can't solve the entire air-defense problem by itself. Uh great. Except no one expects them to. Fighters are part of a layered defense. That's been the case since at least WW2.

      Clearly the authors cherry-picked a scenario in order to stir some buzz. And someone called them out on their bogus assumptions.


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