November 20, 2022

The Case for the F-35

Over the past decade, a great deal of ink has been spilled about the F-35. It's often lambasted as overpriced and useless in the face of modern threats. We should cancel the whole thing and either buy improved versions of existing fighters or replace it with the drones which will soon dominate the sky.

As you can probably guess from the title of this post, I don't think any of this is true. While I will certainly not defend the F-35 program as a paragon of good management, it has produced an aircraft that is already very capable, and will become more so with each passing year. It may not be exactly what I would have wanted if I was given a time machine and command of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program in the early 90s, but the fighters being built today are fairly reasonably priced, and more effective than any other fighter in the world with the possible exception of the F-22 Raptor.

"But Bean," a hypothetical detractor asks, "how can you say that when the entire program will cost something like $1.5 trillion, and has produced an aircraft which can't dogfight and is generally less effective than existing aircraft?" I will start by dealing with the issue of cost. Yes, it may cost $1.5 trillion over the next 50 years, but that's the entire program cost, including R&D, procurement, operations, maintenance and sustainment. This is a number that is only really relevant before the program has begun, when you're using it to compare the cost of multiple ways of accomplishing the same goal. I've written about this stuff before. Because it's been about 25 years since we had a clean sheet of paper, it's worth noting that a lot of that $1.5 trillion has already been spent in developing the three types and building 840 or so aircraft. Even if we shut down the line immediately, we would probably want to make use of said aircraft going forward, which would mean both the marginal costs of flying them and the sustainment costs involved in keeping them combat-capable. Said sustainment costs are pretty flat with the number of airframes involved, and would make up a significant portion of the total budget.


The F-35 production line1

But there's a second problem here, which is that while fighters are fun, they're expensive enough that military forces don't buy them for no reason, and it seems safe to assume that something else would have to be procured to fill the gap in capabilities left by the hundreds of F-35s that we just axed.2 Exactly how much that will cost is left as an exercise to the reader, although if you're proposing "we'll develop a new plane and do it better", then I will point out that the track record of those kind of programs saving enough to pay back their R&D cost is not good.


Air Force F-35As on the runway

But why would we need to bother with a new airplane? Existing planes are much cheaper and perfectly adequate, right? Again, no. Aircraft costing is quite complicated, and tends to vary strongly with production volume. A lot of criticism uses older figures for the competitor aircraft, when production volumes were significantly higher than they are now, and the popular wisdom on this issue is also based on the period when F-35 production was still ramping up, and the aircraft were correspondingly more expensive. Today, you're going to get more F-35As for your money than any other fighter currently in production with the possible exception of the F-16, thanks to the fact that something like 2,000 are scheduled to be built over the next decade. For instance, the FY22 buy of 48 F-35As cost only $95 million each, with the B and C models coming in slightly more expensive due to lower volume and higher complexity. Costs of legacy fighters would come down if we turned up the volume again, but we'd want upgrades to keep them viable, which would eat up savings. Also, many of the numbers thrown about are not adjusted for inflation.


A Marine F-35B lands aboard USS America

Ah. But that only covers procurement costs, and the F-35 is significantly more expensive to fly, isn't it? Well, yes. As of 2019, the cost per flight hour was about $44k, twice that for an F-16, but efforts are underway to bring this down, with the value having fallen by 18% over the next two years. The exact value they're shooting for is $25k in FY12 dollars, which is still higher than most other fighters, but entirely reasonable given the capability the F-35 brings to the table.


The future of American Airpower?

Because ultimately what we care about is not cost per se but how much we are getting for our money. After all, an F-16 costs a lot more per hour than a P-51, but nobody is suggesting that it was a bad decision to switch to jet fighters. The F-35 has two major advantages over previous fighters. First, it's designed to be stealthy. This doesn't mean it's impossible to detect, but it does mean that various sensors won't be able to pick it up until it is much closer. In particular, it's stealth is optimized against relatively short-wavelength radars, the kinds used for fire control. Longer-wavelength radars might well be able to pick it up, but for reasons of basic physics, they generally can't track precisely enough to provide targeting data. Stealth has often been oversold, but this is a useful capability as our enemies introduce more and more capable air defenses.


The F-35's Helmet-Mounted Display

Second, it's designed to be able to integrate information from various sensors, both its own and offboard, in a way never before done by a tactical aircraft. Each F-35 has not only a very capable APG-81 AESA radar, which can serve not only as a targeting sensor but is also capable of electronic warfare and even high-bandwidth communications, but also an integrated Electro-Optical Targeting System, a very fancy IR camera that replaces more conventional targeting pods, and the Distributed Aperture System, a series of IR cameras that give a 360° view of the airspace around the aircraft. Imagery from the DAS is fed to the pilot's helmet-mounted display, allowing him to literally look through the airplane for other aircraft. Other F-35s can provide data using a special directional datalink which can be used without compromising stealth, while other platforms can contribute through the more conventional Link 16. The fighter's computers then integrate all of this, potentially overcoming enemy stealth in the process, to give the pilot an unmatched understanding of what's going on around him. Given that in Vietnam, 85% of aircraft shot down never saw their attacker, this gives the F-35 a huge advantage in air combat. More generally, this sort of sensor fusion is clearly the way of the future, but it's also extremely difficult, and problems with the relevant software have been a major contributor to the delays in the program.


A Navy F-35C traps aboard Nimitz

More broadly, the F-35 is as much a software program as it is a hardware program and the software is still under development, which a lot of people don't seem to realize. A few years ago, it was common to hear criticism of the program on the grounds that it was only capable of carrying a few weapons. I actually work in weapons integration (not on the F-35) and you're looking at tens of millions of dollars and a couple of years to fit a new weapon onto a jet. You have to make sure that the fighter's computers can talk to the weapon successfully, that the weapon and structure can take the strain even if the fighter maneuvers heavily, and that there won't be weird aerodynamic effects, either while the weapon is on the plane or after it has left.3 This has largely cleared up as this process has been completed for more weapons, and as other capabilities have come online.


F-35's also serve around the world, from Israel...

This also explains a lot of the fury around the F-35's dogfighting capabilities we saw back around 2015. First, it's worth pointing out that one major reasons to invest in things like sensor fusion is to avoid dogfighting in the first place. Add in modern short-range AAMs, which are capable of launching at targets that are 90° or more off the nose of the plane, and you start to question the need for dogfighting in general.4 But even if we don't accept this, there's still the fact that the reports weren't accurate. The aircraft in the famous 2015 case was one of the first prototypes, and lacked most of the fancy sensor and software systems, as well as the radar-absorbent coating fitted to operational aircraft. But the most important fact was that it was not capable of pulling the Gs that an operational F-35 can, a major handicap in air combat. More recent reports have the F-35 performing very well across the board.


to Norway...

