The Great F-35 Lightning II Boondoggle–3/3


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 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, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

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The Great F-35 Lightning II Boondoggle–2/3


International Partners Come and Go

Canada, which has had a checkered relationship with the F-35 program, looked towards Holland, who were ahead of them in the process. This clip from the August 29, 2017 issue of the Ottowa Citizen gives an insight into the incentives the F-35 program offers its partners.

Every F-35 contains components manufactured by Dutch companies, Lockheed Martin has noted. On Aug. 16, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the overseas warehouse and distribution centre for parts for F-35s in Europe would be located in the Netherlands.

Luyt said one of the other main attractions of the F-35 is that it will be constantly upgraded. “It will be state of the art for decades,” he added.

“Constantly upgraded…” does that mean they’ll constantly be tinkering with it in an effort to get it right? That’s the situation currently.

“Partners” in the F-35 program may not realize they’re being lured into a dense web woven of money (The UK paid $2.4 billion to become a Level 1 partner.) Newer clients choose between Level 2 and Level 3. The Level 2 partners are Italy and the Netherlands, and Level 3 includes Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey. Payments are incremental as the program advances. Long before delivery time the client country has spent so much money already that it’s not practical for them to back out of the deal. The nine major partner nations, including the U.S., plan to acquire over 3,100 F-35s through 2035, which, if delivered will make the F-35 one of the most numerous jet fighters. “If delivered,” indeed. This is what the Spanish call “la cuenta de la lechera,” “the tale of the milkmaid.” She is so concentrated on all the money she is going to make selling her milk in the marketplace that she drops her buckets and spills the milk.

One is tempted to ask, considering all the F-35’s bad press in most of the world’s media (search “F-35” on YouTube and Google and you’ll find the whole gamut of cheerleaders and detractors) why would any country’s military procurement experts opt for the overbloated, overpriced, can’t-turn-can’t-climb-can’t-run F-35? This is a major mystery and the answer is buried somewhere in “The Program.” Some countries like the boost that parts manufacture would give to their industry. Others, like the UK, want to stay on the good side of the Americans. That said, there is a discussion afoot in the Parliament regarding buying F-35C (with longer range and more space for ordnance) instead of the F-35B, but buying fewer planes. Others, not being aircraft experts, may be inclined to believe the hype. But there’s got to be more to it. A cynic might suggest a dabbling in the black arts of arm twisting. A lively F-35 controversy flowered in Canada and they actually took the decision to annul the contract. Then in May of 2018 they paid $54 million to return to The Program. The headline on at the time said,

Canada adds another $54M to F-35 fighter jet project, bringing cost to $500M over 2 decades

What happened to turn the Canadians around? We will never know.

Twenty Years of Bumps and Cost Overruns

In the decade following 2003, the F-35 program faced more than a dozen major glitches. In 2004, the F-35B was more than 2,000 pounds overweight, unable to meet its performance goals. In 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that, as a result of the policy of concurrent development, retrofitting aircraft with systems that were not fully functional could be expensive. By 2013, the cost of retrofitting was put at $1.7 billion.

Starting in 2007, suspected Chinese cyber intrusions resulted in the theft of several terabytes of data related to the F-35’s design and electronics systems. This attack and another 2012 hack of BAE Systems (which makes the F-35’s flight control software, electronic warfare systems, aft fuselage, as well as its horizontal and vertical tails) forced hardware and software redesigns, adding more cost and delays. From a troublesome helmet-mounted cueing system to inadequate ejection seats and logistics software, the F-35 has continued to face challenges.

The situation got so bad that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates removed JSF program manager Maj. Gen. David Heinz (USMC) in 2010, delaying development even more. Problems assembling the F-35’s four-piece wing and structural fatigue in one of the bulkheads supporting the wing on the F-35B, combined with a strike at Lockheed Martin, led to reduced initial production buys. The cascade of woes nearly resulted in the cancellation of the F-35B in 2010-11. To avoid further delays resulting from design changes, in 2012 the Pentagon accepted a reduced combat radius for the F-35A and a longer takeoff run for the F-35B. The F-35B’s estimated combat radius was reduced by 15 percent. F-35Bs had to refuel 15 times on the recent transatlantic flight. (We can only imagine the cost of 15 refuelings over the Atlantic.)

