Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Upgrade Versus New Design Example

Many discussions about aircraft, in general, and the F-35, in particular, wind up debating the merits of upgrades to existing aircraft versus new designs.  People wind up throwing around claims, for and against each option, with little data or facts to back them up.

For example, here’s a collection of reasons why we “can’t” upgrade existing aircraft.

  • It would take just as long to do a major upgrade as to design a new aircraft.
  • Upgrades won’t be as effective as a new design.
  • It would cost as much to do an upgrade as a new design, if not more.
  • We need to do new designs to support the industrial base.

What data is there that supports or refutes upgrades versus new designs?  Well, there’s not a lot of directly comparable data and what there is, is often subject to interpretation.  There is, however, one directly comparable, contemporary case study for us to look at:  the F-18 upgrade from the Hornet to the Super Hornet versus the new design F-35.

For starters, both actually happened and they occurred at about the same time.  Here’s a quick review of the chronology.

Super Hornet F-35
Contract Award 1992 1996
First Flight 1995 2006
Low Rate Production 1997 2007
Full Production 1997 waiting
Entered Fleet 2000 waiting

The Super Hornet entered the fleet 8 years from contract award and has been serving on the front line of carrier aviation for the subsequent 16 years. 

In contrast, after 8 years, the F-35 was still a couple of years away from its first flight and has yet to enter the fleet, 20 years after contract award!  It’s 20 years since contract award and we have yet to get any service from the F-35.

During those 20 years, and counting, the Hornet has evolved, gained capabilities, provided actual service, and an even more advanced design, the Advanced Super Hornet, has been developed by the manufacturer without cost to the taxpayer.  Even better, the Hornet accomplished all this at a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of the F-35. 

In short, the Hornet has dropped bombs in combat.  The F-35 has simply bombed.

What is it that we’re waiting for from the F-35 that is supposed to make it so special?  Apparently, it’s the 360 degree sensing.  Had that been implemented and in operation 15 years ago, it might well have been special for that time.  Today, though, retrofits, add-ons, and pods are providing every aircraft with that capability to greater or lesser degrees.  In fact, the F-35’s EO/IR sensing is now considered to be behind the technology curve and will be solidly mediocre by the time the aircraft enters service in another five years or so (if then!).  This is what happens when a design, however good, takes 20-25 years to implement.  What was cutting edge technology when the design was first envisioned becomes pedestrian over [extended] developmental time.

What will be the result of the F-35 program when it eventually enters service?  The result will be an aircraft that is behind the technology curve, is matched or exceeded by enemy aircraft, is an ill fit for the intended mission (for the Navy, at any rate), and is rapidly approaching obsolescence.  The Navy is already looking for alternatives and the Air Force is already pushing the next generation aircraft. 

The F-35’s time came and went while it languished in development.

This is a clear case of the upgrade having proven to be the far superior path.  The latest Super Hornet provides 80% or so of the F-35’s theoretical capabilities and it’s been in service for 16 years.  I’d much rather have 80%, in service for 16 years than 100%, in service for zero years.

We talk about perfect being the enemy of good enough.  These two aircraft make up the poster for that saying.

This also illustrates quite clearly the wisdom of restricting non-existent technology development to the R&D realm.  Had we concentrated on the Super Hornet upgrade path and restricted the F-35 to R&D, we would have saved enormous sums of money, had an even more functional Super Hornet, and still could have had the F-35 if it ever pans out or we would have been willing to cancel the F-35 because it would have been just another R&D program that didn’t work out rather than a world wide jobs program that became too big to fail.

This kind of common sense wisdom is painfully obvious to most of us and it really speaks poorly of Navy leadership who not only made bad decisions but, unbelievably, continue to make the same bad decisions over and over again, in the face of all evidence that the decisions are wrong, regarding concurrency in production and the dependence on non-existent technology as the foundation of a production program.  Navy leadership is proving, on a daily basis, that they are truly incompetent on a scale that defies belief.


  1. The M4 Sherman is a excellent example of upgrading. Started life a 75mm gun, easily manufactured tank. Saw service for over 40 years, thru multiple upgardes, including a 105mm version that defeated the M48.

    Theres pros and cons, but heres the pros if sticking with lets say a ship hull while upgrading components over time.
    -Efficiency: We become efficient over time constantly making one thing, which manifests itself in savings and quality.
    -Maintance: We would have to train less specialized operators and mechanics, to maintain the hull, engine, etc. Imroving logistical support is a plus.
    -Upgrades: Could be implemented piecemeal or fleet wide, dependent on the nature of the upgrade. Also if the upgrade fails, we could easily go back to a proven technology.

    The cons are hull life and hull limitations, which really aren't the problems they once were. We constantly are have systems miniaturization to improve size already, thus most systems could be adapted to existing designs quicker.

    1. US tankers in the summer of '44 might object to characterizing the M-4 Sherman as an excellent example of anything.

    2. The claim is that the Sherman was an excellent example of an upgrade. It was, clearly. Whether those upgrades were effective is another issue.

    3. The thing is, the Sherman compared well to the main German tank, the Panzer IV.

      It is important to remember than only a handful of German tanks were Tiger tanks or the even more rare Tiger II tanks. Even the medium Panther was plagued by reliability issues.

      Compared to the Panzer IV, the Sherman had a better turret traverse (more likely to get the first shot off), could be used as indirect artillery, and perhaps most importantly, was more reliable.