There's also criticism from the opposite direction, that we should be buying drones instead. I've largely said my piece on that earlier this year, but the short version is that in the areas where they are useful, unmanned systems have already taken over. We call them things like "cruise missiles" and "AAMs". But in a world where bandwidth can't be guaranteed to be either plentiful or reliable, the case for sending more sophisticated drones in on their own is dubious at best. The more likely scenario is that drone fighters will be developed to accompany manned fighter aircraft, perhaps best illustrated by the Australian Loyal Wingman program. Moving the human controller close to the drone would greatly reduce the bandwidth headaches, while also reducing the number of manned fighters needed near the front lines. But a reduced number isn't the same as zero, and the F-35 is an ideal platform to serve as a controller for these new drones.


to Japan.

In a lot of ways, this post is a few years too late. Most prominent military procurement programs go through three phases, at least in the public discourse. Early on, they are miraculous, and will solve all problems. They're cheaper than what we have now, and far more capable. Then, as they come closer to entering service, problems show up, and the media turns on the program. It's now the worst thing ever, behind schedule, over budget, and useless compared to what it's supposed to replace if not actively dangerous to our brave troops. Lastly, these problems get resolved, and it becomes a perfectly normal, if imperfect, weapons system, eventually celebrated as a fine example of American engineering, and the benchmark against which the next system will be measured. The same process has taken place with the F-111, F-14, F-15, F-16, F-22 and V-22, and it will no doubt happen again. If I'd written this five years ago, when the F-35 was in the depths of step 2, it would have been prophetic. Instead, we're now seeing the transition into step 3, and it looks far less impressive. All I can say is that I was busy with other things, but I can point to archived internet discussions where I made many of these same points. In any case, while the F-35 isn't perfect, it's clearly the best solution available for the threats the US and its allies face today.


1 Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

2 This ignores both the political ramifications of shutting down the F-35 line, although a minimum of 1% of the House and 2% of the Senate will be gunning for you, possibly literally because they are from Texas, and the diplomatic ramifications, as a lot of America's allies have selected it and none have all of their planes yet.

3 This isn't a joke. There have been cases of bombs coming back up and hitting a plane because of weird aerodynamic stuff.

4 An assertion that I am sure will provoke a dogfight of its own in the comments.

Comments

  1. November 20, 2022arielby said...

    A 1 trillion dollar software project sounds huge, but then you remember that

    1. It’s defense contractors doing the work, so 70% of the time goes to useless meetings about why not to do something that is obviously necessary, 20% of the time to working around that someone hadn’t done something that is obviously necessary, 8% of the time doing integration tests so that things will sort of work in practice, and 2% doing actual civilian-style R&D, but inefficiently since you can’t get good programmers.

    2. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be done to have an effective aerospace industry, and I imagine that a lot of it got billed to the F-35 since it has a big budget. Say, all sorts of research teams improving radar processing, aerodynamic modeling, cameras, non-destructive examination, everything.

    You need to have a team do , you have a F-35 contract that is cost-plus with a big budget so you find why that improvement is actually because of the F-35.

  2. November 20, 2022Mike Kozlowski said...

    ...Let me start by pointing out something I've believed VERY strongly for more than a decade now: the -35 is NOT a fighter. It is a very low observable light bomber with a really robust air-to-air capability. You could justify a B-series number, but Congress would have soiled itself, and the Allies would have run from it like the Devil from holy water. Heck, one can make a very good argument for an A-series number, but USAF would have deep-sixed the entire program before letting that happen.

    As far as 'dogfighting' goes, keep this in mind first and foremost - if a bird like the -35 finds itself in a dogfight, someone has screwed up royally. The entire point of the airplane when fighting other aircraft is to kill the bad guys before the bad guys even know they are there. Datalinked into the E-3 (and the upcoming Wedgetail), the -35 doesn't even have to have its radars ON - as long as the targets are on the AWACS screens, then that's it. The newest AIM-120 mods are more than reliable enough to take care of matters.

    There's also the issue that during the dogfight exercises, the -35 - with good pilots with only a comparatively low number of hours on the plane - were up against the still effective and maneuverable F-16 and F-15, flown by pilots with thousands of hours on the airframes.

    I'm not a die-hard -35 supporter, and for many years was just the opposite. However, it is slowly developing into a damned good aircraft. I wonder, though, if we'll ever get it 100% and have them in tactically useful numbers.

  3. November 20, 2022bean said...

    @arielby

    I find a lot of that too cynical, and I'm immensely cynical about the defense industry in general. What exactly is wrong with the industry is a complicated topic, but the issues are structural, and definitely not things we could really solve by getting better contractors. That 70% of the time is accurate, but it's "trying to deal with all of the stuff the government throws at us". We'd generally like to do better, but the system won't let us.

    I also don't think you're right about industry overhead getting shoved into the F-35. For various reasons, the Federal Government tends to frown on that, so most of those facilities are either paid for directly or bill the programs that use them. The F-35 is undoubtedly a major user, but they pay proportionate to that. You're more right about the R&D outcomes, and I have no doubt that F-35 tech will end up in future planes.

    @Mike

    With you on the F-35 not really being a fighter, and on the reasons it has an F designation anyway. (Wouldn't be the first time that had happened, either.) But in fairness, I believe we picked that up from the same source.

  4. November 20, 2022Lambert said...

    Presumably America is confident enough in the supremacy of its air assets that it doesn't expect the part of the conflict where the F-35 is going up against enemy fighters to last very long.

  5. November 20, 2022jseliger said...

    "There’s also criticism from the opposite direction, that we should be buying drones instead. I’ve largely said my piece on that earlier this year, but the short version is that in the areas where they are useful, unmanned systems have already taken over. We call them things like “cruise missiles” and “AAMs”."

    I'm not an expert here but I've read claims that China, if it invades Taiwan, will use some combinations of missiles, drones, and drone-missile hybrids to destroy or render ineffective landing strips and maintenance fields necessary for effective maned fighter aircraft deployment. Yes, there are missile defenses, but they'll be overwhelmed by the sheer number of missiles and drones, and thus the F-35 will be a powerful fighter that can't be effectively deployed.

    Is this true? No one will really know until the moment, but it seems and sounds plausible.

    "In any case, while the F-35 isn’t perfect, it’s clearly the best solution available for the threats the US and its allies face today."

    Unless the real threats are from drones and missiles that cost anywhere from 1/10th to 1/100th to even less than an F-35, and thus can be produced in far greater quantities for a given outlay.

  6. November 20, 2022arielby said...

    @bean

    I don’t think that the problem is just that the contractors are greedy, lazy and stupid (although some are). The entire industry-army-government complex of procurers, contractors and subcontractors just makes for a world full of places where time, money and quality goes to pointless negotiations between contractors rather than real work to a degree you just don’t see in the real private sector.

    For overhead - if the cost of developing radar for 5 users is 1.5x the cost of developing radar for 1 user, you have to split the cost somehow. And one of the users is the F-35, you’ll like to assign it the full cost, and the other 4 projects 0.125x of the cost.

  7. November 20, 2022John Schilling said...

    @Jseliger: A drone that costs 1/10th as much as an F-35 is going to be something like a Bayraktar TB-3. That's not a real threat to an F-35, or whatever an F-35 is trying to protect, even if you've got ten times as many of them. We can imagine a Bayraktar optimized for air combat, but it's not going to have the sensors and other electronics an F-35 does. So it's never going to find targets for its cheap short-range air-to-air missiles before it suddenly stops existing. And if you send ten Bayraktars against an F-35's airbase, then again they will stop existing before they get there.

