Pentagon's Priciest Project, F-35, Misses International Debut
July 25, 2014 10:18 AM
Aerial show appearances are scrapped amid engine failures, fears of stormy weather
To the surprise of few, the troubled Lockheed Martin Corp. (
) F-35 fighter jet project suffered
another embarrassing setback
last week. And this time the fighter's embarrassment was broadcast on an international stage, threatening to sway foreign buyers who are
already second-guessing their commitment
to the increasingly bedeviled jet.
I. The Show (Must Not) Go On
The U.S. Military was
forced to cancel
the F-35's ballyhooed (and long-overdue) international debut, which was supposed to be held at the United Kingdom's July 19-20
2014 Farnborough International Airshow
. A combination of concerns of stormy weather and fighter's engine design forced the embarrassing last minute cancellation.
Last month an F-35's engine caught fire. After an investigation and grounding of America's small, roughly 100 plane test fleet, it was determined the cause of the fire was determined to be a lose cowling in the engine which rubbed against the jet engine's turbine blades. Fixes were ordered and the no-fly order was lifted on July 3.
America has poured over $400B USD of its money alone on the F-35 and is on the hook for over 2,400 of the next-generation fighter jets. International allies like the UK have poured tens of billions more into the project and ordered over 500 units of the much-hyped fighter.
George Standridge, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics' business development chief,
, in 2006:
[The F-35] fighters bring an order of magnitude increase in capability, survivability and supportability over legacy fighters, at a significantly lower cost and will transform defense worldwide.
On paper the F-35 seems a reasonable design, compared to its predecessors -- the "Fighter Teen Series" which included the much beloved F-16 and
. Indeed what was on paper sounded great: replace traditional two-engines for a more powerful single engine; add best-available dog-fight stealth; create the best electronic air-combat awareness system; and, lastly, toss in an industry leading ordinance.
II. No Longer Grounded, But Still Limping Along
But today, the craft is essentially crippled from an effective combat standpoint. Even with the no-flight order lifted it's been limited to:
18º angle of attack (~1/3rd spec.)
Mach 0.9 (50% spec.)
-1/3g (1/3rd spec.)
For those who
claimed the F-35 was "on track" last year
, it now appears anything but. Yet again it's fallen behind and facing more expensive redesigns.
Rear Admiral John Kirby shared the bad news with reporters last week, telling them the troubled jet would be a no-show at the air show, commenting:
I can confirm that the Department of Defense in concert with our partners in the UK has decided not to send Marine Corps and UK F-35B aircraft across the Atlantic to participate in the Farnborough air show.
While we're disappointed that we're not going to be able to participate in the air show, we remain fully committed to the program itself and look forward to future opportunities to showcase its capabilities to allies and to partners.
We're actually glad for the news today to get the aircraft back in the air even if it is limited - we fully expect to work our way through this problem and restore the aircraft to full operational capability in the near future.
Admiral Kirby said that many factors including "operational risk, the weather, ground time, maintenance issues" triggered the decision.
III. Well Over Budget
In 2001 when Lockheed Martin won the award for the fighter, it
it could built over 2,850 fighters for roughly $233B USD -- $314B USD in today's dollars. That's roughly $110M USD per jet. By 2012 it estimated it could deliver just over 2,450 (14 percent less jets) for $395.7B USD -- $411M USD (31 percent more money). That's roughly $168M USD per jet --
50 percent more
Lifetime costs have similarly ballooned
roughly 50 percent, with inflation factored in. At last reckoning the F-35 program is expected to cost the U.S. roughly $1.51T USD over its lifetime -- or roughly $618M USD per jet, up from internal estimates of $1T USD. Quite simply put, the F-35 is
the most expensive defense project of all time
Lockheed has overshot the unit cost (w/ development considered) and the lifetime cost by roughly 50 percent, making the nation's most expensive defense project even pricier. [Image Source: QuickMeme]
That would be fine and dandy if the fighter was the best fighter of all time. But in today's flawed form it's far from that.
Add to that the fact that in January the Pentagon reported that
only one in three
delivered F-35s was "airworthy"
(could fly) and it becomes apparent that Lockheed has only delivered 33 prototypes that were even partially working enough to fly. And even those that can fly are severely constrained in their testing due to design flaws.
Winslow Wheeler, a defense budget expert,
Even if the F-35 is released to participate at Farnborough, there may be a new problem: weather predictions for next week in England are not good, and the F-35 has real issues flying near thunder and rainstorms; it even has problems with wet runways.
