Opinion

The Great Debate

Pentagon’s big budget F-35 fighter ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run’

By David Axe
July 14, 2014

A F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is seen at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River

Americans should be worried.

The U.S. military has grounded all its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters following an incident on June 23, when one of the high-tech warplanes caught fire on the runway of a Florida air base. The no-fly order — which affects at least 50 F-35s at training and test bases in Florida, Arizona, California and Maryland — began on the evening of July 3 and continued through July 11.

All those F-35s sitting idle could be a preview of a future in which potentially thousands of the Pentagon’s warplanes can’t reliably fly.

Handout photo of three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters flying over Edwards Air Force BaseTo be fair, the Pentagon routinely grounds warplanes on a temporary basis following accidents and malfunctions to buy investigators time to identify problems and to give engineers time to fix them.

But there’s real reason to worry. The June incident might reflect serious design flaws that could render the F-35 unsuitable for combat.

For starters, the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 — which can avoid sensor detection thanks to its special shape and coating — simply doesn’t work very well. The Pentagon has had to temporarily ground F-35s no fewer than 13 times since 2007, mostly due to problems with the plane’s Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine, in particular, with the engines’ turbine blades. The stand-downs lasted at most a few weeks.

“The repeated problems with the same part of the engine may be indications of a serious design and structural problem with the F135 engine,” said Johan Boeder, a Dutch aerospace expert and editor of the online publication JSF News.

Pratt & Whitney has already totally redesigned the F135 in an attempt to end its history of frequent failures. But there’s only so much engineers can do. In a controversial move during the early stages of the F-35′s development, the Pentagon decided to fit the plane with one engine instead of two. Sticking with one motor can help keep down the price of a new plane. But in the F-35′s case, the decision proved self-defeating.

Handout photo of workers on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 JSF at Lockheed Martin Corp's factory located in Fort Worth, TexasThat’s because the F-35 is complex — the result of the Air Force, Marines and Navy all adding features to the basic design. In airplane design, such complexity equals weight. The F-35 is extraordinarily heavy for a single-engine plane, weighing as much as 35 tons with a full load of fuel.

By comparison, the older F-15 fighter weighs 40 tons. But it has two engines. To remain reasonably fast and maneuverable, the F-35′s sole F135 engine must generate no less than 20 tons of thrust — making it history’s most powerful fighter motor.

All that thrust results in extreme levels of stress on engine components. It’s no surprise, then, that the F-35 frequently suffers engine malfunctions. Even with that 20 tons of thrust, the new radar-dodging plane is still sluggish. The F-35 “is a dog … overweight and underpowered,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

In 2008, two analysts at the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank that works closely with the military, programmed a computer simulation to test out the F-35′s fighting ability in a hypothetical air war with China. The results were startling.

“The F-35 is double-inferior,” John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue concluded in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press. The new plane “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,” they warned.

Handout photo of workers on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 JSF at Lockheed Martin Corp's factory located in Fort Worth, TexasYet the F-35 is on track to become by far the military’s most numerous warplane. It was designed to replace almost all current fighters in the Air Force and Marine Corps and complement the Navy’s existing F/A-18 jets. The Pentagon plans to acquire roughly 2,400 of the radar-evading F-35s in coming decades, at a cost of more than $400 billion.

Like it or not, the stealthy F-35 is the future of U.S. air power. There are few alternatives. Lockheed Martin’s engineers have done millions of man-hours of work on the design since development began in the 1990s. Starting work on a new plane now would force the Defense Department to wait a decade or more, during which other countries might pull ahead in jet design. Russia, China and Japan are all working on new stealth fighter models.

The Pentagon sounds guardedly optimistic about the current F-35 grounding. “Additional inspections of F-35 engines have been ordered,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a military spokeman said, “and return to flight will be determined based on inspection results and analysis of engineering data.”

Minor fixes might get America’s future warplane flying again soon — for a while. But fundamental design flaws could vex the F-35 for decades to come, forcing the Pentagon to suspend flying far too often for the majority of its fighter fleet, potentially jeopardizing U.S. national security.

 

PHOTO (TOP): F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is seen at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, January 20, 2012. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (rear to front) AF-2, AF-3 and AF-4, can be seen flying over Edwards Air Force Base, December 10, 2011. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Darin Russell/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Workers can be seen on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp’s factory located in Fort Worth, Texas, October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Randy A. Crites/Handout

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Workers can be seen on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp’s factory located in Fort Worth, Texas, October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Lockheed Martin/Randy A. Crites/Handout

 

 

Comments
48 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

My god, the US government is totally incompetent now. Corporate America has reduced it to jabbering politicians and lobbyist that are all there only to make money. Thank god China has no world conquest thoughts like the Soviets did.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

The article is pretty much correct in what they say, but there are three very important omissions:

1) Lockheed has the talent to develop a great warplane, but not two good warplanes. Lockheed tried to both the missionless F-22 and the mission overloaded F-35. First team talent was split between the two with the F-22 getting more than its share as Lockheed emphasized saving the F-22 contract when the F-35 was in its most critical design phases.

