The Pentagon’s top brass are second-guessing the F-35 Lightning — the most expensive weapons system in history — as spending cuts tighten the military’s budget and a new report says F-35 pilots can’t see that well out of the cockpit.
The Navy’s former top officer believes the Defense Department should consider replacing the F-35A — the Air Force’s variant of the so-called Joint Strike Fighter — with the aircraft carrier model, the F-35C.
But Air Force pilots dismiss the idea of flying a heavier fighter jet, and instead propose that the Marine Corps abandon its version, the F-35B, arguing that its costly helicopter-style landing feature is useful only at air shows.
The debate comes as a new Pentagon test report reveals significant problems in the ability of an F-35 pilot to see the enemy from the cockpit. The blame for the defect falls on the design of the pilot-escape system used in all three variants of the advanced stealth fighter.
Started a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the F-35 Lightning project — contracted to aircraft-maker Lockheed Martin and engine-manufacturer Pratt & Whitney — has been beset by cost overruns and technical flaws.
The Lightning was supposed to be in full production this year to replace aging F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets and the Harrier jump jet. But full production is not expected before 2019, at the earliest.
Even if the automatic spending cuts that began Friday give way to a White House-Congress budget deal, the Pentagon’s 10-year spending plan likely will shrink — making key concerns of the nearly $400 billion cost to produce 2,457 F-35s and the estimated $1 trillion cost to operate a fleet of them.
Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011, wrote a recent article for his new employer, the Hoover Institution, on how to reduce military costs. One idea: scrap the F-35A.
“My whole idea there was, even though there are a lot of commonalities, if you had one conventional takeoff-and-landing [feature], would you save on training pipeline? Would you save on the depot level work because of the fact you just have that one variant going through rework lines and perhaps logistics would come down?” Adm. Roughead told The Washington Times. “And then software changes would be more common to that one variant.”
Adm. Roughead, a career surface ship and fleet commander, said he canceled the DDG 1000, a next-generation destroyer, in 2008 because of projected long-term costs.
Pentagon officials have said in audit reports that the F-35’s 30-year, $1 trillion operating bill is not affordable.
“Both the Navy and the Air Force would fly the C,” Adm. Roughead said of his proposal. “You need the [F-35] coming off of aircraft carriers simply because of what the environments are going to be 10, 20, 30 years from now.
“You’ve got to stay with the carrier variant. But because it’s a conventional takeoff-and-landing aircraft, can you then make that one of two, as opposed to one of three, variants?”
The Air Force fighter community wants its own lighter-weight plane. And it is doing some second-guessing of its own on why the Pentagon agreed to a special vertical landing-and-takeoff Marine Corps version, the F-35B.
“The Navy version is obviously a lot heavier than the Air Force version, which compromises performance, so I must disagree with him,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said of the admiral’s proposal. “We don’t need the B model, which costs a ton of money.”
“What he is suggesting, really, is that the Air Force should not have built a lighter, more capable aircraft,” Gen. McPeak told The Times. “Why would you want Air Force fighter pilots going into combat to carry all the extra weight needed to give the Navy version the added range they need to get on shore, where the fight is, and to ruggedize the equipment, the landing gear, the tailhook and so on, that takes a repeated pounding from carrier operations? It’s just a dumb idea.”
“We don’t have to do vertical landings and, by the way, neither do the Marines,” he said. “They’ve never done one in combat yet. They need neither supersonic capability nor the ability to do vertical landings and short takeoffs.”
But, he added: “The Marines are the Marines, and they’ve got the political clout to get what they want.”
For decades, the military’s air forces have flown their own unique fighter jets.
The F-35 changed the Pentagon’s procurement culture, conceived as a relatively affordable fighter to fit all three services, with some modifications.
But along the way, “affordable” gave way to historic cost increases: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the F-35’s overall price tag shot up 42 percent to $395 billion from 2007 to 2012.
