Wednesday, May 30, 2012

F-35 helmet’s jitter problem should be fixed by this summer

There’s been some negative press about the F-35’s next-generation helmet display, with some critics claiming it can’t be fixed and is unworkable.  That seems not to be the case.

One of the problems, jitter, should be fixed by this summer according to JSF Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. David Venlet as reported by Inside Defense (subscription required).

Vision Systems International (VSI) has identified the fix for the jitter problem:

Jitter occurs because a transmitter mounted on the F-35 pilot's seat feels the effects of aircraft vibration, and pilots generally do not move their heads in sync with that vibration, King said. The two unique movements confuse the HMDS technology and cause pilots to see shaky, unstable images on their visors.

The correction:

To correct that deficiency, King said VSI is installing a micro-inertial measurement unit (IMU) on its helmets that will dampen the vibrations on the transmitter, similar to the way noise-canceling headphones are able to block out background noise. That technology is set to be flight-tested on a JSF flight sciences test aircraft in late May or early June, and a more rigorous test involving an F-35 equipped with full mission systems software and hardware will take place in late June or July. King predicted that although those tests are unlikely to result in a perfect solution, they should illustrate what specific areas VSI needs to focus on to eliminate jitter altogether.

VSI President Philip King says:

"What I think is going to happen is we're going to find out there's a vibration component or a frequency component we weren't aware of, and we're going to have to tweak the algorithm to dampen out that last little piece," he said. "I expect it to be about 90 percent successful based on all our lab work and everything else, and the remaining 10 percent I characterize as more fine-tuning than anything else. My expectation is by the end of the summer, we're going to have this problem behind us."

The helmet also has two other issues.  Night vision:

A solution to the second major challenge on the HMDS, night vision quality, is further off, but King expressed confidence that VSI and its partners can improve the helmet camera's acuity at night from its current level of about 20/70. An F-35 test pilot told ITAF last year that the program's requirement is 20/40 vision.

According to King, the company's proposed solution is to incorporate an improved digital camera sensor from subcontractor Intevac Photonics, which in May won a $10 million contract for night vision technology production for the Army's Apache helicopter program. That new sensor will still provide somewhat inferior acuity than legacy night vision goggles, but it will be able to link up with the F-35's advanced sensors, which goggles cannot connect to.

VSI is looking at March of 2013 for that improvement to be functioning.

The third and final issue with the helmet – image latency:

The third challenge to the HMDS' functionality, image latency, demands a more collaborative approach because it requires improvements to a variety of systems on the F-35, not only the helmet. Whereas VSI is directly responsible for improving jitter and night vision acuity, it is only partially responsible for enhancing the rate at which the F-35's sensors transfer information to the HMDS, and King stressed that referring to latency as solely a helmet problem is inaccurate.

In the F-35, sensors -- some associated with Northrop Grumman's electro-optical distributed aperture system -- collect imagery and video, which is then transferred through multiple processors until it reaches the helmet. The millisecond-length delays incurred at each step of that chain add up to create an image delay problem, King explained. Through engineering test and evaluation that included some pilot involvement, Lockheed Martin determined that latency of up to 150 milliseconds is acceptable, and the portion of those 150 milliseconds directly attributable to the HMDS is about 40 milliseconds, or less than one third.

Lockheed has supplied VSI with a list of "10 or so" specifications related to different helmet operations for VSI to fulfill its portion of the latency fix process, and King said the company will be able to meet those requirements. He declined to discuss how long it might take for the JSF program to eliminate image latency, though, and deferred comment on that process to Lockheed.

It appears then, that all three issues are solvable.  Once done, they will provide an advantage to the F-35 that legacy aircraft don’t enjoy:

The most significant improvement inherent in the F-35 HMDS is that it will get rid of a key piece of hardware known as a heads-up display and instead show the information traditionally displayed on the HUD on the helmet's visor in a virtual format. Eliminating the HUD, which is bolted onto legacy airplanes, and replacing it with a "virtual HUD" should simplify sustainment, save money and provide much greater capability in the long term, King said, but the technology is far from mature.

But that’s why developmental work is so critical to our national defense future.  What we are learning here and implementing will serve future pilots with an advantage over pilots flying legacy aircraft.  It will maintain our technological edge, make our pilots more efficient and effective and, as noted, also help on the fiscal side of things.

While it isn’t a “mature” technology at this point, it is a technology which is worth the effort for the reasons stated.  Look for the first fix this summer.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Strategic reality intrudes upon the F-35 debate

Critics have been constantly touting the idea that we don’t need the F-35 or its capabilities, but instead can get along just fine upgrading our legacy fighter fleet.

Reality, however, has a bad habit of intruding on such flights of fancy with the hard, cruel facts of life.  While they may think incremental technological changes may be sufficient for the future, it is obvious our potential enemies don’t.

Flight Global discusses that in an article and shines a little light into the dark corner in which the critics like to stay.  It has to do with the emerging AirSea doctrine and its requirements.  The legacy aircraft are not a good fit:

"Upgrading the F/A-18 family is a good idea, and it could extend their service lives," says analyst Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). "That being said, F/A-18-based platforms are short-range, lack unrefueled persistence, and are best suited for operations in relatively uncontested airspace."

That’s reality.  The problem?  One cannot base a doctrine like the AirSea doctrine (or any future doctrine) on an assumption that the enemy we will face will always present us with “relatively uncontested airspace”.

In fact, it looks like the opposite is more likely true (consider Russia’s equipping Iran with its latest air defense weaponry as an example).