      If you were to compare an M4A3E2 Jumbo or a British Sherman Firefly, it would be no contest at all. Sherman wins.

      Ironically in the case of the Tiger tanks, often had to be blown up by their own crews due to mechanical failures or lack of fuel, to prevent them from being captured, versus outright being destroyed in combat.

    4. Excellent video talking about the myths of the Shermans and WW2 tanks in general.

    5. U.S. tanks from M4, to M47, to M48, to M60 represent an evolution; similar to the the evolution of USN heavy cruisers, and the F-18 design even though there were changes in armament, engines, and so forth.

      Much of the problem with many weapon systems is trying to integrate too many major new (unknown/unproven) critical systems, and not allowing for sufficient testing.

      There is such a thing as technology or engineering maturity - sometimes an idea works, but the costs, reliability and other factors do not justify production. Think of a PC built with vacuum tubes.


  2. The SH and the ASH are options the Navy needed yesterday. It can no longer wait for promises that the Lightning II will be ready for combat 'soon'. Never mind the fact that no one can tell me how stealth aircraft launched of 4 acres ships doing 30+ knots is necessary for the USN.

    It's clear that the F-35 real failure is that it tried to be everything for the Navy USAF and USMC. classic reach exceeding grasp scenario. That doesn't mean the aircraft can't be redeemed, but it needs to go back to the drawing board. Cancel the F-35C and give LockMart 5 years to get the A&B versions to IOC. I'd cancel the VSTOL version if not for the fact the the UK went with the short take carrier instead of CATOBAR.

    1. "Never mind the fact that no one can tell me how stealth aircraft launched of 4 acres ships doing 30+ knots is necessary for the USN."

      Jay, you've been reading this blog for some time so you know the answer to what carriers and carrier aircraft are needed for.

  3. You cant be claiming that you could stealth upgrade the F18 surly ?

    Some thing just arn't on the upgrade path.

    However yes many of the F35 systems would have been better test bedded on other platforms earlier. I assume its the old "conspiracy of optimism" thing again.

    Sensor fusion of course means you have a plane now where every system is fused into one. This does make test bedding individual system more difficult.

    However it would have been better with hindsight, given all the time we had on our hands, to fly systems individually and then fuse.

    ALIS is a prime example, that could have been in limited development for the F18E\F and then expanded to the F35ABC. That path would have undoubtedly been better.


    1. Of course you can upgrade stealth. The change upgrade from F-18 to SH included shape changes to improve the stealth of the aircraft. For the most obvious stealth change, compare the shape of the two engine inlets which are radically different. The original is oval and the upgrade is rectangular. That supposedly produced a significant improvement in stealth. The Advanced SH, which would be the next step, contains additional stealth enhancements.

      That said, it's probably not possible to produce an ultimate stealth aircraft from a non-stealth aircraft. However, the point of the post was that upgrading could give us 80% of our ultimate need and be actually achievable versus a new design that's never ready.

      They started at the same time and the SH has given us many years of service while the F-35 is still not operational after 20 years of development. The choice is between 80% and 0%. The choice seems obvious.

    2. "Sensor fusion of course means you have a plane now where every system is fused into one. This does make test bedding individual system more difficult."

      Horse droppings! Take the sensors (mainly IR) and place them on a Cessna while you work out the sensor fusion programming and magic helmet. The airframe doesn't matter in the least.

      Have you read up on the sensor fusing? It really isn't that complex in concept or hardware. It's the software that's proven impossible, thus far, and that's independent of the airframe.

    3. Let’s not get tied up on the idea of stealth F18. I’m not sure that’s going anywhere.

      Obviously your maths is implacable in terms of X % of anything is better than 0 % of anything else. Well done ;)

      The detail of the sensor fusion ( and I’m not saying a lot of preliminary work could have been “Cessna’d” ) is that it’s a bit all or nothing.

      It is truly fusing many sensors, not just the many IR sensors, but also many daylight TV, the AESA and all the navigational and off board sensors from other F35’s.

      The tactical significance is the Gestalt. That really is the point.

      Simply tying these systems to one output screen is nothing, we have done that before, it’s fusing them to acquire additional advantage and additional capability. And unfortunately until you have all the hardware together and flying you can’t see the gestalt.

      Obviously we have seen the recent problems with sensor overload leading to periodic shutdowns of F35A in IOC trials for the USAF.

      And the continuing issue where we can only fuse 2 F35, not the 4 that is so critically required for its hunting formation. ( why ? we don’t even know. because so much of the information on F35 is not public domain, and what I can find is fairly revolutionary CONOPS )

      Having said all that, I have to agree with one of your other posters. There is a lot of politics in this.

      Many technologies in F35 are now surpassed. And by F35 PARTNER ( NATO ) nations, should we not have taken the best current tech from the right partners?


  4. The points raised are fair enough but in this case that would mean abandoning Marine Air and neutering the aviation potential of the UK, Spain, Italy, Australia etc who need a V/STOL or at least are potentially capable of operating them. If you were comparing F-15s and F-22s I'd be with you 100%.

    1. You've completely missed the points, direct and implied, of the post. The direct point was a simple comparison case study which irrefutably proved the common sense conclusion that upgrades are quicker and more effective than new designs.

      The indirect points were

      We could have had an even more effective and advanced Super Hornet by now if we had committed to that path. Quite likely, such an advanced Hornet would rival or surpass the F-35 AND BE IN SERVICE NOW!

