Friday, April 10, 2015

What's The Biggest Problem With The F-35? It's Not What You Think!

What’s the biggest problem with the F-35?  Well, it’s not what you think!

The F-35, like the LCS, has garnered a large amount of criticism for many reasons.  Range, speed, weapons payload, all aspect stealth, maneuverability, pure dogfighting capability, maintenance, and, of course, cost, have all been faulted. 

To be fair, there are good arguments to be made that each characteristic is flawed to a greater or lesser degree. 

To be even more fair, any aircraft is a compromise of capabilities.  An aircraft’s strengths or weaknesses depends on what it is being tasked to do.  Looking at each characteristic in isolation and comparing it to the achievable state of the art is unfair and unrealistic.

That said, the F-35 is a poor compromise for most of the missions it will be tasked with.  I’m not going to belabor the missions and aircraft characteristics.  That’s been done ad nauseam.   Instead, I’ll point out the biggest failing of the F-35.

The biggest failing of the F-35 is not any of its physical characteristics or even its cost.  No, the biggest failing is its time to operation. 

It has taken almost 20 years to get this far and we still don’t have operational aircraft.  With respect to the Marine’s delusional and fanatical obsession with IOC, which is just a PR spin event, the F-35 still won’t be operational when they finally declare IOC victory.  True operational status won’t be achieved for another 2-5 years, if that.  So, we’re looking at an aircraft that will be 20+ years old before its first operational use.  Most aircraft are at their prime and beginning to look at their downslope and replacement by that point.

Consider all the perceived shortcomings of the F-35.  Almost all of them can be attributed to the extreme amount of time it has taken to develop the aircraft.  Had the F-35 reached operational status 15 years ago, it would have been top of the line in stealth.  It’s range would have been adequate for the missions of that time.  Its weapons load would have been adequate for the time.  And so on.  In short, 15 years ago, it would have been a pretty good aircraft.  Remember, the Super Hornet only entered service in 1999 and the early 2000’s.  Had the F-35 been operational in the year 2000, the Super Hornet, and its subsequent comparisons to the F-35, probably wouldn’t have happened.

Fifteen years ago, the F-35 would have been well designed to meet the threats of that time.  With normal upgrades and improvements, it would still be relevant today, if starting to show its age and some limitations as the Chinese threat has evolved.

However, because of the extreme development time, the F-35 will be bordering on obsolete when it enters service.  Note, that when I say obsolete, I mean obsolete relative to what it was intended to be.  It was intended to be the world’s foremost strike fighter – an aircraft unmatched by any other in the world.  Now, in another 2-5 years when the F-35 enters service (we hope! – no guarantees with this aircraft) it will not be the world’s foremost strike fighter.  It will not be unmatched in the world.  Instead, it will, at best, be a competent aircraft, able to contribute to operations but hardly the dominant aircraft in the world.  And, it will be hugely expensive for just being competent!

You see?  Even the cost is a function of the extended development time.  The same cost, 15 years ago, might have been considered acceptable because it would have bought the best aircraft in the world.  Now, however, that cost is going to buy an aircraft that is only competent and that’s poor value for the money.

As we begin discussing the next generation aircraft, designers should take careful note of the F-35’s main failing and the lesson to be learned that a short development time is paramount.  It doesn’t matter how magnificent an aircraft’s design is on day one if you can’t field it before it becomes obsolete.

One last lesson for future designers – the main, indeed only, way to ensure a quick and achievable fielding time is to scale back the degree of magical, fantasy wish list, leap-ahead technology.  Designers should incorporate nothing into a design that can’t be guaranteed 100% achievable in five years time.  That would also greatly decrease cost. 

Development time should be pegged at five years – not a day beyond – from the first pencil on paper sketch to the delivery of a fully functional aircraft.  Any more than five years and the aircraft’s improvements are being squandered.

What was the F-35’s biggest failing?  Now you know.


  1. True. Sadly true. I think you have been reasonably fair there. ( unfortunatly as im quite sweet on the Lightning as in sure you know)

    I thing we could say a GOOD plane. A bit more than just compitant. But not FANTASTIC. I dont think.

    Already we are all thinking in terms of its upgrade path. New weapons and systems to try to make it GREAT. But by rights we shouldnt be - Well not just yet for a new spangly fighter bearly off the ground.