That reality takes to task the critic’s upgrade fantasy:

But in the future, uncontested airspace is unlikely to remain the norm as potential adversaries develop means to deny US forces access to a region, US Department of Defense (DoD) officials and analysts say. Many future conflict zones are likely to be heavily defended by new surface-to-air systems, advanced aircraft and other weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

The DoD is developing a concept called AirSea battle, which calls for the USN and US Air Force to work together to an unprecedented degree to overcome those challenges.

The problem is most acute in the Pacific theatre, where the USN's aircraft carrier fleet would be the tip of the spear. The mainstay of the carrier decks is the F/A-18 fleet, but those aircraft might not be up to the task.

"They are not well-suited for AirSea battle-like operations against a highly capable enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area denial systems," Gunzinger says. New surface-to-air weapons and emerging airborne threats pose a lethal threat to non-stealthy aircraft.

"This isn't just a navy issue of course, the same can be said about the air force's F-15 and F-16 fleet," Gunzinger says. "All three legacy fighter platforms would be outmatched in a fight against the [Chinese Chengdu] J-20 or [Russian Sukhoi] PAK-FA."

Thus the crying need for what?  The F-35 – an aircraft designed to address the need to operate in contested airspace against advanced aircraft and air defense systems.

By the way, should we find ourselves in conflicts where there is relatively uncontested airspace, we’d be fine with the F-35.  It can operate well in both types of airspace.

Not so the legacy fleet.

And that’s reality.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Are the critics trying to do to the F-35 what they did to the F-22?

The Heritage Foundation recently had a blog post by Steven Bucci up that made some pretty strong statements concerning critics of the F-35.  They’re worth reviewing:

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), as the F-35 is known, is designed to maximize both capability and survivability. Its production methodology was developed to allow for faster fielding of the aircraft and calls for incremental improvements in the design as early models roll of the line. Safety is not sacrificed, and the process known as “concurrency” puts the best available plane in the hands of the warfighters as soon as possible. It also allows for cuts in cost per copy as efficiencies build upon one another.

Unfortunately, forces that never wanted the nation’s pilots to have this aircraft in the first place are now trying to pull a bait and switch. They are saying that there is too much concurrency, and they want to slow down production of the JSF. This would drive up the cost per unit of each JSF and probably force some of our allies to cut the number of planes they have ordered. These cuts would further drive up cost, creating a vicious cycle of cost increases.

I’m not a believer in most conspiracy theories, so I’m somewhat less inclined to lay off what is happening on “forces that never wanted the nation’s pilots to have this aircraft”.  Certainly there are critics that have made it their near-term life’s work to see this program killed.  And they don’t offer much of any credibility as a replacement.  But I'm not sure there’s an orchestrated effort of any sort at work. 

That said, I think Bucci is dead on in his assessment of concurrency and its value as well as his points about the negative effects of production cuts and slow downs.  Those appear to be undeniable truths.

Over at the Elements of Power blog, SMSgt Mac points to the predictable track this will take with a great graphic.  Interestingly he made the graphic in 2006 and the aircraft in question was the F-22.  See if any of this sounds familiar:


The danger here is a repeat of the disservice that was done by ending the acquisition of the F-22 well before it should have been ended.  Fresh from that victory the critics are trying for a repeat.

It would be the worst thing that could happen for our future national security if they were to succeed.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Is being a deficit hawk and a supporter of the F-35 hypocritical?

It is always interesting to analyze the angles of attack critics take on the F-35 program.  They’re numerous and, for the most part, predictable.

Of course recently the attack most used has been the “cost” of the F-35 over the next 55 years.  That’s been variously set at a trillion dollars, 1.55 trillion dollars and 1.4 trillion.

Mother Jones (MJ) magazine splits the difference between those final two numbers and settles in at 1.45 trillion.   And as expected, does so with no explanation, no context for the number (total cost of aircraft over 55 years including fuel, parts, pilots, basing – you name it), no explanation that this is the first time that sort of a time frame has ever been used, and certainly no attempt to point out that the alternative (keeping the fighters we have for the next 55 years) is 4 times that 1.45 trillion in total.

Because if all of that were done, MJ has no story.

MJ takes a little different angle of a attack than some critics.  Author Adam Weinstein decides to take politicians who favor the project to task as being hypocrites;

Scott and Carroll aren't the only state-level Republicans to criticize federal spending in general while boasting about the economic benefits of federal defense spending at home. During the Republican rebuttal to Obama's 2012 State of the Union, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels ripped the president for trying to "build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars."

Yet just three months earlier, his deputy, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, blessed a report highlighting the stimulus brought to her state's economy by nearly 40,000 deficit-exploding federal defense jobs. "Even though the national economy has struggled throughout the last decade, the state of Indiana has quietly established itself as an elite environment for defense-related companies to thrive," Skillman boasted, adding that she had "come to appreciate…the importance of the defense industry to Indiana's economy."

The implication?  That spending is spending, i.e. all spending is the same. No differentiation, no priorities, all equal across the board.

If you accept that premise, then, it is hypocritical to be for reducing federal spending but for defense spending.

Never mind the national defense ramifications of committing our pilots to flying technologically aging aircraft that are older than they are, let’s deal with the premise that says spending is spending.

The obvious question to that assertion - is it?  Certainly, all spending is funded by taxpayers.  Weinstein makes that point.  But all spending is not the same.  Weinstein forgets to point out that only some federal spending is Constitutionally mandated.

Defense spending happens to be spending which the Constitution mandates.  It is the job of Congress to pay for our national defense with taxpayer dollars.  It is mandated that Congress do that which is necessary, via the federal purse, to ensure our national security.

