10 July 2008

About the F-35

The F-35 program

The F-22 and F-35 fightet jet programs, together, were originally intended to replace all fighter aircraft in the United States military. The F-35 program has three varients, the F-35A (Air Force), the F-35B (Marines and foreign military forces) and the F-35C (Navy). The final or near final F-35A and F-35B variants are in the test flight stage now, with the F-35A version further along than the F-35B version. Defense Tech has recapped the F-35B fighter jet program:

Named Lighting II, the F-35B will provide a first-line fighter/strike aircraft for use from U.S. STOVL/helicopter carriers and from a half-dozen foreign aircraft carriers. . . . The F-35B was the second Lightning II to begin flight tests, following the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A . . . . The next variant to fly will be the F-35C, configured for aircraft carrier operations.

F-35 deliveries are to begin in 2010 and continue well beyond 2030. . . . The F-35B STOVL variant will replace the AV-8B Harrier in U.S. Marine Corps squadrons, and GR (ground attack/reconnaissance) series Harriers aboard British aircraft carriers. Several other nations have "signed on" to the F-35B program, both for land-based operation as well as from existing and planned VSTOL carriers.

While the Harrier was inferior to most contemporary land-based fighter/attack aircraft, the F-35B will have the speed, electronics, and stealth characteristics of its land-based contemporaries. However, the F-35B will have a range of some 450 nautical miles on internal fuel compared to more than 600 nautical miles for the F-35A/C variants.

In the United States the F-35B will be able to operate from the Navy's large amphibious ships of the LHA/LHD classes, which now operate detachments of Harrier STOVL aircraft. The later ships of these types are being specifically configured for F-35B operations.

The F-35A is designed to replace, at least, the F-16 and those F-15s which are not replaced by the F-22, a model currently entering service with a planned number of purchased aircraft equal to between a third and a half of the current U.S. military F-15 fleet. The F-16 is a multipurpose fighter aircraft. The F-15 is optimized for air to air combat. The Air Force also felt that the F-35A should replace the close air support (i.e. ground troop support/anti-tank) oriented, subsonic and rugged A-10 model, but due to Congressional pressure driven by a strong performance in the current Iraqi and Afghan wars, upgrades and overhauls for the entire A-10 fleet have now been approved, postponing that day of reckoning by decades; otherwise the A-10s probably would have been the first to be replaced by the F-35A, even thought the capabilities of the two aircraft types are very different.

The F-35C is designed to replace two different basic types of F-18s found the U.S. Aircraft Carrier fleet, one with a heavier bomb payload and the other with a more multi-purpose focus. The F-35C is bigger and sturdier than the F-35A in order to permit it to endure the rigors of short runway carrier takeoffs and landings.

The F-22 and F-35 are the only publicly known manned fixed wing fighter aircraft on the drawing boards in the United States. Many observers believe that these designs will be the last manned fighter aircraft ever built for the U.S. military, with all subseuqent generations of fighter aircraft taking the form of unmanned combat drones.

The initial price estimate for the F-35 was on the order of $35 million each. This has increased four to six fold for all three models, not just the technologically ambitious F-35B model. F-22s have a total cost of about $250 million each, of which 20-40% consists of sunk R&D costs and manufacturing line setup costs. It is widely believed that restarting the F-22 production line, if it is shut down when the current planned buy is complete about the time that the next President takes office, would be very expensive.

The latest versions of the F-18 are still in production, but the A-10, F-15 and F-16 assembly lines closed long ago and earlier version of the F-18 are no longer built. It would be impracticable to reopen any of those production lines and the product would, of course, be inferior by current technological standards. Maintenance costs for older fighter jets in the U.S. military are rising, because the intense wear and tear associated with training for air to air combat, carrier landings, and other normal operations of a fighter jet give them short lives relative to less intensely used military aircraft like bombers. Simply using existing aircraft indefinitely is an expensive option that is ultimately unsustainable. In a matter of a decade or two, there will be no choice but to retire a large share of the existing U.S. military fighter fleet, whether or not it is replaced.