    Fair piece. I just hate you for it ;)


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. No one outside the program knows the real reason(s) why the program has been delayed so badly. That said, I don't think the commonality has been a major factor. The commonality has probably caused all three variants to be less effective and more costly than seperate versions but the delays have not been due to commonality. The -A and -C are not waiting on some commonality issue with the -B and vice versa. One could even make a reasonable argument that commonalilty has sped up the program by eliminating the need to mutliple, seperate designs.

      The major delay issue is the technology and the software, in particular. The centerpiece of the aircraft is the magic, 360 deg sensing coupled with the wizard's helmet. None of that was, or still is, ready. The secondary, major issue is the telepathic maintenance program which whispers secrets into the maintainer's ears and reduces maintenance costs to zero (or even turns a profit on each aircraft!). This was not ready on time and is still nowhere near ready. Beyond that, but related, are the myriad issues with weapons integration, comms, data links, etc. - all technology and software related but none dependent on some aspect of commonality.

      Commonality has caused issues but the delays are due to an exceedingly unwise overreach on the degree of technology insertion in the basic aircraft. We wanted Star Wars and we are finding out (to no one's surprise but the military) that Star Wars technology takes huge amounts of time. Blaming commonality for the delays is an attempt to pass off the basic flaw in the entire program (technology overreach) with a vague hand wave of an excuse instead of owning up to the problem.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. As I said, commonality led to a difficult, poor design but not to significant delays. Can you think of any instance of commonality that caused significant schedule slippage?

    4. "... F-35 variants had only 27-43% of parts in common ..."

      Then commonality isn't a problem !

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. So now you're claiming that the LACK of commonality is the reason for delays?

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. The CTOL/CV requirements were forced onto existing Joint developments that were ongoing (ASTOVL was progressing successfully) between the USMC and the UK by Lawmakers in Congress.

      It wasn't STOVL that was the afterthought...

  3. While you raised a very important fact about F35's design / production history as the biggest point of failure in F35 , i think (and many also think the same) the real problem (and the subsequent reason why the development got delayed for so long) is the because the unrealistic requirement , putting a navy ,airforce and marine jet which every single one have very different mission tasking and primary function.

    a lesson unlearned ? the Mc-Namara's cost cutting initiative in developing F111 should be a real lesson learned..

    I think the BIGGEST failure of F35 was in the design time , where they foolishly think a STOVL jet and a CTOL jet can be implemented in one airframe without penalty... Imagine for a second that USAF , USN , USMC want to make a great strike fighter from HARRIER airframe..

    Your conclusion , the long development time as culprit , is the product of that failed pipe-dream..

    1. You're exactly right. The F-111 should have been the guiding example for us but the lesson was ignored.

  4. A comparison from Wiki:

    "The F-14 first flew on 21 December 1970, just 22 months after Grumman was awarded the contract, and reached initial operational capability (IOC) in 1973."

    The other BS is that the Marines need to get the F-35B in service ASAP. Its Harriers average just 17 years in service and replacements are not needed until ~2030.

  5. Getting the F-35 into service 15 years ago would have required a radically different project from the beginning. The initial contract was signed in November 1996 and the X-35 first flew in October 2000, which wasn't so awful given the complexity of the aircraft and the start date.

    To get IOC 15 years ago, you need to avoid the prototypes and the fly-off stage, which took a year, and place a contract to build and produce an un-designed aircraft in 1995 or 1996.

    I really doubt that would have been realistic at the time.

    A more plausible aim would have been to get it into service in 2005, four years after the decision between the X-32 and X-35. Doing that would have required the Pentagon to decide before the fly-off to leave out some of the really fancy technologies and a lot of the software that goes with them, at a time when lots of radical information technology seemed to be being developed and the idea that some things were too hard really wasn't fashionable. That part is essentially legacy of the dot-com boom, which has continued to this day because military projects don't get killed for the same reasons as commercial ones: lobbying for them is much more powerful, and there aren't acceptable replacement products on the market.

    IOC in 2005 would also have required the X-32 and X-35 to be far more fully developed strike fighters, rather than technology demonstrators. That would have cost a lot more at the time, and the idea was to try to restrain the cost growth of military projects. So, again, it wouldn't have been realistic.

