A multi-role combat aircraft is one of those things air forces the world over love for no good reason other than the desire to fly a plane that can do everything. Some 30 years ago, when as an MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) IAF selected the Jaguar, only a low level short range strike plane, I had pointed out that the trouble with aircraft designed for multiple missions is that they cannot perform any particular role very well. Nothing has changed, except now “medium range” is added to the Air Staff Quality Requirements, two planes have been shortlisted, and the US is trying to scramble the competition by offering the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35 Lightning-II just as the bids by Dassault Avions for its Rafale fighter and by the European consortium EADS for its Typhoon warplane were being opened. This offer, while sudden, was not entirely unexpected, and has a whiff of the spoiler even though there’s a more substantive reason behind it. In any event, if aircraft quality and performance is what matters, scrutinizing the JSF makes sense.
JSF can, at best, be considered a work in progress, and at worst an enormously expensive failure, that has already racked up 89% cost-over-run and time delays of several years, with no end in sight to major design and technology problems confronting it. Winslow Wheeler, a combat aviation expert formerly with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and ex-staff adviser to several US senators, deems this aircraft “a bad idea that shows every sign of turning into a disaster as big as the F-111 fiasco of the 1960s.”
The serious nature of F-35’s troubles is not a secret. According to news reports, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOTE) earlier this year pointed to a raft of problems afflicting the JSF, among them, the “transonic wing roll-off [and] and greater than expected sideslip during medium angle of attack testing”, unreliability of the components, the after-burner on the Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine disrupting the air flow causing severe vibrations and preventing realization of maximum power, helmet-mounted display that has restricted testing to the preliminary Block 0.5 and Block 1 mission systems software, and the inability of the on-board inert gas generation system to obviate the buildup of oxygen in fuel tank that can result in fire and explosion. A news story additionally revealed significant structural weakness in the “forward root rib” providing “core strength of the wings” and, a recent GAO Report, referred to the faulty manufacturing of the outer mold of the aircraft that has undermined its stealth characteristics, rectifying which, it said, has major cost and time impacts.
JSF, it turns out, is an over-weight (49,500 pounds at takeoff in air-to-air role), under-powered (with an engine rated at 42,000 pounds of thrust) aircraft with a relatively small wing span (460 square feet) rendering it, in Wheeler’s words, “appallingly unmaneuverable” and in the same league as the short-lived F-105. Worse, it has only two tons of ordnance carrying capacity in its internal bays; loading additional bombs and weapons on outer wing stations will light up the aircraft like a Christmas tree on enemy radar, making nonsense of its vaunted stealth qualities. And in ground support mission, it is seen as a “non-starter” — “too fast to independently identify targets, too fragile to withstand ground fire”, and too lacking in payload capacity, including fuel, to pull useful loiter time over battlefield. The crux of the problem, according to Wheeler, is that the JSF “has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra long-range [air-to-air] radar….that has fallen on its face many times in real war”, eventuating in performance that is “embarrassing in the air-to-air role” even when compared to “elderly” aircraft such as the A-10.
But that’s not the half of it! The F-35 when it enters service will be the least test-proven of any new aircraft. In this regard, the GAO report mentions that “Open air testing [is] constrained by range limitations that are incapable of providing realistic testing of many key [Block 3 systems software-driven] capabilities” that are available, but mostly on paper. What this means, according to Wheeler, is that 97% of “flight testing [is] still unflown” and eventually only 17% of JSF’s flight characteristics will be physically tested and proven. Dismayed as much by the sub-standard aircraft in the offing and the escalating costs as by the unwillingness of the US to share “critical technologies”, many of the NATO partners have reduced their requirement of this aircraft. Britain, for instance, has cut back to 40 F-35s from its initial order of 138 aircraft, and Israel, which contracted for 20 JSFs, is seeking refurbished F-16s and F-18s instead, as a near and middle-term solution.
The F-35 has been pushed into a virtual death spiral also by the seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing its vertical take-off variant, compelling the Royal Navy to junk it, a decision the US Navy and the US Marines are expected to soon follow. Costly attempts to rectify design flaws and to meet performance criteria amidst slashed domestic and foreign sales have raised the programme expenditure to the one trillion dollar-level and the unit price of this platform to a “catastrophically high” $200 million, leading the US Congress to threaten a cut-off in funding.
It is the imperative to save the JSF programme that has prompted Washington to offer this plane to IAF. Delhi has to decide which combat aircraft industry – American, French or European, it will play the white knight to. Lockheed will flourish even if India rejects the F-35. But failure to sell Rafale or the Eurofighter will respectively put the survival of future combat aircraft development and production in France at risk and severely dent the prospects of EADS. With so much at stake and the urge to recover some of the costs, France and the consortium of European countries will be prepared to give far more in return and by way of offsets to get a deal done.
[Published in ‘Asian Age’ and ‘Deccan Chronicle’ as “Why is US peddling a hangar queen?”, Nov 10, 2011 at www.asianage.com/columnists/why-us-peddling-hangar-queen-134