Mr. Wheeler has been an outspoken critic of the F-35's progress. As the Director of the
Straus Military Reform Project
Center for Defense Information
(CDI), he has contributed criticism of the project both on his blog and in various other publications, including
Yet for every critic there
remains an eternal optimist
. Those who stand behind the fighter see it for what Lockheed promised it would be -- the greatest fighter of all time. They see it for what it could be, perhaps, if only it were able to overcome its plethora of problems.
Current U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Charles Timothy "Chuck" Hagel appears to fall into that category. He tried to put a positive spin on this setback, as well,
This aircraft is the future of fighter aircraft for all our services. The F-35 is as big a project as we have and we’ve got a lot riding on it. I know there are issues, but I don’t know a platform that we’ve ever had, we’ve ever designed, we’ve ever tried and then put into service that didn’t go through issues.
Technically he's right -- historically speaking, most jet fighters had some issues during their development cycle.
But the problem isn't just that it's
issues. It's that the F-35 has had more issues and missed its production/cost targets farther than any other production jet design in the history of America's military. In short, time is running out to fix the F-35.
IV. F-35 was Deemed "Less Risky" Than Boeing Alternative
The F-35 began life as Lockheed's bid on the 1996 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a planned fifth generation multi-role fighter jet. Under the plan, the JSF would replace the aging AV-8B, F-16, F/A-18, and A-10 (most varieties). It would also add support to
the newer Lockheed F-22
, which at the time was still in the testing stage.
After a half decade of deliberation, the Pentagon finally made up its mind. In 2001 Lockheed celebrated when its X-35 beat out the Boeing Comp.'s (
) X-32 to win the JSF contract. In what would prove an ironic reasoning, the X-35 was selected, in part, over Boeing's design because it was deemed "low risk".
In retrospect, abandoning the tried and true methodology of using two smaller jet engines in carrier-destined jets, in favor of one larger engine was perhaps a risky strategy. Likewise, the jet's
unprecedented plethora of sensors and bleeding edge electronics
-- while potentially great -- carried the risk of producing an ugly mess if the requisite massive body of code wasn't perfectly planned and tuned.
Then there was the issue of weapons. Could a fighter that was already a bit behind in the weight-to-thrust department truly hope to carry the massive heavy arsenal that Lockheed claimed? And last but not least, stealth fighters were hardly a proven technology at the time; the F-22 was maturing but still struggling in some regards.
But in 2001, few saw these storm clouds brewing on the horizon.
The Lockheed Martin X-35 beat out the Boeing X-32 (pictured) for the JSF contract.
In the defense sector, Lockheed quickly won over most players (well, besides Boeing) to its increasingly exotic design. Some of the biggest members of America and Britain's military-industrial complex -- including United Technologies Corp. (
) subsidiary Pratt & Whitney, Northrop Grumman Corp. (
), BAE Systems plc (LON:BA), General Dynamics Corp. (
), Raytheon Comp. (
) -- banded together under the project leadership of Lockheed Martin. Together they set forth to produce the X-35, which was rechristened the F-35 "Lightning II."
In 2006, to much applause, production began. The finished craft would come in three varieties -- the F-35A (conventional take off and landing (CTOL)), the F-35B (short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL)), and the F-35C (short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL)). Together these varieties would
serve every branch of the U.S. military's air supremacy needs
, according to Lockheed.
The builders eagerly awaited what would surely be a massive payday. Raytheon would make much of armaments (e.g. AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles) while Northrop-Grumman would do the electronics and split the sensor systems with BAE. Pratt & Whitney would provide the engine.
The U.S. government was sold. It planned for orders of 2,850+ F-35As, F-35Bs, and F-35Cs.
V. The Cracks (Sometimes Literally) Begin to Show
After the first few years of testing, however, problems became apparent. Almost immediately
cost overruns were reported
The plane was a bit heavy for
its single, monolithic engine
. And as that engine was pushed to produce more and more thrust, it too got heavier. And it also got hotter, which posed difficulties particularly with the F-35B variant, as the engines could damage carrier decks and parts quickly deteriorated.
The F-35 has a single monolithic engine, rather than the more common two-engine design.
[Image Source: RAF]
The F-35C required redesigns to the tailhook to better "catch" the plane on landing. It still faces some tough issues; it cannot undergo major repairs at sea as the engine is too large, and its control surfaces in 2011 were afflicted with software bugs. After its numerous redesigns, the folding-wingtip fighter is only now about ready to undergo testing at sea, with oceanic trials scheduled to begin in
The F-35A has
suffered turbine issues
-- perhaps because it's been pushed the hardest as it's suffered less other issues and hence been eligible for more flight testing. An F-35A saw turbine cracking during a 2013 test flight, and most recently a F-35A suffered a failure last month. Frank Kendall, head of Pentagon acquisition, described:
[The] blades in the engine’s low-pressure turbine and the surrounding cowl rubbed much more than is acceptable and a blade failed.
