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.
|Low Rate Production||1997||2007|
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.