    At 1/100th the cost of an F-35, you'll get something like a Chengdu GJ-1, China's knock-off of the Predator I. That's never going to be a threat in air combat. In a swarming deep strike attack against an airbase, a hundred of them might pose a problem in that an F-35 would run out of ammunition by the time it shot down more than 10-15% of the force - though it's electronic attack functions might be able to soft-kill them with a touch of a button. If not, an AH-64 with a load of APKWS missiles would be able to take out most of the force in short order. And if we actually see someone buying GJ-1s by the thousand, we'll probably just figure out how to put rotary APKWS launchers (or laser weapons) in the F-35's weapon bay.

    The sort of drones that are supposed to actually threaten an F-35, are necessarily sophisticated lightweight multirole combat aircraft in their own right, the sort which could just as well be piloted and were piloted thirty years ago. Swapping out the pilot for a bunch of very capable specialized electronics doesn't make them cheaper; we're talking maybe half to a third the price of an F-35. But also less capable, because that money wasn't going to the pilot, it was going to the sensors and weapons and other systems that you left behind. We've had the "USAF is stoopid for not buying lots of cheap F-5s instead of gold-plated F-15s" debate for generations now, and it keeps turning out that the highly capable platforms are worth the cost.

    As for a barrage of missiles taking out all the airbases in the first five minutes of the battle, Russia had more and better missiles than China, and the Ukrainian air force is still flying.

  8. November 20, 2022Hugh Fisher said...

    Over the years I've read a couple of critiques that the number one problem with the F-35, without which it would have been much cheaper and quicker to develop and a more capable aircraft, is the requirement for a STOVL version. Without the -B variant the body would have been simpler, the flight software simpler, shaving every last gram of weight could have been postponed. And one big weapons bay instead of two tiny ones either side of the lift fan drive shaft.

  9. November 20, 2022arielby said...

    @John Schilling

    One of the only good things to come from the horrible Russo-Ukraine War is that it is possible to shut up people that literally believe Nasrallah’s claim of being able to destroy Israel with precise conventional missiles.

    Cause major destruction - yes. Worse than the Intifada in a single week - maybe yes. Make the war bad idea for Israel - war is a bad idea even if they fire 0 rockets. Cause an apocalypse - no. Destroy the Israeli Air Force on the ground - hell no.

    I think people got an overly-blue version of destruction from the air after the entire USAF played Unrestricted Bomb Airlines over Iraq twice.

  10. November 20, 2022Emilio said...

    A friend of my brother, who is an OF-7 in the Italian AF, once told him: "The F-35 is an exceptional aircraft with some dentition problems."

    The interesting fact is that EVERY other aircraft in history always had dentition problems...

  11. November 20, 2022Hugh Fisher said...

    @John Schilling My criticism of the USAF is not that they buy complex systems, but that the complex systems are almost invariably a high performance crewed aircraft. Even for drones the USAF seems to be always escalating the complexity and cost. (The US Army seems much more willing to go cheap and expendable.) The Bayraktar isn't cheap, 5 million dollars each, but that's a fantastic deal compared to the $32 million the USAF is apparently willing to pay for a current MQ-9 Reaper.

    In Ukraine we're seeing plenty of advanced sensors and electronics, just not on crewed aircraft. Both sides have layered SAM systems that are making the skies extremely unfriendly, and after the Bayraktar successes in the opening few weeks the Russians seem to have figured out how to knock them down most of the time.

    Why not take the F-35 headset and sensor integration / fusion computers and put them in your SAM fire control vehicle?

    (And this is me asking, from complete ignorance, do the radar and missiles need to be supersonic? If you're doing air defence, not deep strike, put the F-35 electronics on a Gulfstream bizjet, or an AH-64?)

    As for taking out F-35 airbases, again it won't be a flood of cheap drones, it will be expensive high performance Khalibr or Iskander missiles. An F-35 can't defend against that.

    I'm not saying that the F-35 is useless, but maybe it's not a great idea to build nothing but F-35s?

  12. November 21, 2022Philistine said...

    @Hugh Fisher

    I agree that the STOVL requirement cost the F-35 a LOT, and not just in terms of money. But it's worth remembering that the entire JSF program originated with the need for a Harrier replacement - the F-16 and F/A-18 (and everything else) replacement programs got folded into it later - so the STOVL requirement was baked in right at the start. And if not for the F-35B, someone would be developing an entirely separate airframe to replace the Harriers, probably at a very similar total cost to the F-35 program but for a lot fewer airframes.

    (We could argue whether or not new STOVL jets are even worth pursuing - STOVL is a VERY expensive capability - but they exist, and the Harrier mafia isn't about to let them go away.)

  13. November 21, 2022Alexander said...

    Also a fan of the F35, to the point that I was quite against the development of the BAE Tempest. @Hugh Fisher An armed business jet would be more cost effective against swarms of cheap drones, but less so against modern fighters, or within range of enemy air defence. Some kind of cheap aircraft optimised for killing small turboprop drones/munitions might be worth looking into, but it would probably be quite close to a MQ-20 Avenger with APKWS, rather than a business jet with the F35's electronics. Maybe your suggestion would work as an AEW, like the G550CAEW?

    @John Schilling Do you get much improvement in performance from a missile that costs 1/10 or 1/000 of a Lightning? Since most won't be coming back from this anyway?

  14. November 21, 2022bean said...

    @arielby

    If I had been very bad, and was tasked with fixing the defense procurement system as punishment, I'd start by trying to attack a lot of those organizational boundaries, because I do think those are where the problems are.

    As for radar costs, maybe. Exactly how that stuff gets funded is complicated, and I don't think there's a lot of deliberate cost dumping.

    @Hugh

    Note that the MQ-9 and Bayraktar are not that similar beyond being drones. Given the weights in their wiki articles, an MQ-9 could in theory carry a fully-loaded Bayraktar under each wing.

    In Ukraine we’re seeing plenty of advanced sensors and electronics, just not on crewed aircraft. Both sides have layered SAM systems that are making the skies extremely unfriendly, and after the Bayraktar successes in the opening few weeks the Russians seem to have figured out how to knock them down most of the time.

    The fact that the Bayraktar was able to operate at all was frankly astonishing, and I highlighted it early on as something weird. No real surprise that the Russians got their act together. But Ukraine doesn't have access to the whole American bag of tricks for taking apart air defense systems, either. (Yes, we can give them some, but it's going to be a while before they can use the whole suite.)

    Why not take the F-35 headset and sensor integration / fusion computers and put them in your SAM fire control vehicle?

    It wouldn't be quite right for that application. Yes, we can and should upgrade our SAMs (and I hope that more air defense for the US is one result of the Ukraine war) but the specific capabilities the F-35 has are designed primarily for aircraft.

    And this is me asking, from complete ignorance, do the radar and missiles need to be supersonic? If you’re doing air defence, not deep strike, put the F-35 electronics on a Gulfstream bizjet, or an AH-64?

