Where did the F-35 go wrong?

It takes a lot of money to get the F-35 airborne...

"A camel is a horse designed by a committee."  -proverb

Years behind schedule and an estimated 100% over budget, the JSF program is undeniably a mess.  Sure, it will have its champions that make excuses and promises of great things when the F-35 finally becomes combat ready, but now even some powerful people in the pentagon and the U.S. Senate are starting to become impatient.

Lockheed Martin is the world's largest defence contractor.  The JSF program has access to some of the most brilliant minds in the business.  The funding has been, so far, almost limitless.  So why isn't the F-35 wowing us at air shows, bringing peace to the middle-east, and solving world hunger?  Let's look at its history.

The F-35's development goes back to the 80's when it was seen that new fighters would eventually be needed to replace the USAF's F-16 and USN's F-18 fleets.  Since the two fighters carried out similar roles, it seemed to make sense that a single fighter model could replace both.  At the same time, the AV-8 Harrier jump jets being used by the US Marines and Britain's RAF would also need replacement, so why not add a VTOL version?  Hence the JSF, or Joint Strike Fighter, project was born.
With the F-16, F-18, AV-8, A-10, and F-117 all getting older, and the Cold War coming to a close, the higher-ups in the U.S. Government and the Pentagon decided that it would be far more economical to replace all of them with a standardized design, with specialized variants for each purpose (CTOL, STOVL, and Carrier Versions).  The new jets were to take advantage of stealth technologies developed for the B-2 and F-22, match or exceed current fighter performance, and, above all, be affordable.

Build us a low-cost multi-role fighter...

Invisible to radar...

That can land on a aircraft carrier...

Provide low-level troop support...
And take off and land vertically!

Looking back, it seems like an impossible project.  To develop a single airframe capable of of replacing three different aircraft.  If that wasn't hard enough, it was decided that the JSF would replace the F-117 stealth fighter as well as the A-10 Counter Insurgency (CoIn) aircraft as well.  The reasoning behind this was that it would ultimately be cheaper to build one Jack-of-all-trades rather than several specialists.
It was a daunting task, but the reward was well worth it.  Not only would one fighter design replace most of the USAF's, USN's, and U.S. Marine's fighter fleet, but it would become the prevalent fighter for many nations around the world as well.  So great was the allure, that "partner nations" invested millions of dollars just for the privilege being included in on the program.  Only the two largest bankroll  contributors, the U.S. and U.K. would actually have say in the final design.  All the other partner nations were simply "along for the ride".

An early (and surprisingly "Gripen-like") design for the X-35.
One of the most often used arguments for Canada's "single source" F-35 selection is that: "There already was a fighter competition, and the F-35 won!"  This does have a modicum of truth to it, as the F-35 is based on the X-35 which itself was declared the winner of the JSF competition.  

McDonnell Douglas/BAe/Northrop Grumman JSF proposal.

Needless to say, it was quite a competition.  Lockheed, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas (now owned by Boeing), BAe, and Northrop Grumman all submitted designs.  Sadly, a joint venture between McDonnell Douglas, BAe, and Northrop Grumman never left the drawing board, leaving only Boeing and Lockheed Martin as the sole competitors.

In the now slightly famous "Battle of the X-Planes", both Lockheed and Boeing set out to prove they could build a single aircraft capable of stealth, supersonic flight, and STOVL operations.  Unlike the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition, these aircraft would be considered experimental aircraft, and not actual prototypes.  Hence, the "X-32" and "X-35" designations rather than the "Y" designation of aircraft like the YF-22 and YF-23.

Boeing's X-32, a.k.a. "Monica".
Boeing's entry into the JSF competition was...  Uh...  Cosmetically disadvantaged.  Looking like the illegitimate love-child of a A-7 Crusader and an F-117, it earned the nickname "Monica" after a certain White House intern who was famous for her... Uh...  Oratory skills.

The X-32's large, delta wing was deemed unsuitable for a carrier version, so the decision was made to redesign it with a more conventional setup 8 months after construction had begun.  This led to Boeing competing with an aircraft that would have been radically different than the actual production model.  On the bright side, the actual production "F-32" would have been even uglier. 

Apart from being ugly, with a design that seemed to be in flux, the STOVL version of X-32 suffered from an engine overheat problem caused by hot exhaust gas being sucked back into the engine.  Boeing's difficulties with the X-32 shouldn't be seen as failure on the part of its engineers, rather it should be seen as an example of just how hard the JSF concept is to pull off.

