57 thoughts on “The F-35

  1. Larry J

    While not a big fan of the F-35, I noticed that $1.5 trillion price tag was to buy and operate the planes for 55 years. Since when has that been a standard accounting practice? I do believe in examining the total cost of ownership but wonder how many other military systems have been costed in this manner.

    Other than the C-130, KC-135 and B-52, how many US military aircraft are operated for 55 years? Does that price tag just cover those planes scheduled for US purchase or is that for the entire worldwide fleet?

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      I think they’re supposed to take into account the full Life Cycle Cost when making procurement decisions. This was supposed to be the universal airplane, that would last for decades.

      1. Larry J

        I’ve been in and around the US military for most of my life and don’t recall any other weapon system being subject to that kind of analysis. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems an apples and oranges comparison. Like any analysis, it’s subject to biases and assumptions on what future costs will be. Of course, this is a Lockheed project so overruns and program delays are standard operating procedure.

        As for operating the plane for 55 years, that’s really rare for a first line tactical aircraft. Tankers and transports aren’t subject to the same stresses and technical challenges as fighters. The B-52 is an old design (first flight was 61 years ago come April 15th) and the last to roll off the assembly line were in 1962 (51 years ago) but they’re operated more as bomb trucks than front line bombers today. They’re great for bombing targets in undefended airspace wouldn’t be likely to survive very long in strongly defended airspace.

          1. Edward Wright

            Until recently, no one was insane enough to plan for a 50-year life cycle.

            The closest example I can think if is Orion, which was hailed as “an American Soyuz — the only way American astronauts will go into space for the next 40 years.”

          2. Larry J

            It isn’t uncommon for the Navy to operate ships for 50 years, at least in the case of aircraft carriers. Who has done a 50 year lifecycle cost for an aircraft carrier? A new one costs billions to buy and millions of dollars a day to operate. Throw in the maintenance cycles and upgrades over a 50 year lifetime and the cost would be staggering. Yet I hear of no such analysis being published on carriers (or perhaps it’s being kept quiet). So, why hold the F-35 to a costing standard that doesn’t apply to other weapons systems?

    2. Leland

      I’m with you Larry. That’s my problem with this article as well.

      Rand: “This was supposed to be the universal airplane, that would last for decades.”

      While that statement doesn’t particularly justify $1.5 Trillion; the statement does suggest this would be a very expensive weapons platform. An universal airplane to last decades? Why what does it cost for such an aircraft? Well, let’s look at the price tag of other aircraft by comparison. The B-2 was derided at the time as the $1 billion aircraft, because by adding R&D to manufacturing the cost divided by unit was $1 billion. We have 21 of them, so $21 billion. That doesn’t include operational costs. That’s just the cost of getting 21 of them built. And its not an universal airplane. And while it’s flown for 25 years, its replacement is already in the works.

      The FT article would be better if it gave such points of comparison. It doesn’t. It’s just a diatribe about F-35 delays with the impetus being an engine blade crack, which isn’t an uncommon problem with modern jet engines in all aircraft that utilize them.

    1. Edward Wright

      That’s unfair, Tim. The TFX was meant to be a tactical bomber, a fighter, and a naval interceptor.

      The F-35 is supposed to perform all those roles *and* replace the A-10 and Harrier for close air support, and the Hawkeye for airborne early warning, and the Prowler for electronics warfare, and the Viking for antisubmarine warfare.

      They’ve even talked about using it for medevac. No, I’m not making that up. Some genius proposed hanging pods on the wings to carry patients.

      Not a completely new idea, in fact. The Su-25 can transport its own ground-support equipment in wing pods. At one time, Sukhoi proposed transporting mechanics the same way. It turns out, there are some things you can’t make people do even in the Russian Army!

      1. Larry J

        The F-35 is supposed to perform all those roles *and* replace the A-10 and Harrier for close air support, and the Hawkeye for airborne early warning, and the Prowler for electronics warfare, and the Viking for antisubmarine warfare.

        Show me some references for the F-35 replacing the Viking for ASW and the Hawkeye for AEW. You might as well claim that it’s going to replace the Greyhound for COD work.

      2. Michael Kent

        “The F-35 is supposed to perform all those roles *and* replace the A-10 and Harrier for close air support, and the Hawkeye for airborne early warning, and the Prowler for electronics warfare, and the Viking for antisubmarine warfare.”