    In theory, that could work, although I don't think the AH-64 (or any helicopter) is a particularly good platform because of weight restrictions and low transit speed. There have been a number of proposals over the years to do things like that (two that spring to mind are fitting the A-6 with AAMs in the late Cold War to help with the Outer Air Battle and a proposal in the same era to give the B-52 AMRAAM) but they haven't really panned out so far. For the US, this is probably pretty sensible. Our doctrine requires a lot of strike aircraft (which is really what the F-35 is for), the marginal cost of making them decent fighters is fairly low, and we plan to buy enough to fill all of our air superiority needs too.

    I’m not saying that the F-35 is useless, but maybe it’s not a great idea to build nothing but F-35s?

    We are building other things, although generally less prominently. But fleet costs are also a thing, so other options have a pretty high hurdle to clear.

    @Philistine

    One of the things I think the JSF may have done wrong is to insist on a single airframe. If they'd bought the sensors and maybe engines in common and let each service do their airframe independently, things might have been better. Or Congress might have killed the sensor system.

    @Alexander

    Do you get much improvement in performance from a missile that costs 1/10 or 1/000 of a Lightning? Since most won’t be coming back from this anyway?

    1/100th of a Lightning is about a million dollars, which is in very round numbers the cost of a typical American cruise missile (JASSM or Tomahawk are both in that region). 1/10th sounds like what something like ARRW might cost.

  15. November 21, 2022Alexander said...

    The drone/missile argument is quite odd really, as it seems to conflate very vulnerable drones that would be much more use in a low intensity conflict, with missiles like ARRW or JASSM being if anything even less useful outside of a fight with a peer foe. Lightnings are somewhere in the middle in a lot of ways, so I'm not sure why they are seen as the opposite end of a spectrum.

    On the topic of building other things, do you feel the US/NATO are getting the balance right between missiles, drones and strike aircraft? It certainly isn't the case that no money is being spent on drones and missiles, but presumably the anti F35 lobby would prefer it be a bigger share, and grow faster than it currently is.

  16. November 21, 2022redRover said...

    @Alexander

    For my $0.02, I think we could in theory go further down a high/low divergence, where we have Tucanos or whatever for COIN / low-intensity conflict and more F-22s for peer warfare, but given the various political and operational constraints, we're probably doing okay.

    I think the big issue we face in peer / near peer warfare is that our fleet size has decreased so much - obviously the increased capability of each aircraft compensates for that on some level, but it also makes each aircraft that much more critical if it's lost.

    That tradeoff is probably worthwhile for direct conflict, but it seems like it also leave the cupboard relatively empty for lesser missions. Like, it's one thing to say that the F-35 is now X% more capable of defending its own base, or carrier group, which is good! But have you also lost the depth of force that would allow you to have secondary coverage of the nation's powerplants or whatever?

    Also, while the US is in a relatively unique position with respect to force size, smaller forces end up magnifying the impact of things like the Pakistani P-3 incident or the Spirit of Kansas incident.

  17. November 21, 2022Anonymous said...

    and you start to question the need for dogfighting in general.⁴ ⁴ An assertion that I am sure will provoke a dogfight of its own in the comments.

    We're happy to oblige.

    But if the enemy has sufficiently good stealth then missiles might not be viable and everything will just have to be done visually which does imply a dogfight.

    Mike Kozlowski:

    ...Let me start by pointing out something I've believed VERY strongly for more than a decade now: the -35 is NOT a fighter.

    Lambert:

    Presumably America is confident enough in the supremacy of its air assets that it doesn't expect the part of the conflict where the F-35 is going up against enemy fighters to last very long.

    John Schilling:

    We've had the "USAF is stoopid for not buying lots of cheap F-5s instead of gold-plated F-15s" debate for generations now, and it keeps turning out that the highly capable platforms are worth the cost.

    Even if the F-5 is better at air superiority the limited range and bombload mean the USAF was right to avoid it since they mostly do bombing (the F-5 makes a lot more sense for Taiwan).

    Having the best air superiority aircraft may be nice but if you're going up against obsolete downgraded export models flown by inexperienced pilots chosen more for their political reliability than combat prowess you probably wouldn't notice if you only had the second or third best fighter.

    But this of course only works if they can avoid going up against a peer opponent who doesn't also make the same mistakes they made and if big fighters are a mistake Russia and China do seem to have made it.

    High Fisher:

    As for taking out F-35 airbases, again it won't be a flood of cheap drones, it will be expensive high performance Khalibr or Iskander missiles. An F-35 can't defend against that.

    That's what Aegis ashore, etc are for.

    Philistine:

    And if not for the F-35B, someone would be developing an entirely separate airframe to replace the Harriers, probably at a very similar total cost to the F-35 program but for a lot fewer[sic] airframes.

    What would replace the Harriers if no more STOVL aircraft were to be made?

    Most likely dedicating an entire CATOBAR carrier to amphibious support, maybe having an extra flattop would be better than spending the money on a STOVL jet.

    Creating a Harrier III might also work but such a thing would inherently be low end and unsuitable for use against modern air defenses.

    redRover:

    For my $0.02, I think we could in theory go further down a high/low divergence, where we have Tucanos or whatever for COIN / low-intensity conflict and more F-22s for peer warfare, but given the various political and operational constraints, we're probably doing okay.

    Super Tucanos don't have the warload needed.

    redRover:

    Also, while the US is in a relatively unique position with respect to force size, smaller forces end up magnifying the impact of things like the Pakistani P-3 incident or the Spirit of Kansas incident.

    Which is why it pretty much has to be multirole, even if the US might be better off with separate fighters and bombers.

  18. November 22, 2022Philistine said...

    @Anonymous,

    Yes, exactly. It's not like the Marines would be going over the beach without at least one CVBG in the neighborhood anyway, so you could replace the token fixed-wing capability aboard the LHA with more whirlybirds - arguably making them better at the amphibious assault job - and put an additional Marine F-35C squadron on said large carrier(s).

    Of course it's not just the US that would have been affected, and this would also mean the RN would have had to build the QEs as CATOBAR ships. But the costs of that should have been manageable if they'd designed them that way from the start, and it's even possible that a less-expensive F-35 program might have made up the difference. To say nothing of the inherently greater range/payload capability of CATOBAR aircraft, or the ability to potentially operate AEW aircraft or tankers from the carriers.

    The Italians and Japanese would be out of luck, though, and potentially also the Koreans (IIRC they're currently reassessing whether to even build carriers, and if so whether they prefer F-35B or F-35C).

  19. November 22, 2022bean said...

    @Alexander

    On the topic of building other things, do you feel the US/NATO are getting the balance right between missiles, drones and strike aircraft?

    We'll only know that when we actually need to use the stuff. I try not to second-guess those decisions, beyond my eternal cry of "MORE AMMO"!

    It certainly isn’t the case that no money is being spent on drones and missiles, but presumably the anti F35 lobby would prefer it be a bigger share, and grow faster than it currently is.

    The anti-F-35 lobby isn't that coherent, and so far as it has a position, it's pushing for more 4.5 gen fighters.