So if there’s any hypocrisy at work here, it is that which tries to imply that defense spending is just like all other spending, such as entitlement spending or the like.  The argument could be made, given the fact that it is indeed a Constitutional mandate laid upon Congress, that national defense spending should be priority spending.  I.e. if there is a fiscal shortage, it should be among the first areas to be funded.

Obviously that doesn’t mean you spend wastefully or buy things you don’t need.  However, that’s not how Weinstein is attacking the politicians he identifies here.  He’s claiming, or at least implying, they’re hypocrites for saying they’re for a reduction in federal spending while touting spending on a defense program.

Given the Constitution, I see nothing hypocritical in the least with their position.  One can easily be for both. Certainly federal spending does need to be cut back in areas outside those on which the Constitutional authorizes Congress spend money.  And they can still be for that spending which the Constitution requires (even while demanding that money be spent wisely and frugally).

In reality this is an argument about spending priorities. Just not Constitutional priorities.

How about this?  How about we demand all spending be justified according to the mandates, requirements and constraints imposed by the Constitution before a penny is committed anywhere?

Where would that leave Weinstein’s “hypocrisy” argument then?


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

F-35's problems well on their way to resolution and testing ahead of schedule

So how well is F-35 testing going?

Very well, thank you. In fact, as Flightglobal reports, "the F-35 problems are on their way to being fixed".
The F-35 Lightning II is making good progress through flight testing this year, a top Lockheed Martin official says. Most of the biggest challenges faced by the programme should be well on their way to being fixed by the later part of the year.
 Such as the tailhook problem:
One major issue that has recently popped up on the US Navy's F-35C variant is that the aircraft's tail-hook has had to be redesigned. That is because the existing design has failed to catch an arresting cable during trials. 
Lockheed is working on a new improved hook design that should fix the problem. "We have modified the hook pointwith a lower center of gravity," says Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed's vice president for F-35 programme integration and business development. Additionally, "we've redesigned the hold-down damper."  
The new design is scheduled for its preliminary design review in "the summer." That will be followed by a critical design review in the fourth quarter.  
After the new hook design undergoes shore-based qualification trails, the F-35C will undergo sea trials on a carrier in late 2013 or early 2014. 
The problem wasn't that the designers didn't know how to design a tail hook, it was the tailhood had to be designed so it wouldn't compromise the aircraft's stealth signature when not deployed.

The high tech helmet has also had some problems which seem to be well on their way to being solved:
Lockheed is also set to test fixes to the jet's troublesome helmet-mounted display (HMD) this summer, O'Bryan says.  
Lockheed has reached an agreement with the US government on the HMD requirements, which will help the company to fix imagery lag on the helmet by tweaking the system's software, he says. The company is also adding micro inertial measurement units (IMU) to the helmet and pilot's seat to dampen out jittery images. "We're going to fly those micro-IMUs this summer," O'Bryan says. 
Lockheed hopes that the new ISIE-11 camera, which replaces the existing ISIE-10 cameras, will resolve jet's night vision acuity problems. The new system will undergo testing at MIT's Lincoln Labs later this summer. 
The system will now consist of two ISIE-11 cameras, one of which will be mounted in the helmet and another on the canopy bow, and imagery pumped in from the F-35's six distributed aperture system (DAS) infrared cameras. "We're optimistic, we've got a good plan," O'Bryan says. Meanwhile, the pilots have started to test the imagery from the distributed aperture system. 
Initial results look to be very promising, O'Bryan says. But there will need to be tweaks as flight tests reveal potential issues. The helmet fix seems to be well on the way and, of couse, the helmet is an integral part of the advanced package that integrates and fuses then intelligence gathered by the system. 
 Software too is coming along well:
Other avionics tests are proceeding well. The F-35 has already started testing the Link-16 data-link and will soon start to test the variable message format link which is needed for the close air support mission. There are also ongoing tests with the radar, electronic warfare, and infrared targeting system, which are needed for the release of the Block 2A training software.
Flight testing is showing marked progress. The F-35B, for instance, has moved from being on probation to being 20% ahead on this year's planned test schedule:
On the flight sciences side, the US Marine Corps short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B test programme is further along than that of the F-35C. The previously troubled B-model is now running 20% ahead of this year's planned test schedule, O'Bryan says. 
The F-35B has flown at altitudes over 49,000ft and has hits speeds of Mach 1.4. That's just shy of the F-35's required 50, 000 ft ceiling and Mach 1.6 design speed limit, he says. The B-model has also flown at its maximum airspeed of 630 knots and has achieved its maximum 7G limit.  
"It's about over 50% complete with its clean-wing full-envelop test points," O'Byan says. Marked improvement. 
The same goes for the Navy's C variant:
The F-35C is also about 20% ahead of this year's flight test plan, O'Bryan says. Like the F-35B, the C-model has flown out to 630 knots, but the naval variant is required to hit 700 knots.  
The C-model has also flown at 45, 000 ft and at speeds of Mach 1.4. It has also hit its maximum 7.5G limit. That means the USN version has completed about 40% of its clean configuration flight envelope test points, O'Bryan says. 
And the A variant for the Airforce?
Out at Edwards AFB, California, F-35A will have completed 45% of the totality of its flight test points by the end of the year. By the fourth quarter, the F-35A should have competed its first full lifetime of durability testing, O'Bryan says.  
There have thus far been no new issues that have arisen as a result of the tests. 'That, I'm happy to say, is going well," he says. 
With all sympathy for the critics, those are some pretty awesome reports. It is time for Congress to get with the program now and start ordering the aircraft in the quantities promised so the program can achieve the cost savings that it was desgined to bring.

