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What Goes Up
In the Trenches with the F-35

It takes a lot of money to keep the expensive, delay-ridden F-35 program running. Advocates of the plane, the most expensive program in U.S. military procurement history, argue that it will render all sorts of other systems obsolete because the F-35 can do it all; hence, programs like the A-10 “Warthog” can be cut and their funding diverted to the jet.

But it’s far from certain that the F-35 will be as good as promised. Experts are raising doubts about virtually all of its key features: its stealthiness, its agility in dogfights, its speed, its maximum payload, and, troublingly, its ability to fly close air support missions that save the lives of soldiers on the ground—the sort of missions that, for example, the current U.S. campaign against ISIS is based around.

On that last point, the F-35 team itself seems to agree, because an explosive report this week disclosed that it has been fudging the plane’s performance numbers to bolster the case for more appropriations funding. According to a report (h/t James Fallows at The Altantic):

Recent improvements in F-35 reliability figures are due to changes in the way failures are counted and processed, but do not reflect any actual improvement, according to the latest report by the Pentagon’s Director Operational Test & Evaluation. […]

Three different types of data “massaging” are identified in the report: moving failures from one category to another, less important one; ignoring repetitive failures, thus inflating numbers of failure-free hours; and improper scoring of reliability. In all these instances, data reporting and processing rules were changed during the year for no other reason than to paint a more favorable picture.

Partisanship on behalf of favorite programs is not rare in the DoD (as in the government as a whole). In the USAF, a bias towards more glamorous and sexy weapons platforms like the F-22 and F-35 is common, writes Jonathan Foreman in the Weekly Standard. But as Foreman explains, for all the hype and all the cost, the F-35 may not actually be the best plane money could buy:

Part of the problem is that the F-35 was marketed on “commonality”—one airframe for all three services—but built around the Marine Corps’s demand for a jet that can take off and land vertically like the Harrier jump jet. The resulting design compromises meant what should have been the best fighter in the world is slower than and aerodynamically inferior to the modern Russian and Chinese designs it might come up against. As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

The A-10, in stark contrast to the F-35, is cheap, reliable, sturdy, and proven in its close air support role. This makes trading lots of Warthogs for a few much more expensive F-35s look like a dubious deal. Plus, Foreman asserts, both experts and soldiers on the ground say that close air support from Warthogs is more effective and less likely to end in friendly fire deaths than is close air support from faster jets. Yet:

The Air Force and the Pentagon as a whole, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pushed for the plane’s mothballing. Again and again they assured Congress that the A-10’s retirement would be no great loss as the soon-to-be-ready F-35 is more than capable of doing everything the A-10 does. Of course, the Air Force knows perfectly well that supersonic jet fighters are not well-suited to the down and dirty jobs that the A-10 does so well. But admitting that might mean admitting the shortcomings of the troubled F-35.

Certainly the ruthlessness of the USAF’s efforts to retire the A-10 during the last two years seems to be a byproduct of the service’s ardent commitment to the F-35 and its terror that the latter might be canceled or cut. You can see this in the way that the Air Force has dishonestly redefined “close air support” so that the term includes dropping bombs from high above the clouds, and also in its shiftiness about when the F-35 will be deployable.

According to Foreman, the USAF’s bias toward the F-35 comes down to the fact that the F-35 is more glamorous than an old workhorse that specializes in close air support. The Air Force favors close air support less than some of its other roles, Foreman says, in part because it consists of backing up rival branches of the military. In contrast, the F-35 is set up for the sort of missions that the USAF thinks of as its primary functions, like long range strikes and dog fighting. Finally, Foreman comes to an unsettling conclusion:

It may sound extraordinary that senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States, but that seems to be the case.

People who are personally invested in the F-35’s success (rather than just financially invested in it, like every U.S. taxpayer is) have been fighting tooth and nail to justify the program. That fight is looking less convincing all the time, and even a bit disturbing. Read Foreman’s whole article here.

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  • Frank Natoli

    As a 2008 RAND Corporation study put it, the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

    Because all the “real” data is classified, it is impossible to perform an unclassified yet detailed comparison of the F-22 to the F-35. But everyone who has to fly the planes knows the difference. The F-22 is a “can do” airplane. The F-35 is a “can not”.

    Below is a link to a wonderful interview with the A-10’s chief designer Pierre Sprey. The listener can mentally check off all the things the A-10 can do that the F-35 cannot.

    • GaiusTrebonius

      There is no 2008 Rand Corporation study saying that the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” That’s a totally false story. Here is the reposne by Rand to that statement.

      Andrew Hoehn, Director of RAND Project Air Force, made the following statement today: [Sep 25,2008]

      “Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from the RAND Corporation were involved. Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft.”

      • Andrew Allison

        Which has what, exactly, to do with the fundamental issue, namely the damned thing inability to anything that it’s supposed to?