How Deep Is Support For The F-35 Program?

The article also notes that "The F-35/JSF program is one of the few Defense efforts that has the full endorsement of the Department of Defense, the military services, and the Congress." But I question that assumption.

This may be true in a narrow technical sense, but really overstates the case. The JSF buy has already been cut repeatedly, and many honest critics have built a case for cutting it further without eliminating the program. I expect that there will be at least one more major cut in the scope of the program before it is all over.

The Navy is decidely lukewarm about the F-35C version, the last to come on line in the current project schedule, as they are relatively happy with the current F-18s. It isn't beyond the realm of possiblity that this version could be cut entirely in favor of a combination of upgraded F-18s and UCAVs, and it is likely that the F-35C will be further delayed in favor of other parts of the program and in light of overall DOD budget constraints.

The Air Force has likewise appeared quite willing to sacrifice some of its units of F-35A purchases for more F-22s (which almost everyone agrees is or will be more capable in air to air combat than the more recently designed F-35A) and/or a small number of F-35Bs (for the sake of diversifying the force). The lukewarm attitude of the Air Force flows, in part, from the evaporation of most of the anticipated price advantage of the F-35A over the F-22. Six F-35As for one F-22 looks like a good trade. Three F-35As for two F-22s, coupled with a longer lead time before the F-35As are ready for action than the F-22s is a far less exciting trade off for the Air Force.

Also, I don't think anyone in the mainstream of Air Force opinion when the JSF program was initiated had accurately foreseen just how much smart munitions would reduce the number of bombs that would have to be dropped to produce the same results by 2010. So the Air Force overestimated the number of aircraft, including F-35As, that the Air Force needs to deliver bombs. In short, increased bomb accuracy makes air to ground bomb payload capacity less important. But air to ground bomb load is the main virtue other than price that the F-35A has over the F-22.

Only the Marines and the foreign carrier fleets seem unflagging of their support, which is for the F-35B version. The Harrier AV-8B is aging and has no other ready replacement for foreign military's with Harrier carriers. The F-18 is less well suited to Marine needs than the F-35B, unsurprisingly because it wasn't designed for them.

It also bears mention that one of the justifications for having three version of the same plane with high commonality of parts was to reduce maintenance costs. This was ill conceived.

In the Navy, the F-35C will increase maintenance burdens (until many decades in the future when the last F-18s are phased out) because it will have entirely different requirements for maintenance than the three basic types of F-18 (C/D; E/F; Growler EF-18) in the current carrier fleet now that the F-14 has been removed from service. There also seem to be few, if any, plans in place to deploy Marine F-35Bs from CV carriers that also carry F-35Cs.

Also, the usefulness of Air Force bases and Navy carriers being able to serve the maintenance needs of each others planes at the same bases now seems overstated.

And, the virtue of efficiencies in manufacturing and design now seems counterweighted by an all your eggs in one basket philosophy that has left us with no competition in the jet fighter market.

The U.S. has the largest fleet of modern jet fighters in the world and the current generation of planned purchases sustained this trend, so the need for the U.S. to standardize for economy of scale reasons, rather than having a collection of lower priced, non-all purpose designs, is weaker in the U.S. military than in any other country in the world.

There is wide support in Congress for building some F-35s, but the exact force level that has support waxes and wanes -- reducing the number of F-35 units is an easy way to fund any other pet R&D project.

Other Options

One quite sensible option worth considering is to cut some of the planned F-35A buy in order to fund a purchase of a significant number of specialized, less capable and cheaper Close Air Support (as an A-10 successor which would be robust after taking fire, subsonic and lack radar stealth features), and/or domestic security oriented interceptor aircraft (like the now defunct Homeland Defense Interceptor concept for National Guard use designed to patrol the skies over U.S. cities against civilian aircraft based terrorist attacks without radar stealth, supercruise, air to ground bombing capability, or many air to air combat defense capabilities found in other fighter aircraft), and/or UCAVs (a.k.a. combat drones, which are making technological progress faster than many planners anticipated).

