(This essay is jointly written by Winslow T. Wheeler and Pierre M. Sprey.)
The Pentagon has a time honored tradition of assigning PR nicknames to its aircraft. The moniker of Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is “Lightning II”, named after Lockheed’s glitzy but rather unsuccessful WWII fighter, the P-38. A cursory look at the record of the F-35’s namesake is convincing evidence that we need to find a new name for the JSF, quickly.
The darling of the Army Air Corps in the early 1940s and of vintage fighter buffs today, the P-38 was the high tech and high cost wonder of its time. It pioneered twin engines (with counter-rotating props and turbo-chargers), tricycle landing gear, stainless steel structural components, and a radical airframe design. At a time when fighters cost about $50,000, it cracked the $100,000 mark. Even so, it got torn apart so badly in dogfights against the far smaller, more agile, faster-climbing Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs that it had to be withdrawn from the skies over Germany as a fighter — in favor of the far more effective, half as expensive P-51. Relegated to the minor leagues of reconnaissance and ground support in Europe, mostly in Italy, the P-38 proved itself equally inadequate in ground attack; it was simply too flammable and too easily downed by rifle and machine gun fire.
Setting aside the not-so-proud history of the P-38, the Lightning II moniker is a poor fit for the F-35. Despite the F-35’s whopping (and still growing) $122 million per copy price tag, the Air Force and other advocates pretend it is the low-priced, affordable spread in fighter-bombers. Though horrendously overburdened with every high tech weight and drag inducing goodie the aviation bureaucracy in the Pentagon can cram in, the Lightning II is hardly a pioneer, being little more than a pastiche of pre-existing air-to-air and air-to-ground technology – albeit with vastly more complexified computer programs. The P-38 Lightning of the twenty-first century it is surely not, especially for those who hold the P-38 in undeserved high regard.
In the interests of giving credit where credit is due, a more historically fitting moniker for the F-35 would be “Aardvark II.” Aardvark–literally ground pig in Afrikaans–was the nickname pilots (and ultimately the Air Force) gave to the F-111–and for good reasons. The F-111 was the tri-Service, tri-mission fighter-bomber of the 60s, and also a legendary disaster. The F-35 is rapidly earning its place as the Aardvark’s true heir.
There are astonishing parallels between the two programs.
Both airplanes started life as misconceived USAF bombing-oriented designs, then were cobbled into “joint”, tri-Service Rube Goldbergs by Pentagon R&D civilians fronting for high complexity, big bucks programs advocated by industry. At birth, the F-111 was the Tactical Air Command’s 60,000 pound baby nuclear bomber designed around two high tech hooks: the glitzy swing-wing that NASA was pushing hard (now thoroughly discredited as a lousy idea) and the first big, complicated bombing radar on a so-called fighter.
In 1961, R&D chief Dr. Harold Brown (later President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense) sold then-SecDef Robert McNamara on the inestimable efficiencies of turning the F-111 into a common design for the Air Force, Navy, and Strategic Air Command, blithely asserting that it would be a piece of cake to incorporate in one airplane nuclear bombing, conventional bombing, air-to-air dogfighting, radar interception for the fleet, and even close support of ground forces. This fantasy called for buying 1,706 of these do-everything wunderwaffen at a bargain basement price of $2.9 million per copy, to be achieved by the wonders of the ephemeral “learning curve” wishfully attributed to such long production runs.
Quite similarly, the F-35 started life in 1991 as the USAF’s Multi-Role Fighter (MRF), a multi-mission bomber and fighter (mostly bomber) to replace the F-16. In other words, the plane’s real mission was not a well-defined combat task but rather to be the “low” end, yeoman-like counterpart to the more refined “high” end F-22 fighter. This was simply slavish adherence to the Air Staff’s simple-minded, misbegotten 30-year-old dogma of a “high/low force mix,” a slogan originally concocted to sell the F-15/F-16 mixed fighter buy to the Congress in 1974.
In 1993, the Pentagon’s civilian high tech fantasists in the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) crossbred the Air Force’s MRF concept with a stealthy, supersonic, vertical takeoff, ultra-complex pipedream that DARPA and Lockheed had been secretly sponsoring for six years. The marriage, urged on by Lockheed, turned the Air Force’s single service, multi-role MRF into a common (well, almost common) design that would perform interdiction bombing, air-to-air, fleet air defense, and close support for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. DARPA dubbed their tri-Service concoction the Combined Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF).
Once again promising the imagined cost savings of a multi-role, multi-service aircraft, DARPA sold the concept to another unsuspecting secretary of defense, former congressman Les Aspin. He added the necessary political gloss by endorsing the project in his 1993 Bottom Up Review (BUR), the progenitor of future successive waves of bureaucratic self-review, persistently sold as DoD “transformation” and now called “Quadrennial Defense Reviews.” For the BUR, DARPA and Aspin’s coterie of newcomers to Pentagon procurement fiascos renamed the project JAST (Joint Advanced Strike Technology). Congress laid on generous funds and by the end 1996 two JAST technology demonstrator (not prototype) contracts at three quarters of a billion dollars each were awarded, one to Lockheed and one to recent entrant Boeing–thereby creating the veneer, if not the actuality, of competitive prototypes. The alphabet soup chefs celebrated the signing with yet another name change: JAST became JSF, the Joint Strike Fighter. The new JSF office promptly floated a plan, very much in the F-111 tradition, for loading up the Services with a long production run of nearly 3,000 planes at an ever-so-affordable cost of $28 to $38 million each.
