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It is ironic that, ahead of this month’s Farnborough air show, the key question about the F35 fighter, due to make its first European appearance at the event, has been whether it would actually turn up.
The fighter-bomber – conceived more than two decades ago – was set to make its first transatlantic flight for the show. This was scheduled to be the first chance for the UK, the biggest single export customer for the aircraft, to see the F35 in home skies.
Although the US Marine Corps was saying at the time of publication that it still planned to get the aircraft to Farnborough, a fire on June 23 in the engine of an F35 at Eglin Air Force base, Florida, raised concerns about whether it would be cleared to fly to the UK. Most F35 flights in the US were halted pending an investigation.
This has stirred long-running controversies about the suitability of the aircraft – expected to cost a total $400bn for the US military to purchase – for its many planned roles.
Interested parties such as executives at Lockheed Martin, the aircraft’s manufacturer, insist that the F35 is suffering teething problems and will, eventually, enter into service.
Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s chief executive, says the company is focused on further developing the aircraft, of which US armed forces are eventually meant to buy 2,457.
Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey are partners in the programme, alongside the UK. Israel, Japan and South Korea also plan to buy the aircraft.
“As you look at other fighter programmes that have been at this stage of their development, I think we’re working pretty well,” Ms Hewson says.
For the aircraft’s critics, the engine fire only confirms that the project is vastly overcomplicated and doomed to fail.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus military reform project at the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, calls the fire “just another episode in the history of this airplane’s complexity”.
Despite recent cost reductions, the F35’s cheapest variant is costing $150m each, he says. “For that, we get an aircraft that in many respects is a step backward from aircraft it’s replacing,” Mr Wheeler says. “It’s a monstrosity of complexity, which is the source of its unaffordable cost and its tremendously disappointing performance.”
Many F35 problems stem from its genesis as an at least theoretically sensible idea, namely that the US military’s different air forces should ditch the wasteful habit of ordering and expensively developing entirely separate aircraft. The F35 is being manufactured in three variants: an air force version that operates from conventional runways; a Marine Corps craft capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings (Stovl); and a navy version for aircraft carriers.
The critics argue that its range of different roles makes the F35 poor at nearly all of them. Mr Wheeler says the requirement that the aircraft be Stovl-capable dictates it having a relatively short, stubby shape and a single engine, which works against the requirement for it to reach supersonic speeds. On top of that, the aircraft has to have the stealth capabilities that will hide it from enemy radar and meet the needs of three different services.
“That’s four levels of complexity,” he says. “That’s why we have an aircraft that’s so expensive.”
The US defence department’s director of operational test and evaluation this year listed a series of concerns, including the tendency of the stealth coating to come off after repeated use of the afterburners. The report criticised the F35’s unpredictable handling and troublesome software.
Bruce Tanner, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer, says the aircraft’s critics are judging it by the standards of the last generation of fighters. Only Lockheed Martin’s F22 fighter, introduced in 2005, offers comparable electronic capabilities. “They’re ignoring the incredible sensor station that there is on those aircraft that no other aircraft in the world, with the exception of the F22, can bring to the fight,” he says. “It’s a different fight.”
Pilots will have unprecedented amounts of information and be able to co-ordinate with other aircraft, using their weapons to launch long-range attacks, which should ensure they never face traditional close-range combat. “If an F35 gets into a dogfight, [the pilot] has done something wrong,” Mr Tanner says.
Mr Wheeler accepts that there is no political will to scrap the project.
Mr Tanner, meanwhile, insists that the aircraft is on the way to transforming aerial combat forever.
Fighter jet: Latest setback points to possible further delays in programme
The June engine fire, which occurred just before take-off, is the latest in a series of setbacks to the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Like so many complex defence projects it is late and over budget, reports Mark Odell.
When Lockheed Martin won the competition to build the JSF in 2001 it was envisaged that the first aircraft would enter service within 10 years. The programme is at least five years behind schedule, with the US Marines aiming to declare the aircraft operational with limited capabilities next year.
The technical problems (including making millions of lines of software code work) encountered during the initial production run of 100 or so aircraft, have raised concerns that this target too could be missed.
Steve O’Bryan, one of the US defence contractor’s senior executives on the F35, says the programme was always designed for the testing and development phase to coincide with the early production run, a technique known as concurrent engineering.
”The theory of concurrency is it saves money because you don’t want to build 20 test aeroplanes and then shut down the assembly line and suppliers as you do the flight tests,” he says.
This was an idea seen as central to lowering the cost of procuring expensive combat aircraft, but critics point to cost escalation that is only now being addressed.
The F35 was originally expected to cost about half the target price of $75m-$85m each, if volumes grow as hoped, depending on the variant.
Mr O’Bryan, a former US Navy fighter pilot, rejects criticism that the aircraft will never live up to its billing. He says claims that it will become vulnerable to detection much sooner than anticipated are ill-founded despite advances being pursued by China and Russia in radar technology that will defeat the F35’s vaunted stealth capabilities.
“The key is you can’t stand still,” he says.
“So the idea behind the F35 is to build a weapons system that is made to be upgraded.”