Primer on F-35 Performance, Cost, and Basing

Last fall, the Air Force announced that a F-16 Air National Guard unit in South Burlington Vermont was on a list of ten candidates to receive the F-35 when it is built and deployed. Not all of the local reaction has been positive. Reports from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida are that F-35s are significantly louder than the F-16s that operate now out of South Burlington. Some local residents have expressed serious concern. One of them, Juliet Buck, started a blog to provide a forum to discuss the issues. She contacted me, asking several questions about the F-35 itself and about the factors that can influence where military assets are based in the US. Her questions and my answers are below. I believe they provide a useful summary of the issues surrounding the F-35 and the factors that should influence where military units are based in the US, and some factors that should not.

Find this discussion at and below:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Q&A with Winslow Wheeler by Juliet Buck

Winslow Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He spent 31 years working for US senators from both parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security affairs. I contacted him after reading several of his articles and seeing his commentary in this PBS report. He was kind enough to answer these 10 questions for me.

Q1. A common refrain among pro F-35 folks is that "our boys should get the best equipment so they can be safe and protect us effectively". Is the F-35 the best equipment for our Air National Guard/USAF? Will the F-35 make our pilots safer than the F-16 they currently use? Will the F-35 enable our ANG pilots to protect us better than the F-16 they currently use?

A.I have worked on national security issues since 1971. I have never seen the leadership for our tactical air forces in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps make themselves so dependent on the success of a single aircraft as they have with the F-35, and - more importantly - I have never seen a new aircraft so clearly a technological disappointment as the F-35.

Consider the following. If one accepts every performance promise the Defense Department currently makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be both overweight and underpowered. At a 49,500 pound air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 pounds of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight ratio for a new fighter. At that weight and with just 460 square feet of wing area for the Air Force variant, it will have a 'wing-loading' of 108 pounds per square foot. Fighters need large wings relative to their weight to enable them to maneuver and survive. The F-35 has a wing loading much like the appallingly unmaneuverable F-105 'Lead Sled' that took huge losses over North Vietnam in the Indochina War.

With a payload of only two 2,000 pound munitions in its bomb bays, the F-35 is hardly a first-class bomber either. With more bombs carried under its wings, it becomes 'non-stealthy,' and its enhanced payload is nothing to write home about. As a 'close air support' attack aircraft to replace the A-10 in active and reserve units and to help US troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is a nonstarter. It is too fast to independently find and identify tactical targets; too fragile to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces in ground combat for the sustained periods they need.

The F-35 advocates will protest, what of its two most prized features: 'stealth' and advanced avionics? What the Pentagon will not tell you is that 'stealthy' aircraft are quite detectable by radar; it is simply a question of the type of radar and its angle relative to the aircraft. Ask the pilots of the two 'stealthy' F-117s that the Serbs successfully attacked with radar defenses in the 1999 Kosovo air war.

As for the highly complex electronics to attack targets in the air, the F-35, like the F-22 before it, has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based air-to-air combat that has fallen on its face many times in real air war. The F-35's air-to-ground electronics promise little more than slicker communications and computer graphics for the use of existing munitions.

The immediate question for F-35 performance is how many new problems will compromise its already mediocre performance? We will only know when a complete and rigorous test schedule - not currently planned - is finished. The inadequate plan being followed is barely 3 percent complete. We have only begun to know the extent of its dark side.

The F-35 is a bad idea that shows every sign of turning into a disaster as big as the F-111 fiasco of the 1960s.

To justify this gigantic disappointment saying "our boys should get the best equipment so they can be safe and protect us effectively" is a cynical ruse, not even worthy of Toyota accelerators' worse hucksters. The people saying such things to you should be ashamed of themselves.

Q2. Do you feel it is appropriate to have 24 of these planes running patrols from the runway of a commercial airport that resides cheek by jowl with a dense residential area with schools, assisted living facilities, churches and home daycare activities? (Chittenden County, where the airport resides, is the most densely populated county in the state. The Chamberlin and Mayfair Park neighborhoods dwell inside a 1 mile radius of the runway)

A.Military, not political, considerations should primarily control the location of our air units. Is the specific location important for air sovereignty missions over the US or for foreign deployments? Are there air-to-air and air-to-ground training ranges close by to maximize training, not transit, time? Does co-location with commercial aviation negatively affect training or operational missions? The wrong answers here mean it is time to move.

The impact on the local community is important, but has to be secondary, I believe. How much more noise will the F-35s impose on the locality than commercial aviation does already? The biggest impact may be the extraordinary noise the F-35 is reputed to generate. Also, if the unit were to relocate elsewhere, what would be the negative economic impact on South Burlington?

