Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week directed his deputy to conduct a review of the F-35 fighter program with an eye to reducing the cost of the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program.
The only situations where it might matter whether there are F35s or advanced superhornets would be a potential future conflict between China and Russia against the United States. Any other nation like North Korea and Iran, the US would roll B2s and F22s and break the air defenses in days and then fly B52s with inpunity.
Flight Global 2016 puts overall Chinese strength at 2,942 aircraft, including the PLAAF (1977) PLA ground forces (556) and the PLAN (409). U.S. overall strength, by contrast, sits at 13,717 aircraft across the four services (including the U.S. Marine Corps). U.S. numbers are weighted less heavily towards the Air Force, as the Army and Navy (including the USMC) have nearly as many planes as the USAF.
The compositions of the fleets also differ. The United States has around 2,200 short range fighters, compared to about 1,200 for China. Weighting by quality, the United States has an even more substantial advantage; China continues to fly over 400 J-7s, an effective aircraft, but not competitive in any sense with the U.S. fleet. The United States also has massive advantages in other aircraft types. The United States, for example, owns 78 percent of the world’s tanker aircraft; a unique capability for a state that views itself as having unique responsibilities.
Russia also has quite a few jets that are not competitive with the US and Russia has had maintenance challenges.
The USA Air forces really outnumbers the combined numbers of remotely competitive planes in Russia and China by at least two to 1.
The US has almost two hundred F22 fifth generation planes and the Russian and Chinese versions are still being tested.
Global Firepower has a count of fighter jets for each country in 2015
Lockheed is spinning out stories in Forbes and other publications that they can meet the cost reduction targets if regulations were adjusted.
The joint program office was already working with prime contractor Lockheed Martin and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney to implement a “blueprint for affordability” aimed at accomplishing precisely what the president wants. And the cost of the fighters is falling with each successive production lot — it declined 4.2% in Lot 7 and then another 3.6% in Lot 8. Lots 9 and 10 will exhibit similar progress.
Lockheed Martin has welcomed the review, issuing a statement that “smart buying strategies” could yield significant savings. That’s an under-statement. Lockheed contributes to my think tank and is a consulting client, so I’ve been listening to company engineers grouse for years about how excessive testing and regulatory requirements have driven up the cost of each plane. The company’s internal estimate is that at least 20% of program costs are driven by redundancy, oversight and the like.
It may not be feasible to eliminate all of these overhead factors — many are required by law — but it is easy to imagine getting the cost of each plane down significantly from current projections. The chairman of BAE Systems, a subcontractor that contributes much of the F-35′s high-tech content (including the world’s most advanced electronic warfare suite), told reporters earlier this month that President Trump wants to reduce the cost of each plane by at least 10%. That is definitely doable if Congress will go along.
In fact, a 10% reduction in the price-tag is probably feasible without any regulatory adjustments at all if the three military services using the plane would buy it at a more economical rate. Aeronautical engineers have known since the 1930s that unit costs fall when planes are bought in larger quantities, partly due to the learning curve and partly due to economies of scale. The Obama Administration cut hundreds of planes out of the production plan to save money in the short term, but over the long term that resulted in each plane costing more.
Mike Fredenburg at the National Review urges Trump to cancel the F35.
His arguments are
* negotiating a better price on incomplete, crippled fighters will not save taxpayers any money in the long run — because the prices being negotiated between Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon are prices designed to fool the public about the F-35’s true costs. Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon both know that any “discount” or price reduction negotiated in public will quickly be made up on the back-end
* fatal mistakes made during the conceptual design process well over 20 years ago, the F-35 will forever be crippled by intractable weight and heat issues that ensure that the program will never deliver a reliable, cost-effective fighter.
* In order to protect the F-35 from cancellation, the Pentagon has lowered key performance requirements and helped Lockheed cheat so that it could continue the charade that the F-35 will actually meet its bare-minimum threshold ranges.
* the published $32,000-per-flying-hour cost is a made-up number; its real cost per flying hour will likely be closer to the $62,000 of the much less complex F-22. Its truly dismal sustained-sortie-generation rate of one sortie (mission) every three or four days means that, as is the case with our F-22 pilots, F-35 pilots will only get a fraction of the 30 to 40 hours of stick-time (actual flying time) per month necessary to gain and maintain fighter-combat mastery
The US Office of Operational Testing and Evaluation released a 62 page report on the F-35 stealth fighter and still finds 276 deficiencies in combat performance.
Despite the problems a military program whose cost has soared from $233 billion to an estimated $379 billion has pilots and generals who will vouch for it. Recent estimates suggest the F-35 program could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years. The F35 is getting over $10 billion per year. Does money buy friends and support ?
The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program Office (JPO) acknowledged in 2016 that schedule pressure exists for completing System Development and Demonstration (SDD) and starting Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT and E) by August 2017, the planned date in JPO’s Integrated Master Schedule. In an effort to stay on schedule, JPO plans to reduce or truncate planned developmental testing (DT) in an effort to minimize delays and close out SDD as soon as possible. However, even with this risky, schedule-driven approach, multiple problems and delays make it clear that the program will not be able to start IOT and E with full combat capability until late CY18 or early CY19, at the soonest.
* weapons problems
* software problems
* heat and overheating problems
* Vertical oscillations during F-35C catapult launches were reported by pilots as excessive, violent, and therefore a safety concern during this critical phase of flight. The program is still investigating alternatives to address this deficiency, which makes a solution in time for IOT and E and Navy fielding unlikely
* Excessive and premature wear on the hook point of the arresting gear on the F-35A, occuring as soon as after only one use, has caused the program to consider developing a more robust redesign.
* The Services have designated 276 deficiencies in combat performance as “critical to correct” in Block 3F, but less than half of the critical deficiencies were addressed with attempted corrections in 3FR6. [aka they are only even attempting to try to fix half of the critical problems in this current round of fixes]
* Significant, well-documented deficiencies; for hundreds of these, the program has no plan to adequately fix and verify with flight test within SDD; although it is common for programs to have unresolved deficiencies after development, the program must assess and mitigate the cumulative effects of these remaining deficiencies on F-35 effectiveness and suitability prior to finalizing and fielding Block 3F
* Overall ineffective operational performance with multiple key Block 3F capabilities delivered to date
Available only about half the time
* Continued low aircraft availability and no indications of significant improvement
2.5 times more maintenance needed than the permitted amount
On the positive side, they believe they have fixed the ejections seat so that they are now pretty confident it will not kill or seriously injure lighter pilots who eject. Pretty confident but not enough to change the rule that prevents lighter pilots from flying the F35. Modifications to the pilot escape system (lighter helmet, delayed parachute deployment for lighter pilots) were needed after testing in CY15 showed that the risk of serious injury or death is greater for lighter-weight pilots. Because of the risk, the Services decided to restrict pilots weighing less than 136 pounds from flying the F-35. The Air Force may be able to reopen F-35 pilot training to lighter-weight pilots (i.e., below 136 pounds) in early 2018. DOT and E is not aware of the plans for the Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy to open F-35 pilot training to the lighter-weight pilots
Developmental flight testing is projected to end no earlier than mid-2018, based on independent estimates on completing mission systems flight testing – the testing that will likely take the longest to complete
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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