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Op-Ed: The F35 fighter jet should be called 'the flying credit card'

By Paul Wallis     Mar 25, 2010 in Technology
The Prima Donna of US aircraft design is having "500 blueprint changes" per month. This lottery-like approach to design is novel, where the theory is that planes are supposed to fly, too. The price of up to $329 billion is getting some giggles as well.
F35, the Joint Strike Fighter, Lightning II, or Accountancy Uber Alles, depending on your point of view, has been having a few CAD based tantrums. TIME Magazine has a story on the Cinderella of contracting which takes more believing than the original Cinderella ever did.
The new information is that other planes will have to be retired to pay for this thing. It’s interesting to me, because our RAAF has signed up to buy the latest fairy tale from “Where’s My Cost Accountant, Dude?”
Lockheed Martin, who are usually spectacularly good designers of aircraft, are pretty upbeat about F35. If the blurb is any indication, the original design principles were good.
So what’s gone wrong? The “multirole” may be the answer. The first real operational jet fighter, the German ME262, was similarly handicapped by being redesigned to be a fighter bomber, a role which effectively ignored its air superiority capacity, and delayed production for years. In the event, it rarely performed in the bomber role.
The killer for good air designs is the technical horizon over which ideas sail and insist on bringing technology with them. The aspirations may be great, but the results are usually glued together.
F35 is supposed to be a “do everything” fighter, what TIME calls a Swiss Army knife. That’s another indicator of problems. Putting too much tactical load on one system usually means that everything else falls to bits, and you’re dependent on that system. Sticking too much technology on a combat system, so far, has been to put it mildly, an acquired taste, and the taste is normally terrible.
In fairness, this is a true fly by wire plane, by intent and by design. If it can do what it’s supposed to do, and isn’t buried in advanced logistics, it might well be the sort of shock the F117 was in the past. The original Stealth fighter, F117 was proven in combat as an effective system.
However- F117 didn’t have this prolonged gestation. The role and functions were clear. There was no suggestion of a free set of steak knives. F35 is sending the wrong signals in that regard, and worse, it’s looking like the guys who are supposed to fly and tactically deploy the planes are second class citizens.
That, if it’s the case, is just plain dangerous. It’s adding shallowness to a situation which requires depth, namely air superiority. The US is the pioneer of true air superiority. A lot of tactical doctrines and operational functions depend on it. The US hasn’t been in a position of inferiority in the air since Pearl Harbor and the following few months.
A high maintenance, thin in numbers, difficult aircraft could produce that situation. It may have local superiority, but it can’t be everywhere. Other, much cheaper weapons are a threat to it. This is a Rolls Royce entering a dodgem contest, if it can't measure up to the forthcoming conflict scenarios.
Nor has the cost been pinned down. The Flying Credit Card, sad to say, may be true. The price tag is starting to look prohibitive, although Lockheed were recently mystified at the Pentagon estimate of up to $329 billion. They don’t think it’ll cost that much, and expect it to be “far lower”. What, doesn't anybody actually know?
Let’s hope someone does, for everyone’s sake. That’s $329 billion which might have other uses, too. It may be a snide remark in context, but the USSR sent itself broke on ridiculously expensive weapons. It also had a dysfunctional economy when it fell to bits. It defeated itself. The US may be conducting a war on itself, at this rate.
The US budget, that somewhat furtive, evasive looking thing, may need a few bucks here and there while the Lightning II avoids living up to its name. So far the only targets being hit are the dollar signs.
The 500 blueprint changes per month, assuming that's true, are likely to be "knock on" design issues. They tend to be interrelated, because stresses and other design considerations need to be counter weighted when changes are made. That means one design alteration may require several more to accommodate the change.
All perfectly understandable, but this thing hasn’t had any operational tactical testing yet. It’s just done its first successful vertical take off. The proof of value is going to have to be defined sometime, and that time doesn’t look like anytime soon.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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