A poor last in importance is the crass politics that constantly surrounds these issues. Some in Congress will grub and scrape, or try to bully, to get, keep, and augment military units so they can crow to constituents they can "bring home the bacon." Then, they sanctimoniously stroke voters infuriated by noise and other factors with statements like "we all have to sacrifice for national security." Rare is the statesman who will concede that - viewed objectively - national security means someone else should get the military assets - and the pork.

Q3. Would you expect accidents with this aircraft as new pilots are trained with it, especially National Guard members who are not full-time airmen?

A.My own experience with Air National Guard units is that we should regard them as the elite of our air forces. The pilots have hundreds, often thousands, of hours of flying experience in multiple aircraft types, and they have stayed in the armed forces because they love flying and what they do. I have immense respect for that; I believe we all should. These pilots are less likely, not more, to make the kinds of mistakes that cause accidents.

While I do not know the accident rate of the unit at Burlington, generally, accidents are rare, and when they do occur, they are most often at training ranges, not endangering civilians. They do, however, occur, and in very rare cases, civilians have been injured, even killed. The best way, I believe, to avoid those rare cases is to train intensively, in the air - not on simulators. Pilots experienced with the real world of flying can best cope with an emergency in the air. To improve the combat skills of our pilots - and their safety - we need to enable them to fly more, not less. That requires higher budgets for training, and it means more activity - and noise - at our air force bases.

Q4. If the Air Force is investing so much money on these planes, could it also re-open some of the airbases that were closed about a decade ago? Would these remote bases be more suitable for this aircraft than a National Guard base at small commercial airport?

A.The Air Force, and the Navy, is having an extremely difficult time keeping up with increased F-35 costs already. The Defense Department's new "Selected Acquisition Report (SAR) F-35 As of December 31, 2009" tells us that the unit cost of the F-35 has grown over 60 percent to $133.6 million each in future appropriations (known as "then year" dollars). Already quite unaffordable, it is further projected to increase yet again later this summer to $158 million. In addition, the F-35 will be considerably more expensive to operate than F-16s, and it will impose a substantial new burden on the Vermont Air National Guard's logistics. The cupboard will be quite bare for funds to reopen old bases for these ultra high cost aircraft.

On the other hand, thanks to unaffordably expensive aircraft like the F-35 - and the F-22 before it - our Air Force has been shrinking and is now the smallest combat Air Force we have had since World War II. Other operating Air Force bases may well be under-utilized and may present basing alternatives at significantly lesser cost than re-opening an old base. The reasons for doing so, however, should be those military and tactical reasons discussed above - in answer to question # 2 - not the politically driven factors, such as what politician can better pander to - or threaten - those in the Pentagon making basing decisions.

Q5. Do you think that the huge cost of this aircraft could be more wisely spent on other more tried-and-true aircraft?

A.Clearly, I believe the F-35 is a costly, even embarrassing, mistake. I am hardly alone. Among those experts who pretty much agree is Thomas Christie. Few people alive today can match the 50 years of tactical aviation experience he has. From 1955 to 2005, Christie worked inside the Department of Defense and the Institute for Defense Analysis -- in the bowels of the bureaucracy and as a top level manager. He ended his career as the presidentially appointed Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, responsible for testing all major weapons. For tactical aircraft, he's seen them all, winners, losers and mediocrities.

Christie has a simple solution for the F-35. Kill it. With more cost and problems yet to be uncovered, don't waste any more money on this loser. Instead, buy new F-16s and F-18s, refurbish existing aircraft, and bring usable A-10s, the most effective attack aircraft we have used in wars since 1991,out of the boneyards.

An essential part of the longer term solution would be to perform a prototype fly-off of candidates to replace the F-35. This could come in two phases: right now using existing air to air and air to ground aircraft to fill the multiple roles the F-35 can't perform well enough, and second, another fly off of new designs to perform the missions long into the future. Please note I am not proposing a new "multi-role" aircraft like the F-35, or the F-111 before it. Multi-role designs have two overwhelming characteristics: they almost never perform any mission better than a single mission design, and they always come at catastrophically high cost. A selection of single role aircraft would be not just much more effective but also much cheaper - in toto.

But that won't happen, at least not now. As Christie has observed, top Pentagon managers are too scared to not show anything for the billions of dollars already invested. They clearly hope the program can be rescued, especially as many of them played a major role in the conceptualization of the F-35 program during the Clinton administration.

Instead, we will throw more money after the F-35; its costs will grow some more, making it clear we can only buy fewer, which increases the unit cost more, and so on. A clever top management wag called this the "death spiral" in the 1990s (it's hardly uncommon) and then proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. A few years in the future, someone at the Pentagon will declare the F-35 program "regrettable" or some other euphemism, and the whole mess will slowly, and expensively, be put out of its misery.Our fighting forces, including the Air National Guard, will be forced to find a way to live with this expensive kluge. If we are lucky, we will never have to face a competent enemy in the likely short lifespan of the F-35.