    1. How do you explain the F-14 timeline?

    2. That was a contract to build and produce a plane that hadn't been designed.

      I don't know all the politics of how that was managed, but the swing-wing technology and the engines already existed, and the radar and missiles were in an advanced stage of development. It was also a single-purpose aircraft, with only one service and no allies involved, which made things simpler, as did the limited amount of software involved.

    3. And you just described how to run a successful aircraft acquisition program: use existing or guaranteed achievable technology, focused design, reasonable scope, limited application (single service).

      The F-14 was advanced for its time with swing wing, new radar, multi-target engagement capability, and Phoenix missile yet it managed to reach service in a fraction of the time that today's aircraft do. We need to understand why and return to that model of acquisition.

    4. More complexity does take longer. The F-14 contract was signed in January 1969, and it was in service in September 1974, terribly slow compared to aircraft of WWII or the 1950s.

      Nowadays, it is dangerous to speak truth to the powerful, and very profitable to tell them they can have everything they want, with cherries on top. Much of the problem with US military procurement is with the politicians who get far too closely involved with it. How do you fix that?

    5. The politicians may be involved and guilty to the extent that they refuse to kill a military jobs program but they certainly weren't the ones who designed the F-35 and decided it would have non-existent, unachievable technology. That was purely the military. Even now, if the military were to recommend to Congress that the F-35 be terminated, they'd probably go along. A third of Congress wants to kill it anyway (the budget hawks and Tea Party), a third doesn't care one way or the other and would go along with a military recommendation, and a third want the jobs and fight to keep it although they could be swayed with the offer of a replacement program.

      Beyond not taking the lead in killing the F-35, Congress is not responsible for the poor design, the delays, or the massive cost overruns.

    6. "More complexity does take longer."

      John, you're missing the key point. You're right that complexity takes time to develop but you're missing the point that complexity and development don't belong in a PRODUCTION program - they belong in a RESEARCH program where they can take as long as they need.

      It's idiotic to commit to a production aircraft that needs a 360 deg sensor fusion with a magic helmet, neither of which exist. You don't commit to production of non-existent technology - not if you want the program to succeed.

      We need to leave non-existent technology in R&D programs until they're ready.

    7. "360 deg sensor fusion with a magic helmet, neither of which exist"

      If someone would tell you that you would have cameras, video, music, GPS and another 100 gadgets into you phone , 20 years ago would you believed him ?

      The F-35 is a complex project in a time where non of the other US strategic opponents do not pose an imminent threat .
      Witch is good for military complex racketeers

  6. Ok, lets look at a future 10 year realistic time frame into the future, and see what stealth jets the other strategic global players will have at 2025?

    Russia most optimistic 80 or 100 jets of what the T-50 PAK-FA has become.

    China 80 or 100 jets of what the J-20 will become

    India 50 + of they're export version of the PAK-FA.

    Keep in mind that by 2025 those will be the only countries that operate high performance stealth aircraft that are able to challenge the F-22.

    So the question to ask is, at what time will the US terminate F-35 production, my guess is , that the USAF will take between 600-800 F-35s.

    The real question is , at what time does the USAF get serious about a F-22 and F-35 replacement , my guess after 2020.

    1. They're gonna build the F-35 into serial production, but at what time will they terminate production that is the real question.

      Will it be the next F-105 or the next F-4?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I think part of our issue ties in with something CNO said a long time ago. We don't have a national strategy.

      During the cold war it was easier to define because we knew that for the Air Force we needed fighters that could go toe to toe against what the Soviets had, in Europe and a few other places, enjoying technical superiority with things like AWACS but suffering from numerical inferiority. All of those things help define stuff like 'How fast? How manueverable? What weapons? and How much endurance?"

      Similarly with the Tomcat or the original F/A-18. We knew what we wanted our Carriers to do, and where we wanted them to do it. We knew what the Soviets and the Warsaw pact could bring to the table, and so we knew we developed tactics that fit our strategy, and machines that gave us a chance to execute the tactics.

      Now we have a 'Pacific Pivot' against 'Pacific threats'. We half engage/confront Russia. I'm not complaining about politics, but just saying that because the world is more multi-polar and more confused we kind of flail.