      If other countries make equally poor procurement decisons, that's not our problem. Tough luck.

      Technology becomes obsolete quicker than a new design's development cycle. New designs, as they are currently executed, are a losing proposition.

      The most effective way to implement new technology is via upgrades. It gets the tech into service immediately, without having to wait for the accompanying airframe to enter service.

      Had we gone the Hornet upgrade path, fully, we could have given the Marines a customized Hornet for whatever they think they needed. VSTOL is ineffective and inefficient, at best.

    2. I didn't miss the points, I'm just arguing that the real world is more complex. Planes aren't just designed for combat potential. Your theory is correct as far as it goes but consider the following points (in a different thread at a later date if you feel this strays off topic) :

      1. Marines can't operate ASH off an Amphib - Ok, build more LPDs and perhaps put some more carriers in service to compensate.
      2. Most allies can't use ASH off ships and with the US with less carriers and less aircraft aboard, allied capability is becoming more important.
      3. ASH is probably a better bet than F-35 right now but you'll still need a new airframe at some point so you're just pushing the problem down the road.
      4. Most of F-35 isn't really that new - it just looks like it. These technologies are incremental, just slightly bigger increments or repackaging. The engine still sucks in air and blows hot air out the back, the airframe still has fuselage, wings and a tail, the software still fires off missiles. Even the stealth isn't that innovative.
      5. The airframe isn't that key, it's the systems, primarily the software. Sooner or later, the old programming language becomes unfeasible and it all has to be re-written - this is where a large chunk of the (non-politics) cost and delay happens. The systems are often tested on different testbed airframes first and can be semi-detached from the development as you suggest.
      6. How many jobs and votes does a 'new' aircraft get versus an upgrade? And politicians are in charge. Think yourself lucky we got E/F model Hornets!

    3. Cancel the F-35B? "Not our problem, tough luck" is sometimes something you can get away with. In this case, there may be a couple of problems.

      One: I don't know what the contracts for supplying the British and the Italians with F-35Bs said, but I doubt if there were clauses to the effect that Lockheed Martin reserve the right to walk away from the agreements whenever they feel like it, without incurring any penalty.

      Two: there are 14 subcontractors in the UK and 31 in Italy, working on the weapons air release compressor, engine monitoring equipment, ejection seats, wheels, advanced rail launcher, turbine blades, radio frequency components, and protective headsets.

      Now, you might argue that no US court will award damages to a European plaintiff suing a major US company, and that there are many US companies that could, given time, take over the subcontractors work. But all the same, I would expect problems.

      Not that your main argument, that incremental improvement can be better than a leap into the blue, is not often valid, and the F35 does look like a cleat example of that.

    4. "I don't know what the contracts for supplying the British and the Italians with F-35Bs said, but I doubt if there were clauses to the effect that Lockheed Martin reserve the right to walk away from the agreements whenever they feel like it, without incurring any penalty."

      I might be inclined to agree with you except that there are no actual contracts, apparently. For example, Canada has apparently decided not to purchase the F-35's they originally committed to. Ergo, I conclude that there was no actual contract.

      Several countries have already reduced their buys (if, indeed, they actually buy any) including the UK (I think) which, again, indicates that there are not actual purchase agreements.

      The evidence would indicate that there are no contracts and, yes, any country can walk away without penalty and, conversely, the manufacturer could also walk away. Hey, the manufacturer is years late on delivery and there are no penalties.

      In short, there is no contract until the purchasing country actual signs a specific purchase agreement which few have done, as yet.

    5. The same premise applies to subcontractors, presumably. None have been contracted for, say, 2500 ejection seats. At most, they've been contracted for the number of seats needed to fill actual purchase contracts. If no more purchase contracts occur, the subs will simply not receive any more contracts. There is nothing to sue about.

    6. Section XIX of the MOU would give the US a substantial liability in the event it withdrew from the programme - arguably (and very simplified) it would pay the additional costs the other nations would incur.

    7. Section 17.5 states that any participant may withdraw upon 90 days written notice. There are several versions of the MOU that appear to cover various aspects of the program. You might want to check which version you're looking at.

    8. Indeed, but you need to look at the other clauses and see what the liability is at each stage of the program. At this point, see above. If a participant had pulled out early on, the liability is much less. This is a normal contract term for these agreements but it only really hits the USA hard because it is funding the bulk of the program and right now is about peak liability. Even were the liability to be zero, the US walking away at this point would destroy future trust in international programs and that alone would be a strong disincentive.

    9. Two other points. The European partners have agreed to provide several billion dollars towards the F35B. If the US then do not provide it and announce not our problem, tough luck, what becomes of that funding?

      Also: I'm not sure CNOps has entirely grasped my point about subcontracting. If items like ejector seats were to be provided for the A/B/C versions, and European partners only wanted the B, then if the US announces you wanted the B but there ain't going to be no B, not our problem, and you won't get your money back, tough luck, suckers; then the chances of these components being willingly provided are not good.

      Which still leaves the basic point about incremental improvement untouched.

    10. I think that, technically, the European funding is for the F-35 program as a whole so withdrawal of one version would not result in a refund but the Europeans would probably have a claim for the additional funds needed to finalise the F-35B development. Obviously at that point a deal might well be cut - it would probably be cheaper for the US to fund conversion of the UK carriers to cats and traps and give the US Marines C models instead. There's room on the carriers to compensate for numbers or maybe they'd get Osprey gunships. No-one else has ordered B models yet.