    @redRover

    For my $0.02, I think we could in theory go further down a high/low divergence, where we have Tucanos or whatever for COIN / low-intensity conflict and more F-22s for peer warfare, but given the various political and operational constraints, we’re probably doing okay.

    The F-35 is very much a creature of the high end. It's designed for a different role than the F-22 (more light bomber, less air superiority) but it's not what you'd buy for even a medium-intensity war right now. Very much with you on buying Tucanos.

    Re fleet size, we are buying something like 2000 F-35s. It may be smaller than the current fleet, but not by that much.

    @Anonymous

    But if the enemy has sufficiently good stealth then missiles might not be viable and everything will just have to be done visually which does imply a dogfight.

    Stealth doesn't really work that way. Radar is 1/r^4, which means that at some point, the radar will actually win. Stealth just means it's closer than it otherwise would be.

    Even if the F-5 is better at air superiority the limited range and bombload mean the USAF was right to avoid it since they mostly do bombing (the F-5 makes a lot more sense for Taiwan).

    The F-15 (except the E model) is the only American combat aircraft that doesn't do bombing. They're pure air-to-air.

    Re STOVL, that's an area I'm genuinely unsure on. It was a big thing in the mid-60s, but only Harrier survived, and it got taken over by the Marine Corps, who then incorporated it into their divinely-inspired baseline. I can definitely see the utility, but I'm also unsure it's what we'd have in a perfect world. But Marine Corps Aviation is a hilariously weird thing that I really should write about.

  20. November 22, 2022redRover said...

    Isn't part of the ConOps for Harrier forward operations from semi-austere environments?

    I am sure this only happens in practice when there are also flying pigs, but I think part of the reason that the Marines prize their STOVL/VTOL capability is that in theory it gives them forward based air support, rather than just the ability to fly off of LHAs.

    Whether that's actually a useful capability, or one that's worth funding, relative to buying more CATOBAR or non-navalized aircraft is of course open for debate, but at least in theory it seems like a fairly niche capability.

    (Though I think you also get the same question on the C-17 and C-5 rough field capability - how often do they actually use that, given the risk it poses to the relatively precious airframes? C-130 is another question, of course)

  21. November 22, 2022John Schilling said...

    @Hugh Fisher: The reasons you put the fancy expensive weapons and sensors in a supersonic jet fighter rather than a modified bizjet or on the ground are:

    First, they are more likely to be in the right place at the right time because if they aren't they can move and move fast.

    Second, it is similarly harder for the enemy to plan a strategy to avoid or neutralize them, because where they are when the enemy makes his plan and where they'll be when that plan comes together aren't even close to the same.

    Third, being in a supersonic jet means you can give your missiles a ~1000 knot boost when you launch them, then turn around and give the enemy a ~1000 knot deficit that his missiles will have to make up to catch you. All else being equal, that ~2000 knot delta means you can launch your missiles while still beyond effective range of the other guy's. Even ~1000 knots will probably be decisive if a jet fighter goes up against a missile-armed bizjet or the like.

    Since roughly half the cost of something like an F-35 is in the weapons, sensors, and associated electronics, you're "only" doubling the cost to more than double the capability.

    There's still an advantage to having some of your missiles on the ground, but there is also a substantial performance hit - the NASAMS system making headlines in Ukraine uses AMRAAM missiles, but only has an engagement range of 30-50 km, compared to 100+ km for the same missile launched from the air (or for a HARM launched from the air against a ground target). You can try to make up for that with more powerful missiles launched from the ground, but e.g. the S-300 system gets its 100+ km range by using a missile ten times bigger than an AMRAAM.

  22. November 22, 2022arielby said...

    I had the idea that the first and second points are not that relevant, since all jets not named Concorde or Blackbird cruise at Mach 0.8-0.9.

    Of course, it does not hurt the usefulness as an air-breathing reusable first stage for missiles, nor for escaping from marginal enemy missiles. And don’t forget rate of turn for quickly moving from the first mode to the second.

  23. November 22, 2022Alex said...

    But Marine Corps Aviation is a hilariously weird thing that I really should write about.

    Would love an article about that. Their willingness to save budget by flying airframes that the other services would consider extremely old (or even obsolete) is pretty interesting, among other things.

  24. November 22, 2022arielby said...

    I’ll say that that despite the success of the F-35, there are still lots of missions today that are flown by cheaper aircraft - F-15E/F-16/F/A-18 (/B-52) are better bomb trucks that have enough performance to not die too much to errant air defense systems, and propellor UAVs are better for missions that require more than fleeting visual contact with the enemy.

  25. November 22, 2022Philistine said...

    That's probably true (it's been a while since a Western nation, or even a Western-armed nation, actively engaged a peer or near-peer adversary) for now. Will that be the case a decade from now? Two decades? Five? The F-35 is currently projected to be in service through 2070, after all. Sometimes you spend a little extra money to be future-proof, so that you don't suddenly find yourself with entire fleets of aircraft that are no longer capable of accomplishing anything relevant.

  26. November 22, 2022Anonymous said...

    Philistine:

    The Italians and Japanese would be out of luck, though, and potentially also the Koreans (IIRC they're currently reassessing whether to even build carriers, and if so whether they prefer F-35B or F-35C).

    Something for the allies who can't afford CATOBAR carriers then (ignoring the part about export only defense products not usually doing well), without a STOVL F-35 the best they'd probably be able to get would be a Harrier III at which point their carriers start to look like they're just for national prestige (probably the reality anyway).

    bean:

    The anti-F-35 lobby isn't that coherent, and so far as it has a position, it's pushing for more 4.5 gen fighters.

    Some parts seem to have wanted more F-22s.

    bean:

    Stealth doesn't really work that way. Radar is 1/r^4, which means that at some point, the radar will actually win. Stealth just means it's closer than it otherwise would be.

    Yes, but if your stealth design is good enough that might be within gun range.

    redRover:

    I am sure this only happens in practice when there are also flying pigs, but I think part of the reason that the Marines prize their STOVL/VTOL capability is that in theory it gives them forward based air support, rather than just the ability to fly off of LHAs.

    During WWII there were some issues with Admirals pulling their carriers away from amphibious landings despite the air support being required so now the US marines really want to have something they can operate either from short rough airstrips or from their amphibious assault ships.

    In the end though the problem was solved by putting different Admirals in charge of the carriers and it can be dealt with the same way.

    John Schilling:

    First, they are more likely to be in the right place at the right time because if they aren't they can move and move fast.

    OTOH the bizjet may be able to loiter for half a day with no need for inflight refueling.

    arielby:

    I had the idea that the first and second points are not that relevant, since all jets not named Concorde or Blackbird cruise at Mach 0.8-0.9.

    So you've never heard of the F-22?

    Alex:

    Their willingness to save budget by flying airframes that the other services would consider extremely old (or even obsolete) is pretty interesting, among other things.

    I thought it was because they didn't get any other choice.

    arielby:

    F-15E/F-16/F/A-18 (/B-52) are better bomb trucks

    If you don't need stealth the F-35 can carry external hardpoints giving it slightly more payload than the F-16 and F/A-18.

