The Lesson of the F-35
During the Vietnam War period, the U.S. developed the F-111, a fighter bomber intended to serve both the Navy and Air Force. It proved too heavy for carriers, but, after some initial problems, it served the USAF well for many years. Not so, the F-35 Lightning, first deployed this year. Seemingly, the Defense Department had learned its lesson and, rather than producing one plane to meet the needs of the USAF, Navy and Marine Corps, Lockheed-Martin produced the F-35 in three variants. The Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) version is intended for the USAF; the Catapult Assisted Take-Off but Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) version is for Navy carriers; and the Short Takeoff, Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant is for the USMC. Yet even this seems to be too much to ask of one basic aircraft. While many great planes (like the WWII B-29) had initial problems and overcame them, the F-35 is looking more and more like a costly boondoggle. It has had higher development costs than any other aircraft, and was way over budget and behind schedule. Intended to replace the A-10, the F-16, the F/A-18, and the AV8B, it has failed utterly. The F-35 is slow; it is not very maneuverable; it can easily be set on fire by enemy munitions or even lightning strikes; its radar is not very good; cockpit visibility is poor; it has but one engine (no backup); and it requires a great deal of time-consuming and expensive maintenance. It has no extended super cruise capability (the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without the fuel-wasting afterburner). There have been problems with the software and with the ejection seats, and, most embarrassing, an F-35 lost a simulated dogfight with an F-16 — a good plane, but not as good a dogfighter as the F-15, let alone the F-22. Supporters argue that dogfighting is no longer necessary now that long-range air-to-air missiles have been perfected, and this may well be true, but we’ve heard it before, during the Vietnam War, and it turned out to be a costly mistake. No doubt, many of the problems will be fixed after yet more cost and delay, but the problems would not exist if we had never developed the plane to begin with.
We already had the excellent F-22 Raptor, with two turbofan engines, a super cruise capability, good stealth characteristics, and a top speed roughly equal to the F-35’s, at Mach two (twice the speed of sound). The first prototypes flew in 1990, and the USAF ordered the last of 187 Raptors in 2012. Its original problems have long since been easily corrected, and unit cost would have come down had the USAF ordered more of them. I recently spoke to a young F-15 pilot, and he confirmed what others have said — the F-22 is an even better dogfighter than the F-15. The A-10 Thunderbolt (also called the “Warthog”) is, along with the AC-130 gunship, one of the greatest close air support weapons ever developed. The plane was literally built around its awesome seven-barreled GAU-8 Avenger 30 millimeter Gatling gun, which can destroy tanks with depleted uranium rounds or other ground targets with high explosive (HE) rounds. The A-10, feared by our enemies, loved by our ground troops, and flown by men dedicated to supporting those troops, has redundant systems, titanium armor, good range, a short take-off and landing, good loiter capability, and can carry up to 16,000 pounds of ordinance. It became operational in 1975 and was last produced in 1984, and, although the USAF has continued to upgrade the aircraft with incremental improvements and even new wings, no more are being produced, and the USAF generals, never fond of supporting the Army and Marines, even want to retire the fleet.
As you can see, there is a pattern here. Older systems can be maintained and incrementally improved (within limits) by adding, for example, better radars and avionics. Consider the real old timers: America’s B-52 bomber and Russia’s Tu-95 (NATO code name “Bear”). The Boeing B-52 eight-engine strategic bomber was first introduced in 1955. Officially it was called the Stratofortress, unofficially, the “BUFF,” an acronym I will not elaborate on. Its jet engines give it a high subsonic speed, and its range and payload make it invaluable to this day; in Vietnam it was even used to drop conventional, non-nuclear bombs. As of 2012 85 remain in service with nine in reserve, all of them the later B-52H model. Most of them have had various upgrades, mainly in avionics, and the plane is expected to remain in service until the 2040s. I recently spoke to a B-52 pilot who was many, many years younger than the plane he flew. The Russian Tu-95 bomber, NATO code name “Bear,” has four turboprop engines and was introduced in 1956. It, too, is still in service, and can now fire cruise missiles. Such stand-off weapons, along with electronic counter measures (ECM) ensure that manned bombers are still useful in the age of the ICBM.
You can see the pattern here. Weapon systems remain in service for decades; earlier in the history of aviation this was not the case. WWI biplanes could not reach 200 miles per hour, but better engines, super chargers and variable pitch constant speed propellers, along with better wing design, gave WWII fighters a speed of over 400 miles per hour; no WWI planes remained in service. Late in the war, turbojet engines began replacing internal combustion engines and propellers, and by the mid nineteen fifties most nations had completely replaced the earlier aircraft with jets. Speeds of over Mach two were reached, and the SR-71, its prototype introduced in 1964, could fly at Mach three over 80,000 feet up. No jet aircraft to this day has broken that record. The reason is that drag increases exponentially with speed, and then there is heating due to air friction to contend with. Unless totally new propulsion systems are developed, such as supersonic combustion ramjets, speeds are not likely to increase, and faster planes would have to fly at much higher altitudes. Since the development of jet engines (and their more efficient variant, the high-bypass turbofan) the only real aviation breakthroughs have been better materials, stealth technology, and computers and fly by wire systems. The next major breakthrough is likely to be more effective unmanned aircraft.
And here is the lesson of the F-35: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Only major breakthroughs, like stealth, justify development of completely new aircraft (and this lesson applies to all weapons systems and many civilian technologies as well). Otherwise, we are better off keeping the same aircraft in service, even, in some cases, continuing to produce them, and making continual incremental upgrades. The F-22 is really our best fighter, and we should not even think about retiring the A-10.