A F135 engine from Pratt Whitney [Image Source: Aviation Week]
was considered too risky for vertical takeoff and landing by the U.S. Marine Corps, forcing Lockheed Martin to exclusively conduct tests with its own staff pilots. The F-35B was prone to failure due to poorly designed tires, which have undergone several revisions. It's also suffered from multiple incidents of bulkhead cracking, which have grounded the fleet of F-35s at times.
Oil leaks and generator failures
also grounded the craft.
The vertical takeoff and landing components saw "an unacceptable wear rate". The ejection seat also reportedly has failed a number of times, leading to a serious risk of pilot fatality. Lockheed Martin's solution was to take the aircraft home to land bases regularly for costly repairs. The USMCs solution was to use the vertical takeoff sparingly, effectively abandoning the star feature of the F-35B.
Further the overall design is less than stellar -- it's stealthier than the F-22 when it comes to deadly threats (missiles, enemy fighters) due to a lower frontal radar profile, but is easier to spot from bottom-up radar, where it has a bigger profile than the F-22.
VI. "Can't Turn, Can't Climb, Can't Run"
Despite its tremendous thrust (with its engine being the most powerful fighter jet engine in the world) its lack of a second engine (and comparable weight to past models) has led it to struggle in maneuvering and acceleration. It reportedly can only reach its top claimed speed of mach 1.6 if it uses almost all its fuel performing complex acceleration maneuvers. Former RAND author John Stillion
"can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run."
Lockheed's helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) partner Vision Systems International (VSI) -- a joint subsidiary of Elbit Systems Ltd. (
) and Rockwell Collins, Inc. (
provided such poor visibility that it posed a risk to pilots
. Lockheed was
forced to recruit BAE
for a redesign. But when VSI produced an improved third generation model the BAE prototypes were deemed less effective, hence more money was wasted, even as the helmet program continues to face criticism.
[Image Source:VSI/Elbit/Rockwell Collins]
(A similar waste occurred with
the design of a second engine
, amidst the struggles of the first engine, which remains the in-use design.)
Due to the visibility issues from the helmet, the F-35A was
only able to start nighttime testing this April
; eight years after the first prototypes were delivered.
Lockheed Martin defends the fighter arguing that it can achieve the maximum angle of attack and that it has unsurpassed electronic awareness. However the latter claim is somewhat questionable given that the code has
ballooned to 24 million
lines of code. More fixes are planned, but
the pace of patches has been reduced to a snail crawl
given the size of the code.
Reports indicate the aircraft confuses its flares for incoming missiles, that its inertial navigation system does not work, and its radar performs poorly. According to Pentagon officials, software bugs are the "
number one technical challenge
" facing the F-35 -- which is telling, given all its mechanical design flaws.
That's not terribly surprising -- the code is appalling massive to the point of perhaps being beyond salvation.
VII. An Aerial Boondoggle of Epic Proportions
The fighter also has fundamental logistical issues. The body materials and stealth coatings leave the fighter highly vulnerable to (ironically, enough) lightning, with a single strike likely proving deadly. Combined with the tire issues, the aircraft (as mentioned) has basically been
deemed basically unflyable during storms
And then there are the range issues. As the large external fuel tanks of the "Fighter Teen Series" (F-15, F-16, F/A-18) were dropped for stealth, the F-35 has been reduced to "short range". Stealth conformal tanks may help solve this issue, but lack of a long ferry range remains a problem as long as the F-35's carrier-bound variants remain problem plagued.
At the end of 2013, only 100 F-35s had been produced out of thousands of orders from the U.S., United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
[Image Source: USAF]
To summarize the F-35: it's underpowered, it's clumsy, it's short ranged, it's somewhat slow, it's a befuttled mess of error-prone code driven by and driving extremely sophisticated electronics. It might be a fierce foe -- if it doesn't happen to be stormy out, if you're near a U.S. carrier or base conducive for the fighter's short range, and if it isn't malfunctioning. It's
prone to mechanical failures
being produced at a far slower rate than expected, and it's costing far more
than was expected.
And yet like moths to the flame, an international coalition of countries led by the U.S. can't help but find themselves smitten with this flawed fighter. As they pour ever more money into the damage design, its proponents see the F-35 in terms of what it could be -- if only everything worked as it should. But the F-35's growing legion of critics point to the fighter's litany of problems both financial and technological. They say it's time to face the reality of the F-35 is -- an aerial boondoggle of epic proportions.
Marine Corps Times
The Fiscal Times
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