Saturday, March 16, 2013

Inside the F-35, the futuristic fighter jet

14 March

When it was conceived in the mid- 1990s, the F-35 was thought of as a silver bullet in the sky — a state-of-the-art aircraft that could evade radar, dodge sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, give pilots a better picture of enemy threats and even land like a helicopter.

It would serve with the United States Air Force, Navy and Marines, with adaptations that would allow it to carry out each service’s demands with aplomb. That was not all.

The jet would supposedly boast exceptional agility and manoeuvrability, sensor and information fusion, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. It would not just dominate the air — it was a key cog that would help America and its allies achieve swift victory on land and sea battlefields as well.

That promise led the Pentagon to sign on swiftly with Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor of F-35, to develop three models of the supersonic aircraft. Eight other countries — Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada — were also impressed enough to get with the programme, so to speak, as international partners like Singapore signed up as a Security Cooperation Participant in 2004.

Then, the wheels began falling off.

The plane’s development has been stunted, and tests that would allow the plane to go into full production are not scheduled to be completed until 2019, seven years later than planned. Ballooning costs and mounting budget pressures have forced some of the potential buyers to rethink their plans.

Mr Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a research group in Washington, puts it thus: “The bottom line here is that they have crammed too much into the programme. They were asking one fighter to do three different jobs, and they basically ended up with three different fighters.”


The root of the F-35’s woes goes back to the mid-1990s, when military officials pitched the jet as simple and affordable, a Chevrolet of the skies.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine versions would share 70 to 80 per cent of their parts, the officials said. More beguilingly, they would be built off a common assembly line, permitting faster production, reduced costs and compatibility among allied air forces.

Pentagon officials thought advances in computer modelling would simulate so precisely the way the F-35 would fly that only minor problems would be discovered in flight tests. And given the ban on exporting the F-22, the top stealth fighter, moving quickly on the F-35 would lock up foreign buyers and keep Europe from creating its own stealth planes.

Lockheed beat out Boeing for the F-35 contract in October 2001, and Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, got the deal to make the engines. However, as the programme got underway, the Pentagon testing experts and congressional auditors warned that it would be wiser to “fly before you buy”. They cautioned that some of the new technologies were not ready and that years of flight tests would find flaws that the simulations had not anticipated.


Few, least of all the Pentagon, listened.

Almost immediately, the project proved to be incredibly complicated. Lockheed’s initial designs were late and had to be redone, delaying the manufacture of parts for the test models. While most military programmes start building before all the testing is done, the Pentagon took that to an extreme, starting production of the F-35s in 2007, before flight tests had even begun.

For instance, one of the features that made pilots drool when they were first briefed about the plane’s capabilities — an Israeli-US-designed augmented-reality helmet packed with hi-tech gadgetry that displays all the data a pilot needs to fly and fight inside the visor — needed further work. Early versions of a tailhook, crucial to aircraft carrier operations, failed to catch the wire when pilots tried to land on the deck of a ship. And computer software, supposedly capable of performing magic like carrying out pre-flight safety checks automatically, is not all it should be. Not yet, anyway.

On top of that, the F-35 could be too sophisticated for minor conflicts, and its relatively short flight range could be a problem as the Pentagon changes its view of possible threats. Mr Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Pentagon would need to shift money to longer-range planes as China and other countries expand the reach of missiles capable of destroying American ships and bases.

Still, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raging, then Defence Secretary Robert Gates did not deal with the F-35 problems until late 2009 and early 2010, when he fired the general in charge and brought in Vice-Admiral David Venlet, an ex-fighter pilot who had overseen testing of Navy aircraft.

Others said the willingness to roll the dice with the plane in its early stages of development reflected the peculiar incentives at the Pentagon, where rushing into production creates jobs and locks in political support, even if it allows programmes to drift into trouble. Lockheed and its suppliers on the F-35 employ 35,000 workers, with some in nearly every congressional district.

Lockheed is now moving to fix the most glaring problems. But what one general termed “the gorilla in the room”, testing and securing the 24 million lines of software code for the plane and its support systems — a mountain of instructions that goes far beyond what has been tried in any plane — is far from done.


All those woes have led to the dramatic rise in the price tag for F-35s.

The jets will cost US taxpayers US$396 billion (S$494 billion), including research and development, if the Pentagon sticks to its plan to build 2,443 by the late 2030s.

That is nearly four times as much as any other weapons system and two-thirds of the US$589 billion the US has spent on the war in Afghanistan, making it the most expensive weapons programme in history.

There are other items on the growing bill, too. The delays — full production is not expected until 2019 — mean that the US military has had to spend billions to extend the lives of older fighters the F-35 was meant to replace, such as F-16s, and buy more of them to fill the gap.

It is also desperately trying to figure out how to cut the long-term costs of operating the planes, now projected at US$1.1 trillion.

While weapons cost overruns have long been a problem, the F-35 is also running into changing budget realities, and a new focus on rivalry with China, that will probably require shifting money to a broader mix of planes. Unless the Pentagon can substantially reduce the price of each plane, analysts say, it may be lucky to buy 1,200 to 1,800.

The defence project is, however, too big to kill.

The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors, including Northrop Grumman and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs, and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed.


With its record price tag, the jet is likely to be a target for budget cutters. A congressional watchdog agency has said that the Pentagon needs to budget US$12.6 billion each year through 2037 to finish developing and paying for all the fighters it plans to buy. A Government Accountability Office report released on Monday put the programme’s total cost at US$400 billion.

While the Defence Department is expected to scale back its own orders for the plane due to budget cuts, Lockheed is looking to make up the shortfall by selling more planes overseas. Japan has decided to allow defence contractors to make components for F-35 stealth fighters despite its ban on arms exports, strengthening security ties with the US at a time when Tokyo faces a territorial row with Beijing. Israel, too, is expected to acquire the jets amid tensions in the Middle East.

Currently, eight countries have signed on to buy versions of the F-35. But in the face of ballooning costs, Italy has already slashed its purchase by 30 per cent, and Turkey and the Netherlands may soon reduce their orders. Concerns about design and development problems have prompted some of Washington’s international partners, including Canada and Australia, to rethink their plans to buy F-35s.


Though testing has proceeded apace recently, the news of late has not been encouraging, either.

The “silver bullet of the skies” has been grounded twice this year for engine-related issues. Last month, the Pentagon grounded all 64 of the F-35 planes in the US fleet after routine tests revealed cracks in an engine turbine blade. It was returned to service again after six days.

In a separate incident, an F-35 test flight was cut short after the cockpit had “smoke issues”, said Mr Nathan Drevna, a spokesman with Honeywell International, a supplier to Lockheed. That aircraft’s thermal management system, which controls cabin temperature, has been shipped to Honeywell for testing, Mr Drevna added. An initial assessment of the incident showed it was isolated, software-related and posed minimal risk.

Just last Monday, one of two F-35 fighter jets headed to a Nevada airbase made an unscheduled landing in Lubbock, Texas, after a caution light came on in the cockpit. The cause is still not clear.

Despite the problems, there is little doubt the programme will be allowed to run its course. Mr Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate staff member and one of the plane’s biggest critics, said: “The Pentagon’s current management is hooked on the airplane and refuses to admit it is a failure.” Agencies

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