        The USAF quietly backed off on replacing the A-10 with the F-35 after studies showed it would take two or three F-35s (at a cost of $120 million each) to replace each A-10 in its fleet. The A-10 is a point design supremely optimized for its role, and the F-35 is not well suited for it. They are now re-winging the A-10’s to extend their life out to 2030, and there’s serious talk of then re-fuselaging them to take them out to 2040.

        The Prowler is being replaced by the EA-18G Growler, now in production.

        You are right that at one time it was the plan to replace the Harrier and Warthog with the F-35. I hadn’t heard about the others.

        1. Gregg

          “They are now re-winging the A-10′s to extend their life out to 2030, and there’s serious talk of then re-fuselaging them to take them out to 2040.”

          Boy am I glad to hear that.

  2. Gregg

    “Can you say “TFX?” ”

    I certainly can. It seems that learning from history is NOT a government forte.

    They tried this one plane does all approach before – several times – and it never succeeds. The F-111 was eventually built but not in huge numbers and it never achieved the do-it-all capabilities the planners had in mind.

    This time they want a plane that works everywhere (all three takeoff regimes) and once again got bit.

    And with the F-4, the Air Force had to use a plane designed for the Navy which had all sorts of compromises due to landing on a carrier.

    About the only silver lining to this is that because of the massive failure of TFX, the Fighter Mafia had a window in which they could successfully make the argument for specialized air-to-air and ground attack vehicles – the wildly successful F-15, A-10, and F-16. Yes, I know the FM didn’t like the F-15 but that’s life. At least the F-16 (their baby) got built in huge numbers.

    The F-22 doesn’t seem to be making history either. So maybe what we should do in the interim is buy new, modernized F-15’s and F-16’s (the lines are still running though not for the USAF), and get a clean sheet of paper.

    1. Edward Wright

      The F-22 and F-35 had their origins during the final days of the Cold War. They are designed for a world that no longer exists.

      The F-16XL outperforms the F-35 in every way, except stealth and carrier landing. Lockheed tried to sell it overseas, a few years ago, but didn’t try selling it to the Air Force because they wanted to sell F-35s.

      1. Gregg

        There is (was?) also a version of the F-15 called the Stealth Eagle. Don’t know how stealthy it is; though it wasn’t marketed as being as invisible as the F-22.

        In general I prefer our pilots have a dominating, no kidding unbeatable, no-one-can-come-close-to-it airplane. And normally I wouldn’t advocate building old designs. But we have a mere 187 (186?) F-22’s.

        That’s nothing.

        You will boil those off quickly in any major conflict with a first class power.

        And a lot of the F-15’s we have now have a flight envelope that’s been limited due to age/fatigue.

        I’d rather have a newly-built older fighter that the pilot can trust, than a lot of empty hardstands because you can only afford 187 F-22’s, all of which were lost in combat.

        1. Larry J

          According to Wikipedia, there were a total of 195 F-22s built, with 8 of them being test articles and 187 production planes. There have been 3 F-22s lost in accidents with two fatalities so natural attrition is already taking place. I don’t know if it’d be practical or possible to covert a few of the test articles to production aircraft but with software upgrades and the like, they will be still doing some measure of testing for years to come.

          According to this article, Boeing seems to have backed away from the F-15SE Silent Eagle project. I’m uncertain if it’s dead or not. This article suggests the project may not be dead after all. Who knows?

          1. Gregg

            “According to Wikipedia, there were a total of 195 F-22s built, with 8 of them being test articles and 187 production planes. ”

            I knew USAF got 187 airplanes. I put 186 in parens because I thought they lost at least one.

            There is at least one major structural component that has a lead time, if I remember correctly, of 2 years to fabricate. You will not be rolling these off the assembly line by the hundreds or thousands.

        2. Michael Kent

          “In general I prefer our pilots have a dominating, no kidding unbeatable, no-one-can-come-close-to-it airplane.”

          So do I but at what cost? Over $80 billion has been spent on those 187 F-22s, and they still don’t have HOBS/JHMCS or SDB working with it, last I heard (a couple of years ago). F-35 development is looking to be 2-3 times the F-22 development, for an inferior airplane.

          Compare its flyaway cost with modern production fighters. The F-35 (the low part of the high/low mix) is costing around $120 million each. For that you could buy an F-15 ($70 million) and an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet ($50 million). An un-degraded F-15 would win a fight with an F-35 hands-down, and even the Super Hornet would win most fights with it at least until the F-35 upgrades are rolled in around the end of the decade.