A RAND study the same year found the three F-35 variants had drifted so far apart during development that having a single base design may prove to be more expensive than if services had just built separate aircraft tailored to their own requirements from the outset.

“Price Tag Is the Only Thing Stealthy about the F-35”

In a March 2017 article in Business Insider, Alex Lockie reports that, “Cost estimates for the F-35 have changed yearly over the past 15 years. It’s safe to say, though, that the program is the most expensive in U.S. history, pegged at more than $320 billion in 2012. In 2014, the GAO found that the F-35 fleet would have operating costs 79 percent higher than the aircraft it was to replace.”

A 2015 Pentagon Selected Acquisition Report said that program costs had increased 43 percent from 2001, including unit cost (up 68 percent). The best guess at the current unit price is in the neighborhood of $120 million. But the price will depend upon the number of aircraft sold. The report added that the F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $32,500 while the F-16C/D is $25,500. Private analysts have called the F-35 a “money pit,” and argued that the purpose of Lockheed’s extensive national and global supplier base—which includes 1,300 suppliers in the United States and abroad—was not so much to realize logistics efficiency and security, but to make sure the Joint Strike Fighter was too big to fail.

The Fighter Plane that Came Out of a Pork Barrel

It’s not clear whether the Defense Department’s marketing geniuses went to Congress or  Congress got wind of the project and contacted the Pentagon. In any case, it was decided to contract the manufacturing process among companies in 45 states and nine foreign countries. What possible competitive advantage would this extravagant strategy contribute? The answer is simple, if hard to believe. This way almost all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives could boast of having created jobs and prosperity in their respective districts, thus contributing to their re-election possibilities. This clumsy and devious process has a long tradition in United States politics. It’s called the “pork barrel,” by which funds for projects are “earmarked” for specific Congressional districts. It’s great for the careers of incumbent Congress members but less so for everyone else. In the case of the F-35 the pork-barrel approach made the project infinitely more complicated and expensive. Many of the ill-fitting components of the aircraft from far-flung parts of the country and farther afield had to be redone and refitted, with the concomitant cost and schedule overruns.

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The Great F-35 Lightning II Boondoggle–1/3


This was the F-35 rollout ceremony in Japan. No shortage of razzamatazz.

The Process of Military Purchasing in the Free World–Who Wins, Who Loses?

You may not be a big fan of military procurement scandals, nor even of supersonic fighter jets. But the case of  F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is massive–the largest government defense contract ever signed anywhere by anybody–and massively convoluted. It would be wonderfully amusing if it weren’t so utterly bizarre. By studying its ins and outs we can discover a lot about American government priorities and how their dubious values come into play. You will discover here just how smart they are–and how dumb they think we are.

What Exactly Is the F-35 Lightning II (aka the Joint Strike Fighter) Program?

In the mid-1990s, when the United States Department of Defense began to think about their next generation of fighter aircraft, they selected two prestigious manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to present projects and prototypes for their versions of the new Joint Strike Fighter, “joint” because US government experts (“expert:” a stranger with a briefcase) had previously decided it would be more efficient to use a single airframe to create three “variants,” one each for the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force. According to most of the F-35’s many subsequent critics, it was this seemingly arbitrary decision to order a multi-purpose (“joint”) combat airplane that underlay all the problems that followed. They allege that it would have been cheaper and better to build three different aircraft, each one suited specifically to the unique needs of the respective services. At the time, however, before the inevitable compromises that had to be incorporated to satisfy three very different customers, government military procurement experts were immovable, though they were gravely mistaken. Aviation history had seen multi-purpose airplanes before and none of them had worked very well.

