The Case of the Half-Million-Dollar Hat
One example of such a revolutionary system is the F-35 pilot’s helmet, for which different sources allege a price tag of between $400 and $600 thousand. It’s a marvel of technology that was created specifically for the F-35. It integrates information from the plane’s many sensors, and even receives, analyzes and creates a visual summary of input from the other planes in the flight, projected on the helmet’s visor. All the information is right in front of the pilot at all times. It even has a rear-view-mirror feature that permits him actually to see to the rear, something that was previously impossible due to the plane’s massive headrest.
Dan Grazier writes in a long article for National Interest.org on May 18, 2018,
Another often-touted feature that is supposed to give the F-35 superior situational awareness is the Distributed Aperture System (DAS). The DAS is one of the primary sensors feeding the displays to the infamous $600,000 helmet system, and it is also failing to live up to the hype. The DAS sensors are six video cameras or “eyes” distributed around the fuselage of the F-35 that project onto the helmet visor the outside view in any direction the pilot wants to look, including downwards or to the rear. At the same time, the helmet visor displays the flight instruments and the target and threat symbols derived from the sensors and mission system. But because of problems with excessive false targets, unstable “jittered” images, and information overload, pilots are turning off some of the sensor and computer inputs and relying instead on simplified displays or the more traditional instrument panel.
Test pilots also had difficulty with the helmet during some of the important Weapon Delivery Accuracy tests. Several of the pilots described the displays in the helmet as “operationally unusable and potentially unsafe” because of “symbol clutter” obscuring ground targets. While attempting to test fire short-range AIM-9X air-to-air missiles against targets, pilots reported that their view of the target was blocked by the symbols displayed on their helmet visors. Pilots also reported that the symbols were unstable while they were attempting to track targets.
Meanwhile, if a defective helmet costs half a million dollars, what is the price of one that works?
Concurrency = Plain Foolishness
Then there’s concurrency, the theory of being able to save time and money by manufacturing the planes at the same time they were conducting ground and flight testing and before the planes were thoroughly proven. Nor can we overlook the fact that most aspects of the F-35, from its engines and flight control system to its software and autonomic logistics system, were still in early stages of development at the time. In short, that ill-conceived idea of concurrency caused untold recalling and retrofitting headaches. The fact that many of the aircraft were already finished made the process even more expensive.
What motivated such a bizarre production and delivery policy? Wasn’t it evident at the time that things could possibly go wrong? There must have been a compelling reason–or more than one–for acting so impulsively with so much at stake.
Shared Components: Another Empty Sales Claim
The same goes for the promise of shared components among the three versions of the F-35, a factor that was touted to keep costs down. As the development of the three versions evolved the original estimate of 80% commonality of parts among the three versions descended considerably, with the corresponding leap in costs.
This headline is an eyecatcher:
The F-35 Stealth Fighter’s Dirty Little Secret Is Now Out in the Open
According to a May 16, 2016 article in National Interest.org., U.S. Air Force lieutenant general Christopher Bogdan, head of the JSF program office, told a seminar audience that the three F-35 models are currently only 20- to 25-percent common, mainly in their cockpits.
In June 2018 Popular Mechanics is still on the case of the F-35. Their headline is eloquent:
Pentagon Agrees to Fix the F-35’s Many Problems Before Full Production
The high-tech fighter has 966 “open deficiencies”—otherwise known as defects.
According to Popular Mechanics, the Joint Strike Fighter was declared operational by the Marine Corps in July 2015; the Air Force just declared initial operational capability this week and the Navy hopes to do so by February 2019. If the schedule holds, the F-35 will be baseline operational 18 years after it was selected over Boeing’s X-32, and 23 years after the program began.
But first there are a few kinks to iron out. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is on the verge of going into full production yet even now the jet has nearly a thousand “deficiencies.” In response to a General Accounting Office report, the Pentagon has promised to fix the most critical deficiencies plaguing the plane.
In its report on the F-35, the GAO warned, “In its rush to cross the finish line, the F-35 Joint Program Office has made some decisions that are likely to affect aircraft performance and reliability and maintainability for years to come.”
As Bloomberg explains:
“The GAO report broke down the shortfalls into two categories: Category 1 deficiencies are defined as ‘those that could jeopardize safety, security, or another critical requirement,’ while Category 2 deficiencies ‘are those that could impede or constrain successful mission accomplishment.’ The report cited 111 Category 1 and 855 Category 2 deficiencies.”
Bloomberg adds, “The U.S. and its international partners are anxious to declare the plane fully operational and reap the cost savings of ordering the F-35 in larger numbers.” Let’s see if I got this right: International partners are “anxious” to order “large numbers” of the world’s most expensive fighter plane even though it has 966 defects, 111 of which “could jeopardize safety, security, or another critical requirement.” I can’t believe it; maybe it’s a typographical error.
At the Bottom of This Whole Mess Are Two Vital Questions:
- In the meantime, what was the competition up to?
The Russians are poorer than the Americans and the Chinese got a late start. Even so, almost all of the reliable combat simulations run thus far have left the F-35 in a distant third place. The new fifth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su-57 is about to come online (rumors are that two were seen recently over Syria) and the Chinese have launched the Chengdu J-20 (Black Eagle), which went on active duty last February. It’s a fifth-generation stealth fighter designed to deliver precision airstrikes on enemy warships, aircraft and ground forces. We can only guess about these two planes’ potential performance against the F-35 but they certainly must be taken into consideration.
- Is the F-35 necessary at all?The time is coming when piloted fighter planes won’t be necessary and it looks as if that time is coming sooner than later. The rapid rate of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) development may change the whole ball game. In fact, the United States Air Force is betting on it. They are currently forming many more UAV operators than fighter pilots. A fully-functioning sixth-or-seventh generation fighter drone might well put the F-35 out of its misery.
So what was the $1.4-trillion-dollar fuss about?
Update on F-35 progress, February. 2021.
3 thoughts on “The Great F-35 Lightning II Boondoggle–3/3”
I think there have been similar issues with previous aircraft but it is so much more expensive now. The uk also had similar problems which is why it does not have its own fighter aircraft but Trump may yet change that!
Thanks for your observations, Roger. As for the UK and the F-35, at this point I think they’d have a hard time getting out of the program. They’re so far in and have so much money “invested.” Were you thinking of a fifth-generation fighter of their own?