As all that plays out, people in Washington - in the Pentagon, the military services and Congress - will ask "who let this happen?" and the finger pointing will be endemic.

Q6. Do you expect the EIS statements written by the Air Force that go in-hand with the placement of these aircraft to be unbiased reports?

A.I quail at the prospect of actually reading the mountain of EIS paperwork for this program.I do hope, however, that some with more determination than I do read it.Sometimes you find the most astonishing things in such documents.In some cases, the advocacy becomes so transparent that the objective facts make the program look foolish.In other cases, honest professionals in the bureaucracy can prevail and inform us with important data and analysis that stands up to scrutiny.These can sometimes escape redaction in Washington, but - sadly - just sometimes.

The EIS documents need to be read closely and carefully by people expert in the environmental impact issues. There is no more politically healthy exercise than informed debate.

Q7. At this point in time, what is your overall opinion of the F-35 program in both budgetary and performance terms?

A.Even at its current price - which will increase - the F-35 is unaffordable. For that high cost - both to own and operate it - it brings tactical performance that is embarrassing in the air to air mode and an actual step backwards compared to the elderly A-10 in the close support role. Without question, the program should be canceled immediately and replaced with aircraft selected on the basis of their demonstrated performance in a series of competitive fly offs, of both existing and prototype, single mission - not multi-role - aircraft. My answers to questions 1, 4, and 5 above and 9 below provide some more data and analysis to explain why I make these recommendations.

Q8. Many people find it hard to believe that the USAF would advocate the use of a poorly designed or poorly performing plane. Would the USAF advocate the use of a plane that was substantively inferior to the plane already in use? Why?

A.Unsuccessful hardware designs delivered to soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen and women by Washington are nothing new. It has happened in the midst of wars and during peacetime. Sherman tanks in World War II were so flammable that US and British crews using them called them "Ronsons" because they would "light up every time" when they were hit.The Germans called them "Tommy Cookers. Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk" aircraft came off the assembly lines late in the war and were sent straight to non-combat theaters because they could not compete with better designs.In Vietnam, the notorious M-16 rifle jammed so frequently that even Viet Cong would not pick it up from dead American soldiers and marines to use it.For a peacetime disaster much like the F-35, read my answer to question #9.

Why do we do this? In the best of circumstances, it is incompetence. Greed, refusal to admit mistakes, and selfishness on the part of some people in and out of uniform play a major role. Too often, top managers believe there are logistic, industrial base, or other factors that in their own minds overrule the lessons of combat and the requirements of the combat operators at the sharp end.

Q9. Can you make any comparisons between the issues surrounding the F-35 and the F-111 program? The F-22 program?

A.There are astonishing parallels between the F-35 and the notorious F-111.

Both airplanes started life as multi-role designs for three separate military services. In 1961, DOD's Research and Development chief, Dr. Harold Brown (later President Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Defense), sold then-SecDef Robert McNamara on the efficiencies of making the F-111 a common design for the Air Force, Navy, and Strategic Air Command, asserting that one basic design could do nuclear bombing, conventional bombing, air-to-air dogfighting, radar interception for the fleet, and even close support of ground forces. This was the basis for buying 1,706 aircraft for just $2.9 million per copy, to be achieved by the cost reducing "learning curve" attributed to such long production runs.

Quite similarly, the F-35 started life in 1991 as a US Air Force Multi-Role Fighter (MRF), a multi-mission bomber and fighter (mostly bomber) to replace the F-16. The plane's real mission was not a well-defined combat task but rather to be the "low" cost (and performance) counterpart to the more exquisite "high" end F-22 fighter. In 1993, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) crossbred the Air Force's MRF concept with a stealthy, supersonic, vertical takeoff pipedream for the Marines and others. The marriage, urged on by Lockheed, turned the Air Force's single service, multi-role MRF into a common (well, almost common) design that would perform interdiction bombing, air-to-air, fleet air defense, and close support for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. DARPA dubbed their tri-Service concoction the Combined Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF).

Once again promising the imagined cost savings of a multi-role, multi-service aircraft, DARPA sold the concept to another unsuspecting secretary of defense, former congressman Les Aspin. He endorsed the project in his 1993 Bottom Up Review (BUR), the progenitor of future waves of bureaucratic self-review, now called "Quadrennial Defense Reviews." Aspin and a coterie of newcomers to Pentagon (many of them now senior in the Obama Pentagon) renamed the project JAST (Joint Advanced Strike Technology), and Congress speedily approved two JAST technology demonstrator (not prototype) contracts for three quarters of a billion dollars.

JAST then became JSF, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the new JSF office promptly floated a plan, very much in the F-111 tradition, for loading up the military services with a long production run of nearly 3,000 planes for just $28 to $38 million each.