The aircraft is proving itself to be everything it was promised to be. It's time for Congress to do their part now.


Monday, May 21, 2012

The cost question: which is more expensive - keeping what we have or the F-35?

That's the question that everyone should be asking when talking about the F-35.  Instead we've seen a constant focus on only the cost of the F-35 with no consideration of the cost of an alternative scenario.  For the most part, critics have been remiss in providing any context to the F-35 numbers because doing so would essentially destroy their argument that the F-35 is an outrageously expensive program we can't afford.

In fact, the truth is, it's a program we can't afford not to complete. That's because the alternative - keeping the 4th generation aircraft we have - is an unacceptable solution for many reasons.


On the cost side alone, keeping the current fleet of fighter jets would cost us 4 times that of the F-35. Over the same time period and using the same cost assumptions used for the F-35 the current fleet of aircraft is 4 times more costly.  The Lexington Institute ran the numbers:
The $1 trillion figure to sustain the F-35 was based on assumptions such as a 50-year life span, a relatively high inflation rate over that period and an oversized and lavish basing and support structure. Using such assumptions, we at Lexington calculated that the Pentagon’s current fleet of fighters would cost around $4 trillion to maintain for the same period of time.
That is an untold story to this point.  While it has gotten some press, it hardly compares to the ubiquity of the 1.4 trillion dollar cost of the F-35 in articles critical of the program.  Rarely, if ever, do you see the 4th generation cost estimate included in the same story as the F-35 cost.  The reason should be obvious.

It should also be understood that never before has the Pentagon used cost figures pushed out that far (i.e. 55 years).  Why it did it in this case has been widely discussed and even solicited some rare pushback from Lockheed Martin.  Considering the 55 year time frame, it is not difficult to imagine many major programs which might also see spectacular cost numbers generated.  Imagine the total cost of 11 aircraft carrier battle groups over 55 years.

Any chance that might top a trillion dollars?

When considering the stories put out by critics, one should always seek out full context when considering them.  Rarely will you find it.

The advanced technological advantages of the F-35 far outweigh those of our current 4th generation fleet.  The only real argument the critics have is cost.   But that's only a credible argument if you don't know the cost of maintaining our current fleet of fighters, isn't it?


Friday, May 18, 2012

House rejects F-18 in favor of F-35

There was an interesting moment yesterday as the National Defense Authorization Act was being voted on.  An amendment, introduced by two Congressmen, would have terminated the F-35B program in favor of buying the Marine Corps more F/A 18s.

When the amendment reached the floor, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke out against the amendment:
He said the F-35B offers more capability than the F/A-18 and that cutting this variant would jeopardize the whole JSF program, for which there are several international partners.
He's indeed correct.  The capability the F-35B will offer the USMC is far superior to that offered by the F/A-18.  That's not to say the F/A-18 isn't a fine fighter aircraft.  But it is an aircraft whose days are numbered.  It is already older than most of the pilots flying it.

The short deck take off and vertical landing ability of the F-35B actually increases the Marine Corps and Navy's flexibility by utilizing the Navy's LHD Wasp class ships, something the termination of the F-35B would have essentially killed. Using those decks as platforms for the aircraft give those services an exponential increase in capability.

Yesterday was an important moment in Congress.  On a voice vote it rejected those that would substitute a fine but less capable aircraft for one that will vastly increase the capabilities of our future warfighters.

That's a good thing.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What drives our leading edge technology?

The development of aircraft like the F-35.

Many critics like to characterize military programs as giant money sink holes from which nothing good or of wider use emerges.  That's far from the truth.  In fact, many advanced programs are at the bleeding edge of technology and are the vehicles by which new and advanced technologies are developed and fielded.

Here's an example of that:
Lockheed Martin's leading role as a manufacturer in the nanotechnology space is one example of a company leveraging its technical prowess to develop enabling and revenue-generating manufacturing technologies. Nanocomposites have been incorporated into the wingtip fairings of the company's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, resulting in "significant cost savings," says Steve Meier, vice president of new business initiatives. 
The company received approval in 2011 from the F-35 Joint Program Office to substitute a nanostructure thermoplastic material for a considerably more expensive continuously reinforced carbon fiber wingtip fairing, says Travis Earles, Lockheed Martin's senior manager for advanced materials and nanotechnology initiatives.  
The technology, called Advanced Polymers Engineered for the Extreme (APEX), was part of an effort to develop lighter-weight materials under a manufacturing cost-reduction initiative. "We were able to significantly reduce the cost of the part, and as an extension of that make a significant impact in the fleet production cost with that single part," Earles says. The company would not specify how much it has saved with the new wingtip fairing material. Lockheed Martin has identified more than 100 additional parts for potential APEX insertion into the F-35 to achieve additional cost savings, Meier says. The company also is examining other platforms within its portfolio that may benefit from APEX.
The point, of course, is self-explanatory.  Nanocomposites (and nanotechnology) are the future. The F-35 provides both the platform for their development, but also their fielding and testing.  Practical application of a new and growing field.  And it is only one of many critical new technologies being developed, used and tested on the aircraft.
With Department of Defense budget cuts looming, Lockheed Martin is under increasing pressure to reduce costs. "In a constrained budget environment, technology investments must have direct impact on future growth," Meier says. "Nanotechnology has already demonstrated the potential to improve performance while simultaneously reducing costs."
And developments like nanocomposites are going to make those impacts if they're given the opportunity to develop and help us maintain our technological edge in defense.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pop Quiz: Anyone know what this is?

