A recent comment to a post suggested that we continue procuring current aircraft and delay the F-35 until the technologies have been perfected. While that’s a better approach than continuing the F-35, it’s not the best. To take the discussion further, we need to ask, why is the F-35 failing? The answer is because we’ve tried to incorporate too many advanced, non-existent technologies into a brand new airframe all at the same time (for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to set aside the problems associated with trying to make a single airframe serve three diverse and almost mutually exclusive roles). As a result, we’ve spent two decades trying to develop the final product and there’s still no end in sight. Realistically, we’re probably looking at another decade of development and even then we may not (almost assuredly won’t) get all the promised capabilities. In the meantime, what do we have to show for it? Nothing. We’ve got an outrageously expensive F-35 airframe that can fly but without its myriad advanced technologies is a below average combat plane with hideously expensive maintenance and operating costs.
Interestingly, the statement of the problem also suggests a solution. What we should have done was engage in an evolutionary approach to the JSF development. We should have designed an initial version that incorporated a capable but basic set of characteristics – an airframe that would have had a reasonable degree of stealth, good but not stunning flight performance, a good set of off-the-shelf sensors, and room for the future additions and modifications that could be reasonably anticipated. This would have provided for an effective combat aircraft that could have begun serving two decades ago.
As research and development allowed, new technologies could have been incorporated into the production line and retrofitted to existing aircraft, if warranted. By not demanding all the technologies at once, we could have had success from the start. Now, there’s nothing new about this approach. It’s been used sporadically on various programs and, in fact, the LCS supporters have recently begun to claim that the LCS, virtually useless at the moment, was intended to be a spiral development program, exactly as we’ve just described. Of course, that’s after-the-fact utter nonsense that’s being spun to explain total failure. Still, the LCS modules have gone back to square one and are now attempting to produce a very basic version that can be enhanced over time – a case of a degree of wisdom being forced on an unwilling program by circumstances rather than foresight and planning. But, I digress …
So, consider the implications of the preceding discussion. We could have, and ought to, apply evolutionary development to the JSF program with the easier technologies incorporated at the outset and the more difficult ones incorporated over time while garnering the benefit of actual service from the aircraft and the benefit of real world experience to feed back into the design. Think about it. Does that approach sound vaguely familiar?
How about the F/A-18 Hornet program? The Hornet has progressed evolutionarily from the A/B models to C/D, then to the E/F Super Hornet, and now the manufacturer has built an Advanced Super Hornet with conformal fuel tanks, additional stealth, stealth weapon pods, etc. This is exactly the kind of evolutionary development that we said the F-35 should have done. In fact, if we devoted some effort to it, we could begin applying some of the JSF technologies, those that are mature, to the Hornet airframe, creating a Super Duper Advanced Hornet while still gaining the use of an effective combat aircraft while further R&D continues on the more difficult JSF technologies. In short, the Hornet family is currently doing exactly what the JSF should have!!!
If that’s the case, why did the Navy abandon the Hornet as a dead end and make the jump to an unproven new aircraft design based on largely non-existent technology? Well, aside from utter stupidity and incompetence by Navy leadership, as evidenced by a non-stop litany of poor decisions over the last few decades, I really don’t know. The Navy has bought in – hook, line, and sinker – to the concept of jumping generations of technology to produce wonder-machines in favor of solid engineering-based evolutionary development. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the failure of the generation-jumping approach, the Navy remains firmly wedded to the concept. Their fixation on shiny toys instead of solid tools is perplexing, to say the least.
In any event, how does all this help us in our current situation? As I said, the Hornet represents a viable and steadily evolving aircraft path. We can drop the JSF while applying its technologies to further enhance the Hornet as we continue to get immediate service out of a capable combat aircraft. There’s no reason the JSF’s magic, 360 degree sensors and futuristic helmet can’t be applied to the Hornet if they ever achieve full functionality. If the Advanced Super Hornet has insufficient stealth for its missions (and there is absolutely no Concept of Operations that says this is so that I’m aware of), more can be incorporated evolutionarily. If the JSF’s ultra-sophisticated self-aware maintenance program ever works, there’s no reason it can’t be incorporated into the Hornet. And so on. If we want to continue JSF development as a purely R&D effort, that’s fine, too. In the meantime, we’ll have a fully functional combat aircraft with known costs that are far below the F-35. Evolve the Hornet!