Unlike the marketing appeal of the F-111's super sexy swing wing, the JSF's high tech allure was a bit wan: a warmed-over, lesser version of the F-22's stealth; a little more data-linking; a few more bombing computers than the F-22 and way less air-to-air maneuverability (not that the F-22 is any world beater). The only real firsts were a helmet-mounted sight that purports to display any threat or target in the world and a bank of onboard computers requiring a horrific 7.5 million lines of software code.

Both the initial F-111 and the F-35 designs - each grossly too heavy and hideously lacking in maneuverability from the very start - were further compromised by the bureaucratically invented requirement to serve multiple missions and multiple Services. The F-111's drag was greatly increased by the Navy's perfectly senseless requirement for side-by-side seating; the structural weight and the production commonality was compromised by having a different wing and nose section for the Air Force and Navy versions; and the Navy-instigated switch to an unsuitable high bypass fan engine caused endless problems with inlets, compressor stalls and excessive aft end drag. Similarly, the F-35, already overweight, has suffered serious structural weight penalties to accommodate the Navy's larger wing and carrier landing requirements as well as the Marines' Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) engrossed fan-carrying fuselage midsection with its shrunken bomb bay. The impact of the three Services' disparate specifications is huge: the Government Accountability Office has found that only 30 percent of components of the F-35's three models are shared. So much for commonality savings.

In truth, neither plane has (or had) any real multi-mission ability. They can serve only as lumbering bomb trucks, much too prone to losses from enemy fighter aircraft and vulnerable to antiaircraft guns if they operate at low altitude because of their thin skins. Their unmaneuverability also means that any radar missile that can see them can kill them.

The Air Force rushed six F-111s into Vietnam combat in early 1968. Though they flew only night bombing missions (for which combat losses are typically negligible) in the least defended areas, three were lost in the first 55 missions. Accuracy of the much-vaunted radar bombing system was another black eye: half the bombs hit a half mile or more from the target. An embarrassingly hasty withdrawal from combat ensued.

In 1972, the F-111s tried a second turn in combat. The very first six-ship mission had four planes abort due to system failures; one never found the target and one reached the target but never returned. In toto, the 48 F-111s deployed only managed to fly about once every 2 ½ days.

Similarly--and for the same reasons of unmaneuverability and vulnerability - Air Force and Navy F-35s in combat will never fly anything but bomb truck missions in lightly defended areas out of reach of enemy fighters. As for the Marines' range- and payload-limited STOVL F-35B, it will never deliver close support to marines on the ground from less than 10,000 feet without a promise that there's not an AAA gun or shoulder-fired missile in sight. With the F-35B's inadequate loiter time, the Marines can forget about all-day air cover--a crucial component of effective close support.

The F-111 program produced one-third the number of planes planned at over five times the unit cost: 1,706 were planned at $2.9 million unit cost--in contrast to an actual 541 built at $15.1 million each, in 1960's dollars. The F-35 was originally sold on the basis of buying 2,866 US planes at $28 to $38 million each in contemporary dollars. Those promises are long gone; as we now know, the current official estimate is for a unit cost of $132 million each, soon to go up to $158 million each.

That, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. With 97 percent of flight testing still unflown, we are certainly facing billions of dollars more in major rework to correct flight test problems sure to be found throughout the airframe, engine, electronics and software. Then, because the flight test program is designed to explore only 17 percent of the F-35's flight characteristics, still more problems are sure to be found after the aircraft is deployed - at the potential expense of pilot lives and, of course, lots more money. In the end, expect F-35 unit cost to exceed $200 million, or more.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had the good sense to stop F-22 production at 188 aircraft. Its unit cost had exploded to $355 million each, all for an aircraft that has not flown a single mission in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan since it was declared operational in December 2005.

The F-111 and F-22 ancestry of the F-35 help to explain why it should be canceled.

Q10. Are there any particular issues that could sway the USAF to decide against a South Burlington beddown (or a beddown in any particular location?)

A.Some believe the Navy will back out of the F-35 program, just like it did with the naval variant of the F-111 and, later, the F-16. Pending new revelations, the Air Force seems wedded to the airplane, at least for now. Next year, Navy procurement costs for the F-35 hit a high plateau.It will be then that the Navy will have to decide to live with the soaring expense and disappointing performance, or not. Should the Navy decide to go down another road, the Air Force version of the F-35 may even become too dear for it too endure as well. That would make the decision for South Burlington easy.

But such an easy way out is unlikely. Most, but not all, in the Pentagon want to persist with the F-35. That will leave South Burlington alone in its quest to fully understand the implications of housing the F-35, and it will leave the Vermont Air National Guard, and the rest of the nation, alone to bear the consequences - in all the ways they will occur.