    11. It's clear from the MOU that there is no significant liability for termination. That's the end of that discussion.

      Regarding any other consequences of ending F-35 production, the US military does not exist to fund or supply other countries with military hardware. We may do it from time to time if it furthers our own interests. If it does not, we should be acting in our own best interest.

      Let's be honest. Other than the UK and, possibly, Japan, no other country is ever going to contribute any significant military force to any conflict the US may become involved in. Whether Denmark or Italy or whoever has ten or twenty F-35s will have absolutely no bearing on any conflict the US may engage in. We've looked for allies before and found them lacking in both number and commitment.

      The US needs to do what's best for the US and the UK needs to make better decisions and start prioritizing defense over social programs.

    12. You are incorrect on your interpretation of the MOU - see 19.4.3. It is also foolish to discount allies when the US military is in sharp decline and a serious potential rival is on the rise - the allies don't just have a few F-35s, they also have large armies and significant quantities of other aircraft, ships etc. Don't drive the UK into the arms of the French who are already unfriendly towards the US. Isolation has never worked well for the USA.

    13. I would be perfectly fine with neutering USMC aviation in favor of giving the Corps aircraft specifically design to support amphibious operations.

      That requirement looks a lot like more like an SU-25 than any fighter aircraft.

      The Marines needed F-14s back in the day, as much as the USAF could have used M-1 tanks...


    14. I think you might be looking at this a bit backward.

      As you know the F22 program and B1 were just hideous in terms of cost per unit. And in that sense provided so few units as to be tactically limiting.

      F35 R&D similar. Producing just a “F35C” type plane just for the navy with these kinds of capabilities for those numbers is just undoable.

      A joint program and partners were NOT an option here, they are a necessity.

      The US doesn’t sell its warplanes to NATO countries through the goodness of its heart. LOL. It has always done it to make profit and gain control. However nowadays its gone further, it can only fund the R&D by making all branches of the US military a customer AND drag in other nations to fund the R&D up front.

      It’s the most expensive military procurement program ever BY DESIGN.

      No prospective enemy single or allied can match the funding. The likely hood of a fighter being available to surpass F35 in the future resides squarely on a nation’s ability to fund it. And that looks increasingly unlikely.

      P.S. the UK has confirmed it continued maximum buy just last year. As a tier one partner we only get our R&D cash back if the rest of the world purchases. However as we have fingers in Typhoon and Grippen. Unless you buy Mig or Rafael ( unlikely ). I’m not sure we care too much what NATO buys. We pretty much just cornered the market.

      Also QE Class was purpose designed 15 years ago for F35B the RAF has rejected moves to equip then with F35A and F35C, we have no interest in cats and traps. Our ConOps on this subject are totally different. For us the F35 works out brilliantly as we see it as little more than a Harrier replacement.


    15. Hmm seems UK just moved its buy UP by 3 years sooner.


    16. "Producing just a “F35C” type plane just for the navy with these kinds of capabilities for those numbers is just undoable."

      Oh horse droppings! I know you've been reading the blog long enough to have seen the answer. You're correct that if you're going to try to produce an aircraft based on non-existent technology and with a host of near-magic capabilities then, sure, you're going to spend a gazillion dollars and never actually produce it. If, on the other hand, as I've described repeatedly, you want to build a solid, state of the art (not beyond state of the art, just at it) aircraft with reasonable stealth shaping (no exotic coatings), an low probability of detection AESA radar, passive IRST and optical sensor, great range, good payload, ease of maintenance (not magic software that won't even let you take off because you failed to fill out a maintenance form), and reasonable price (since it's all existing technology), it's a straight-forward exercise.

      Come on, you've been following the blog and you know this. We could produce the best fighter in the world and have it in full production in five years. I've described how.

    17. ComNavOps, I entirely agree that the F35 is an outstanding example of designers trying to run before they can walk (or fly before they can run); also, I agree when you say "the UK needs to make better decisions".

      Unfortunately, if the US decide to scrap the F35B with no recompense, after the UK has put - how much is it, $4 billion or more - into the project, and is manufacturing rather important parts for the F35 A/C - some sources say, parts of the wings and tails - then I fear that the next good decisions the UK makes may not be entirely favourable to the US, or to the remaining F35 project.

      You say, very plausibly, "Other than the UK and, possibly, Japan, no other country is ever going to contribute any significant military force to any conflict the US may become involved in". I wouldn't disagree, for the foreseeable future. That being so, why do you think it would be a sensible policy for the US to antagonise its most valuable and reliable ally?

    18. It's poor policy to antagonize our most steadfast ally. However, it's even poorer policy to rip the guts out of our military which is what the F-35 is doing. In order to pay for the F-35 (even the US has budget constraints!) we've had to forego many, many replacement and upgrade programs across the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. The F-35 is hollowing our forces, as we speak. In order to be worth it, the F-35 will have to be twice as good as its most ardent and optimistic supporter thinks it will be. What's the odds of that?

      Upset the UK or have the US military collapse? It's the lesser of two evils.

      Finally, and with the utmost respect for the UK, you (the UK) have, what, about 20-25 combat vessels, and a few dozen front line combat aircraft? While useful and welcome in a conflict, that's hardly a world-beating force. The UK has made some pretty questionable decisions about force size.

      The reality is that, come serious war, the US will stand alone with relatively minor contributions from other countries. The UK had to borrow munitions from the US for the tiny little Libya incident, if I understand it correctly! The US needs to do what's best for the US because what's best for the US is best for the world, ultimately.