The Chinese characters may give it away, but if you're wondering, it's a 5th generation stealth fighter and it isn't the F-35 or F-22.

Of course, as most of you know, it's the Chinese J-20.  In fact, it is the second Chinese J-20, spotted for the first time yesterday (aircraft number 2002).

The point, of course, is the context that picture brings to this debate about whether or not the F-35 should be the aircraft of our future.  If that picture doesn't help put you in the "yes it is" side of the debate, I'm not sure what will.

The fact is the Chinese and the Russians are pursuing 5th generation stealth aircraft. There is no denying it. If they're all "Cold War relics" as many of the critics complain, or as one Senator likes to claim, "aircraft without a mission", one has to wonder if the Russians or Chinese agree.

The picture says "no".


Monday, May 14, 2012

Because we'll always be fighting insurgents

Critics of the F-35 and other military projects are fond of using our present situation in which we're essentially fighting an insurgent enemy as the new norm.

By that standard, then, they can claim to see into the future and guess what, "Cold War relics" such as the F-35 and the like are just not needed.

I wish I had a dollar for every such pronouncement by "experts" who seemingly knew what our next war would bring.  In almost every case, each and every one has been wrong.

Anyone who actually believes that the "new norm" in global conflict can be predicted hasn't studied much history or apparently gotten out much.

Add to that the role the US has taken, by default, as the world's only super power with global interests it must protect and it seems completely naive to believe that all future warfare will be confined to putting out insurgences in low level conflicts.

Of course our current "insurgencies" have required ten years worth of the use of our air power.  Libya's "no-fly zone" required even more.  And meanwhile, as our "experts" continue to claim that these "relics" that are being developed need no place in our future defense structure, Russia and China continue apace developing their own 5th generation stealth fighter aircraft.

Here's the ground truth: regardless of the type future wars we'll fight, each and everyone of them will have as a prime condition of victory the establishment of air dominance.

It is under the umbrella of air dominance that our strike fighters can operate with the impunity necessary to best support our ground troops.

Without air dominance the possibility exists of losing both strike aircraft and troops on the ground to enemy air.  And should enemy air establish air dominance, then defeat is a possibility as well.

Obviously, enemy air may not always exist in every scenario, but again I point out that someone is going to be flying those 5th generation fighters that Russia and China are developing and it may not just be Russia or China.  It is entirely possible that we'll see them at some time in the future.

More ground truth as specified by retired generals Corley and Looney writing in today's Washington Times:
Many of today’s pilots are flying multirole fighters that were designed - and in some cases built - before they were born. While these aged aircraft were the most capable of their generation, their airframes are wearing out, and they cannot be retrofitted to equal the F-35’s stealth and avionics capabilities. Worse is that these fighters can only be operated at increasing cost - in force size and support assets - all while raising a conspicuously high level of risk in the threat environments of today and tomorrow. Continuing down this path will not only seriously increase taxpayer expenditures, but also cost the lives of numerous pilots and compromise national security.
In reality, and given the uncertain nature of the future as well as the unchanging principles of war and victory, the F-35 is an aircraft not only whose time has come, but one we can't afford not to build.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Myth busting: Is a stealth aircraft unnecessary?

That's the thrust of many critics today.  They contend that "low observable" or "stealth" isn't all it is cracked up to be and costs to much for too little effect.

So you see various critics saying that instead of concentrating on stealth, aircraft designers should be putting that money into more simple but effective systems.

You also see statements like this by those who think stealth is a waste of money as a means of justifying their recommendations to drop the stealth requirement:
In any case, detection by radar matters less and less because by switching on its radar a fighter becomes as visible as someone turning on a flashlight in a dark room.
Is that true? Well, that depends on the radar and the fighter, which is what you're never told. And in the case of F-35, that's simply not the case as explained here:
F-22 and F-35 AESA radars are of the very latest generation of Active Electronic Scanned Array (AESA) systems. AESA’s are such a good idea, ‘4th Gen’ aircraft makers (including LM with the F-16) are scrambling to field AESAs on older aircraft. Installations on older designs can be problematic from a power/cooling perspective so there may tend to be more trade offs in radar performance to make the newer radars compatible with older systems, but that is beside the point. The point is, there is a tremendous effort going on to come up with ways that would make AESAs more ‘detectable’ because finding them, tracking them, and locking on to them is for all practical purposes, nearly impossible to do reliably. And that my friends is NOT at all the same as becoming “as visible as someone turning on a flashlight in a dark room”.
The point of stealth or low observable technology is not to make the aircraft invisible, but instead make it hard to detect and lock on too.  One way to do that is to equip it with a radar system that doesn't light up the aircraft like "turning on a flashlight in a dark room".

Here's a little ground truth on "stealth":
Stealth is worth it as long as it doesn’t completely compromise everything else. Otherwise one breakthrough and you are a sitting duck with your very expensive white elephant (please excuse the mixed metaphors).

Therefore, we shouldn’t think of stealth as a be all and end all. Rather, we should think of stealth as a form of passive radar countermeasure. It means that even if the airborne attacking adversary has long wave radars that will tell them roughly where their targets are, they no longer have the option of a long range shot with a BVR missile, because the stealth effect has reduced its detection range enough to make it less useful as a fire and forget weapon.
Those two paragraphs sum up the most important points about low observability or stealth. If the passive countermeasure of stealth keeps an enemy from "locking on" because its weaponry can't get a good target resolution, then the stealth aircraft survives where another aircraft of the 4th generation most likely is engaged and defeated.