Unlike the marketing appeal of the F-111’s super sexy swing wing, the JSF’s high tech allure was a bit wan: a warmed-over, lesser version of the F-22’s stealth; a little more data-linking; a few more bombing computers than the F-22 and way less air-to-air maneuverability (not that the F-22 was any world beater). The only real firsts were a helmet-mounted sight that displays everything in the world except internet video and the Encyclopedia Britannica–and a bank of onboard computers requiring a horrific 7.5 million lines of software code.
Both the initial F-111 and the F-35 designs–each grossly too heavy and hideously lacking in maneuverability from the very start–were further compromised by the bureaucratically invented requirement to serve multiple missions and multiple Services. The F-111’s drag was greatly increased by the Navy’s perfectly senseless requirement for side-by-side seating; the structural weight and the production commonality was compromised by having a different wing and nose section for the Air Force and Navy versions; and the Navy-instigated switch to an unsuitable high bypass fan engine caused endless problems with inlets, compressor stalls and excessive aft end drag. Similarly, the F-35, already overweight, has suffered serious structural weight penalties to accommodate the Navy’s much larger wing and carrier landing requirements as well as the Marines’ fattened Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) fan-carrying fuselage midsection with its shrunken bomb bay. The impact of the three Services’ disparate specifications is huge: the Government Accountability Office has found that only 30 percent of components of the F-35’s three models are shared. So much for commonality savings.
The funding for both the F-111 and the F-35 benefited from herculean PR efforts to tout their unparalleled effectiveness in each one of their multiple missions: air-to-air, deep strike bombing, air defense interception, and close support. In truth, neither plane has (or had) any real multi-mission ability at all. They can serve only as lumbering, loss-prone bomb trucks, vulnerable to antiaircraft guns at low altitude because of their thin skins and appallingly flammable fuel-surrounded engines—and equally vulnerable to surface to air missiles (SAMs) due to their hopelessly inadequate maneuverability.
In urgent need of PR to prop up the F-111’s already tarnished image and fading funding, the Air Force rushed six Aardvarks into Vietnam combat in early 1968. Though they flew only night bombing missions (for which combat losses are typically negligible) in the least defended areas, three were lost in the first 55 missions. Accuracy of the much-vaunted radar bombing system was another black eye: half the bombs hit a half mile or more from the target. An embarrassingly hasty withdrawal from combat ensued.
In 1972, the F-111s tried a second turn in the combat limelight. The very first six-ship mission had four planes abort due to system failures; one never found the target and one reached the target but never returned. In toto, the 48 F-111s deployed only managed to fly about once every 2 ½ days. Flying night-only in low threat areas, they managed to lose 10 birds in the next six months. Day bombing was not attempted, and even the Air Force was not mindless enough to fly a single F-111 sortie anywhere near an enemy fighter. Nor, needless to say, did they fly a single close support sortie.
Similarly–and for the same reasons of unmaneuverability and high flammability–Air Force and Navy F-35s in combat will never fly anything but bomb truck missions in lightly defended areas out of reach of enemy fighters. As for the Marines’ range- and payload-limited, problem ridden, highly vulnerable STOVL F-35B, it will never deliver close support to a grunt on the ground from less than 10,000 feet without an ironclad guarantee that there’s not an AAA gun or shoulder-fired missile within five miles. With the F-35B’s miniscule loiter time, the grunts can forget about all-day air cover–a crucial component of effective close support in any war. Nor will the STOVL capability, a Marine Corps do-or-die requirement, ever let the F-35B operate impromptu close to the grunts in the foxholes. It can fly only from prepared concrete landing pads; a landing in the dirt close to the troops is sure to destroy the engine every time. Even flying off Marine/Navy ships may never happen: right now, the heat of the lift fan exhaust buckles the deck of any existing carrier or amphibious warfare ship.
High-tech dilettantes claimed (and claim) vociferously that both the F-111 and the F-35 could not be found or shot down by ground air defenses: the F-111 by virtue of its high speed and low altitude terrain following radar; the F-35 by virtue of its stealth. The terrain following radar proved to be a loser, costing several F-111s in Vietnam combat. As for the F-35’s stealth, it is easily detected by ancient-technology long wavelength search radars, which the Russians are happy to update and sell all over the world. Against shorter wavelength SAM and fighter radars, the stealth helps only over a very narrow cone of angles. These realities were an unpleasant surprise to our stealthy F-117s in the Kosovo air war in 1999. Against the Serbs’ antiquated Russian radar defenses, one F-117 was shot down and another so badly damaged it never flew again – a loss count twice that of the non-stealthy aircraft in the campaign. It is true, however, that the F-35, like the F-111 before it, will be hard to find in combat, though for other reasons: their long and frequent stays in the maintenance hangar dictate rather rare appearances over enemy skies.