    19. Again, you miss the bigger picture - if you conduct punitive operations on your own around the world, what do you think the political ramifications are? I agree the US needs to do what's best for the US but that isn't become a rogue state. Cue sanctions and a US economy so knackered we can't even buy Hornets!

    20. Punitive operations??? Where did I say that? You're making stuff up.

    21. I just think that if the US had conducted operations on its own in Iraq, Afghanistan etc, it would have been considered very differently than with a coalition and/or UN support.

    22. Where did I say that the US should not attempt to form coalitions?

      Stick to what I've actually said or you won't be allowed to comment.

    23. You didn't, but my point is that other countries may not wish to join the US in those circumstances. Anyway, I don't think we're going to agree on this topic so I suggest we move on....

    24. I don't give a rat's ass what your point is if you attempt to make it at my expense by making up stuff that I've never said. Do it again and you're finished commenting.

    25. Gosh an F35 thread that got a bit heated, there’s a surprise.

      As I think you stated in an earlier post, it is surprising how this project seems to inspire such passion.

      Just for the sake of debate, I think I’m going to go with postulated upgrade path. Nothing wrong with it. Certainly sensible.

      I think my concern is what happens when you reach the limits of the airframe?

      Not going to be for a while. I accept we could be talking 10 years.

      You also seem to be suggesting the possibility of designing a replacement based on established tech. OK fine. But do you think this will allow the US to continue to maintain dominance.

      Carrier aircraft are asked to do a lot and therefore generally have to be a cut above the forces that may oppose them?

      What do you think of the possibility of augmenting the airframes via weapon systems upgrade, designing new weapons designed to complement and fill holes in airframe deficiencies?

      For instance long standoff range effectively provides a form of stealth, by very mechanically reducing the radar return and in a sense the RCS?


    26. As you note, and as I've said, there is a limit to how far you can go on the upgrade path. No amount of upgrades would have made a WWI Sopwith Camel a viable aircraft for today. There comes a point where you need a new design to best contain and utilize new technologies. However, that point is well beyond where the military acts like it is.

      How far can the Hornet go? Well, are there new and emerging technologies that can still fit in the Hornet and be fully utilized? Yes. Are there any technologies coming in the near future that the Hornet is simply incapable of effectively absorbing and, therefore, mandates a new design? Qualified no. I say qualified because I have little idea what truly new and, presumably, classified technologies are pending. From all the open source information, there are no coming technologies that mandate a new design.

      Now, there's also nothing wrong with continually working on new designs IN THE R&D REALM. For the cost of a single prototype, why not build new designs for research? If one happens to pan out and seems like a major improvement then put it into production.

    27. "You also seem to be suggesting the possibility of designing a replacement based on established tech. OK fine. But do you think this will allow the US to continue to maintain dominance."

      What a great question! I'd like to see you take a shot at answering it before I contaminate (enlighten!) your thinking but I'll go ahead an answer it anyway because it's such a good question.

      Let me first start by summarizing the prevailing view. "We have to build new aircraft otherwise we'll fall behind!" [in a very whiny voice]

      We'll circle back to that statement after I give my answer.

      What constitutes dominance? It's state of the art technology coupled with affordability and maintainability. It doesn't matter how brilliant a new tech is if you can only afford one. It also doesn't matter how brilliant it is if it requires 10,000 techs working non-stop for a year to generate one sortie.

      What else contributes to dominance? It's training, logistical support, and tactics. Those can be applied to any aircraft, new or old.

      So, if we build a state of the art (but not beyond) aircraft, make it affordable so we can have a numerical advantaage, make it maintainable so it can actually fly, provide the best trained pilots, develop good tactics, and provide superior logistical support then, yes, we'll have a dominant aircraft.

      If we do all that and work on developing the new designs IN THE R&D REALM as single prototypes, then we'll not only have a dominant aircraft but the basis for the next aircraft.

      Now, to circle back. We tried building a new design, the F-35, as the whiners wanted and what did it get us? Is the F-35 dominating the skies? Hardly! It's been 20 years of development and it isn't even operational, yet. By the time it becomes operational, it will be a mediocre aircraft, at best. Is that the "dominance" path you want us to pursue? That kind of dominance is a false promise that leads to mediocre aircraft procured in insufficient numbers and too complex to maintain.

      This is almost worthy of its own post. Great question. Thanks for posing it.

      What's your answer?

    28. Well like you say there is a lot to discuss on this one.

      If we want to specifically debate carrier projected fixed wing air power. And I think we should else we have far too big a subject.

      We are boxing ourselves to a few fixed ideas.

      We can’t go the route of overwhelming numbers as we are constricted by our carrier.

      And this leads me to the conclusion that we are looking at a survivable platform with a high kill ration.

      Also we have a cap on the size of the aircraft, we aren’t going to get too many of those giant “Migs” on our carrier deck.

      Unrefuelled range must be “useful”. And I think we have to demand Supersonic simply as it can be required for a dis-engage and fast intercept.

      Robustness is also something that is going to have to be a given. Your very correct, maintainability is absolutely crucial and last we have to specify sortie rate.

      So we are looking for a relatively small platform that outperforms the nations of the world major fighters in all these area AND can perform superior defensive A2A AND Strike.

      Primarily of course as a Carrier aircraft it’s all about the mission. Dominance denotes that mission successes rates are high and losses low. And that it can do this to a level and reliability that affects the battlefront dependably.