        • Corlyss

          1) Well, it kills a great quote.

          2) It rebuts at least one attempt to use Rand’s respected reputation to undermine confidence in the F-35. But there may be more to the Rand story than Gaius indicates:

          Apparently the Rand presentation “has implications for the F-35” relating to basing considerations and the logistics necessary to maintain the plane.

          • GaiusTrebonius

            Nonsense. This study never addressed the F-35’s combat capabilities vis a vis other aircraft. The study concluded that there was a problem no matter what mix of aircraft the US employed in the Pacific:

            “To reiterate: RAND’s core conclusion is not about specific fighter performance. It’s about the theoretical limits of better performance under adverse basing and logistics conditions. RAND’s Project Air Force argues, persuasively, that based on history and current trends, numbers still matter – and so does the “Lanchester square.” That’s the theory under which the combat performance of an outnumbered combatant must be the square of the outnumbering ratio (outnumbered 3:1 must be 9x better, etc.) just to stay even.”

        • Frank Natoli

          My point in quoting Rand was not to accept it as gospel, rather to point out that absent classified information nobody can intelligently compare F-22 and F-35 capabilities.

          That said, there’s a huge amount of evidence that the A-10’s 30mm cannon can do CAS much closer to friendlies than any other aircraft including the F-35. The A-10s aerodynamics has the same unique benefit to CAS, and the A-10s loiter time has the same unique benefit to CAS.

          Let’s be honest. People are stupid at all levels and in all pursuits. We slaughter cows at an industrial level, but restrict the hunting of deer whose overpopulation in the absence of natural predators causes extensive accidental death and destruction…because cows are ugly and deer are cute? Yes, the A-10 is ugly. But it gets the G-D job done and that’s all the guys on the ground care about.

  • Andrew Allison

    It is a national disgrace that “senior Air Force officers could be almost unconcerned with the safety and success of American ground troops, or that they would make such a fetish of the purchase of expensive, glamorous, high-tech pointy-nosed toys as to undermine the overall military capacity of the United States” (I’d replace the word “almost” in the foregoing with “utterly”). What’s to be done about it?

    • FriendlyGoat

      How about insist that all career military people serve in all four major branches in a rotating fashion? This competitive nonsense is ridiculous and only perpetuated by the people who stay in a long time.

      • Andrew Allison

        How about we retire their sorry asses (along with all the Generals and Admirals who serve no useful purpose? The problem under discussion is not competition between the services, but abdication on the part of USAF leadership of their duty to their Service and their Country. It is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, that the USAF is lead by fighter jocks who would rather have a sexynew platform rather than the ones which would actually get the jobs done, i.e., the A-10 and F-22.
        The solution to the close-support issue is to relieve the USAF of the mission (and its budget), and give the Warthog to a branch which would appreciate it. The solution to the fighter problem is to kill the abomination formally known as F-35 stone dead — difficult because the program has been carefully designed to deliver pork to as many Congressional districts as possible, but not perhaps impossible given sufficient outrage in support of those at the sharp end of the military spear?

        • Corlyss

          “along with all the Generals and Admirals who serve no useful purpose”
          Well, with the modern military, that most likely would be everything but the senior NCOs. These savage wars of peace, where we’re not at war and we’re not at peace either have made a mess of the flag officer cadre and those who wish to become flag officers. There’s been only one SecDef I know of who had the guts to kill a highly political weapons program and that was Dick Cheney. He ended up killing the program and firing flag officers for lying to him about the program. He’ll always be a hero to me for that – all the bafflegab that normally surrounds expensive weapons programs is the real “fog of war” in DC. To find anyone with the guts and insight to cut thru it and do what needs to be done is extremely rare. Meaning I ain’t looking for it in this crowd.

      • Corlyss

        “How about insisting that all career military people serve in all four major branches in a rotating fashion?”
        What purpose would that serve besides further degrading US military capability?

        • FriendlyGoat

          I actually fired this off rather flippantly, I suppose, but partly in response to an article I recently read which included a letter from a Marine Captain who is resigning in part because he believes his commanders put competition with the Army in Afghanistan above the interests of mission and country. It was at The Atlantic and included this quotation:

          JAN 23 2015, 4:25 PM ET

          The Atlantic

          * * *

          By Capt. Y, US Marine Corps

          “I am a Marine Captain who has served for the last eight years. While deployed to the Helmand Province, I struggled to understand our strategic purpose there.

          We lauded local accomplishments in terms of high-value-targets captured and drugs seized, but the leadership could not coherently explain how our tactical successes contributed to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Marine Corps leaders, including Marine Commandant Jim Conway, boasted about how they fought to carve out a Marine-only area where they would be freed from having to fight under Army leadership and could demonstrate how Marines could do counterinsurgency better than the Army.”