2) ‘The new plane “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,”…’
That is not all that relevant anymore. Old fashioned dogfights are for the 20th century and the movies. What matters now are sensors, missiles, communications, and intelligence. The winner has launched his missile before the loser has detected the winner.

3) If you want to turn, climb, and run, then you want an unmanned combat aircraft. The F-22 may end up as being about as effective as the Polish horse cavalry was against German armor in WWII.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive
 

@QuietThinker,

Actually, dogfights are not obsolete by any means.

It’s true that the F-35, being stealthy, will be able to detect and shoot at enemy fighters first. (provided that the enemy fighters are non-stealth)
But long range missiles are not as accurate as you think.

In the history of air warfare, the vast majority of missile kills were made from close-range (within visual-range).

Since air-to-air missiles carry only a limited amount of fuel, they are not very effective against faraway targets. Especially if the targets are modern fighters with modern avionics and electronic countermeasures which can detect missile launches and take evasive measures against the missiles.
By some estimates, the hit rate of long-range radar guided air-to-air missiles against such modern adversaries will be under 10%.

Also, if the enemy aircraft happen to be stealth fighters themselves, they will not show up on the F-35′s radar.
Even if the F-35 manages to launch missiles at them, the missiles’ hit probability will be even lower.

So, there’s a big possibility that the F-35 will fail to shoot down its adversaries from long range.
It will then have no choice but to engage them in dogfights. But the F-35 will be at a big disadvantage here, because it is so slow and unmaneuverable.

But the (in-)effectiveness of BVR long-range missiles isn’t the only thing you must consider.

In fact, in order to launch any missiles from beyond visual range, the rules of engagement must first allow you to do so.

If the rules of engagement require you to make visual contact and confirm the enemy’s identity, then you have no choice but to get close to them. What will the F-35 do in such a scenario?

The F-35 may have advanced sensors and space-age avionics, but these systems are incredibly complex and nowhere near combat capability. And even if they work perfectly as advertised, there will be times when they can’t positively ID targets and have to get close to get visual confirmation.

However, the F-35 just can’t afford to get close to enemy fighters. If it gets into a dogfight, it will be dead.

The fact is that the F-35 is completely unsuited for air combat.

It’s only good as a stealth bomber.
(But even this capability is in question, as newer Russian and Chinese radars will be able to detect the F-35..)

Posted by Joe765 | Report as abusive
 

This is the problem when you design a warplane to do everything: It ends up not being able to do anything well. The F-35 was supposed to replace the F-16, a light multi-role fighter that was designed with maneuverability and cheapness of operation in mind. But the F-35 sought systems and mission parameters rather than performance as a target.
It’s what Eisenhower warned us of: Beware the Military-Industrial Complex. As the article states: “Like it or not, the stealthy F-35 is the future of U.S. air power.” Which is exactly what the defense contractors want. If this were the 1950s, it would have been cancelled and scrapped in favor of something better. But now the taxpayers are on the hook for an airplane that the military can’t cancel, because the contractors and their political donations have allowed the politicians to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters. If the F-35 were cancelled, we’d hear calls of politicians “making American weaker.” And, oh yeah, “Jobs!” But instead, we’re stuck with a dog of an airplane that will never meet the original design requirements or be as good or as inexpensive as it was once sold to us.
The F-35 is literally a flying bridge to nowhere.

Posted by Aerothusiast | Report as abusive
 

The people quoted in this article, are a bunch of ignorant buffoons, with an agenda. Not unlike the grumpy, anti gov, anti everything people, that routinely post on an article like this.

“The F-35 “is a dog … overweight and underpowered,” according to Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.”

And this guy is basing this on on all the 35s he’s flown, right? LOL Project on Government Oversight? Yeah, doesn’t sound like that organization would have any bias.

This aircraft has the latest generation of avionics and standoff weapons systems. It can track and launch weapons on a ridiculous number of aircraft, simultaneously. There’s a reason why the Chinese are constantly getting caught conducting espionage on US aerospace companies, and it’s not because they have better planes than this. This isn’t the 70′s. Aircraft don’t “dog fight” anymore. You would think the “experts” and “think tanks” would know this… Apparently not.