      It’s a big ask isn’t it.

      Oh nearly forgot. Preferably we need it to do this for at least a decade and not come it at a billion dollar aircraft.

      There is enough meat there for 3 posts I recon ;)


    29. I don't know if you're talking about the UK's carriers, the US carriers, or carriers in general. From the US perspective, the Nimitz class was designed for close to 100 aircraft so we have plenty of room. Thus, we are not constrained by our carriers. For the UK, it may be a different story. I don't know the UK issues well enough to comment.

      As far as size of aircraft, the US used to routinely operate a full squadron of 10-12 of the giant A-3 Skywarriors off carriers so size is not really a problem. For comparison, a MiG-31 is the same length as an A-3.

    30. Actually I was talking in general.

      ( I'm not sure Nimitz crew would ever claim they have "plenty" of room. )

      In a peer situation we cant expect a carrier to field the same number and \ or same sized aircraft as land bases.

      Its simply a restriction in the design of a carrier jet we need to consider.

      If we have a 100 plane carrier and we want to design SU-34 sized planes, we would have to acknowledge a drop in numbers.

      Obviously this also brings in the question of wether a carrier strike wing should have lots of 1 type of multirole fighter vs 2 or more kinds of fighter of differing roles. A2A vs Strike say ?

      I think they key here, is an almost impossible blend of requirements many pulling in opposite directions.

      We are more restricted than land bases, but expect better performance.

      On top of that we are a strike platform primarily, so we are asking for war winning mission success rates.

      And now we have to calculate HOW we can deliver this platform within a budget slightly less than the GDP of a medium sized nation.

  5. Contract award of the F35 in 1996 ? Thats only true if you count the X-35 which was developed into the F35 ( contract award 2001)
    The F18 Super hornet could be said to have the earlier F18 as its 'demonstrator' and apart from the scaled up airframe carried over the "avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures."
    The engine was a improvement of the existing engine rather than all new. plus it wasnt till Block II that an all electronic digital radar was indroduced, along with helmet mounted cuing.
    As we all know, the F35 is largely 3 types of plane that 'look similar' so that has expanded the development enormously.
    Given this history, drawing conclusions from these two planes development cycles would normally be a non starter.

    1. "The F18 Super hornet could be said to have the earlier F18 as its 'demonstrator' and apart from the scaled up airframe carried over the "avionics, ejection seats, radar, armament, mission computer software, and maintenance/operating procedures."

      That's the point of the post!!!!! That's why upgrades are faster and cheaper!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. The SuperHornet is just a stretched version of the legacy Hornet- IOC ~1983. Not really evolutionary at all. It was easy to design/test. Sort of "off the shelf". It won out over the F-14D line....

    In other words the best we could do at the time (Clinton administration- peace dividend, etc.).

    On the other hand the F-35 JSF was joint. The USMC who didn't buy into the SuperHornet demanded a requirement for a VSTOL version forced the common airframe design (big square hole in the middle) that screwed the possibilities for the Navy/USAF versions (IMtO). The second most unfavorable aspect was that pesky stealth requirement which drove a lot of technical tradeoffs that may never be worked out effectively.

    For your article you should have went back one generation of aircraft further to see what both versions fielded were to replace, VICE comparing the two platforms:

    1. F-18 E/F/G Superhornet/Growler replaces a whole series of purpose built aircraft- the F-14B/D Tomcat/Bombcat, the A-6E Intruder medium bomber, the S-3B Viking Sea control /tanker and the EA-6B. like all multipurpose aircraft it does not supersede what it replaces for performance, persistence and range. That wasn't much noticed 2001-2014 because we were anchored overhead the Gulf whacking bearded AK-47 toting nut jobs. Now things have changed back to blue water with the pivot and we are stuck with a weapon system that has only 2/3 the range of the group above. Plus in the old days (20 years ago) we deployed carriers with 90 aircraft vice the 65 of today (IE- we didn't buy enough). As a bonus negative we've flown our Hornets that replaced the A-7 Sewerpipe, into a depot crisis requiring early SLEPs (both legacy and super) and forcing the recent keeping the line open initiative because the F-35 is way late. Also getting rid of the S-3 early was another shot in the foot...

    2. The F-35A- F-16/F-15 the gold standard
    F-35B- AV-8B pig in a poke/same/same
    F-35C not sure- basically legacy Hornets I think...many of us don't know...

    I do know that it will carry less ordnance than any of the Hornet Type Model Series (TMS)have equivalent range despite its single engine and maybe, just maybe, have better performance although there are plenty of folks out there who don't see that especially air to air.....

    There you are. the situation is not optimum.

    1. Did you read the post? What you're attempting to discuss has no bearing whatsoever on the premise of the post. The point was to look at upgrade versus new design in the most direct comparison possible and observe the results. The purpose was not to compare one aircraft to another or look at what aircraft they replaced or any of the other points you mentioned.

      I'll spell out the main takeaway for you. The Hornet upgrade path gave us an 80% solution that has been in service for 16 years as compared to the new design F-35 which has yet to achieve operational status and is bordering on obsolete/mediocre already. THe upgrade path, even though we didn't fully commit to it, produced a far superior result.

    2. The F-18E/F's aren't just stretched versions. They have new wings, new intakes, new designed internal structures. About the only thing they have in common with the legacy is forward of the intakes. That Boeing and the USN kept it on time and on budget is a modern miracle.

