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This post is part of a group covering a Lockheed Martin media event for the F-35 Lightning II. For an analysis of the fighter’s potential as an unmanned aircraft, visit news.usni.org. For my discussion of the Joint Strike Fighter as an international acquisitions program, visit the NextWar blog at the Center for International Maritime Security.

The F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, has seemed to be the third rail of defense acquisitions. The aircraft program’s costs and operational role have been thoroughly discussed both here and elsewhere. When USNI kindly offered me the opportunity to represent them at a Lockheed Martin event, I felt daunted by the volumes of ink spilled to date on the subject. But, I think the JSF program as suffered from polemic coverage and needs some measured commentary. I learned a lot and hope this knowledge serves as an antidote to the vitriol surrounding this aircraft:

  • Whatever its costs and however well the F-35 does or does not fit American strategic and operational interests, nobody says it isn’t an impressive aircraft in its own right. This is a point worth saying out loud. At one point, we were shown infrared video from a test flight. We could see on the camera an outline of a Joint Strike Fighter on the tarmac – that was the place where the aircraft was parked 45 minutes before. The F-35 could sense the difference in solar heating of the runway caused by the aircraft’s shadow after that amount of time – incredible! While I think President Eisenhower’s statements on the military-industrial complex are worth heeding, America and its partners are pioneering impressive new technologies to increase our military capabilities. The bottom line: how can we best leverage the capabilities of the F-35 in a continually evolving threat environment? And how can we use technologies pioneered in this program to support other platforms? Answering these questions would allow the United States to recoup more of its significant investments in this program.
  • Lockheed was open to discussing the different cost estimates of the program. I was expecting to have a certain figure placed in front of me. But Sam Grizzle, Lockheed’s Director of Communications for Aviation, admitted on the subject of costs that “other folks may come up with a different number.” This transparency impressed me. Further, Lockheed employed an interesting defense of the JSF program’s cost. We often compare the JSF to other acquisition programs in the present or to similar ones of the past. Essentially, they argued that you would have to compare the JSF program to whatever alternative DoD would have pursued (each service independently pursuing different strike fighters, for example). It’s difficult to prove a negative – so we ultimately can’t know whether a different program might have been a better alternative. I can think of many counter-arguments to this line of reasoning, but they only made my head hurt. Ultimately, people with differing views on the cost of the program will continue to circle each other in a rhetorical dogfight, but the aircraft is in production and so I think that discussion is moot for those in uniform. Our civilian government will make financial choices to meet our national priorities. A very interesting dialogue does remain, however, on how the aircraft will be employed, and this is where we as a community can contribute – Galrahn has some interesting thoughts on the JSF as a command and control platform and I wrote a piece on unmanned JSF’s for news.usni.org.
  • Many have noted that the Navy’s F-35C has a single engine like all other variants – at first blush, this lack of redundancy would give me pause if I were alone over the ocean at night. But the F-35’s engine is shrouded as a stealth measure. I asked Lockheed officials whether this might mitigate foreign-object damage and increase the engine’s resiliency. They said, “That’s an interesting question.” I was surprised that they hadn’t studied this in detail. The bottom line: is the F-35’s single engine more reliable and survivable compared to past engines? Claiming that two engines are better because that’s how we’ve done it in the past is flawed reasoning. It’s also neglects our history, as many of the retired fighter pilots in the room reminded me. In 1958, the Navy was deciding between the single-engine Vought F8U-3 and the twin-engine McDonnell F4H. The safety record of twin versus single-engine airplanes was examined and determined to not be a deciding factor. The only twin-engine airplane at the time was the A3D Skywarrior, which had two engines because it was too big to be powered by only one. At 40,000 lbs. of thrust, the JSF doesn’t need two engines by this measure. Also, looked at from a different side, having two engines simply doubles the chance that one fails. There are control and stability issues on one engine and it’s unclear whether a dual-engined JSF could reasonably make a carrier landing on a single engine. Personally, I’d like to see more data – and anyone wanting to have a reasoned discussion of this issue should as well.
  • I learned a lot about the international program, which I’ll cover extensively at the other blog I contribute to, CIMSEC’s NextWar blog.One interesting note: the event showed USNI’s influence in stark relief. Once the floor was open for questions, the first two focused on the Chief of Naval Operations’ recent Proceedings article “Payloads over Platforms.” These questions weren’t from me, but from bloggers from other venues. It was a moment that underscored how much the Naval Institute frames the discourse on maritime security.

Lockheed was reluctant to discuss the piece, at one point Lockheed’s Bob Rubino joked “CNO’s article? Didn’t see that…” Many have taken the CNO’s piece – especially his discussion on the limitations of stealth – as an indictment of the F-35 program. But if you read the piece closely, I think a better summary would be that stealth is important, but isn’t the sole determinant of a successful aircraft.

The Joint Strike Fighter inspires strong feelings in both supporters and detractors, and so it’s difficult to have a measured discussion of the program. What’s clear is that the Navy, the United States, and many allies and partners are counting on the program’s success. After today, any discussion of the program that isn’t constructive towards that end holds little interest for me.