Does this aircraft have issues? Yes, it does. So did the F-14, so did the F-16, so did all the rest of them. Because they are machines pushing the envelope of technology. The 16 has gone on to be one of the most successful fighters in the world. They’re still being sold. If you want to blame somebody for the issues the 35 HAS had… blame the original ‘think tanks’ that thought it was a great idea, to try and force one plane to work for three different services.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive
 

I can’t help but remember the “day of the dog fight is over” theory that gave the United States the F-4 Phantom II with only missiles and no gun. After getting wacked pretty badly by the Migs in Vietnam, we added a gun to that overweight multimission aircraft. The result was the requirement for the F-15 and F-16.

Posted by AZWarrior | Report as abusive
 

That makes pretty good sense there @dd606. I didn’t think about the antiquity of dog fights and the advancement of drones. But I still think government is incompetent. Just maybe not the high ranking military.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

I’m sure this aircraft is a hangar queen. However, the Military Industrial Complex and their Lobbyists are doing just fine…along with their Inside the Beltway buddies.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive
 

What a crock.

When is the last time an American fighter aircraft has really mattered to our, “national security”? National Ego, yes, security, nah.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive
 

This is just one more reason for the development of drone fighters. The limit of the plane often surpasses the human factor. Think of the weight savings, the space, and reduction of complexity if now human had to be carried.

Posted by bucklj | Report as abusive
 

I hope our Prime Minister reads this. We need an aircraft for the Canadian Air Force that works.

Posted by canadianeh65 | Report as abusive
 

UTC: You are very unhealthy in mind.

Posted by comitas7 | Report as abusive
 

Oh brilliant! The UK has been saddled with a heap of junk…that’s as fast as the flames consuming the engines, flies like a brick, outmaneuvers like a t**d…….may as well keep the Sopwith Camels..at least they flew!

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive
 

This program died from the specification. to want good at everything. Without the suicidal decision to make a single-engined aircraft Go buy Rafale…

Posted by TOTOCACA | Report as abusive
 

Put the cost of this plane in perspective: Give me the 1.5 Trillion dollars this plane will cost and I will give every US high school graduate a four year college education. All high school graduates,FOREVER.

Posted by Bernie777 | Report as abusive
 

@Bernie777 I don’t think having a well educated population benefits the current crop of aristocracy.

Posted by RandomName2nd | Report as abusive
 

Just reading comments here makes me realize just how self-absorbed, ignorant and out of touch with reality Americans are.

Posted by Dumbstruck | Report as abusive
 

The F-35 may be a failed program but the kinetic data puts its maneuverability (with a combat load) on par with the Typhoon and better than an F-16.

It’s not a good investment of taxpayer dollars or a very reliable fighter plane but the title of the article is misleading.

Posted by GreatLakes80 | Report as abusive
 

Time and time again people over-design, trying to please every would be customer. I bought a tape measure the other day for $24 with the aim of buying one that wouldn’t immediately fall apart, and the thing has every bell and whistle, but fails at the most basic tasks. Any serious design effort should start with a review of wildly successful designs (regardless of industry):

The original Bialetti Moka from 1933 – simplicity and taste!

The Toyota Hilux “Pickup” with the 22r and later 22re engine – simply indestructible.

The Boeing 747 freighter – the industry standard for decades.

1990 Honda CRX – fast, fun, reliable, and great gas mileage.

Spring loaded camming devices used in rock climbing – the original was called a, “friend,” later versions are “camalots” or aliens”

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive
 

Give that $400 Billion to the UN and join our species in harmonizing with this planet.

Posted by DwightJones | Report as abusive
 

Why is the US eating these costs. During contract negotiations, requirements should be presented to would be companies. They look at the needs and determine how much they can develop the project for. Allow maybe 5% variance and anything over that the winning bidder should eat as a part of fulfilling the contract. I bet the plane would be much better and development completed much sooner.

Posted by gcf1965 | Report as abusive
 

end this boondoggle. drones have already made manned aircraft or they will within a few years. boots on the ground want to save the A1, all the defense contractors want costly hardware.

Posted by googlemcgoogle | Report as abusive
 

The B29 Super fortress had a engine flaw due to a invented ideology to achieve a pound per horsepower. The magnesium block was susceptible to lean fuel mixture fires necessitated by WW2 payload and range missions. Some full bird achieved his tonnage record at the cost of several flight crews.

