The $1 trillion F-35 tries to be all things, but succeeds at few, say critics. But is Australia’s new weapon now too big to fail?
The United States, and by virtual default all its key allies, have pinned their hopes on this single project.
In the US it’s been priced at over $1 trillion. Australia is spending around $15 billion.
Advocates insist its is the most advanced killing machine in history — a flying supercomputer pumping an unprecedented level of information into a $500,000 helmet that allows pilots to “see” through the floor of their own aircraft.
Whatever the case, the F-35 was supposed to be an affordable alternative to the far more capable F22 Raptor interceptor fighter.
Now, it’s so expensive — in fact it’s the most costly defence project in history at $1 trillion — it is being seen as “far too big to fail”.
While builder Lockheed Martin may yet succeed in rolling the aircraft off the production line, there are grave doubts in the aircraft’s ability to do the jobs demanded of it.
Critics point to what they call a fundamental flaw in its design: As a cost-savings exercise, it’s supposed to be all things to all people.
For the US Navy, it’s supposed to be an F14 Tomcat interceptor and F/A18 Hornet strike fighter combined.
For the US air force, it’s supposed to do the jobs of the F-16 strike fighter and A10 ground-attack aircraft.
For the US Marines, it’s supposed to be a replacement for their iconic “Jump Jet” Harriers.
The result, critics say, is a cascading series of compromises that has produced an aircraft inadequate to meet any of its functions.
Here’s a look at the causes of the controversy.
CAN THIS FIGHTER FIGHT?
It’s supposed to clear the skies to keep valuable assets and troops safe.
It’s supposed to sneak past enemy air defences with ease, and deliver its (limited) ordinance with pinpoint accuracy.
It’s supposed to go in rough and dirty to support embattled ground troops — anywhere, anytime.
But defence industry critics are now loudly shouting it isn’t up to any of these tasks. Not mean enough. Not stealthy enough. Especially when put up against its new Russian and Chinese competitors.
It’s underarmed with just two air-to-air missiles and two large bombs, they say.
Advocates insist it can carry an enormous array of modern weapons — and that its speed and manoeuvrability handicaps are negated by its extreme stealth characteristics. You cannot shoot what you cannot see, they argue.
Detractors argue that strapping bombs under the F-35 wings is like putting up a huge neon “shoot me” sign in modern battlefield radar environments. And given that the F-35 is inherently slower and less manoeuvrable than its opponents, it can only carry more than its hidden, but highly limited, internal load at its own risk.
It’s a point the F-35’s competitors have highlighted, using test combat results to try to convince Australia to buy their Russian-based technology instead.
Advocates present the aircraft’s incredibly enhanced battlefield electronics as their trump card. But these Top Secret systems that sound as though they are straight out of a science fiction movie are yet to become fully operational.
It may not be sexy, but commonality is the key word: It’s in all the F-35 advertising. It is supposed to do everything from dogfighting to dropping bombs, carrier landings to vertical landings.
Problem is, each has some pretty specific — and strict — requirements. Commonality is not always compatible with capability.
But, commonality sounds good to budget-minded politicians.
It sounds so good Australia is now reassessing its recent purchase of two helicopter-carrying assault ships. Originally designed to operate the AV8 Harrier aircraft for the Spanish navy, the Royal Australian Navy bought a downgraded version optimised for helicopter use only.
The Abbott Government is now considering including 12 of the short takeoff, vertical-landing versions of the JSF, designated the F-35B, among its 72 aircraft order. This would involve a major — and costly — rebuild of the two ships, back up to the original Spanish specifications.
It is this attempt to incorporate the famous Harrier “Jump Jet” capability into the F-35B that has caused many of the aircraft’s problems.
The air force model (F35A) and naval version (F35C) of the fighter have paid a huge price to keep the US Marines happy. Aerodynamically and structurally, compromises had to be made in order to fit such a complex vertical lift mechanism.
“Commonality” decrees that even those versions not carrying the heavy, fuel-hungry and unbalancing engine pointing downwards behind the pilot still have to have the huge hole to accommodate it.
The air force cops a double-whammy: They also don’t need the strong — but heavy — structural reinforcements that a fighter needs to be captured by an aircraft carrier’s arrester hooks, or be catapulted off the deck.
The end result?
All F35s are slower, less manoeuvrable and with less range and lighter payload than machines built to purpose.
The next generation Russian T-50 PAK-FA and the Chinese J20 have proven startlingly sophisticated.
It’s a performance gap reportedly emphasised in simulated combat tests between the F-35 and Russia’s already-in-service Su-35: The Russians repeatedly won. Defence officials have emphatically denied the relevance of this test comparison.
So, are the Marines happy with their super-Harrier that has hobbled the other services so much?