According to the F-35 official website,, the F-35  is the United States’s “multi-variant, multirole fifth-generation fighter aircraft.” Is it a plane or a program? They’re pitching it as both, a fighter plane for the 21st century and curious program for developing and selling it. According to the Department of Defense’s description, the F-35 “combines advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” As of this writing (June 2018) three variants of the F-35 are beginning to replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and a variety of fighters for at least ten other potential and actual client countries.”

This is the sales pitch. In fact, the F-35 is neither very fast nor very agile. As for “fully-fused sensor information” and “advanced sustainment,” those terms are about as specious as a “Gluten Free” guarantee on a can of tennis balls.

Seminal fighter pilot, strategist and tactician, John Boyd; defense analysts Tom Christie, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Myers; test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni and aeronautical engineer Harry Hillaker formed the core of the self-dubbed “Fighter Mafia” which worked behind the scenes in the late 1960s to pursue a lightweight fighter as an alternative to the F-15. (They had a hand in the creation of the F-15, the F-16 and the A-10.) Their assertions were that:

  • Air Force generals established the wrong criteria for combat effectiveness, ignoring combat history.
  • High technology and the focus on “higher, faster, and farther” increases costs and decreases effectiveness. The mafia argued for cheaper and better planes.
  • Air Force bureaucracies were corrupt as they did not conduct honest testing on weapons before buying them and deploying them in the field.
  • The focus should be on close air support and the use of combined arms to support maneuver warfare rather than interdiction bombing.
  • Multi-role and multi-mission capability compromises the plane.
  • Beyond-visual-range combat was a fantasy.

All of these Fighter Mafia reservations are still valid and some of these old timers are still activists. The most visible one, and perhaps the most engaging is Pierre Sprey. Sprey, one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s whiz kids in the 60s and 70s and later a consultant on defense issues, is today one of the F-35’s leading critics. Sprey sums up briefly the F-35’s problems: “It can’t turn, can’t climb and can’t run. It’s a turkey.”

F-35 Believers and Non-Believers

What are its real objectives? Despite all the hoopla about its stunning combat qualities, the truth is that they still haven’t completed the final testing, so they don’t know if it’s going to work. What we do know is that the initial tests ran up against many problems, from cracks in the airframe to serious software problems. As for objectives, Pierre Sprey says, “The objective is clear. It’s a device to funnel many billions of dollars to Lockheed Martin.”

Who criticizes it? Any qualified person who examines the aircraft and its “program” with a clear, unbiased eye criticizes them. Who defends it?  Anybody who has his or her snout in the government financing trough defends it. It’s easy to discern which is which by reading just the first couple of paragraphs of any article on the subject.

What’s “The Program?”

Let’s take a look at the facts. (This facts-based approach sounds too obvious to even mention but, in the F-35 shell game, it’s essential that it be clearly stipulated.) Because most of the critically important information used in the procurement, development and sales of the F-35 in the early days–and even today–was not properly “information.” It was projections, more or less educated guesses, extrapolations from existing aircraft, suppression of uncomfortable actual facts and industrial quantities of good-old-fashioned institutional salesmanship. And if the Americans excel in anything it’s sales engineering.

An American friend of ours who had a long career as a tech sales manager said something I’ve never forgotten. “The secret of success in this business is to sell it, then build it.” Which is what Lockheed Martin and the Defense Department have done with the F-35 Lightning II. When they made their first sales presentations they didn’t even have a product. They had a mockup–a model airplane. It takes a lot of cheek to sell a papiermâché fighter plane. Their paper airplane was adorned, of course, with a lot of projections promises and patriotism.

At this point we have to take our hats off to the Americans’ characteristic creativity and chutzpah. Aware that their aircraft was nowhere close to being a reality they sold their potential clients on becoming “co-developers” of what was sure to become the world’s finest fighter plane, filled with high-tech features that other countries had not even dreamed of. The Americans themselves had dreamed of these jazzy new features but they had never built most of them, let alone test their validity up in the air.

Part 2 coming tomorrow
Read more rantings in my ebook, The Turncoat Chronicles.
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