  27. November 22, 2022bean said...

    @Alex

    I can't speak to stuff like that. I'm mostly interested in the question "Why does the US Navy's Army have an Air Force, and how did we get to the point where it is at least largely responsible for a lot of the important design decisions on our latest fighter?"

    @arielby

    I'm not advocating for retiring every 4.5 gen fighter immediately and buying only F-35s from now on. This post is the positive case for the JSF, not a full analysis of the ideal aircraft force mix for the US. There isn't nearly enough ranting about the A-10 for that. Bomb trucks definitely have their place, and we should make sure to keep some. But given where we are now, I'm definitely in favor of moving in the direction of more F-35s.

    @Anonymous

    Some parts seem to have wanted more F-22s.

    I'd classify those under "incoherent". The F-22 line is very cold, and we'd have to start from something approaching scratch. I have entirely predictable thoughts on the wisdom of that, unless one of them happens to have a time machine.

    Yes, but if your stealth design is good enough that might be within gun range.

    That is extremely unlikely. Burn-through can take a while, but keep in mind that 1/r^4 means that a 10,000-fold reduction in RCS means a 10-fold decrease in range.

  28. November 23, 2022Anonymous said...

    bean:

    I'd classify those under "incoherent". The F-22 line is very cold, and we'd have to start from something approaching scratch.

    Those people seem to have wanted that back when F-22s were still being built and maybe that would've made some sense.

    bean:

    That is extremely unlikely. Burn-through can take a while, but keep in mind that 1/r^4 means that a 10,000-fold reduction in RCS means a 10-fold decrease in range.

    That seems to be what the F-117 managed compared to normal combat aircraft.

  29. November 23, 2022Hugh Fisher said...

    Ignoring comments about Marines and STOVL, back to @John Schilling...

    I still think that SAMs are going to replace fighters for air defence. (Not strike, not offensive air over someone else's territory or navy, just defending your own army and country.)

    Fighters are faster in the air and can move to where they are needed, but fighters spend more time on the ground than in the air. And that ground has to be an airbase. Missile launchers don't move during an engagement, but they can be positioned and re-positioned to a wider range of locations. Definitely in Iraq 1991 and possibly in Serbia the western air forces had a lot of trouble finding even large missile launchers.

    The performance hit is for missiles designed for aircraft, which have to be small and light. I've been re-reading the posts about the US Standard missiles. Yes they're ten times the size of an AMRAAM, and probably cost too, but that's still way cheaper than an F-35. They have around the same range, and if the velocity figures on Wikipedia can be trusted they also have at least a 2000 knot speed advantage over AMRAAM, cancelling out the fighter platform.

    My guess is that AEGIS Ashore and similar will become more and more common as the threat from high performance tactical and cruise missiles grows. If AEGIS/Standard can shoot down missiles, it won't have any trouble shooting down aircraft as well. I don't think that an F-35 or other fighter is bad at air defence, I think that the SAMs on the ground are better.

  30. November 23, 2022Doctorpat said...

    The argument that more, cheaper aircraft are better assumes the existence of a lot more pilots. Presumably you'd need those pilots to be comparable to the current pilots, but they are currently sitting around playing Victoria III. Is this a valid assumption?

  31. November 23, 2022redRover said...

    The argument that more, cheaper aircraft are better assumes the existence of a lot more pilots.

    There is probably some underlying constraint on training throughput, but 'pilot' is probably one of the more heavily sought after MOS if you can get adequate funding. Unlike some of the more mundane or difficult positions, where recruiting appears to be a challenge, (e.g. https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2022/09/30/navy-hits-its-active-duty-enlisted-recruitment-goals-but-not-officers/ ) I think if you can get people into pilot training you're probably okay.

  32. November 23, 2022redRover said...

    Random question on the fighter vs bomb truck vs ground based missiles thing - how much does availability play into it?

    To some extent fighters have high enough performance that they can sit on the ground and scramble rather than being in the air all the time, but even taking that into account it seems as if you would need a larger number of airframes to support 24/7 coverage relative to Boeing/Airbus type airframes, which in turn are more mobile but less available than ground based defenses.

    Doing very quick research, it appears that airliners average about 3k hours per year, or a bit over 33% of all hours in the year, while fighter are about a tenth of that. (Though airlines also have multiple crews per aircraft, etc.) Obviously funding plays a part, and you can probably back into the maximum sustained sortie rate by looking at the Gulf War or Iraq or something, but I doubt it would be much above 10%, especially after an initial surge when things become more maintenance constrained. (i.e. even if you have the pilots, you may not have enough people or parts to turn the plane around reliably)

    Ground based missiles are probably like 85% available?

  33. November 23, 2022bean said...

    @Anonymous

    Those people seem to have wanted that back when F-22s were still being built and maybe that would've made some sense.

    I wanted more F-22s back then, too. Again, I am writing about the situation today, not a 20-year history of US aircraft procurement options.

    That seems to be what the F-117 managed compared to normal combat aircraft.

    That's probably true, but it doesn't mean we can do it again. AIUI, we're pretty much at the limits of what stealth can do, and there's nowhere near enough room for another four orders of magnitude in RCS reduction.

    @redRover

    The airlines who fly their planes really hard do something like 50% more hours than that per year. But they're also not using military electronics, which might produce additional downtime.

    I will fully grant that low downtime is a major advantage for SAMs, although I think your analysis undercounts the ability of aircraft to scramble as needed, which fighters will do better than the FC-40 might.

  34. November 23, 2022John Schilling said...

    Addressing various comments: An SM-6 Standard is about one-twentieth the cost of an F-35. But at very best, it can shoot down one enemy target, once. And, even if it has 85% "availability" in the sense of being able to shoot when a target appears, it's probably also got 85% being-in-the-wrong-place-when-you-need-it rate.

    The F-35 can move to the right place when you need it, faster than whatever you need it to shoot down. It can probably do that even if it's parked on the ground when you need it; an F-35 can spend most of its time ready to launch in five minutes if needed. And when it shoots down it's first enemy aircraft, it's probably got at least five missiles left in the weapons bay.

    Also, when you're finished shooting down enemy aircraft, the F-35 can go out and bomb the enemy. Repeatedly. So, yes, twenty times the cost of an SM-6, or forty times the cost of an SM-2 or a Tomahawk. But unless you know the enemy is going to attack exactly once in a known location and that's it, you're probably going to need at least forty Standards and Tomahawks to match the F-35's capabilities when you need them, where you need them, as many times as you need them.

    The Ukraine war should give everyone cause to consider the role surface-to-air missiles will play in future integrated air defense systems. The USAF's traditional dismissal of the whole concept, the assertion that fast jets are all we need and SAMs are just targets, does not seem to hold up. But neither does dismissing the whole concept of fighter aircraft in an interceptor or air superiority role. An integrated air defense system needs both, and the world's current experts in the field of air defense have been asking for more fast jets from day one.