Posted by morbas | Report as abusive
 

The admittedly few others trying to break the monopoly to be main supplier of US fighter / bomber submitted cheaper designs but admitted you couldn’t design a “truly universal” plane – saying they’d be alot more variation between the planes for the three military arms. When the worlds biggest titantium casting requiring WEEKS of milling each was needed to protect the crew from the engine in the F35, DOD should have gone running away.
Instead, politicians took the usual bribes from their usual defense contractor and everyone’s done well, except the citizens of the US.
Luckily, we still have the plans for the F15 so if a shooting war starts we can start building them again, cause a plane that can’t run away, and this overweight under powered turkey sure can’t, won’t last long.
There should have been 2 design goals for this plane, stealth and a pound of thrust per pound of plane. You can’t see me, you can’t catch me, is the way to fight. Hit and run and let the smart munitions hang around to do the dirty work. You only do a one on one dog fight when everything else has failed.

Posted by DellStator | Report as abusive
 

A political disaster that is only going to get worse. Stop the bleeding. This plane will never accomplish the goals being set. It is only alive because almost every member of congress (Senate and House) have a portion of the plane being built in their districts. It is not capable of what is was asked to do and all the great engineers in the world cannot fix this broken plane. Start on a new plane NOW or the Russians and Chinese will “fly” by us in the next 10 years.

WAKE UP America – this is a political boondoggle of the highest order.

Posted by AZ1811 | Report as abusive
 

Although the Boeing entry did not “look-as-cool” as what we got I bet the Boeing jet would have done a better job at at a better price point.

Posted by perilun | Report as abusive
 

What we should consider is hanging some missiles on our AWACS and extended range C-130s. They’d eat the F-35s alive.

Posted by RobertMorrisIV | Report as abusive
 

One day J-35 comes to be able to turn, climb and will run into Chinese and Russian radar screens.

Posted by Hurtle40 | Report as abusive
 

Be aware of poster dd606…. He’s a paid government shill.
This guy doesn’t think that our government should have any oversight. Sort of like Jo Stalin… He didn’t allow any oversight either.
‘Aircraft don’t “dog fight” anymore’… who is this bird kidding. What do you suppose in going on in the skies around the East China Sea, where both Japan and China claim some stupid little islands? Is that just an airshow?
Joe765 is correct: ‘If the rules of engagement require you to make visual contact and confirm the enemy’s identity, then you have no choice but to get close to them.’
The example of the F4 Phantom is perfect, along with the F-111. These pig’s were a disaster, and that’s why we pushed into the F-14, 15, and 16 development.
There is nothing wrong with making a mistake… as long as you admit your mistake and move on. Which is what we should do with the F-35 program.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive
 

The F-35 program was a failure from the start. You cannot design a craft that does EVERYTHING and every mission to excellence, which is what they tried to do to save money. That should have been the warning right there. Instead, they pushed ahead anyway and ended up with a mediocre thing that has a much higher chance of failure in the end. This is what happens when everything is a team decision and accomplishment.

The result of too many fingers in the recipe, as usual. The result was predictable.

Posted by FlushTheToilet1 | Report as abusive
 

Australia needs to back out of buying these lemons. We’d save ourselves 24 billion dollars or something of that magnitude.

Posted by Overlander14 | Report as abusive
 

It does not matter … GW pushed the F35 deal for his home state of Texas, and there is no way that Texas will give up this trillion dollar plus gravy train.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive
 

Tomorrow’s dogfights will feature unmanned missiles that can maneuver with much more agility than a manned aircraft. They are much cheaper to make and faster and more deadly in air to air combat.

Could be that the F35 and even the sexy Chinese fighter planes will all soon be obsolete.

Posted by loyalsys | Report as abusive
 

Just like the f-86 and the MIG, if i can get you into the best of my flight envelope bang you are dead. Low alt, Hi-alt, fast, slow. if I can get you where I am best I don’t need to turn, climb, or run with all agility. The F-86 and F-16 gave you a gun battle edge in their best flight envelopes, the F-14 and F-15 will take you out in a missile battle with the F-15 being the best in the high speed, maneuver and the F-14 in the long range attack multiple targets roll The F-18 is a pretty good fighter in a given flight envelope but can do the low alt combat support roll along with the A-10 but from a carrier. The basic problem with a tri service design is the difference in where the engine and fuel cells are located. The Air Force wants the engine at the bottom of the fuselage with the fuel cells wrapped around and over the engine. the Navy has to have both at the top of the fuselage to make room for carrier sized landing gear (note the bulge in the Navy F-18 versus the Air Force version). McNamara had to eat crow and the F-14 was born because of that Air Frame and weight problem. A multi-service aircraft will always have a flight and weight variance thus a difference in the flight envelops at different altitudes and air speeds. Don’t worry the F-35 will meet its mission requirement and beat the adversary in his own flight envelop. Remember the MIG-15 and 17 could both take on the F-86 in a low, slow shoot out. Take either high and the F-86 was boss man. Missiles are great but you had better have some way of getting them on target and keep them on target or one is liable to down more than the foe. Study the F-14 and its flight envelope coupled with a
long-range missile capability to target and kill the other guy.