That allows the stealth aircraft the ability to penetrate deeper into enemy territory to fulfill its mission.  Stealth reduces the effectiveness of enemy radar by shortening its range and ability to command large portions of the sky.

As for the acquisition radars in aircraft like the F-35, they too make detection much more difficult - by design.  Obviously potential enemies will do all in their power to develop technologies to detect low observable aircraft, but that's the nature of warfare.  Point/counterpoint.

The bottom line is our potential enemies are very involved in developing 5th generation stealth fighters of their own. One must assume they too see the utility of low observability for survivability and mission accomplishment in the future.  It is probable that if there were a real option that didn't involve the high cost of making an aircraft stealthy, someone would be pursuing it.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

F-35 testing continues to go well

One of the things that doesn't get the coverage it deserves is how well the F-35 is doing in testing - all variations.

Last year the program exceeded its cumulative 2011 flight test goals a month early and is ahead of plan for 2012. The F-35B was taken off probation and completed initial sea trials in fall of 2011 aboard the USS WASP doing a total of 72 Short Take-Offs (STOs) and 72 Vertical Landings (VLs) were completed during a 19 day period at sea.

This year looks like much the same.  Through the first 4 months of 2012, the program continues to make significant progress:
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II flight test program continues to make progress during the first four months of 2012. In March, the program completed 123 test flights totaling 223 flight hours, setting a record for the most System Development and Demonstration (SDD) flights and flight hours for a single month.
During the time period, the SDD fleet surpassed the 15,000 total test point threshold, completing approximately 25 percent of the SDD program’s entire requirement of more than 59,000 test points. Overall the F-35 test program remains ahead of the 2012 flight test plan, which calls for the accumulation of 1,001 test flights and 7,873 baseline test points as well as additional points beyond the original plan. 
Through April 30, the program completed 373 flights against a plan of 281and achieved 2,810 test points – 2,307 of which were baseline points earned against a plan of 2,151. At Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., 30 local area orientation flights were completed totaling 39.5 flight hours as progress toward F-35 pilot training checkout continues.
In addition to those milestone, the Block 2A software is nearing completion:

Another aspect of flight testing is the progressive check out of the latest version of mission system software known as Block 2A. To date, more than 90 percent of Block 2A airborne software code is complete with more than 85 percent of that code currently being flight or lab tested. Block 2A flight test is being conducted at Edwards AFB and will continue through this year. Block 2A is scheduled for “ready for training” in the summer of 2013.

The obvious point being that with the completion of the latest block of mission software, pilots can begin training on it by next summer.

Finally, the F-35 helmet appears to have a fix as revealed by VADM Venlet in Senate testimony yesterday. The problem has been jitter and lag time issues:
A “micro-inertial measurement unit” is expected to fix the jitter, while “signal processing changes in the software and the architecture” could fix the lag, Vice Adm. David Venlet, the F-35 program manager said after testifying at a May 8 U.S. Senate hearing.
All good, all demonstrating a fighter headed down the right runway and beginning to test out the way developers thought she would.


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.


Taipei Times - Taiwan may abandon F-16 for F-35

Given the criticism of the F-35 and the claims of unheard of cost, one would be understandably puzzled about this post's title.  The F-16?  The critics choice to keep and upgrade for the future?

What is Taiwan thinking?

Quite simply, Taiwan is taking a look at the future, and it is not finding upgraded 4th generation aircraft to be a bargain:
Senior military officers may be considering abandoning a long-stalled bid to procure F-16C/D aircraft from the US because of rising costs and could instead reserve budgets for an eventual F-35B bid, reports said yesterday.
The Ministry of National Defense maintains that the air force remains committed to acquiring 66 F-16C/Ds, but the rising costs associated with the package — now estimated at US$10 billion, from an initial US$8 billion, according to local reports — added to the about US$3.7 billion it expects to pay for upgrades to the nation’s 145 F-16A/Bs, could be shifting the argument in favor of abandoning the bid for the new aircraft.

What has caused Taiwan to reconsider?  The $10 billion deal for 42 F-35s just made with Japan and reality:
Any future purchase of aircraft by Taiwan should be “pragmatic,” it said, adding that even if Taiwan spent the almost US$15 billion required to purchase new F-16C/Ds and upgrade its F-16A/Bs and F-CK-1 Indigenous Defense Fighters, the air force would still be a generation behind the aircraft that are being developed and deployed by China.
Taiwan doesn't have the luxury of hoping its aging fleet of fighter aircraft will do the job of protecting the island from China.  Taiwan has to take positive steps to ensure, as much as it can, that it is able to field the best defense.

The politics of this notwithstanding, it points out that in many other countries, those that make the decisions are doing their homework and not just taking the critics word for cost.  They are doing their own numbers and they're coming to the same conclusion that the Lexington Institute reached when it compared 5th generation jet costs to keeping, upgrading and maintaining 4th generation aircraft.  In a simple cost comparison, the 5th gen fighters come out of such an analysis as a relative bargain.  Add to that the increases in capability and survivability generated by cutting edge technology, and the bargain becomes even sweeter.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Selective examples, selective facts

It is always interesting to note critics who will exclaim something like "this fighter still has 80% of its testing still to be done" and then declare it a failure. I'm not sure how one makes such a declaration given the quoted fact.  But it never slows them down.

