Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver

November 2, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWarWeaponsWorld WarF-35Jets

Turning Point: The F-35 May Not Deliver

The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development and procurement.

The F-35 was a joint development program, with no one service in the lead. While a highly successful Air Force fighter may be developed from a Navy design, as was the case with the F-4, the navalization of an Air Force design is exceedingly challenging given the unique structural and weight requirements inherent in CATOBAR (catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery) operations at sea. Further, there is simply no precedent for conventional or catapult-assisted-takeoff aircraft having as an antecedent, a plane that can land vertically.

That the F-35 program (like the F-111) also required concurrency is further testament to the program’s unreasonableness, for concurrency, that is the overlapping of sequential development phases, or development and production phases, should never be needed in a program that has spanned decades. Concurrency has its place in time of war, the war-winning Russian T-34 tank or the North American P-51D fighter could not have each been fielded in a time-urgent manner without it. Thus, concurrency may be required, but it must be in inverse proportion to the length of a weapon’s design and development cycle; it cannot be justified for any gestation as protracted as the F-35’s.

As alternatives to the F-35 program, common sense and experience should have argued for increased production of the F-22 for the Air Force, and the development of a post-Hornet fighter/attack aircraft for the Navy, with a flyaway cost comparable to that of the F/A-18E. F-35 Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) costs stand currently at more than $55 billion; assuming economies of scale given increased F-22 production, and a notional F-22 flyaway cost of $135 million per plane, the RDT&E costs of the F-35 could have bought more than 400 F-22s for the Air Force, each of substantially greater capability than the F-35A (more F-22s, to match the contemplated full production order of 1,763 F-35As, would amount to an additional $183 billion, though this number could be reduced by various means, to be within the same range as the contemplated, total flyaway cost of an F-35A fleet).

The F-22 is far more able than the F-35A: fewer F-22s would need be built. Further, enhanced economies of scale for the F-22 line could have been achieved if the Air Force built the FB-22 bomber, augmented by a Mach 2.2, F-119-powered B-1 derivative: the B-1R, in lieu of the currently planned Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider (the F-22 is powered by the F-119 engine). Other programmatic savings could have been attained by the substitution of a lower-cost, reduced-capability F-22 for some of the buy. With congressional approval, a modified, export variant could have been sold to allies, including Japan and Australia.

The Marines' AV-8Bs were once planned to be operational through 2030; now they are being retired early to make way for the F-35B. Instead of such early retirement, under the service-specific acquisition program described herein, the AV-8B should have undergone a Service Life Extension Program to support aircraft operations through 2035-2040. In addition, thought should have been given to merging the AV-8B’s successor program with one to replace the A-10.

Part of the great success of the A-10 is that it was conceived as the best tool for a specific job. Its design was influenced by the study of Stuka pilot Hans Rudel’s tactics and observations; the ace was also consulted during the plane’s development (Rudel was the most decorated member of the German armed forces in WWII: he destroyed over 800 combat vehicles, including 519 tanks).

What would a successor aircraft to the AV-8B and A-10 look like? Given an Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in the mid-to-late 2030s, such an aircraft might incorporate a highly evolved gun system augmented by lasers, in lieu of the A-10’s GAU-8 30mm Gatling gun, some STOL capability, and the ability to summon and direct large numbers of unmanned drones, to press an attack or to serve as decoys or spotters.

Such a plan, in lieu of the accreted F-35, would have yielded an F-22-dominated Air Force, a Navy-specific follow-on fighter/attack plane to replace or augment the Super Hornet, and a joint Air Force/Marine Corps attack aircraft to replace the A-10 and the AV-8B. Additionally, two distinct bombers could have been deployed with little programmatic risk, realizing their IOCs years before the B-21 may be made operational. The research and development costs for these proposed programs could have been afforded, for service-specific designs to replace the A-10, the AV-8B, and the Super Hornet could be tailored to achieve flyaway costs far lower than the Marines' F-35B or the Navy’s F-35C. The bomber programs, employing proven platforms, would undercut the cost of a new design and its production.