The Center for Defense Information estimates the full cost overrun is nearly 100 percent since the program’s start in 2001, noting that the Pentagon’s full buy has been reduced to 2,443 F-35s.
The culprit: the Pentagon’s decision to produce and test-fly the F-35 while it was still under development, instead of waiting until a test aircraft had worked out the kinks before starting the manufacturing process.
Last winter, the Pentagon’s top buyer, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, told a defense conference that the George W. Bush administration had committed “acquisition malpractice.”
“I can spend quite a few minutes on the F-35, but I don’t want to,” Mr. Kendall said. “This will make a headline if I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done, OK? But we did it.”
“[Thinking] that we now had good enough design tools and good enough simulations and modeling that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding problems in test was wrong,” he said. “And now we’re paying the price for being wrong about that.”
A series of GAO reports have documented the “malpractice.” The watchdog agency notes a “high rate of design change” and $373 million in new costs just to “retrofit already produced aircraft to correct deficiencies discovered during testing.”
The Aspin effect
The Air Force aimed to replace the F-16 Falcon — considered one of the most successful low-cost fighter productions ever — by designing a successor in its image: lightweight, technologically advanced, with flexibility to adjust to new threats.
But then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin overruled the Air Force, and decreed that the next generation of multi-role fighter jets would be “joint” — one plane for three services — to cut costs.
“We did what we were told,” Gen. McPeak said, adding that , 20 years later, the Aspin decision has had the opposite effect.
Trying to build three versions of the same aircraft has required adding layers of different features to meet the demands of each service. Development and production has been overseen by a succession of different program managers from the three services, each with their own tweaks for the final product.
“Aeronautic engineering is still somewhat witchcraft, and you don’t fix problems, you just move them somewhere structurally,” Gen. McPeak said. “When you are trying to meet the requirements of three different groups, it’s just going to be more difficult, more expensive.”
Gen. McPeak remembers fondly the 1970s and the rise of the Falcon.
“We chose as a cheap airplane. El cheapo,” he said. “It turned out to be surprisingly good. It turned out to do everything we ever expected plus a lot.
“The Air Force version of the F-35 will never be surprisingly good. It will be good. Of course, it’s been plagued by cost increases and capability loss. In my judgment it will always be a disappointing aircraft,” the general said.
Limited cockpit visibility
The latest flak directed at the F-35 comes from pilots themselves as they learn to fly the F-35 Lightning.
In a new test report to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pilots complain of a limited cockpit visibility that would get them shot down. (Gen. Merrill McPeak told The Times that the F-16 Hornet has never been shot down.)
“Three student pilot comments predicted severe impacts of the visibility shortfalls in combat or in training of more tactical nature,” top Pentagon weapons tester J. Michael Gilmore said in a report posted by the Project on Government Oversight.
The report quoted one flier as saying: “The head rest is too large and will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements” and “Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned every time.”
The report reveals that “enhanced cockpit visibility was not designed into the F-35. There is no simple relief to limitations of the F-35 cockpit visibility.”
Why? Because the program office had to design a common pilot ejection system for all three variants that met the tougher requirements of the Marine Corps 340 F-35B models.
This criticism seems to back Gen. McPeak’s complaint that meeting the competing demands of all three services leads to operational flaws.
Overall, the test report says out-of-cockpit visibility is less than all recent Air Force fighters, an issue “which not only adversely affects training, but safety and survivability as well.”
The test report also gives a failing grade to the plane’s cockpit radar. On two flights, the radar simply did not work. On others, it failed to display targets or they dropped off the screen for no reason.
The report surfaced a week after the officer in charge of the Pentagon’s F-35 office, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, harshly criticized the contractors, who have billions of dollars in revenue at stake.
“What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine, and are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine,” Reuters news agency quoted Gen. Bogdan as telling a conference in Australia, an ally that plans to buy the plane.
“I want them both to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years. I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I’m not getting all that love yet,” he said.
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