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 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
  • 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.

Posted by LT Kurt Albaugh in Army, Aviation, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Proceedings

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  • Robert_K

    While, not germane to the F-35 problems, I did find something in this blog post of concern.

    Why do we have an active duty naval officer teaching English at the academy? From what I’ve read re: problems with PME and DOD education/training institutions in general, the use of military officers to teach non-military related subjects has been an issue. Did experience at sea or at the SWO academy prepare him to be a professor of English? Without at least a graduate degree in English and proper certification, I don’t think he would be allowed to teach at any reputable civilian college. This is not a criticism of LT Albaugh – I realize he is executing his orders to the best of his ability and is probably doing it very well – but how rampant is this problem?

  • Matt

    The military academies are going to use military people…big deal. At least he’s not from China and can’t even speak English as is the case with so many colleges hiring foreigners who can’t speak decent English. Read the post and tell me he has a problem with English.

    This is a good analogy of f-35. A few people in the know and a whole bunch of people who will complain to hear themselves talk.

  • BJ Armstrong

    Robert, do you know if LT Albaugh has a graduate degree in English? I suspect that he does. Most Officers that are selected to become instructors at the US Naval Academy are first sent to graduate school to obtain (at a minimum) an MA in the subject in question. USNA is an accredited institution, and abides by the academic standards of the academe in general. Undergraduate classes are frequently taught by Teaching Assistants or Lab Assistants who have earned nothing more than an MA or MS in civilian universities. It is actually one of the few programs that allows the Navy to educate officers in something other than business management or engineering fields.

    Having active duty officers in the classroom, as well as on the military training side of the yard, is an important part of the Academy’s program.

  • Robert_K

    BJ/Matt –

    I do not know what the LT’s background is and my criticism isn’t directed at LT Albaugh specifically. If he does have a graduate degree in English, was it funded specifically to teach at the academy? Is that a good investment? I’m sure some will argue it is – and when you take into consideration non-classroom responsiblities, perhaps it is.

    The larger issue is DOD-wide, $54B (DON share ~$18B) is spent each year on military personnel performing inherently commercial work. Is teaching English a warfighter’s function or commercial activity – you tell me. The DOD budget is a zero sum game and everything is part of that fiscal trade space. When the next round of budget cuts come around, and you know they will, don’t be shocked when force structure (sailors in the fleet sent packing)or weapon systems are cut. There are ways to reduce spending – workforce utilization, for example – without taking the fiscal meat clever to warfighting functions.

    I didn’t mean to shift gears from the JSF debate. We can continue this when the next discussion on why we need the service academies or problems with PME come around again.

  • Robert_K

    And BJ – Great article on PME…

  • Did no one else pick up on the last sentence stating that the author believes that dissenters should be excluded from further discussion. Yes, that’s exactly what was stated. The author will only listen to constructive comments and his definition of constructive is something that furthers the goals of the JSF program. You’ve got to admire a man that has a closed mind and doesn’t mind saying so!

    With 2300 or so aircraft still to be bought at $150M apiece or so, that’s a lot of money (he said in an epic example of understatement!) and ought to be well worth further dissension, if warranted. The only thing worse than terminating the program and losing the sunk costs would be to continue the buy and spend hundreds of billions of dollars and wind up with an aircraft that fails to meet the current needs.

    The F-35 has an impressive infrared camera? That’s great but I’m sure we could figure out how to mount the camera on an existing F-18.

    This article was disturbing on multiple levels.

  • Byron

    I also thought the rationale for a one engine aircraft vice two was a bit distrubing. What the good Lt. fails to say is that earlier jet aircraft had grossly underpowered engines compared to those that we have had available for quite some time. Every aircraft since the Phantom II and the A6 was able to fly and land with one engine out of two. Having two engines has for the past 50 years been saving the lives of Navy aircraw and now we want to go back to the 1950s.

    Really, did you just tell the uniformed members of the Navy and Marines to “shut up and carry on”? Brilliant.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Perhaps if the good Lieutenant had said something along the lines of “whether we like or dislike this aircraft, we are apparently stuck with making it work, much like we made the Hornet work. It’s time we started thinking creatively about its integration and usages,” that would have been much more palatable. Which indeed speaks to challenges of the nuances of persuasive writing. Perhaps he’s not teaching English composition. 😉

    And to my mind, the above statement is pretty much closer to the truth at this time. The program is a horrendous mess, but we’re stuck with it, it seems.

  • Personally, I’m sick of the philosophy of we’re stuck with it (whatever program the current “it” is) so line up behind it. We’re only stuck with programs because people aren’t willing to continue to fight to end them. When it’s my tax dollars being wasted on worthless programs and I’ll fight against them as long as I can. I only wish the Air Force and Navy leadership had the same integrity.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    There are plenty of previous examples of troubled programs that many folks would argue to cancel based on cost and initial technical challenges. Here are a few examples. B-29, M1A1 Abrams, FFG-7, DDG(then CG)-47, Fat Man and Little Boy, etc. The link that explains the international flavor of F-35 is enlightening as well. High technology joint programs will always be problematic and harder than initially assumed. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily worth pursuing, and it does indicate that simple solutions (such as cancelling things when the going gets rough) probably indicate relatively shallow analysis of the situation.

    Americans have a habit of believing that folks in leadership positions are either knaves or fools or both. This applies to just about every endeavor. History indicates that it is probably not a fair assessment.

    There needs to be a careful balance between the sales pitch associated with any new technology, the this will never work and we’re wasting our time, and the “shut up and color” approach. Sketicism is useful, but it does have limits.

  • Benjamin’s point is well taken and quite true. Giving up on a program simply because it encounters technical difficulties is short-sighted. All new programs encounter difficulties.

    What warrants potentially giving up on a program is when a comparison of its theoretical specs don’t match current needs. For instance, the Navy needs a long range A2/AD penetrating aircraft capable of carrying a moderately large payload for a reasonable price. The JSF is a relatively short range aircraft with a very small payload and an exhorbitant price. That comparison is what should be making us consider terminating the program.

  • Dave Schwind

    ComNavOps is exactly right on this one…there are inevitably technical difficulties with a new system, and this has been historically proven (my great uncle was killed while test-piloting a new fighter for the Army Air Corps due to a design flaw in the fuel system back in 1938, as an example…) However, these losses are acceptable (financial/time-related, as human loss is never acceptable) when the need for the new technology is there. However, what I fear, as a taxpayer, is that people making the decisions are making them because: 1) they’ve been told to make the program work, and as the classic line goes “failure is not an option”, 2) their chain of command is so enamored by the new technology they refuse to believe any naysayers, 3) failing at bringing the project to fruition would mean a career-devastating blow to a number of careers, both military and civilian, and 4) the company selling the project has hundreds of millions (if not more) invested and it’s worth every effort to lobby for the project to continue. It won’t be till later on down the road, after billions of taxpayer funds are already poured down a rat hole, that someone will finally step up and say it was a bad idea…and only if doing so will provide a boost to their own career. It’s a vicious cycle!

  • Diogenes of NJ

    What this program will not see is the likes of an Adm. Thomas F. Connolly. What this program will see is a confirmation of Norman Augustine’s (former Lockheed Martin CEO) law 16 ( ).

    Better buy them now while they’re still “affordable”.

    – Kyon