It is quite probable that the actions articulated above could have resulted in substantial DOD-wide savings, while incurring less budgetary and programmatic risk. But is this all just spilled milk? The F-35 is a reality, and all participants, whatever their qualms, will have to learn to live with it.

Would that be so. In fact, following and expanding upon the development and acquisition template of the F-35 program, its usurpatory OSD benefactors and advocates, and its sycophants on the Hill and in industry, now champion a new joint-service program, whose scope, if not cost, far exceeds the breadth of even the enormous F-35 program.

The Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program is intended to develop and to field a panoply of helicopters to replace or to augment the military’s current light, medium, heavy, and ultra-heavy craft. Up to five different classes of helicopters are to be developed, but will share a broad range of common hardware, such as airframe components, engines, avionics, weapons, and sensors.

Thus, the FVL program is intended to provide replacements for the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa. Amazingly, an ultra-heavy variant, which is part of the FVL program, is intended to replace or augment the C-130J Super Hercules, for this FVL variant is projected to have similar cargo capacities.

The travails of the multi-service F-111 and F-35 programs and the history of helicopter program cancellations on the cusp of production, including the AH-56 Cheyenne and RAH-66 Comanche, do not portend success for the FVL program as presently constituted. Perhaps its advocates believe that it will become a program that is too big to fail. If this be the case, it must be argued that the DOD should do better than cribbing an anti-competitive business model from Wall Street. As bad as this situation is, there is more.

New OSD offices are still proliferating. As examples, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) are initiatives of the past administration. Both the DIUx and the SCO are part of the insourcing initiative of President Obama’s administration. Insourcing aggregates authorities heretofore granted to defense contractors and transfers such licenses to DOD bureaucrats. The insourcing initiative was introduced by Secretary Robert Gates, who subsequently admitted on August 9, 2010 that, "we weren't seeing the savings we had hoped from insourcing.” Insourcing has been linked to disaggregation as this term applies to development and procurement. Disaggregation in this context is the atomization of a program into parts to be integrated within DOD and not by a prime contractor.

DIUx, headquartered in Silicon Valley, has as its purpose, the acceleration of the flow of technologies from the private sector to DOD. One of its principals has stated his desire to mimic DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) rapid hiring ability, noting that this is a substantial advantage over the normal DOD staffing process and that such a swift procedure could allow DIUx to compete with private industry’s recruitment of technical talent. DIUx offers non-dilutive capital investment to companies of interest (non-dilutive investments do not reduce the stakes of preexisting company owners). Thus, it has amassed a portfolio of investments in technology-related companies. Proffered as a bridge between private-sector innovation and DOD acquisition, DIUx was created as a component of Secretary Ashton Carter’s Third Offset strategy, which envisioned declining U.S. force levels and reductions in U.S. military supremacy, in certain areas, be offset by the fusion of various new technologies and systems.

While the germ of the DIUx initiative may have merits, the initiative should be broken up and distributed amongst the services. A trenchant concern with such an initiative, which reaches beyond customary defense contractors, must be security: the proposed, rapid fusion of DOD objectives and requirements with emergent technology companies, with particular emphasis on data-driven companies in Silicon Valley, may be expected to be repurposed by our adversaries. China, Russia, Iran, and others will, no doubt, deem DIUx’s close and rapid association with startup companies as, perhaps, a prime opportunity to exfiltrate U.S and allied national-security data and critical personnel.

Given the present situation in Korea, it is worth noting that technology transfer from Rolls Royce to the U.S.S.R., including the penetration of Rolls Royce facilities by Soviet operatives, permitted the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 to be powered by the same turbojet that powered the principal U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fighters of the Korean War as well as the Air Force’s Lockheed F-94. (The Grumman F9F, F9F/F-9, and the F-94 were powered by versions of the Pratt & Whitney J48 engine, which was a development of the British Nene engine; a reverse-engineered counterpart, the Klimov VK-1, powered the MiG-15.)