      • Curious Mayhem

        There’s something to this. The military, when it comes to operations, has been running in “joint” mode for 20+ years: single top command, coordination up and down. But not when it comes to procurement, long-term planning, or support ….

        • FriendlyGoat

          I don’t think ordinary citizens understand why we have ever had so much separation of the services, from back in the Grenada invasion decades ago when we found service branches unable to communicate with each other, to Foreman’s quote in the article—–to the letter quotation contained in a reply I just posted to Corlyss below. I know the services are much more coordinated than they used to be, but separate “kingdoms” of any kind seem only good for the separate “kings”.

          • Curious Mayhem

            They’re pretty coordinated when it comes to operations. It’s not like the Grenada operation in 1983. The Persian Gulf war in 1990-91 and the interventions in Yugoslavia later in the 90s were big turning points in that respect.

            The fragmentation in planning and procurement remains, though. It’s basically historical. The USAF was born from the Army, but since it became independent in the late 1940s, it’s had a lust for asserting the centrality of air power independent of ground operations. That’s on top of the older distinction between the army and the navy, which goes back to the beginning of American history.

            It is a striking difference with countries outside the Western model. For example, Russia has had unified armed services in modern times, as does Israel.

      • Tom

        I’m not sure about all the career military people–however, if you want to make it above, say, brigadier general, that’s really not a bad idea.

  • mdmusterstone

    I just finished reading “The Warthog and the Close Air
    Support Debate” by Douglas Campbell.
    Close air support (CAS) is and has been, since WWII, one of the most
    important force multipliers for ground forces success and hence for over all
    mission accomplishment. In Vietnam CAS
    was accomplished in a very handy manner by the A-1 Skyraider, propeller driven,
    designed during WWII, and deployed very shortly after the end of the war. Slow and “ugly” however well it did
    it’s job it was look down upon by the Air Force command as the

    The critical attributes of a CAS aircraft are that it have
    long loiter time for quick responses to developing situations on the ground,
    that it be a “slow mover” so the pilot can see what needs to be hit
    and that it be well protected and difficult to shoot down. Might I add that being able to operate from
    forward bases, easy to maintain, along with a heavy weapons carriage are
    further important properties. I have
    just described the A-10, not just in theory but in practice over the course of
    many air campaigns.

    Politically, the Air Force is only, interested in planes
    that are fast and sexy. Politically,
    members of Congress are only interested in aircraft that are built in their
    state. To make a long disgusting story
    short the Air Force fought the idea of a dedicated CAS aircraft from inception,
    through testing, deployment and down played the A-10s excellent CAS record in
    several campaigns regardless of the high marks it has always received from the
    army. What’s more the F-35 is very
    expensive if more than a few are lost in CAS they will be missioned to provide
    support from higher altitudes which will be pretty much a waste of time.

    The Air Force fights on, not against the enemies of the
    Republic but the A-10. Link: Air Force General Post telling pilots that anyone
    saying anything good about the A-10 should consider it treason!!!

    One of the missions of the F-35 as I understand it is to
    network with each other and manage the over all air fight. But it appears that they are unable to
    communicate with the F-22 (last paragraph).
    Draw your own conclusions on that.

    • Corlyss

      Thanks for the info, MD.

    • Curious Mayhem

      This reminds me of those Boston officials who are trying to squelch any criticism of Boston’s Olympics bid coming from within city government.

  • FriendlyGoat

    As a person not trained in strategic war fighting, I’m for the A-10. Lots and lots and lots of them.

    • Andrew Allison

      And the F-22.

    • Corlyss

      If it works, don’t break it. I’m with you. We can always hope that the F-35 is one of those comic affairs that is too slow to outrun its missiles.

    • Curious Mayhem

      This is turning into a real scandal. I recently spoke with a former Navy pilot (excuse me, naval aviator) about this, and he fully admitted the entrenched biases of the current military senior staff. In the Navy, it’s the bias toward large carriers and glamorous fighter jets (which he flew in part of his career); in the Air Force, it’s the bias toward air superiority fighters.

      The Navy has an easier time with accepting its role in supporting the Marines, since they’re the same service. The Air Force became independent of the Army in the 1940s and wants to exalt air power “in itself,” in spite of the lessons during and since World War II. One of those lessons is the essential role of close air support. The A-10 is a great and deadly aircraft in that role, first proven in the Persian Gulf war, although it was first designed to stop Soviet tanks in central Europe.

      The F-35 reminds me again and again of the F-111 debacle of the 1960s. In response came a generation of cheaper, more specialized aircraft that didn’t try to “do it all,” but did one or two roles each: the A-10, the F-15 and F-16, the Harrier, the F-5/T-38, the F-14, and so on. Unfortunately, it usually takes a debacle and a few counter-champions to make a difference.