Both Aardvark programs, the F-111 and the F-35, counted on foreign sales to keep unit costs down. The USAF and the Pentagon spent years marketing the F-111 to the UK, Australia and others. The UK bailed out of the F-111, and Australia unhappily learned to live with the ground pigs we talked them into. The F-35 program counts much more heavily on pie-in-the-sky foreign sales; six months ago the Pentagon’s program manager was touting the potential sale of thousands, well beyond the established plans for 730 for eight known foreign buyers. However, the UK is reported to be about to halve its F-35 buy, and a vocal faction in Australia wants to cancel their entire F-35 buy. Other foreign buyers are nervously monitoring F-35 cost growth, delays, and performance compromises.
The first Aardvark program produced one-third the number of planes planned at over five times the unit cost: 1,706 were planned at $2.9 million unit cost–in contrast to an actual 541 built at $15.1 million each, in 1960’s dollars. The F-35 was originally sold on the basis of buying 2,866 planes — for the US only — at $28 to $38 million each in contemporary dollars. Those Aardvark II promises are long gone; the current official estimate is to buy 2,456 aircraft for a combined research, development, and procurement cost of $299 billion, or $122 million each. The cost growth is far from over. A courageously independent evaluation group in the Pentagon, known as the Joint Estimating Team (JET), is predicting two or more years of delay and $16 billion or more in further cost growth – just for the next few years.
Again, however, that is just the tip of the iceberg. With 97% of flight test hours still unflown, we are certainly facing billions of dollars more in major rework to correct flight test failures sure to be found throughout the airplane: airframe, engine, electronics and software. Then, because the flight test program is designed to explore only 17 percent of the F-35’s flight characteristics, still more problems are sure to be found after the aircraft is deployed – at the potential expense of pilot lives and, of course, lots more money. In the end, expect F-35 unit cost to exceed $200 million. That means there’s no way our budgets will ever find room to buy 2,456 of them and, most probably, not half that number.
Another F-35 problem yet to be broached is the Navy’s very likely backing out of the program, a repeat of the Navy’s little known undermining of the F-111 program. The 1961 McNamara-Brown plan for a tri-Service F-111 was an illusion from the start. From the earliest days, Navy admirals were saying in private that the USN had no intention of ever building the carrier-based F-111B. They signed on to McNamara’s F-111 plan in order to extract funding for the engine (TF-30) and missile/radar (Phoenix/AWG-9) for their ardently desired all-Navy fighter. The USN was secretly developing that fighter, the F-14, with Grumman, the Navy-favored contractor they had planted inside the F-111 program to provide GD, ostensibly, with the carrier expertise to design the F-111B. In 1968, the year of the first sizable dollar commitments to F-111B production, the Navy announced that the F-111B’s carrier landing performance was unacceptably dangerous–a more-than-questionable assertion since the Navy’s in-service RA-5C Vigilantes had far worse carrier landing characteristics (and the F-14 itself would soon prove more dangerous than the F-111B in carrier landing characteristics). Simultaneously, the Navy told Congress it had in hand the design for a far better swing-wing fighter than the F-111, and it could build the aircraft right away for the same money as the F-111B. The Congress willingly went along with the gambit and authorized the Navy to apply the F-111B procurement money to the F-14.
The F-35 seems to be following the same trajectory. The Navy has been quietly reducing the number of Navy F-35Cs in the program plan and converting them to Marine F-35Bs. Alternatives to the F-35C have been discussed, and at least one has been briefed to top Pentagon managers. Meanwhile, both in the Navy budget and under the table with Congress, the Navy has successfully pushed for increased buys of their F-18E/F (an almost equally unworthy fighter and not much of a bomber). The Navy’s budget for F-35Cs is scheduled to steeply increase to $9 billion in fiscal year 2012. Expect the Navy to announce sometime before that the F-35C is simply carrier unsuitable. That will surely be accompanied by a simultaneous pitch that a hot new version of the F-18 is in hand, one that will cost less than the F-35C (which will not be difficult) and whose faster deliveries will cure the fighter “gap” that is causing the Navy to lose two much-lamented carriers from its future force.
The success of that pitch will spell the death knell of the F-35 program. Unit costs will automatically jump to a new peak. The performance deficiencies the Navy is sure to reveal at that point will add a sack heavy enough to bow the camel’s back, and the F-35 program will become nothing but a mad scramble to uncommit from as many Aardvark IIs as possible.
In the midst of their escalating program failures, both the F-111 and F-35 continued to be ever more intensely advertised as the future of U.S. combat aviation, the sine qua non of America’s continued domination of the skies anywhere in the world, and…
Both crapped out.
It’s all over but the shouting–and the wasting of many, many billions more before we’re rid of the second pig.
Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C..
Pierre M. Sprey, together with Cols John Boyd and Everest Riccioni, brought to fruition the F-16; he also led the design team for the A-10 and helped implement the program.
Both Wheeler and Sprey are authors of chapters in the anthology “America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.”