Hopefully. They now have a theoretically capable stealth aircraft that can fly off small flight decks and shattered airfields and sneak behind enemy lines. But Marines are all about slugging it out mano-et-mano in “hot” combat zones, not this “quietly-quietly” stealth business. Would they be bringing a mask to a knife-fight?
Delivering the dream machine that is all things to all people is proving more difficult than anticipated.
“It is the biggest challenge in the history of military innovation, with a price-tag to match,” one of the projects greatest advocates, Forbes, concedes.
The upshot: Last year the Pentagon Inspector General identified 719 specific problems with the aircraft — ranging from minor through to mission-critical.
Fixing them costs hard cash. Even then, the F-35 fundamental design can only be “fixed” so far.
The F-35 program was initially supposed to be a bargain: A multi-role combat aircraft for everybody at the low, low development price of $US233 billion.
Now, that development price has tipped $US400 billion — and is still rising.
The cost of an individual aircraft was originally touted as being $US75 million. That’s now floating beneath $US150 million each.
Advocates argue this figure is no more in inflation-adjusted terms than the F-16 fighter of the 1970s.
And they point out that the estimated total project cost has fallen from a feared $US1.5 trillion in 2012 to $US1.1 trillion in 2013, and now $US857 billion
Initially promised to be delivered within 10 years, the program’s delivery date is now slipping past 20 years.
Early production aircraft — which are being rolled off the assembly lines before testing is complete — will need more than $US8 billion more in updates and fixes to enable them to fire missiles, navigate and identify the enemy.
After all is said and done, the stealthy — secret — jet may not be so secret after all. A US-Iranian citizen was arrested earlier this year attempting to smuggle thousands of Top Secret blueprints, specifications and technical documents relating to the program out of the country.
The F-35 is also high among the list US Federal agencies are investigating as being compromised by Chinese hackers.
Then there is its ability to do the job.
Problems with its abilities to sneak about unobserved are a closely guarded secret, though there are reports of issues including flaking radar-absorbent paints.
There’s the supercomputer: ALIS. The “artificial intelligence” of 24 million lines of code has reportedly proven to be something of a tyrant — refusing to accept everything from spare parts to weapons without “her” specific approval.
Even its core stealth characteristics have already been downgraded. This year the US Navy reduced its order for the new stealth fighter and instead sought to buy more electronic warfare aircraft to “jam” hostile radars.
This may follow reports that new radars being fitted to Chinese and Russian warships and defence installations have been tailored specifically to spot the supposedly stealthy fighter.
This follows a 2006 downgrade in the F-35’s projected stealth rating from “very low observable” to “low observable”.
What this all means for export buyers who will get a downgraded version of the F-35 is no doubt Top Secret, but hopefully not “observable”.
Controversially, Australia was promised by its US ambassador back in 2000 that it would get “the stealthiest aeroplane that anybody outside the United States can acquire”.
But will that be enough given that the aircraft is so inferior to its opponents without its optimal stealth abilities?
The US ambassador again:
“Having said that, the aeroplane will not be exactly the same aeroplane as the United States will have. But it will be a stealth fighter; it will have stealth capabilities; and it will be at the highest level that anyone in the world has outside the United States.”
Lockheed Martin has been lobbying hard to keep its flawed program alive for years. A 2013 report reveals it has spent $US159 million on lobbying US politicians alone since 2000. The true figure would be much higher when the governments and officials of a host of nations — including Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada — are taken into account.
And not all press has been against the project: Business news groups such as Forbes have been persistently reporting that all has been progressing positively in Lockheed Martin’s labs.
So will Australia get value for money?
Australia initially expressed interest in buying 100 examples of this multirole fighter to replace its ageing F/A-18 and F-111 fleet. As prices rose, the number being purchased fell.
The total buy order now stands at a little over 70 F-35s.
But advocates continue to call baloney on critics fears.
They point out that the F-35 program has been delivering test-flight results ahead of its (revised) schedule for the past four years and that production is “ramping up”.
Dr Mark Thomson, analyst at the government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told news.com.au that Australia’s choice of fighters from the international market was limited.
“The alternative to the F35, is a previous generation aircraft designed 15 or 20 years before the F35,” he said. “If Australia wants an up-to-date aircraft that would see it through the next two decades, it was the only choice, but yes, it does cost a lot of money.”
Dr Thomson said there was some people critical of the aircraft’s performance but this was up to the United States to resolve.
“One way or another they are going to have to make this aircraft work,” he said, adding a rebuke to critics second-guessing the F-35 program on limited information.
“It’s an incredible assertion that somehow they got it catastrophically wrong.”
Despite the cacophony of criticism, new nations such as South Korea, Canada and Israel keep lining up in the queue to purchase their own examples.
Is the F-35 flawed beyond redemption?
It can’t be.
All of the Western world’s eggs are in one basket.
If it fails, it will cost the United States the military and technological superiority it has proudly asserted ever since the victory over Germany and Japan in 1945.
*Additional reporting by Charis Chang