  • Nevis07

    The F-35 is a major debacle. Lockheed shouldn’t be allowed to make a cent of profit off of it. We’d have been far better off if we’d have built and improved some more F-22’s for air superiority and built a F-35 variant with few tasks to be expected of it. I have no doubt that the F-35 is a great plane, but it was built to take on too many tasks and therefore not really good to superior at any one of them. At the very least it should never have been conceived with the C variant for the vertical liftoff, we could have jointly built a vertical aircraft with Britain for that specific task with our Marine Corps.

    Instead, now we’ll have to be build and purchase a bunch of Boeing Growlers along with the F-35 to make it’s stealth features usable, while fielding other older aircraft for truly close ground support operations. Apparently Russian radar is advanced enough to make the F-35’s stealth features mostly useless with major support from the growler’s electronic warfare/jamming capabilities.

    So, we’ll have the air-fleet to do the job for maybe another generation, but we chose the most expensive air-fleet option possible to do it – and didn’t make it easy on ourselves or allies to get it done. But it is what it is now. We’ve sunk so much money into it there’s no going back at this point. Keeping our airmen/women safe is the most important thing at this point.

    • Andrew Allison

      Lockheed did what, as a public company it was supposed to, namely scoop up as much as possible from the DoD trough. The culprits here are Congress and DoD.

      • Nevis07

        Oh, I agree. I just feel like this has been a horrible expense to tax payers across the alliance system. I suppose when you ask too much of a single aircraft, too much will be promised. Again, I think the F-35 is a great aircraft, but clearly it has it’s weaknesses and will need to be compensated as needed. In the end, though the thing to remember is that, any potential adversary will likely have weaknesses as well – so the ability to use force versus the willingness to actually use force still needs to be used with caution.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I served in the Air Force, and having watched all the problems with the F-15, M-1 main battle tank, the B-1 and B-2, I am willing to say that the problems will get solved with the F-35. That said, I’m against what they have done in trying to make 1 plane do all these different roles. I understand how they needed to conserve cash, and only build 1 plane to service all the military branches, I just think we are going to end up with a plane that doesn’t do anything excellently. They should cancel this program, and go directly to low cost drones by the thousands. In this way they could build drones for each type of mission, recon, dog fighting, wild weasel, bombing, etc…

    • Andrew Allison

      I too served in the (Royal) Air Force and fear that this misbegotten program will live on until the operability problems are solved. This mission-useless, committee-designed camel should be canned ASAP.

      • f1b0nacc1

        The RAF was badly screwed by the TFX debacle, as it caused them to abandon promising platforms while waiting for the F-111 to solve everything. The ‘lost generation’ of British aircraft was more than merely a strategic debacle, it killed a generation of British aerospace firms as well…

    • Nevis07

      It’s funny, I only now read your comment, but I said the same earlier. I can’t agree more, too many roles for a single aircraft. Our forces will pay the price. I’m hoping that tweaks and upgrades later on will somehow mitigate the issues that the program seems to be running into.

    • Frank Natoli

      Depending on how far back you go, you’ll recall that the F-111 was supposed to do “everything”, be a joint services fighter like the F-35. The Navy cleverly preloaded the design with a list of requirements that a Navy F-111 would have caused the carrier to list as the elevators brought them to the deck [exaggerating only slightly]. The F-4 was used by both USN and USAF but was a plane with a thousand “fixes”. Every strange aspect of the F-4, including the anhedral of the horizontal stabilizer, was a “fix”. The incredible thing about the F-35 argument is that it’s wholly within USAF [cannot believe limited USMC aviation dictated anything]. USAF has/had the world’s finest air superiority fighter in the F-22, which is also capable of stealthy deliverance of ordinance. The F-22 is so advanced that it cannot be exported to anyone, including the Australians. But the F-35 can be exported. What can be reasonably inferred from that?

      • f1b0nacc1

        As a minor point, the USMC demanded a VSTOL capability, which is really the ‘original sin’ for the F-35. Because of that requirement, the rest of the platform (calling it an aircraft is really too generous) has been built around providing that capability for one variant (the F-35B), which has had a seriously deleterious effect on its range, maneuverability, etc.
        Your reference to the F-4 is spot on…

        • Frank Natoli

          Technical issues aside, the F-4 was a most extraordinary airplane. The closest I came to a live F-4 was at the Reno Air Races some years ago. The sound just taxiing by was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your head. And fellows I know who served on carriers say that standing near them, just prior to being catapulted, full military power on both engines, was an unforgettable experience.

          Curious how we humans are sometimes more affected by sound than by any other sense.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I had the ‘unusual’ experience of flying second-seat in a tarted-up F-4 some years ago (very long story), and was hugely impressed by the aircraft. As an expression of sheer brute force, it is very hard to beat!
            In truth, most of the operational problems with the Phantom had far more to do with tactical choices and doctrine than technology, but that is likely a subject for a different thread….

  • Curious Mayhem
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