If I were advising the next U.S. President about U.S. fighter aircraft procurement, I would recommend that he (1) discontinue the F-35C, (2) cut planned F-35A procurement by about 50%, (3) replace about 10% of the current planned F-35A buy with F-35Bs, (4) design and purchase a modest upgrade of key components of the F-18 for the Navy in lieu of the F-35C, (5) design and purchase a moderate technology non-stealth successor to the A-10 (perhaps 200 aircraft at under $40 million each), (6) design and purchase a limited capability low cost homeland defense interceptor (perhaps 100 aircraft at under $25 million each), (6) invest some remainder of the savings in a combination of combat drone development to be lead by the Navy, with the Air Force to then develop a derviative of a proven Navy model, and (7) use some of the savings to reduce overall defense spending or fund non-warplane military programs.

I would also favor assigning the role of protecting the United States from foreign military aircraft entirely to the active duty Air Force and Air Force Reserves. Thus, I would advocate transferring out all F-15s and F-16s from the Air National Guard to the active duty Air Force or Air Force Reserves (or foreign militaries like Taiwan and Japan and South Korea to whom we provide military aircraft now with our own personnel), with the exception of a small number of F-16s to response to errant civilian aircraft until less expensive homeland defense interceptors could come into service.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...


Defense procurement accounting is like Hollywood accounting, getting a straight answer isn't always easy. My sources include the following:

The administration's Supplemental Defense Appropriations request this past March put the cost savings associated with not buying two F-35s at $389 million, which is $194.5 million per plane. Full multi-role capabilities for the F-35 are likely to take until 2016 to achieve.

By comparison, according to Wikipedia's sources regarding the F-22, as of December 18, 2007:

"By the time all 183 fighters have been purchased, $34 billion will have been spent on actual procurement, resulting in a total program cost of $62 billion or about $339 million per aircraft. The incremental cost for one additional F-22 is around $137 million; decreasing with larger volumes. If the Air Force were to buy 100 more F-22s today, the cost of each one would be less than $117 million and would continue to drop with additional aircraft purchases."

Strategy Page in May 2006, before some of the most recent cost overruns in the program estimated a total cost for the F-35 of $113 million a unit including R&D (about half the price) and a production cost of an F-22 of $170 per unit exclusive of R&D. Development costs for the F-35A and F-35B are largely sunk costs at this point, but there are some development costs yet to be incurred for all three versions, and they are a significant share of the costs for the F-35C which is least far along in the development process. For example, according to a contract announced by the US Department of Defense in August 2007 a power generation defect in the original engine design won't have an update ready for use until the end of 2009.

A March 2005 GAO report described by the Washington Post said: "it is now expected to cost $244.8 billion to produce a planned 2,400 planes. Development will cost $44.8 billion, including a $10 billion increase identified last year, the report said." The price has gone up, not down, since then.

The manufacturer quotes a flyaway cost for the SM-27/47 Machete, already fully developed, of $15-$20 million each depending upon the model chosen. It is no stealth strike fighter, but would be quite appropriate as a supplement to the existing A-10 force. The cost for competitors like the AT-6B, the Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft product that is often marketed as a COIN aircraft, the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and the US Aircraft A-67 Dragon, ought to be in the same ballpark and likewise shouldn't require meaningful upfront development costs since they have already been designed.

When Aviation Technology Group's proposed the Homeland Defense Interceptor the quoted cost in ballpark of $6 million per unit with about 30% of the operating cost of an F-16 (it didn't get any military contacts and didn't get enough civilian contracts, so it filed for bankruptcy this past Spring). Triple that price and its still cheap. A less ambitious plane, naturally, speeds up the time necessary to make it operational. You wouldn't want one going head to head with another fighter, but this would be totally adequate for the Air Force National Guard when deployed against a hijacked commercial jet or terrorist controlled general aviation airplane operating in the territorial United States.