          As for the Silent Eagle, it’s best not to use a Lockheed Martin executive as a source of what Boeing is up to.

          1. Edward Wright

            “In general I prefer our pilots have a dominating, no kidding unbeatable, no-one-can-come-close-to-it airplane.”

            Then you don’t spend 20 years developing it. The famed supermaueverability of the F-22 has been surpassed by the latest generation of Russian fighters, because it spent so long in development.

            And there’s no such thing as an unbeatable airplane. In a close-in dogfight, even a MiG-21 could get off a lucky shot. So, no one in his right mind would risk a $200 million airplane in that situation — but if you’re not going to fight close in, why did you spend all that money on supermanueverability?

            And with fewer than 200 F-22s, can you cover all possible theaters? The best airplanes in the world will do you no good if they’re 10,000 miles away.

          2. Godzilla

            Over $80 billion has been spent on those 187 F-22s, and they still don’t have HOBS/JHMCS or SDB working with it, last I heard (a couple of years ago). F-35 development is looking to be 2-3 times the F-22 development, for an inferior airplane.

            Yes that is just pathetic. I mean the Super Hornet has JHMCS. Why not just use that in the first versions? Oh and use the F-15 oxygen supply system while you are at it.

            As for the F-35 I think making it single engine and vertical lift was too much. The US Navy needs more engine redundancy. The supposed troubles with turbine blade cracks and the like provide little comfort.

            So is the US Air Force going to start buying Super Hornets as well, a repeat of the F-4, or what?

      2. Bart

        “They are designed for a world that no longer exists.”

        I positively hate that throwaway line. It is basically a code for “I’m hip and up to date, and can tell you dinosaurs what to do.”

        The weapons we need today are, in fact, the ones needed for a world that no longer existed within the framework of 20th century struggles. Weapons to fight the Saracens? Sure thing, Kid Charlemagne.

        But, what weapons will we need tomorrow? Russia plans to introduce its 5th gen figher, the PAK-FA, into service in 2015. China has a steep learning curve, but so did the Japanese in autos. And, whether or not war is actually likely with either of them, you have to present a credible defense posture, or they will just go whatever they like and dare you to make a move.

    2. Larry J

      “40 second Boyd”* was the head of the fighter mafia and was directly responsible for the F-15 requirements. The famous saying about the original (F-15a through D) model F-15s was “not one pound for air to ground.” The plane was designed as an uncompromised air superiority fighter. While there haven’t been too many aerial combats lately, the F-15’s record is over 100 kills to 0 losses. Not too shabby.

      *Reportedly, he got his nickname from his dogfighting skills and not some complaint by his wife…

      1. Gregg

        ““40 second Boyd”* was the head of the fighter mafia and was directly responsible for the F-15 requirements”

        My understanding was that Boyd and the FM were against the F-15 – too big, too many engines, too costly.

        In fact at one point, F-16 (actually lightweight fighter – but that’s too much typing) opponents claimed that the F-16 didn’t have the range. Boyd et al proved, in a surprise briefing, that the F-16 had the exact same range as the F-15.

        1. Larry J

          Boyd did like simple, lightweight fighters. However, the F-15 was designed using his energy management studies as a guideline. F-15s are as big as they are in large part because they were designed to go up against the MiG-25 before we learned it wasn’t really a fighter but instead an interceptor.

          1. Godzilla

            And the Mig-25 was designed to shoot down US Valkyrie Mach 3 bombers. It is funny how weapons development happens.

          2. Larry J

            Yes, the Mig-25 was designed to shoot down B-70s. When that threat went away, they kept the plane in interceptor and reconnaissance versions. It was a reconnaissance version operating out of Egypt that was clocked at > Mach 3 that freaked out the DoD. IIRC, it was able to easily pull away from Israeli Phantoms. That factored heavily into the design requirements of the F-15.

          3. Edward Wright

            Yes, the Mig-25 was designed to shoot down B-70s.

            That’s what US intelligence thought at the time. We now know it was designed to counter the A-11/SR-71.

  3. Daver

    I don’t know enough about the ins and the outs; the article sounds a bit like a hit piece, but maybe there’s something to it. Certainly new equipment is subject to teething problems (speaking of which, I saw a V-22 fly overhead the other day–that might be the first one I’ve seen in the air); I don’t know that this is worse than others.

    I’m still a bit disgruntled about the F-20, but that’s even more the last war than the F-35.

  4. Edward Wright

    One of the early signs that the Bush Vision of Space Exploration was when Sean O’Keefe proclaimed, with a straight face, that it would be affordable because it was using Joint Strike Fighter as a role model.