Or perhaps instead they say something like this:
A virtual flying piano, the F-35 lacks the F-16's agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-15E's range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can't even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won't be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission -- or just as importantly, to train pilots -- because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability.
Looking at the paragraph in question, one realizes quickly how much has been left unsaid. That should immediately turn your skeptic's dial up to maximum.

For instance, unsaid  is the concept that agility is mostly an asset in close-in air combat.  Visual range. Most agree that the vast majority of future air-to-air combat will be BVR.  Beyond Visual Range.  It comes down to a fairly simple fact: it really doesn't matter how superior an F-16's agility might be to the F-35's if the F-35 can see it, target it and shoot it before the F-16 even knows it's in the area.  There is no F-16 more agile than a properly targeted air-to-air missile.

Anyone.  Given the stealth capability and advanced sensors of the F-35, which aircraft do you suppose might have the advantage in such a scenario?  The more agile?


Moving on to the F-15E, it's almost as interesting to note which plane wasn't chosen to carry this example.  Why not the F/A-18?  Because the F-35 has superior unrefueled range.  As for the bomb load, the F-15E is superior in that regard.  Unless, of course, stealth is necessary for ingress and egress to the target area.

An aircraft that can carry all the bombs in the world, but can't get to the target, is useless.  Should stealth not be a requirement, the F-35 can load up too, with extra ordnance on external hardpoints.

Finally, probably the most interesting of the three comparisons.  Everyone has a fondness for the A-10.  The Warthog is one of those planes that is so unique and so effective at what it was designed for that there's a reluctance to replace it.  The natural inclination, as practiced in the cited paragraph above, is to tell others how poorly the replacement would execute the same mission in comparison.

Certainly it preforms it well and it is indeed debatable as to whether any other aircraft can fulfill the role as well.  However, there is one thing we do know about the A-10.  It will never fly an air superiority mission.  The F-35 will.

That, of course, brings us to a larger point.  As I mentioned below, the cost of maintaining (and obviously upgrading) 4th generation fighters in lieu of the F-35 - using the same assumptions used to cost out the F-35 over 55 years - would see a cost four times the amount of the F-35.

As should be obvious now, the F-35's capabilities include those that currently require many specialized single mission aircraft. Tactically, with the F-35, you have one air frame designed to do them all.  What that means is operating costs are reduced by streamlining spare pools, supply chain management, infrastructure, etc.  Pilot and maintenance training is also consolidated and optimized.

On consideration, that would seem to be a "good thing" in an era of austerity and certainly better than championing old technology at greater cost.


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Give these blogs a look

Over the years there have been a few blogs which have consistently tried to sort through the nonsense put out by the critics of the F-35 as well as critics in the defense media.

It is a thankless, but necessary job.  As mentioned, much of the criticism is hyped and over-stated, but the casual reader wouldn't know that without someone else speaking out and laying out facts that counter the narrative of those who have decided the F-35 is not worth the effort.

One is SNAFU!.  Any person with time in the military will know what the acronym means and certainly the military has its share of those sorts of situations.  But despite the howling and gnashing of teeth by the critics the F-35 isn't one of them.  Solomon over at SNAFU! continuously calls the critics out when they launch their attacks on the aircraft.  He also covers "all things military", which makes for some very informative and entertaining reading.

Another must read is Elements of Power, where SMSgt Mac does outstanding work taking on the critic's arguments and defeating them in detail.  One of my favorite series of posts are those in which he likens the development and deployment of the B-52 (now 60 years old) to the F-35 asking what the fate of the B-52 would be if it was developed in the climate of criticism the F-35 must endure.  You'll easily identify the critics in this parody that very much hits the nail on the head.  Part 1, part 2 and part 3.  His incisive wit, outstanding research, command of the facts and devastating logic make a dog's breakfast of most of the critic's arguments.

Does the F-35 program have problems?  Of course, but then what developmental aircraft doesn't?  In the history of aircraft development, I don't know of one that sailed through without any problems (although at least one factually challenged critic has tried to pretend they have).

Rarely do those who criticize the program ever note things such as the fact that the program exceeded its cumulative 2011 flight test goals a month early and is ahead of plan for 2012.   Or that the F-35B was taken off probation and completed initial sea trials in fall of 2011 aboard the USS WASP doing a total of 72 Short Take-Offs (STOs) and 72 Vertical Landings (VLs) were completed during a 19 day period at sea.

That's significant progress.

The promise of the aircraft is it will be a game changer.  And it will also increase our technological edge over competitors and thereby continue our 60 year tradition of owning the skies over the battlefield regardless of the enemy and their sophistication.

That is critical point often lost in the criticism we see aimed at the program.

If you need a reality check when you see the usual stuff from the usual suspects, I'd suggest you drop by those two blogs.  I'm sure one of us will be addressing the newest bit of hyperbole from the critics.  And, as always, drop by here as well.


Friday, May 4, 2012

The trouble with critics ...

The trouble?  Many times you only get part of the story.  Not that such a thing is unusual or only limited to critics.  People tend to try to make arguments which best support their premise, whatever that premise may be.

However, the public is ill-served when that criticism ignores or doesn't include information that is damaging to their premise but important to the context of the debate.

Yesterday in the Washington Post, blogger Brad Plumer wrote a post entitled "Should the Pentagon buy more planes - or Spain?"

The intent was to illustrate the cost of fielding the F-35 for 55 years.  The oft seen figure is 1.5 trillion dollars, the equivalent to the GDP of Spain.  Obviously he wasn't lobbying for buying Spain, but instead was trying to illustrate a point.