    3. "That Boeing and the USN kept it on time and on budget is a modern miracle."

      THAT'S THE POINT OF THE POST - that an upgrade path using an existing aircraft is cheaper and quicker than a new design.

    4. Speaking of the F18, the USMC is pulling old airframes out of the boneyard, refurbishing them, and upgrading them to cover shortages in their fleets caused by F35 delays, which the article states is at a 32% readiness. Food for thought.


  7. If you think about it, the US has a dangerous obsession with procurement of new weapons. This comes at the expense of upgrades,training, or maintenance.

    One is forced to conclude that incompetence or corruption is to blame.

    1. Hey, someone should do a blog about that!

    2. Some do write about it

      "Not Much Bang for the Buck" by Richard Palmer, The Trumpet
      "The Pentagon's Real Strategy, Victory is assured on the military's main battlefield - Washington" by Andrew Cockburn, The Nation

  8. Using this posts as a jumping point would a naval version of the f22D be a worthwhile endeavor?

    1. Nope. You would be developing and building a brand new plane to give it carrier capabilities. Not just a hook and twin nose wheels but beefed up ar frame, salt air protection, etc. Its easier to convert a carrier plane to a land based one because you don't have to add things. You're mostly taking off.

      There was a naval version of the F-22 in the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF) program. It sort of had the nose of the F-22 but two crew and swing wings instead of fixed. It died to the peace dividend.

    2. Yes, an F-22 type aircraft would be a very worthwhile endeavor. Whether that aircraft would be an actual F-22 that is navalized or a new design that borrows heavily from the F-22 is a matter of which approach is more affordable and more easily achieved.

  9. If only the Navy had pursued the Super Tomcat 21. It had a lot of potential.


  10. I understood your post re the technical discussion but the central theme about these design paths I was discussing is the result of our present sorry situation brought on by their implementation and the fact that decisions made in the 1990's, while we were enjoying the peace dividend, are home to roost.

    Fundamentally, what I was trying to say was the aircraft we have today up to the F-35 TMS are not as operationally capable as those they replaced- performance-wise re range and cost. Yes, they have impressive digital technology and GPS bombs but that is only to be expected.

    The "strike fighter gap" (IE- our carrier power projection arm) first discussed 6-7 years ago has gotten a lot worse. It is so bad that the bow wave has broken over the bow and we are breached to. At that time discussion of buying more superhornets was taboo. Today that idea is sold as common sense.

    We have had to SLEP (still ongoing) as many legacy Hornets still in service as we could to extend their life a couple thousand hours for ~$17M a jet. A similar SLEP will have to be performed on the SuperHornet (even more expensive task) much earlier than predicted because of accelerated decrement of the Fatigue Life Expended brought on by "5-wet overhead "tanking" which burns up that life at an excessive rate. Oh yeah it takes months to complete keeping still more Super Hornets from the fleet during another reset.

    Only way out of the dilemma as per the official "NA Enterprise" that is only transitory, is to buy more SuperHornets and (IMO) use wishful thinking to design/ field this CBARs drone tanker, a very risky project if the wrong platform is chosen. You can see that a seemingly small decision like getting rid of the S-3 as a tanker for the carrier air wing can impact many things especially if the F-35C was delayed, heavy use of the jack of all trades SuperHornet was demanded and the operational budget for depot services cut during the sequestration. All home to roost.

    Things could be worse I suppose. We could have the USAF problem with a platform that probably will perform worse and cost more than what it replaces, the F-15/16. At least the USN has the option of covering our nakedness with the SuperHornet in the mid-term. Better than nothing.


    1. "The "strike fighter gap" (IE- our carrier power projection arm) first discussed 6-7 years ago ...

      At that time discussion of buying more superhornets was taboo."

      Buying more SH's was not considered because we were firmly committed to the new design (F-35) path instead of the Hornet upgrade path.

      The tanker issue is not the problem - not even close. Sure, it doesn't help matters but it is not the problem. Freeing up a few Hornets in each air wing is not going to suddenly bring naval aviation up to speed.

  11. Please keep in mind that USN may have been forced into the position they took by OSD. I think that there have been many times where the Navy wanted to do more with the SH and were told they had to keep in F-35C. Back in the F-111B days the Navy was finally able to overcome the Pentagon to get the F-14 but the tri-service F-35 (a program designed to destroy the aviation industrial base in the name of affordability that never materialized) is just too big and the Navy's power relative to OSD has apparently shrunk. So blame the Navy for being too weak but go up the ladder from there too.

  12. Aye, so it seemed re the F-35C...

    re- "Freeing up a few Hornets.."

    This is where facts contradict the existing reality Sir. Actually, for every three SuperHornets on the flight deck on deployment, not at Oceana or Lemoore, one must be configured as an overhead/recovery tanker and can only do that mission. Again- out of all the E/Fs on the deck and the only ones in the world that matter for the defense of our nation.... At night the ratio goes up....Do a quick impact analysis in your head.

    That means at any one time in the operationally deployed carriers 1/3 of all F-18E/Fs are configured as overhead/recovery tankers. You want a mission tanker? Scratch another A-A or bomber/WAS sortie for the air wing.....And the air wing continues to get thirstier all the time...

    That ComNav, is the preverbal rub. 24/7, year in, year out. The devil is always in the details.

    1. That's not even remotely correct. Carriers have only ever operated with 4-6 tankers at a time. Check your air wing histories.

