Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Comparing the F-16's development with the F-35

Gordon England takes a look at history to give some ground truth and context to what critics of the F-35 program would like you to believe is a one-of-a-kind boondoggle.

Context is critical when analyzing anything, and England does what most critics won't do - make a comparative analysis. He compares the development and fielding of the F-16 with the F-35.

First, he points out the 5 objectives of both the F-16 and F-35 programs:
  • Incorporate new and decisive technologies to keep America well ahead of potential adversaries.
  • Keep total program cost low by overlapping development, test and production.
  • Reduce support costs compared to the airplanes being replaced.
  • Promote international involvement to strengthen coalitions and to share costs.
  • Implement rapid production ramp-up with accelerated fielding to get the capability to those depending on it.
Given the F-35 is designed to be four times more effective than legacy fighters in air-to-air engagements, eight times more effective than legacy fighters in prosecuting missions against fixed and mobile targets and three times more effective than legacy fighters in non-traditional Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD/DEAD) missions, the core requirement in the first bullet will be delivered.

In the second bullet, England is talking about concurrency, the method of production that current critics like to blame most for the problems the F-35 has encountered.  But England reminds the critics that the F-16 was also developed under concurrency and it to had its share of developmental problems as well:
Both programs experienced their share of early development problems. At the outset, F-35 designers struggled with too much weight for the short-takeoff version. We forget today that F-16 designers struggled with canopy, engine and cockpit issues. Yet compared with the F-16 timeline, the birthing pains of the F-35 are well in its past.
In fact, as often happens with critics, they forget the travails of previous programs and the obstacles overcome that eventually yielded superior aircraft.  The F-16 was no different than any other developmental aircraft.  It had its share of problems, yet they were overcome and the result was one of the premier fighters of its age.

The F-16's path is very similar to that of the F-35 and, as England points out, most of its problems are in its past.

He then turns his attention to the concurrency question.  Again, it seems many critics don't really understand the process as well as they probably should:
DoD is overly concerned with the cost of concurrency, even though it has always been the plan for the F-35 to repeat the proven F-16 approach. Unlike serial programs, where development — test — production nicely dovetail one after the other, concurrency is where they overlap. Based on their statements and testimony to the U.S. Congress, today’s DoD officials believe that F-35 concurrency adds unbounded and unaffordable retrofit costs to incorporate fixes for problems found in later tests into earlier production airplanes. 
They intend to keep F-35 production at very low and costly production rates until at or near full specification performance is demonstrated. For the F-35, final testing is not scheduled for completion until 2017.
The point, of course, is the contractor isn't slowing down the development and production of the F-35.  The customer - DoD - is.  And part of the reason for that is being driven by the belief, as England points out, that all the fixes necessary to apply to the current crop of F-35s are to expensive.

Again, England takes the critics to school using the F-16 experience as the lesson:
By contrast, from the start, the F-16 went to high-rate production; 352 airplanes were on firm order within four years and three years later, more than 500 had been delivered worldwide.
This fast production was based on several important decision criteria. First, there was confidence that the early configuration of the F-16 would be superior to the F-4 Phantom it was replacing, even though the performance specification had not been fully demonstrated through testing. Contractor and government tests were in parallel, and results were shared to gain quick confidence in the basic airplane. 
Second, low cost could only be achieved through high-rate production. 
Third, service leaders knew that the airplanes would be continuously upgraded, so there was never a final configuration for production. 
Lastly, there was never a plan to retrofit older airplanes as newer capabilities were added. Rather, each airplane configuration was fielded for a mission suited to its performance. And when retrofit was initiated, it was accomplished as part of a scheduled block change to keep the cost low.
To date, there are 138 versions of the F-16, as well as 15 block changes, with each block a decisive improvement in capability.
Read that very carefully, because it explains precisely what should be happening with the F-35.  It also makes a very important point that many critics seem to miss - "when retrofit was initiated, it was accomplished as part of a scheduled block change to keep the cost low."  Or, once final configuration is agreed upon, all aircraft will be brought up to date with a scheduled block change.

The problem for the F-35, of course, is the slowdown in production as implemented by DoD makes it hard for the efficiencies and economies of scale full production would bring. Additionally, it is obviously impossible to put fighter in service in volume if DoD slows the production process. That means continuing to use older aircraft that are nearing the end their life cycle as our main line of defense.

England has a recommendation, and again, he goes to the F-16 experience:
My recommendation is to take F-35 decision-making out of the hands of well-intentioned but misguided financial analysts. With a new incoming service acquisition executive for F-35, there is opportunity for dramatic improvements. The executive will need full authority. But even that will not be enough. It is now time to put more of the procurement, test and fielding decisions back into the services, more in line with how the F-16 was managed by the U.S. Air Force Systems Command. The JSF Program Office should concentrate on nurturing and expanding international sales.
The international sale component is critical to the success of the F-35's cost reduction plan and, as England says, since international sales comprise 40% of the total production, these countries ought to have more say as well. It is likely they'd want to speed up production as well.

It's ironic that one of the main critics of the F-35 program likes to talk about F-16 as some sort of super jet while the F-35 should be junked.  Yet his memory of how the F-16 became the fighter it is today seems to be somewhat clouded.

What we have in development and testing is a game changer among fighters, just as the F-16 was for its era.  As England points out we need to remember the lessons from the F-16's development and fielding and heed them if we want to hit the 5 objectives of the F-35 program.


1 comment:

  1. Good post, but one minor point. Confusing England with "UK" is like confusing Texas with "USA"