  35. November 23, 2022Philistine said...

    @Anonymous,

    For clarity's sake, in my perfect world there would have been no fixed-wing STOVL project to replace Harrier. In that case the "something for the allies who can’t afford CATOBAR carriers" would not have been a slightly-improved "Harrier III" but instead more helicopters. After all, when Garibaldi and the Izumos were designed and built their respective navies (or Maritime Self Defense Forces) only had rotary-wing aircraft available to operate from them; presumably then the Italian and Japanese governments felt that "just" helicopter carriers were already worthwhile investments even without the jets.

  36. November 24, 2022Anonymous said...

    Hugh Fisher:

    still think that SAMs are going to replace fighters for air defence.

    The US lost more planes to SAMs than MiGs in Vietnam so SAMs have played a significant role for a long time.

    But I suspect you probably still want to have multiple layers of defense, i.e. both fighters and SAMs along with offensive counter-air.

    Doctorpat:

    The argument that more, cheaper aircraft are better assumes the existence of a lot more pilots.

    Yes.

    Doctorpat:

    Presumably you'd need those pilots to be comparable to the current pilots

    This is where the problem might lie and I think it depends on how good current pilot training is at filtering the good pilots, if it is not good at determining who the aces will be then more planes is better and probably would be even if you have to take a capability hit.

    If the current system though is good at putting the future aces in the fighters then adding more planes would only help if you are putting some aces up front of a transport.

    redRover:

    Doing very quick research, it appears that airliners average about 3k hours per year, or a bit over 33% of all hours in the year, while fighter are about a tenth of that.

    Military aircraft are underutilized in peacetime because the military simply doesn't need to have everything they'd need in a shooting war flying as often as possible.

    Philistine:

    For clarity's sake, in my perfect world there would have been no fixed-wing STOVL project to replace Harrier. In that case the "something for the allies who can’t afford CATOBAR carriers" would not have been a slightly-improved "Harrier III" but instead more helicopters.

    Realistically an attack helicopter would probably be just fine for the kind of low intensity warfare that a Harrier III could do without support by better aircraft.

    Philistine:

    After all, when Garibaldi and the Izumos were designed and built their respective navies (or Maritime Self Defense Forces) only had rotary-wing aircraft available to operate from them; presumably then the Italian and Japanese governments felt that "just" helicopter carriers were already worthwhile investments even without the jets.

    Maybe, though especially in the case of Japan it's likely that they knew the F-35B was coming out.

    Still, Australia bought similar ships without also buying STOVL aircraft.

  37. November 24, 2022bean said...

    @Philistine

    I do think there's a reasonable case to be made that having some fighter-type plane that can fly from helicopter carriers and LHDs is pretty valuable, because it opens up a lot of options that you don't get if you just have helicopters. I think the case that this plane needs to be a top-of-the-line 5th generation fighter is considerably weaker. I'd be much more sympathetic to handing the designers the spec sheet for the Legacy Hornet and saying "this, but STOVL, and it doesn't have to be supersonic if that will mess things up too much". Or just going with a Harrier III. That way, you get something which can do light patrol work and bombing way better than a helicopter at a fairly reasonable price.

    (Those who note the similarity with my Expeditionary Fighter from SYWTBAMN are not wrong.)

  38. November 24, 2022Philistine said...

    That's a pretty niche role, though. Small-minded budgeteers might ask whether it would be worth developing a whole new aircraft - plus building out the requisite infrastructure to support it - just for that purpose. Especially if you're the USN, and you don't expect your ARGs to fight a war without carrier support. (And if you're not the USN the question is whether you can afford it at all, no matter how valuable it might be, without somebody else picking up at least part of the tab.)

  39. November 24, 2022Basil Marte said...

    For the benefit of the uninitiated: why would it be a political impossibility for the F-35 to have been named B- or A-## ?

  40. November 24, 2022Alexander said...

    @Basil Marte Being a pilot is the most glamorous/prestigious/cool role in the air force, and air to air dogfighting is the most glamorous/prestigious/cool thing to do as a pilot. Senior officers will disproportionately often have a background as pilot, usually flying "fighters". Consequently, any new, high tech aircraft that can reasonably be given a F designation gets one. In the case of the F117, it is pretty much entirely incapable of air to air combat. I'm not quite sure why fighters have this image, but it goes back to the earliest days of warplanes, where the exploits of the "knights of the sky" attracted more attention than the pilots who spotted for artillery.

  41. November 24, 2022John Schilling said...

    The bomber community has been almost as influential in the USAF as the fighter pilot mafia, thanks to the mythology around the 8th Air Force, Curtis LeMay, and the Strategic Air Command. But the bomber community's influence is tied to the promise of striking deep in the enemy's heartland, destroying his factories and cities and perhaps even decapitating his government. The real enemy's heartland, not the pathetic third-rate enemies we've used for practice while waiting for the Big One.

    So, it only merits a 'B' destination if it can credibly be used to nuke Moscow or Beijing. For an 'F' designation, it has to have a pointy nose and we have to be able to imagine it dogfighting MiGs to make new aces. Openly admitting that the system is meant to bomb tactical or operational targets for the purpose of enabling the Army to win battles, is right out.

    The F-35 can't credibly nuke Moscow, so it can't be a 'B'. It can dogfight MiGs if it has to, so it has to be an 'F' or be cancelled.

  42. November 24, 2022Anonymous said...

    Also without air superiority all the other functions of an air force become very expensive in terms of loss of aircraft and pilots so the fighter role is the most important one for any air force.

  43. November 26, 2022Bernd said...

    Bean, forgive me if this is the aerospace version of "the glorious M113 Gavin can do anything an M1 Abrams can do!", but how viable would a tilt rotor be for that role?

    It seems like if you could use them for strafing and dropping bombs, the Marines would have done it with V22s by now, if only for fun.

  44. November 26, 2022Philistine said...

    Various weapon systems (including guns, rockets, and guided missiles) have been tested on the Osprey, by the USMC, the USAF, and even by Bell in a company-funded program; at least one system has even been fielded. In practice, though, the operating units seem to preferr not to trade away the payload capacity when they don't absolutely have to, which may be why it hasn't been reported all that much.

    The big problem I see for trying to use a tilt-rotor in any kind of fighter role is speed, as the V-22 is only fast for a helicopter. Pretty much all jets cruise faster than the V-22's maximum speed, and even most military turboprops would outrun an Osprey pretty easily.

  45. November 27, 2022Anonymous said...

    Philistine:

    In practice, though, the operating units seem to preferr not to trade away the payload capacity when they don't absolutely have to, which may be why it hasn't been reported all that much.

    The experience with the Hind indicated that mixing transport and direct fighting doesn't really seem to work all that well.

    A dedicated attack tiltrotor could work but probably no cheaper than a Harrier III and probably less capable.

    Still looks like the crayon eaters' flattops would be helicopters (and tiltrotors) only or maybe STOBAR in a sensible universe.

  46. November 29, 2022quanticle said...

    The interesting fact is that EVERY other aircraft in history always had dentition problems...