    And the so-called “new space” movement believed that.

  5. Josh Reiter

    I was watching that Nova ‘Battle of the X-planes’ episode not that long ago. It’s old show back when the F-35 competition took place between Lockheed and Boeing. Knowing now what they didn’t know then there were several face palming moments. The biggest being when they announced that this plane was to be built to cut costs. Yet Lockheed doesn’t even get halfway through the competition without cost overruns and the government just lets it slide. Yet Boeing actually tried and averted several decisions that would have caused them to go over cost. They lost because they played by the rules.

    1. Leland

      I have the DVD (though it’s also on Netflix). I’ll have to go back and watch it. I don’t think I agree with your assessment that Boeing lost because they played by the rules. What I recall from the video was that Boeing’s plan lacked performance. Boeing conducted tests at Pax River to take advantage of near sea level performance, while LM conducted tests at Edwards with better performance. LM’s STOVL entry actually performed it flight conversion operations per design. Boeing’s STOVL required parts to be manually removed or added to transition from the stages of flight. That last part provides a huge unknown in costs.

      However, most of this is irrelevant to the cost problem. The cost problem has its root in the overall DOD procurement methods in the way contracts are subsequently written to reward contractors not for building their original design, but by getting their customer to come up with as many modifications as possible. It likely wouldn’t matter who won the fly off competition; it would still cost a fortune.

      1. Gregg

        “I don’t think I agree with your assessment that Boeing lost because they played by the rules. What I recall from the video was that Boeing’s plan lacked performance.”

        That’s my recollection as well. In addition, to meet the performance specs I recall Boeing removed chunks of airplane.

        1. Larry J

          Boeing’s design also had a serious problem with hot exhaust ingestion during hovering flight. IIRC, that almost caused an accident. Before I saw their design, I thought Boeing had the best chance of winning the competition because it was their turn. Lockheed already had the F-22 and the military likes to spread out the production base. So, despite Boeing’s lack of experience at building a front line fighter, I thought they had the inside track. Then I saw their design. To call it an abomination would be an insult to abominations everywhere.

          1. Michael Kent

            “Then I saw their design. To call it an abomination would be an insult to abominations everywhere.

            It was even worse than that.

          2. Edward Wright

            Boeing currently builds the F-15 and F/A-18. So, not completely inexperienced.

            But I never thought I would see the day when they struggled to build a subsonic airliner, either.

          3. Larry J

            The F-15 and F/A-18 were McDonald-Douglas designs that Boeing inherited when they bought the company.

      2. Josh Reiter

        Boeing went for a full tailless delta wing form design but realized that it was too heavy after fabrication. They could have fixed the weight problem by going with a hybrid delta-tail design like the Mig 21 but they would have come in way over cost. Because of the weight issues from too big a wing they had to remove the front portion of the engine inlet nacelle. The part they removed was there to help reduce the hot exhaust ingestion problem. So, the big wing created a cascade of issues across the entire jet’s performance. Like I said, if they’d said screw it and gone over budget they’d been able to do all the things Lockheed, who did go over budget, demonstrated.

  6. Ctrot

    “A pilot was killed when oxygen to the cabin was cut off.”

    Never happened. Typical uninformed hit piece.

      1. Ctrot

        Exactly. If the author can’t keep his facts straight on such a simple matter as this why would I lend credence to anything he writes?

  7. c taylor

    I have my complaints about, the F35, the way it was developed, and the roles the Pentagon seems to think it can fill… but this article seems like a steaming load of BS. It claims that the F35 has already killed one pilot by shutting off his O2 supply. Perhaps a reader at LM could verify this, but I’ve never heard of that incident; is the author confusing the F22 and F35? He also says the F35s are running hot which limits their operations in hot climates… and that they won’t be delivered until 2019. Well, which is it?

    If this article is a hit-piece full of misinformation, then we shouldn’t be giving it links. We can discuss the F35’s ACTUAL woes instead of how it causes global warming and acne.

  8. RS

    Once again, the wisdom of designing a single plane to do all tasks is called into question.

    How many times does this idea have to fail?

    1. Gregg

      “How many times does this idea have to fail?”

      Evidently we have not reached that number of times…..

      I doubt we ever will………

  9. ken anthony

    We were warned about it in the 1990s by some prescient people.

    This is, of course, a bigger problem than the F-35. The word prescient is misleading however suggesting the magical powers of the prophet. Prophet simply means telling the truth, not just in the future but in the present.