Evolution of the X-35's design.
By comparison, Lockheed Martin's X-35 was quite promising.  Although its design had started out as a canard-delta layout similar to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen, it was decided to switch to a more conventional layout to improve carrier low-speed carrier landing and low-level bombing performance.  Unlike the X-32, the X-35 looked pretty much like the production model.

The X-35.
Designed by Lockheed's famous "Skunk Works", the X-35 can only be described as an unqualified success.  Using a pioneering "lift-fan" system, the X-35B STOVL version was the first ever aircraft to take off in less than 500ft, fly supersonic, and then land vertically.  The aircraft showed much promise, and Lockheed even managed to display some interesting cost-cutting measures as well, using off-the-shelf parts from the F-16, F-18, and even the C-17 cargo transport.

More information about the JSF competition can be seen in the PBS NOVA special "Battle of the X-Planes".  It's 2 hours long, but well worth the watch.

Without a doubt, the X-35 can be considered a "Great Aircraft" and it would seem only logical that a fighter based on its design would be indeed a fantastic machine.  The X-35 was not an actual prototype for the F-35 however.  Although the two look similar there are some very major differences between them.

First of all, while the X-35 was handled by Lockheed's "Skunk Works" division, known for such legendary cutting edge aircraft like the SR-71, F-117, and even the F-80 Shooting Star; the F-35 project would be based out of Lockheed Martin's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.  Undoubtedly, many people from the X-35 project were moved, but some of Kelly Johnson's spirit would be lost.

What happens when you keep adding stuff.

It simply wasn't a matter of taking the X-35's blueprints and starting up large-scale production.  Being only a demonstrator, the X-35 was missing two very important fighter components; a weapon system and radar.  Since weapons need to be carried internally on a stealth aircraft, the entire airframe needed changes, weapons bays and doors needed to be added, resulting in added bulk.  Weapons tests need to be done to ensure that the weapon bay doors can open, launch a weapon, then close without problem.

The X-35 also used the F119 engine of F-22, rather than the F135 derivative.  The F135 is a higher bypass turbofan, optimized for slower speeds than the super-cruising F119.

X-35 cockpit (top) and F-35 cockpit (bottom).
Oddly enough for a fighter that was supposed to be "affordable above all else" instead of using off-the-shelf parts to save costs, almost every part of the F-35 is specific to that fighter, or highly modified from an existing system.  It uses technologies that have yet to be proven in battle, and its computer system is even more complicated than the bleeding edge F-22, requiring over 9 million lines of code (that has yet to be completed).  The F-35 is the first combat fighter to eschew a traditional HUD (head's up display) in favour of HMD, or, helmet mounted display.  Of course, this HMD has had its share of development problems and is still not ready.

There is also the rather unfortunate fact that the F-35C carrier variant has yet to successfully land on even a simulated carrier due to a faulty tailhook design.  This will of course, require further trips back to the drawing board followed by more testing.

It's not unusual for a military procurement project to go over-budget or get behind schedule.  Contractors need to be hopelessly optimistic in their projections in order to compete with other contractors' optimistic projections.  Of course, large military projects become political tools as well, with promises of job creation and plenty of opportunity for "pork barrel" offshoots.  

Another "do everything" military project, the M2 Bradley.
Some of you might be familiar with the "Bradley Fighting Vehicle" controversy.  Immortalized in the TV movie "The Pentagon Wars" which was inspired from the book of the same name, the Bradley was originally conceived as a simple APC, or armoured personnel carrier, that, through constantly changing design requirements,  became: 
"...a troop-transport that can't carry troops.  A reconnaissance vehicle that's too conspicuous to do reconnaissance...  And a quasi-tank that has less armour than a snow-blower, but has enough firepower to take out half of D.C."
The M2 Bradley has since gone on to distinguish itself in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it defeated more Iraqi tanks then the M1 Abrams main battle tank.  It's performance as an actual troop carrier has been middling however, being able to carry 6 troops, while its predecessor, the M113, carried 11.

Looking at the M2 Bradley, there does appear to be some hope for the F-35.  The Lightning II does have its strengths, and when it gets the bugs ironed out it may very well distinguish itself as a stealthy, low level attack aircraft.  Like the M2 however, it seems like it will never fulfil it's original intent.  The chances of the F-35 becoming a cheap, easily sustainable, air-superiority fighter are getting slimmer all the time.  When the F-35 was first announced, the U.S. still had undeniable air-superiority thanks to the F-22.  Potential rivals like the PAK FA and the J-20 were still years away, and fourth generation fighters like the Hornet and Flanker were yet to be fitted with "fifth generation" AESA radars and thrust vectoring.

