A Factor in the F-22 Procurement Decision: The F-35 Lightning II
As I mentioned in my “The F-22 Raptor, It’s Almost Time To Punt,” the date for the Obama administration to decide on whether to buy—and if so, how many—additional F-22 aircraft, is rapidly approaching.
I find it interesting that one of the arguments often heard in the debate, rightly or wrongly, and either for or against the production of additional F-22’s, is the F-35 Lightning II fighter. Interesting because both magnificent aircraft are Lockheed Martin (and partners, subcontractors) products. Thus one could perhaps morbidly argue that Lockheed Martin may be a victim of its own success.
One of the many arguments within this procurement “sub-debate” (F-22 vs. F-35) is that the U.S. and military services from several other countries will be buying “several thousand” F-35′s “at a much lower per unit cost.”
One of the critics of the “more expensive” F-22, and perhaps in favor of the “less costly” F-35, has been Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
But Gates also has other issues. Early last year, he said: “We’re fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater.”
Some say that, recently, Gates may have softened his criticism of the F-22, perhaps showing a willingness to compromise on the number of additional aircraft to be bought.
Perhaps I am reading too much between the lines, but I think that Gates may be showing a little bit of his hand in a lengthy and interesting article in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, “A Balanced Strategy—Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.”
The thrust of Gate’s article is that “The Pentagon has to do more than modernize its conventional forces; it must also focus on today’s unconventional conflicts — and tomorrow’s.”
In his opening statement:
The defining principle of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy is balance. The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets, to do everything and buy everything. The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.
A little later, Gates provides this assessment of the military systems development and acquisition process:
When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone toward lower numbers as technology gains have made each system more capable. In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well equipped, can be in only one place at one time.
And, subsequently, focusing more on military aircraft, he says:
The Defense Department has to consider whether in situations in which the United States has total air dominance, it makes sense to employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft that can be employed in large quantities and used by U.S. partners. This is already happening now in the field with Task Force ODIN in Iraq, which has mated advanced sensors with turboprop aircraft to produce a massive increase in the amount of surveillance and reconnaissance coverage. The issue then becomes how to build this kind of innovative thinking and flexibility into the rigid procurement processes at home. The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around, for strategic bombers and billion-dollar ships.
Finally, I will leave it to others, more informed in these matters than I am, to decide whether the following, in the same article, applies to the F-22/F-35 debate and, if so, whether it is relevant or accurate:
The Defense Department has to consider whether in situations in which the United States has total air dominance, it makes sense to employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft that can be employed in large quantities and used by U.S. partners.
As I have written before, there will of course be many other considerations and factors involved in the decision making process: budgetary, economic, political, and, hopefully, national security, performance, capabilities, etc.
An important factor will be to what extent the F-35 will satisfactorily incorporate, complement and/or supplement most of the roles and capabilities of the F-22, supposedly at a lower per unit cost; or whether such comparisons are even germane; or whether the two aircraft together will provide “a planned mix of enabling and complementary capabilities to support the nation’s military strategy,” as claimed by the Air Force Association.
In a briefing, the Air Force Association provides some excellent data on just such comparative roles and capabilities—and some cost data and assumptions.
In my “The F-22 Raptor, Obama’s First Major Weapon Systems Decision,” I provided some data on the F-22 Raptor.
The following information on the F-35 Lightning II aircraft (the “Joint Strike Fighter,” JSF), is part of a report by Lockheed Martin at “Setting the Record Straight on the F-35,” dated September 2008 and from other sources, as noted:
The F-35 is a supersonic, multi-role, 5th generation stealth fighter. Three F-35 variants derived from a common design, developed together and using the same sustainment infrastructure worldwide will replace at least 13 types of aircraft for 11 nations initially, making the Lightning II the most cost-effective fighter program in history.
In stealth combat configuration, the F-35 aerodynamically outperforms all other combat-configured 4th generation aircraft in top-end speed, loiter, subsonic acceleration and combat radius. This allows unprecedented “see/shoot first” and combat radius advantages.
The F-35 has the most powerful engine ever installed in a fighter, with thrust equivalent to both engines today in Eurofighter or F/A-18 aircraft. The conventional version of the F-35 has 9g capability and matches the turn rates of the F-16 and F/A-18. More importantly, in a combat load, with all fuel, targeting sensor pods and weapons carried internally, the F-35′s aerodynamic performance far exceeds all legacy aircraft equipped with a similar capability.
The F-35′s data collection, integration and information sharing capabilities will transform the battlespace of the future and will redefine the close air support mission.
In addition to 19 developmental test aircraft, the F-35 is producing 20 fully instrumented, production-configured operational test aircraft. No program in history has employed this many test vehicles.
From a January 5, 2009, Milcom Monitoring Post report:
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 production is on schedule and nearing its goal of a 2010 delivery to Eglin Air Force Base.
Six F-35′s are now complete and 17 are in production.
The Air Force has ordered more than 1,700 F-35As. Called AF-1, it is structurally identical to the F-35B that will be flown by the Navy.
Because three variants, or types of F-35′s, were created from one common design, developed together and will use the same infrastructure, the Joint Strike Fighter stands to be the most cost-effective fighter program in history. The Department of Defense has estimated support costs will be about half that of present-day fighters, and streamlined assembly methods will cut production time.
The following are Lockheed Martin specifications for the F-35A Conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) fighter for the U.S. Air Force. The other two variants are the F-35B Short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.K. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and the F-35C Carrier variant (CV) for the U.S. Navy
Length 51.5 ft
Height 14.2 ft
Wingspan 35 ft
Wing area 460 sq ft
Horizontal tail span 23 ft
Weight empty 29,300 lb
Maximum weight 70,000 lb class
Internal fuel 18,000 + lbs
Speed Mach 1.6 (~1,200 mph)
Range ~1.200 n. mi
Combat radius 610 n. mi
Power plant One P&W F135 or GE F136
Engine thrust 40,000 lb (with after burner)
For an interesting read on Defense weapons acquisition programs, please browse (read, if you have time—it’s a long one) through: “What’s Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?” by Robert N. Charette, in IEEE Spectrum (This article was pointed out by one of my readers)
Note: Photo of the F-35 is by Lockheed Martin