Murphy's Law: F-35 Users Report

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May 24, 2016: The U.S. Air Force is on schedule to have the F-35A (the basic land-based version) in service by the end of 2016. The cost overruns, delays and technical problems of the F-35 (and its predecessor the F-22) became a favorite target for criticism and real or imagined outrage. The reality is different, and this pattern is kind of old by now. It first showed up in the 19th century when the industrial revolution produced a growing flood of new tech for weapons as well as commercial needs. Before the 19th century ended it was clear that unexpected and impressive new weapons (or commercial products) often took decades to become really useful. Naval mines and torpedoes are a good example. But it also became clear that major wars (especially the two World Wars) proved that under wartime conditions the development and maturation process was sped up considerably. Something about the very real threats eliminating all the political and media grandstanding that delays peacetime projects for decades. We saw this again after September 11, 2001, when the urgency of war made new weapons and equipment effective in years (or months) rather than decades. Moreover a lot of new weapons, like the most current American armored vehicles and aircraft, went through the same delays and criticism the F-35 endured.

Now, with the F-35 ready for service the growing number of pilots who have flown it and techs who maintain and upgrade it are reporting that the new fighter is better than they expected. This is because a lot of the new tech that was causing the problems (and indignant headlines) eventually matured and provided new opportunities that even the designers did not anticipate. Actually, the unexpected was expected because the F-35 is highly automated (as are ships, airliners and so much else) and the pilots can not only spend more time on the mission and less on the many details of operating a complex machine. The flexibility of the electronics and cockpit design deliberately encourages and enables the pilot to customize the controls and capabilities of the aircraft to enhance individual differences. Pilots are very enthusiastic about this.

The maintainers who get the F-35 ready for each mission are very pleased about the automation and more efficient layout. The aircraft constantly monitors itself and once the aircraft is free (out of enemy territory) to transmit data each F-35 reports to the maintainers on the ground what needs attention when the aircraft lands. Often components have to be replaced (because they have failed or are about to) and this warning allows maintainers to have needed parts ready. The layout of the access panels is the most efficient ever. Repairs that once took over an hour can now be done in minutes. As intended, the F-35 takes less time (and fewer man hours) between sorties.

Some foreign customers saw how this coming. Thus at the end of 2014 Israel ordered another fourteen F-35As, with the option to order another 17 in 2017. Back in 2010 Israel sought to get to the front of queue for the new F-35A fighter-bomber by ordering nineteen. These are all to be delivered by the end of 2018 and the first of the newly ordered batch is to arrive in 2019. The U.S. gave Israel priority because, next to the United States, Israel is most likely to get its F-35s into combat soon.

Although the F-35A costs about twice as much as a high-end F-16, the Israelis believe it's worth the price. The F-35A matches the F-16 in terms of maneuverability, outperforms it in terms of stealthiness, payload, range, supportability, survivability and overall operational effectiveness. Not surprisingly the F-35 costs more than twice as much. But given the increased capabilities and usefulness in combat, Israel feels the F-35 is worth the price.

The 31 ton F-35A is the cheapest version, costing about $159 million each. The U.S. Navy carrier version (the F-35C) will arrive in late 2019 and cost about $264 million each. This version has a stronger landing gear to handle carrier landings and components that are more resistant to corrosion from constant exposure to salt water. The vertical take-off version for the marines, the F-35B, will cost $214 million each. All of these prices are expected to be much higher (20 percent or more) in reality. This is happening despite more and more delays as well as questions about reliability and cost. At the moment the F-35 costs 60 percent more (than the F-16, per flight hour) to operate but that is expected to come down with user experience.

The F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.

Like the F-22 fighter, the F-35 is stuffed with a lot of new technology. Most of the F-35s built will be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brings with it reluctance to buy as many aircraft as currently planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it's likely that F-35s will end up costing more than twice what the most modern F-16s go for. But with SBDs F-35s become a very potent bomber that can get at well protected targets because of the F-35 stealth.

Many air force generals around the world still see the F-16 as a better deal. That may well be, depending on who your likely opponents are. But if you live in a rough neighborhood, the extra cost of the F-35A appears a prudent investment. Nevertheless, over 4,000 F-16s have been sold, and it is still being built. But the F-35 is shaping up to be a big seller as well, and is seen as the successor to the F-16 in the 21st century.

 


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