He drew his information from a defense critic named Winslow Wheeler who has a tendency toward outrageous overstatement:
A final note on expense: The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion — making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain.* And that estimate is wildly optimistic.
What Wheeler - who is an advocate of keeping and improving the current 4th generation fighters while scrapping the F-35 - doesn't bother telling us or Plumer is we'd have to "buy" Germany to fulfill his recommendation.

Yes, that's right, the cost of continuing to field all of the different 4th generation aircraft we now have, using the very same assumptions used to determine the F-35's future cost, would be approximately 4 times that of the F-35.

I don't know about you but that seems to me to be a significant bit of information that one might want to consider when weighing the matters at hand.  It actually makes the F-35 a bargain, price wise, plus the fact that unlike any of the 4th gen jets, it's stealthy too.

Let me see ... I can plan to pay 1.5 trillion over the next 55 years for a state-of-the-art stealth jet and game changer or 4 plus trillion over those same number of years for aging and obsolete air frames?

I'll take Spain, thank you.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Concurrency - producing an aircraft as it is fielded

There are a couple of ways one could produce a fighter jet.  One production model would see the aircraft produced in a linear fashion. That is, it would go from concept to design to prototype to testing and fixing any deficiencies to finally production and training up of pilots and maintenance crews.  It is a model that has a very long lead time between concept and delivery.

The other is the production model the F-35 uses.  Concurrency.  In that model, all the steps following concept and design happen concurrently.  Or, said more simply, as the aircraft is being developed and tested, pilots and maintenance crews are training on it concurrently.  The advantage is that the new fighter is delivered to the field much more quickly than under the linear model.
Initial production examples of the fifth-generation fighter are now arriving at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where the F-35 Integrated Training Center (ITC) has opened its doors to train initial groups of personnel. April marked the arrival of the first Lockheed-built Full Mission Simulator at Eglin, though full-scale training is scheduled to start in the fall. Pilots and maintenance instructors are already using maintenance, desktop and mission trainers in small-group training there.
The Eglin simulator incorporates a 360-degree visual display and a reconfigurable cockpit that can simulate all three variants: the conventional F-35A for the U.S. Air Force, the F-35B short-takeoff/vertical-landing variant for the Marine Corps and the carrier-capable F-35C for the Navy.
So as production ramps up, so does the vital training of pilots and maintainers.
Around 120 instructors — provided by the U.S. services and Lockheed Martin Global Training and Logistics — will train about 100 pilots plus 2,200 maintenance students annually.
Besides the three U.S. services, at least eight other nations that have purchased the F-35 will send pilots and ground crews to Eglin. The first overseas nations to begin training will be the U.K. and Netherlands, whose personnel will arrive later this year.
Home to a full spectrum of advanced courseware and technology, the ITC includes electronic classrooms, Pilot Training Aids, Full Mission Simulators and the aircraft themselves. In the pilots’ simulators, actual F-35 software is used to give students the most realistic experience possible and to allow software upgrades in step with F-35 development.
At Eglin’s F-35 Academic Training Center (ATC), students work with computer simulators that provide near-realistic interaction with the F-35, aided by a digital avatar, Elgin spokeswoman Maj. Karen Roganov said in an Air Force news release. Additional virtual training is provided on life-size mock-ups of F-35 components.
Time is critical in the fielding of any new fighter aircraft.  What concurrency allows is the sort of training outlined above.  But, say the critics, since much of the initial training is done on simulators, the same could be done if the aircraft were developed linearly.

Of course it could, but these skills a perishable and without the ability to actually use them on production aircraft (i.e. fly) as these pilots will this fall, it's really a waste of time.  Unless, of course, you plan on these pilots doing nothing else until the aircraft are delivered.  In the linear model, production could still be years off.

That is the trade-off.  Time for money.  Concurrency may cost more, but it delivers faster.  The difference between the two delivery models, if history is any indicator, could be as much as a decade.

That many years could mean the difference between cutting edge and obsolete.  While concurrency may cost more in the short run, its benefits to national security readiness far outweigh the costs.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why the F-35? Why this blog?

Anyone who has paid attention over the last few years to what has been happening within Congress has to be concerned about the future of our national security.

We presently have fighter aircraft in service which are 30 plus years old.  For the last 10 years they've seen hard service in two wars.  For their era they have been excellent.  But that era is passing.

Yet, as the new 5th generation of fighters begun to be produced, Congress has gotten cold feet.

The air superiority fighter of the future was to be the F-22 Raptor.  A stealthy, state of the art jet, the F-22 was to continue our 60 year tradition of air dominance by besting everything potential enemies could launch at us.  The original buy was to be 400 to 500 fighters.  But Congress decided to cut that to just 187 citing cost (of course, cutting the buy to 187 destroyed any economies of scale).  The obvious problem in terms of national security is that number of air superiority fighters is inadequate for the job it was designed to do.

But don't worry, Congress said, we'll make up for it with the F-35.  The Joint Strike Fighter was to be the means by which the fighter gap created by the cessation of the F-22 program was filled.

Then came the financial crisis and while the gap remains, the will to fill it seems to be rapidly waning.

The reason for the blog is multifold.  Its purpose is to discuss national security as it applies to the F-35 and the "why" of the F-35's importance to maintaining our combat edge in the air.  It is to note and confront critics of the fighter when they are factually incorrect in their characterization of the fighter.  And finally, it is to put out information about the F-35 to those interested in maintaining the level of national security we now enjoy so they can understand how vital the F-35 is to those interests.

Come back often, check out the new posts and feel free to comment.