Posted by harry7738 | Report as abusive
 

But the money spent on this COULD have sent 10 million kids all the way through college, if you assume $40K in tuition.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive
 

I’m laughing so hard, there are tears in my eyes. The F-35 is the BIGGEST feint in the history of warfare. It was never meant to fly well. Our adversaries will spend a combined eight trillion dollars trying to play “catch up.” Our future is secure with the F-65, i.e. the Black Triangle. Hyper maneuverable, MACH 24+, and its radar can count the eyelashes of the enemy pilot while he’s back at base drinking coffee.

Posted by bbuster | Report as abusive
 

This is the “quality” of engineer that the U.S. educational system is currently producing. That leaves very little hope for the future.

Posted by vic632 | Report as abusive
 

For all the money they’ve spent, and have yet to spend, they could have an entire air force of F-22′s, and even come up with a Naval variant.But I guess Congress wouldn’t allow that. National Security takes a backseat to pork in their Districts.

Posted by SemperFido9915 | Report as abusive
 

Bow much will the CEO’s bonus be?

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive
 

We are currently fighting two wars where the enemy has NO air power. How can you “win” a war using a $200 million plane and a pilot with a masters degree to terminate an illiterate Taliban with a rusty AK-47?
Cost management has been practiced in the REAL economy for 30 years. Time for the military industrial complex to do the same. More troops, fewer toys.

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive
 

The ultra left wing radical socialist writer is just ‘piling on’ – the F-35 is really replacing three series of warplanes, with a “learning curve” in doing so.

The F-35 has more problems than just one fighter jet.
F-35A – conventional takeoffs
f-35B – vertical or limited space takeoff
F-35C- carrier takeoffs.

My solution – rename them and hope no one notices.

Posted by cirrus7 | Report as abusive
 

The reason we develop F-35 is to help pilots dodge missiles better through stealth . It already does you no good with having ability to turn , climb, or outrun our enemies.. Pilots will simply fly straight and slowly while firing missiles then return home safely. This is for now. Maybe we will build better steatlh planes later on. I dont know ?

Posted by Gumby | Report as abusive
 

All this criticism against the F35 is simply noise to foo our enemies. Yhe final product will be an awesome plane fielding an integrated battlespace due to sensor arrays of F35s. The concept is brilliant.

Posted by WJL | Report as abusive
 

In WW2, our military had many aircraft that could not turn, could not climb, and could not run.
They were called Blimps.

Posted by ckd1358 | Report as abusive
 

@SanPa…you wrote: “It does not matter … GW pushed the F35 deal for his home state of Texas, and there is no way that Texas will give up this trillion dollar plus gravy train.”
The deal for the JSF was signed in 1996; thank you Bill Clinton. GW had a lot of flaws but people who thoughtlessly blame him for everything have even more.

Posted by OldColdWarrior | Report as abusive
 

Plane to plane we’re there any fighters from potential enemies that could outmatch the F-18?

F-22?

Posted by airborneqmc | Report as abusive
 

The plane does look stealthy at all and single engine is not a away to go

Posted by juodskis1 | Report as abusive
 

in this age of specialization we have top brass and their contractor buddies insisting on multirole fighter/bombers?
the F18 for example may have made sense for USnavy carriers,but other countries like canada would have been better served with fleets of cheaper simpler purpose built light fighter/interceptors like the F20 tigershark, which was a third the price,less than half as costly to support and 4 times more reliable than the f18(and according to chuck yeager was probably the deadliest air to air interceptor designed).
the us may need a stealth super plane to fight a superpower in the future,
but other nato partners haven’t the political capital to bomb from so high up or fire missiles so far away that the intended target cannot be visually confirmed by the pilot! we also rarely or never flown u.n. or nato missions where we needed stealth planes- so the F35 really has far less use to us than something that can do simple sovereignty patrols or force down some tin pot’s old soviet helicopters-and at a fraction of the cost.heck all our crafts ever each needed was an automatic cannon,two sidewinders and a guided bomb! in an extreme situation perhaps a small antiship missile or an antiradiation(anti anti aircraft weapon)missile during kosovo or the gulf war.
this F35 fiasco may bring an end to this unholy alliance between industrial and military executives.

Posted by bademoxy | Report as abusive
 

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