    2. Unfortunately that is the exact truth and how we operate. I know because I have 712 arrested landings and I've flown day night tanker missions and in acquisition and engineering since retirement. Tip of the spear, the actual numbers on the flight deck. Trust me.

  13. ComNav,
    Sorry to say the Super Hornet is only an upgrade in name. It was sold by the USN as an "upgrade" because there was no chance on buying a brand new aircraft especially with the push towards the JSF during the Clinton years. Outside of the tires and some of the avionics the jet only resembles its predecessor. I was flying then and the lack of money in Naval Aviation was huge. A friend of mine who did an AF exchange tour and had flown F14s (JO), F16s (Super JO), and all variants (minus the G) of the F18 (DH/Skipper) to go along with Top Gun instructor time gave me a good point. The super hornet losses about mach1 in top end speed and a couple hundred miles of range but it has an FMC rate nearly double and only requires 10 hours of maintenance per flight hour vs the over 70 hours of maintenance required for an F14 flight hour. The killing off of the A6E (and her upgrade) the F14 (and F14 2000), the S3/ES3 were all driven by the budget. Naval leadership made the call to sacrifice those aircraft to get the utility Super Hornet because of the promises and costs of the JSF. Remember the JSF was supposed to be fielded in 2010 (go look back at Clancy's book Carrier amongst other places). Now the Super Hornet has been upgraded... a new AESA radar, separation of the cockpit in the Fs (the original F cockpit had the displays slaved together, but Prowler guys moving into the G forced Boeing to split the cockpit so both crewmembers could do different tasks), and a host of other improvements. Some of those improvements could be past over to a regular Hornet but not all of them due to size/weight/power considerations.

    1. I have no interest in playing silly word games. The Hornet was upgraded. Upgrade means change things and add new stuff to the base model. It's the same airframe, just upsized. Same landing gear. Same wingfold mechanism. Much the same avionics. Same ejection seat. Same radar initially. New engines. And so on. Some new stuff, some old stuff. An upgrade.

      A new design, by comparison, is the F-35.

      I'm not a fan of word games.

    2. In some areas the F-18 Super Hornet did have some serious issues.

      It was plagued by a Wing Drop issue that was never entirely resolved and the fix hurt performance.

      It also is not a very long ranged aircraft.

      I believe that the Super Hornet ended up costing around 50% more than the base version. Granted, the F-35 is looking even worse.

    3. Upgrade vs new design is already itself an apples to oranges comparison. If you compare the F-16 vs. the F-35, the former first flew in 1976 and was introduced into service in 1980. This is quite comparable to the F-18. The basic problem with such comparison is equating 4th gen development as being comparable to 5th gen. It is simply not true. For example, the F-16 had 15 subsystems, thousands of interfaces and less than 40 % of its function managed by software. In comparison, the F-35 has 130 subsystems, hundreds of thousands of interfaces and more than 90 % of its function managed by software (source: RAND study: Why has the cost of fixed-wing aircraft risen?). The level of complexity with 5th gen. aircraft is vastly different and so are the timelines for testing.

    4. You're continuing to try to play word games. I'll try one last time. The point of the post was a direct comparison of the performance (combat capability) delivered through upgrades versus new designs and the cost to achieve both, which impacts value.

      Whether we're talking about upgrading a WWI Sopwith Camel or an F-18 makes no difference. It's the final, delivered combat capability that matters. The matter is made even more directly comparable, in this case, because both aircraft are intended for the same customer, the Navy, and the same role. It could not be a more direct comparison.

      That was the main point of the post.

      The implied point was that upgrades are, by their very nature, simpler, easier, cheaper, and quicker to deliver and that the very complexity you cite in the F-35 solidifies the argument against new designs.

      I really can't make it any clearer. I'm not going to waste any more time on word games nor am I going to allow further word game comments.

    5. It was my only post on this subject so far. I think your reference to "word games" is probably mistakenly coupled with another post.
      I might have misunderstood the nature of your talking points. Clearly there are benefits to incremental upgrades and a good example is the F-16 program. However, the F-35 program is meant to provide stealth and internal wiring structure for sensors and avionics to meet future threats. It is highly questionable whether using 4th gen platforms through incremental upgrades will be feasible let alone economical.

    6. Fair enough. That's why I encourage people to add a name to their comments even if they wish to post anonymously.

      You appear to have missed the main point of the post. It was not my contention that it is possible to produce a 5th gen aircraft using only upgrades to a 4th gen aircraft. Instead, the point of the post was that upgrades offer a viable, if not optimal, option in terms of capability and do so on a far quicker and less expensive basis. Hence, my summation statement that the F-18 upgrade route produced a viable aircraft with 80% of the desired capability AND HAS BEEN IN SERVICE FOR THE PAST 16 YEARS versus the new design F-35 that has offered 0% capability for the last 16 years and is still several years away from front line service. Hopefully, that is clearer and makes sense to you.

  14. Kind of a sad read, but not surprising:


    Apparently they are pulling old units out of storage.

  15. I posted a link near the top that goes a little more in depth on the F18 refurbishment in your interested AtlandMain.

  16. Now here is an example of an "upgrade" done wrong.


    Apparently the frigate version of the LCS isn't much of an upgrade over the original...

  17. Not really an upgrade from what I read, just another congressional concern and the navy attempting to doublespeak it way out of it. I didn't notice anything really that changes between models except the "frigate" designation, which the LCS already was, albeit a poor one.


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