      To me, if we are going to pivot to the Pacific, then the Navy needs to think of the biggest fish out there as our competitor. To me that means China. It also means we have to think up likely scenarios in which we'd possibly fight china. Are we ever going to attack the Chinese mainland? I doubt it. I hope to God not.

      However, we may, for example, well have to support Taiwan or Japan or Korea by offering the plausible ability to interdict a Chinese Naval assault. To do that we may well have to get Carriers close enough for their air wings to do any good; and have weapons that can sink things reliably.

      We aren't there now. Our ASW is lacking. Our air wings are lacking in size and hurt further by a lack of integrated tanking. Our fighters, be it the SH or F-35, may well have a very hard time against alot of Chinese fighters.

      My thought is that we should start with a design goal that gives us the ability to deal with the 'big fish'.

      To a certain extent, the F-35 seems to have started out to be more of a (poor) answer to 'How can we save money across the board through commonality' not 'What missions do we need to accomplish and how do we get there?'

  7. The problem with the F-35 can be explained by one thing, PERFECTIONISM, from the very start this program has suffer from the search for a perfect attack fighter. There was the search for the perfect specification for a fighter to serve all three services. There was the competition to select the perfect design for program prototypes. There was then the decades spent trying to perfect that perfect design, And finally there the wait for the all the fancy electronics to perform perfectly.

    There is a famous saying "The perfect is the enemy of the good enough." and the F-35s are the perfect example of it.

  8. The issue is more severe than that really. The issue is that even with the existing problems solved, the fighter is simply not a good air to air fighter.

    I have become more and more a believer of what the Defense Reformers and the "Fighter Mafia" faction have said about good fighter design.

    - Must be cheap and expendable enough
    - Must have low flight to maintenance ratios

    - Good quality gun (read: high burst fire)
    - Very agile air frame (low wing loading, leading edge delta would be best, good thrust to weight, etc)

    - High fuel fraction and low drag (use the Breguet Range Equation for this)
    - Quality passive sensors (not active)

    There seems to be an obsessive love of technology for the sake of technology in designing aircraft - only explanation is that it's to enrich the defense industry.

    1. Your first point, cheap, is the key one and it is the first to be abandoned every time we design a new aircraft, unfortunately.

    2. I think that is likely that all 3 variants will likely end up well over $200 million USD/copy, perhaps even $300 million USD a copy if the historical record is anything to go by.

      Ideal aircraft would look closer to the Dassault Rafale or a smaller, single engine version with a higher fuel fraction. The leading edge delta design makes it a good air to air fighter.

      The problem with current aircraft is that they are totally dependent on technology, they emphasize multirole (jack of all trades is the master of none), and they are too dominated by defense contractors.

      Equally worth noting is that the main justification for the F-35, the Su-27 variants, most notably the Su-35 and as of late the PAK FA, are closer to good fighters.

      They are very long range fighters (designed for patrolling Siberia during the Cold War) so higher fuel fraction (>0.35 and some variants of the Su-35 are as high as 0.42), very maneuverable for their size, and their airframes are well designed.

      Their key weakness is their size (which was deliberately designed that way for long range but size is a weak point) and the fact that Russian avionics is not up to Western standards, although they have made relative gains. I suppose independent of the fighter and airframe design itself, another issue is that Russia's finances mean that maintenance is not what it should be.

  9. Chris here. Not sure if my earlier comment published, but just in case, reposting.

    Actually there are other problems. You wrote about them in your missile load-out and gun posts.

    If it means anything to you as well, a Russian Su-35 can carry up to 12 missiles. Typically, Russians use a variety of missiles (mixture of IR and Radar) to try to overwhelm countermeasures.

    The stealthy PAK FA will likely have a lower missile load, but likely larger than the JSF.

    The other is the quality of the missiles. That's not a constant as well. That and of course, over time, countermeasures can get better too.

    If you want more details:

    I do not agree with everything on that website (especially the extremely pro-F-22 sentiment, but that article on missiles is very well written).

    The problem you did not address though was even with a gun (or the gun pod), you still have the issue of maneuvering the aircraft in a dogfight to get a clear shot at the enemy.

    If the JSF does find itself in a dogfight, then you've got other problems. To get a clear shot, the JSF has a large draggy airframe. The Su-27, although larger than ideal, is quite agile for it's size (apparently it is a favorite at airshows).


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.