    When nobody listens, it doesn’t matter if the truth is told.

  10. Casey

    The F-35 isn’t nearly as bad off as the critics would have you believe. Remember back in the 1980s, when the M-1 Abrams and the M-2 Bradley were respectively touted as gold-plated junk and a death trap? As for “grounding the whole fleet,” a flaw was discovered in a new engine design. I’m sure that’s never happened before. Someone upstream also mentioned the V-22; I still don’t trust the damned things, and think they’re a lousy (and expensive) idea, but from most reports the Marines really like them. Go figure.

    I’d like to address some of the comments to the effect that we could buy several upgraded F-15s or F-16s for the cost of one F-35. That’s true. And would could buy several F-4s for the cost of an F-15. For that matter, consider how many B-52s would buy from the money spent on one B-2.

    Take that logic far enough, and we’d still be using Mustangs, Corsairs, and SPADs. The sad truth is that newer designs tend to be more expensive, as well as more capable than their predecessors. Even then cheaper isn’t better. I cite the cheaper B-18 vs the much more-expensive B-17. The former -at $58,500 per copy, cost much less than the latter at $99,000* per copy. Using the above logic, the Bolo was the preferred bomber, which was exactly the reasoning used by the Army Chief of Staff at the time.

    But don’t mind me, I’m crazy. ;) I think we should have left the F-22 line open, not to mention the A-6 and the A-10.

    *Amount quoted during the original competition in 1935.

    1. Ctrot

      Facts and logic? Where do you come up with this stuff? When discussing the F-35 only hyperbole is allowed!!

    2. Edward Wright

      The sad truth is that newer designs tend to be more expensive, as well as more capable than their predecessors. Even then cheaper isn’t better.

      Sometimes it is.

      The F-16XL is not only cheaper than the F-35 but outperforms it in every area, except for stealth.

      Comparisons between the F-4 and F-15 are irrelevant because no one suggested replacing F-15s with F-4s.

      The F-35 isn’t all that “new,” either, considering how long it’s been in development. If you believe newer is better, then you build planes with 4-year development cycles, not 20-year development cycles. Which happens to be cheaper, too.

  11. Gregg

    “Take that logic far enough, and we’d still be using Mustangs, Corsairs, and SPADs.”

    But nobody is taking the logic anywhere near there.

    4th gen fighters are performing superbly throughout the world. The F-22 and F-35 have some nice features but they are turning into millstones.

    I, and perhaps others, are suggesting buying new, upgraded, 4th gen airplanes – airplanes with no performance envelope limitations due to age…

    airplanes with superior avionics……

    and form some working squadrons which can defend the nation while you go get a clean tablet of paper and start working on reasonable replacements.

    1. Larry J

      Air defenses are improving as fast or faster than fighter technology. Current projections are that the 4th generation fighters will have little chance of surviving in contested airspace by 2025. We can’t always depend on having adversaries with no air defense capabilities. That’s known as “preparing to fight the last war” and history has proven that strategy to be an expensive failure.

      Citing some history, design work on the B-52 started in 1945 and the first prototype flew in 1952. It was designed as a high altitude penetration bomber. At the same time, work was underway to develop the B-58 Hustler as a high speed, high altitude penetration bomber. By 1960s, the Soviet SAM technology had reached the level where high altitude was no defense, so SAC switched to low altitude penetration mission profiles. The B-58 wasn’t suited for that structurally and (along with other reasons) was removed from the inventory after only a few years. The B-70 was canceled. The B-52 soldiered on but by the 1970s, there were serious doubts about its ability to do the penetration mission anymore. That led to the development of air launched cruise missiles, the B-1 and B-2. The B-52 is still a great bomb truck when no one is shooting back but would have little chance of surviving against a technologically advanced adversary. There comes a point where the old has to make way for the new or you have to give up hope of surviving.

      1. Gregg

        Larry I’m not saying that my recommendation represents a wonderful situation. It’s just that the F-22 and F-35 debacles have led us to a crummy situation where no alternative is perfect.

        Yes there are always new and improved air defenses to deal with but as the Israeili’s showed in the Bakka Valley sometimes you can deal with them with a little ingenuity.

        Get the pilots some airplanes they can have confidence in….that they won’t fall apart around them if they pull a couple of G’s. Get them in big numbers so that we stand a chance.

        and then get to work hard and fast with a better fighter and a better fighter bomber.

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