Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Excuses... Excuses...

My house is under the "15:00 Sat/sam." dot.

Sorry for being away for the weekend.  Hurricane "Post tropical storm" Arthur paid my family, neighbors, and I a little visit on Saturday, knocking trees and power lines out of the ground, leaving me and my trusty iMac without power for about three-and-a-half days.  Thankfully, there was no damage to my house other freezer full of groceries.

The weekend went slowly.  Mobile device power was at a premium and wireless internet service was spotty at best.  While I like to envision myself as well prepared for a zombie apocalypse, I am not sure if I could live in a world without hot, fresh coffee every morning.

Even without power and spotty internet access, I managed to read (if not reply or moderate) all of your comments.  Thanks to you all for keeping the conversation rolling and keeping the tone civil and mostly on topic.  (So what if the Super Hornet was brought up in the Silent Eagle vs. Gripen FJFC...  As long as its about fighter jets, it's all good!)

I was also happy to enjoy an e-mail correspondence with none other than Air Power Australia's Peter Goon.  Those of you unfamiliar with the APA's website should do yourselves a favor and go there now.  There is an absolute plethora of information, commentary, and research located over there.  Far more than you will ever see at this meagre blogsite.

Yeah...  Yeah...  Whatever.  An entire weekend goes by and I cannot contribute due to a little hurricane post-tropical storm?  Excuses...  Excuses...

Speaking of excuses...

Still some problems here...
It is looking more and more that the JSF will need to be excused from its upcoming appearance at the RIAT (Royal International Air Tattoo) and the Farnborough Air Show next week.  While the decision is still very much up in the air, the Unitied Kingdom's F-35B likely won't be.

JSF supporters, including those in the US Senate, do not see this as a big deal.  They offer the usual platitudes that the aircraft is still very much in development, and mishaps like this do happen.  But should they really?

"The F-35 is still early in it's development...  This stuff happens!"

The JSF certainly is still in development, but it is far from the early stages.  The first flight of the F-35 (not the X-35 demonstrator)  occurred in December 2006.  It has been in production for more than eight years and over 100 copies have been either built or currently being assembled.  Its ever-increasingly optimistic IOC (initial operational capability) is scheduled for very late next year for the F-35B, 2016 for the F-35A, and 2019 for the F-35C.  With just slightly over a year before the JSF is intended to operational, unknown engine fires should not receiving headlines.  

Things start looking worse when comparing the F-35 with other fighter development cycles.  The F-15 Eagle went from its first flight to being operational within four years.  The F-16 took four years, as did the F/A-18 Hornet.  

Those were older, simpler aircraft, of course.  Let us look at some newer ones.  The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?  Four years.  Maybe it should not count since it is based on the older F/A-18?  

Eurofighter Typhoon:  The very model of a bad procurement.
Alright, let us look at one of the most protracted, politically charged, and controversial fighters that is not built in the U.S.A, the Eurofighter Typhoon.  The Typhoon is a good example of something that "sounded good at the time".  The European aerospace community, concerned that they were being outdone by big-budget American defense contractors, decided to convince their government to go all-in on a European air-superiority fighter for the year 2000 and beyond.  Hence, the "EF2000".

Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy all collaborated on EF2000.  What was to be the Eurofighter Typhoon was beset with difficulties right from the start, as development was assigned rather arbitrarily and each nation demanded on a different set of priorities.  Ever try to get 4 people to agree on a restaurant?  Imagine that, only with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake.  

What those involved with the Eurofighter did not envision was a sudden end to the Cold War and sudden questioning of the need for expensive fighter jets when there was no enemy.  One participant, Germany, tried to leave the program altogether (the penalties were too great).  

In the end, the Eurofighter Typhoon has grown to be a respected platform, even though it does still revive criticism for its costs.  It first went operational in 2003, nine years after its first flight.  

The Eurofighter is not a "5th Generation" fighter, however.  

"5th Generation" enough for ya?
There is no arguing that the F-22 is the "5th Generation" archetype.  Like other fighters, its development was beset with the usual technical problems.  Like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the sudden end of the Cold War left its funding (and future) in doubt.  

Despite this, and despite the F-22 Raptor being one of the most expensive aircraft ever made, its time from first flight to operations was eight years.  

With all of the above examples, testing was done on a mere handful of early production models before full-scale production took place.  By contrast, there are now more F-35s than there are CF-18 Hornets in the RCAF.  Current JSF production rates are enough to make Boeing, Eurofighter, and Dassault jealous.  

After eight years and almost 100 airframes, the F-35 is anything but "early in development".  

"Aircraft get grounded all the time!  It's not that big of a deal!"

All aircraft, cutting edge military fighter aircraft in particular, are complicated machines, and not all problems are found in the early stages.  Safety concerns can sometimes lead to the grounding of a particular airframe type, even the iconic F-15 is not immune.

No flying for you today.
So what happens when an military aircraft gets grounded?  Other assets need to be used to fill the gap.  In the case of the F-15 grounding, F-16s took over the duties.  

What happens when the majority of the western world use the same aircraft?

It then becomes a VERY big deal.  Once the USA replaces most of its F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, and AV-8s with a predominantly F-35 fleet, an inopportune grounding would leave it with a mere handful of F-22s, F-15Es, and Super Hornets to pick up the slack.  Europe would need to rely on its Typhoons and Rafales, and the RAAF would have a mere smattering of Super Hornets.  Single-fighter type nations like Canada and The Netherlands would have to simply make do without.  

If the JSF were to be grounded in the 2025 to 2035 timeframe, western airpower as we know it today would temporarily not exist.  

What makes this especially unnerving about the F-35 is that the aircraft is jam-packed with all-new technology that it relies on.  The HMD needs to work flawlessly, because there is no HUD.  The DAS system needs to work, because visibility is limited.  Those AMRAAMs should never miss, since it will usually only carry two.  

The JSF is looking more and more like a single-point-of-failure concept that is constructed out of single-point-of-failure technology.  

"The F-35 is still the most technically advanced aircraft.  The others just don't compare!"

Maybe so.  Technical advances do little to woo potential buyers when the aircraft itself cannot get off the ground, however.  RIAT and Farnborough are big, international events with real international buyers' attention.  Canceling an appearance due to an exploding engine will not exactly inspire confidence in the program, nor will it encourage new sales.  

Could the Scorpion steal the Lightning's thunder?
Then again, there is always the chance of a dark horse showing up and getting everybody's attention.  Saab will be there to give updates on its Gripen E, an aircraft it would not mind stealing some of the JSF's sales.

Also present will be the scrappy little Textron Scorpion.  An aircraft intended to be an affordable "good enough" option for air forces with lower budgets.  In contrast to the F-35, which has been in testing for 8 years and still might not make it, the Scorpion's first flight was a mere eight months ago...  Yet has already made the trans-atlantic flight.  

No excuses needed there.  

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