As truly affordable fighters like the Gripen become available with similar technology as the F-35, while the F-35 itself falls victim to delays and cost overruns thanks to it own over-ambitiousness, and greater threats emerge in the form of the PAK FA and J-20, one wonders if the F-35 will prove to be more of a costly lesson of "how not to develop a fighter" rather than "The fighter for the 21st century".

Don't believe me?

Read this report filed to the Pentagon, as it stands now, the F-35 is only cleared to fly straight and narrow, on sunny warm days with no clouds.  Despite being treated like a Faberge egg, it still requires obscene amounts of maintenance time, its radar, EOTS, HMD, DAS systems are constantly on the blink, and pilots are complaining that they can't see behind them, i.e.: "Check their six".


So why is the F-35 program progressing when it is faced with so many problems?  Momentum.

In an odd move, the decision was made to start production of the F-35 without full flight testing.  This practice, known as concurrency, speeds up acquisition, but requires early production aircraft to be modified as flight testing reveals problems.  Imagine buying a car, but you need to bring it back to the dealer every few weeks for a year before it can be considered drivable on public roads.

Who wants to be the politician to tell all these people to find new jobs?

When the U.S. government realized it didn't really have the need nor the funds to keep building the expensive F-22...  It kept building them.  Why?  Because F-22 production had been dispersed throughout the USA.  Cutting F-22 production meant cutting high paying jobs.  Any senator voting against F-22 production would have to face more than a few angry constituants.  F-22 production kept going long after it was almost universally agreed to end it.  Eventually, a total of 195 F-22s were built out of the original 750 planned.

Like the F-22, F-35 production is spread out.  Unlike the F-22, production isn't merely limited to the U.S.  Components for the F-35 are built in America, Canada, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Denmark, Singapore, and Norway.  With a planned production run close to 2500 aircraft, any country leaving the program risks losing a lot of jobs.

Or do they?

Being a member of the F-35 project simply allows a country's business to bid on F-35 related contracts. There is no guarantee.  It is entirely possible for Canada to spend $46 billion dollars on F-35 procurement only to receive a fraction of that money back in jobs created.  Indeed, with the U.S. economy still suffering, the political pressure will be on for Lockheed to keep F-35 jobs in America.

Other countries are having second thoughts about their purchases as well.  It is feared that, if any country cancels its order, the unit cost of these aircraft will go up, resulting in more cancelled orders, provoking a "death spiral" that simply pushes the plane out of the realm of affordability.

How desperate is the U.S. and Lockheed to keep F-35 sales?  Desperate enough to deny a U.S. built AESA radar to the Saab Gripen that was competing for a Norway fighter bid.  Rather than let the F-35 be judged on its own merits, it was deemed appropriate to hobble the competition.  Since then, Saab has found different radar provider.

The question remains, will the current Canadian government be the first to truly jump off the sinking ship that is the F-35?  The Canadian government has already hit the "reset button" and is evaluating other fighters on the market, without going so far as to declare the F-35 deal completely dead.  Perhaps staying in the program longer keeps Canada in the running of those big money contracts being dangled like the proverbial carrot on a stick?


  1. Hello,
    Have you checked out this recent article about the 1970's Indian fighter procurement in which the Jaguar, Mirage and Viggen competed? It shows the family connections/politics behind the deal and, more important in the context of this blog, how the U.S. blocked the possibility of a Viggen sale to India.


  2. No, I haven't see that yet...

    I'll check it out. Thanks!

  3. let's all wait for the final version - and then do a real evaluation -

    -the testing will prove its real capabilites - the F35 is an awesone plane - an expensive one at that - but with so much expectations - it will have to deliver , the F22 is still the benchmark in 2013 -

    - once completed - the rest of the competition will be evaluated once more - and the comparison will decide the future of the program -and Canada's final decision -

  4. Mathew

    On consideration that I have not heard anyone talk about. Canada purchased 138 F18's between 1982 and 1988. And of 138 jets only 79 are flying. So 57% are no longer flying. So if we purchase 65 F35's and in a similar time frame 57% are no longer flying that means we have an air force of just 28 fighter jets! Not much of an air force to patrol 3,854,082 square miles of territory. Especially for a jet that does not even have supercruise and normally only carries four missiles. What happens if you run into 2 bombers and 4 escorts over the high arctic? For that matter 65 jets don't sound like its enough.