    @emilio

    I want to double down on this, because I feel like it's an underappreciated point. Most of the successful fighters in the US Air Force and US Navy arsenals have had early issues, many of them quite severe. It's just that, for a lot of people living today, the F-35 is the only fighter program they've ever seen, so any issues or problems with the program seem catastrophic. Meanwhile, I'm thinking about how the delays and cost overruns with the F-15 caused "fighter mafia" within the Air Force to start up (and launch) the F-16. Or how the F-14 had early issues with the variable geometry wings that would cause it to go into unrecoverable spins. I see Will Roper writing about how the Air Force should return to the development practices it used for the "Century Series", and I wonder, does he remember that the F-104 was known as the "Widowmaker", and the F-105 had to be withdrawn from Vietnam because the rate of losses in combat was unsustainably high?

    I feel like people tend to look at past military procurement programs with rose tinted goggles, looking only at how things turned out twenty or thirty years down the line, focusing on success, and ignoring losers. Then they compare the best of the past to the worst of today's procurement programs and wonder why the present time doesn't seem to measure up. People focus on the F-35, and all its issues, but then ignore programs that are actually going well, like the B-21. Or the NGAD program, which has supposedly produced a full-scale test aircraft two years ago.

  47. November 29, 2022Ancient Oak said...

    "I feel like people tend to look at past military procurement programs with rose tinted goggles, looking only at how things turned out twenty or thirty years down the line, focusing on success, and ignoring losers."

    selection bias strike again

    also people typically compare deployed procurement programs, what skips worst cases

  48. November 29, 2022bean said...

    It's not really selection bias. The problem isn't that 50% of programs have problems, and someone is taking the 50% of programs that don't have problems and comparing them to one that is. This is just brute ignorance of problems with older programs, very often the exact programs being held up as exemplars.

  49. November 30, 2022John Schilling said...

    The reason to consider going back to "century-style" development programs is not that they result in trouble-free aircraft. It's that we went from "we have an idea for something that will eventually become the F-105" to "OK, we had to withdraw the F-105, good thing we've got the F-4 in service already" in less time than it took to get the F-35 to minimal IOC, and at less cost.

    Designing one plane to just be a nuclear-capable tactical strike aircraft, another to just be a fleet air-defense interceptor, etc, and then figuring out which ones can best be adapted to other missions, seems to beat trying for a once-in-a-generation omnicapable tactical fighter. It lets you try enough things in parallel that one of them (e.g. the F-4) will turn out to be the once-in-a-generation omnicapable tactical fighter.

  50. November 30, 2022bean said...

    That's all well and good in theory. In practice, I don't think the Century Series actually quite worked that way. Yes, we were able to put airframes in service quickly, but the electronics to support them usually lagged a lot. I can't think of an aircraft program in that era which didn't have several years of electronics delays, usually after it formally entered service. In general, I'd be more in favor of developing airframes quickly, but the F-35's issues aren't really airframe ones, and I suspect electronics integration costs will eat everything else.

  51. November 30, 2022John Schilling said...

    The F-35 had a fair number of airframe issues, as I recall, particularly with weight growth and with the STOVL capabilities of the -35B.

    And I'm reminded of something my graduate advisor said: "The difficulty of developing something new scales as N^X, where N is the number of miracles required and X is not a small number". So, N really ought to be one. Design a new airframe to carry the existing weapons and sensors, but with better performance by whatever standard you care about. And with room for growth, so the -C/D or -E/F versions can add all the fancy new weapons and electronics you were drooling about from the start.

    The century fighters started with basically the same combat systems as the F-84/86/89, but Mach 2 performance. That was their one miracle, and it was a genuine and substantial improvement. The radars and Sidewinders and whatnot came later, and the Wild Weasel fanciness of the -105G later still, when they were only a single miracle grafted onto an existing airframe.

    I think we'd be in a better place if, in 1991 or whatever, we had told the Navy "You're getting an F-18, but stealthy", told the Marines "You're getting an F-18, but VTOL", told the Air Force "You're getting what the Navy gets; it worked for the F-4". Or maybe have separate Navy and Air Force airframes just for the sake of industry competition. Those would have been in service ten years ago, and we'd still be in about the same place now with the F-35E/F getting all the sensor fusion and integrated electronic warfare capability. And we'd probably have paid far less to get there.

    Bonus points if the -A version can use an existing engine, however underpowered, but has room for the new engine you really want.

  52. November 30, 2022bean said...

    That's not a complete history of the Century Series. Yes, the F-100 was a supersonic F-86, but the F-105 and F-106 had sophisticated computers built in from the start. Tomorrow, I can try to go through the Jenkins book on the Thud and detail some of the problems it had. As for your plan, there's a part of me which agrees and thinks we should have done that. There's another part which wonders how easy it would be to integrate the full F-35 combat system onto an airframe like that, and how likely it is that Congress would have cancelled it.

  53. November 30, 2022bean said...

    The more I think about this, the more I'm with you on splitting the Marine and USN/USAF airframes, and the less I agree on trying that kind of spiral development. The basic problem is twofold. First, you're putting the major program objectives at substantial political risk. It's really tempting to cancel the F-24E/F and AV-14B programs if the F-24C/D and AV-14A are in service and seem to be entirely adequate when the new avionics program runs substantially over budget. Second, integrating modern combat systems is really difficult, and I don't think it would be good value to try and slap an F-18 combat system into an airframe with the intention of replacing it later. Sure, it worked for the F-100 and F-104, but their combat system was a basic radar with a single display, a gun and a bit of wiring for Sidewinder. That's not how it is now. It would take a degree of design discipline that I frankly don't think the US government has to lift an existing system and stick it in a new airframe without tinkering a lot. Even with a lot of discipline, you're still going to face a lot of hard tradeoffs (to take an example, "we want MIL-STD-1760E in the long term to get more bandwidth to our weapons, but the legacy platform only supported 1760B, and we would really like to not have to rewire the wings for the E/F model") and people are paranoid enough around weapons that I suspect said integration would require a lot of testing even if you chose legacy compatibility in all of those tradeoffs.

  54. December 01, 2022Hugh Fisher said...

    I think the spiral development model, separating airframe from electronics, is already well established outside the USA. Arguably it's how warships have been built for over a century. As early as WW1 it was normal for a warship to go into harbour and come out with new rangefinders and fire control, and in WW2 it was radar and electronics. Nowadays navies like India and Australia buy a hull and engines, fit their own choice of sensors and combat systems. Outside the USA it's been normal for some decades to upgrade your F-4s or F-16s with new radar, computers, etc. Eurofighter was upgradable from the beginning, everyone buying the early models knew that upgrades would be available later. Lockheed-Martin shareholders have good reasons to want the F-35 sensors and datalinks to be tightly integrated into the airframe. Still, at some point I expect even the US government is going to ask why they can't fit the same electronics onto the F-15/16/18/22.

  55. December 01, 2022Doctorpat said...

    @bean It would take a degree of design discipline that I frankly don’t think the US government has to lift an existing system and stick it in a new airframe without tinkering a lot.

    I'm reminded of what I thought was the final word on having a gold standard currency.

    "If you have a financially disciplined government, then you get no advantage from a gold standard. If you don't have a financially disciplined government, then you'll inevitably fall off the gold standard."

    In this case: If you have the design discipline and long term funding commitment to succeed in spiral aircraft development, then you don't need it.

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