F35B in Focus (PART 1) Background and cost

The F35 “Joint Strike Fighter” which will fly from RN’s aircraft carriers has proved to be a hugely controversial aircraft. The switch from F35B variant to the F35C and back to F35B has already been covered in much detail but here we to look at the aircraft itself. The UK is now firmly committed to the vertical take-off F35B and it will eventually fly from Royal Navy aircraft carriers. In broad terms, the nay-sayers complain it is too expensive, over-complex, plagued with problems and is a mediocre airframe, while the proponents say the problems will be solved and it’s a quantum leap in capability, particularly in cockpit design, sensors and networking. Perhaps they are both right.

No going back

There are a few voices still valiantly calling for a return to a ‘proper carrier’ with Cats, Traps and F35C (or even abandoning F35 in favour of much cheaper F-18 Super Hornets). There is no question that an investment in 2 carriers with EMALS catapults and traps together with a fully balanced RN air group would have served future UK interests far better than the political and inter-service fudge we are now confronted with. However the commercial interest of BAE, the related employment and political aspects together with the self-interested agenda of the RAF mean there is absolutely zero chance of re-visiting this debate within the MoD. In addition, against a backdrop of austerity and spineless government considering yet further cuts to the defence budget, there is simply not the financial flexibility. Phillip Hammond is committed to a short-term book balancing act which saves the upfront cost of fitting cats & traps to the carriers while neatly deferring the greater cost (and lesser capability) of purchasing and maintaining the F35B as a future problem for one of his successors. We are locked into F35B and that is that.

From the perspective of many Western governments, the JSF is a project that simply cannot be allowed to fail. The JSF is scheduled to replace a whole raft of 3rd and 4th generation aircraft serving in Western airforces and navies, without it there will be a yawning gap in defences that can only be plugged for so long by ageing airframes. At the start the JSF project seemed to offer great savings and efficiencies by producing a single aircraft (in 3 variants) to replace many types of aircraft in service world wide. However by setting very ambitious specifications and trying to meet such a variety of needs, the world’s largest defence project quickly ran into serious problems. Cost inflation and development issues are very common in complex military programmes but the scale and eye-watering costs have brought many unwelcome headlines. Unfortunately as the cost has risen the number of planes on order inevitably has declined, further adding to the unit cost. Australia is nervous about the programme and has ordered Super Hornets as a sensible stop gap and there is also very hot debate in Canada about whether it will buy F35. In a time of economic crisis and defence cuts, a wildly expensive aircraft project is the last thing we all need. From an industrial perspective, the JSF is keeping many hard-pressed Americans in employment. In the UK the project is also estimated to be worth at least £2 Billion to the economy. With the full might of the US military-industrial complex behind it and so much dependent upon it, the F35 is going into service, whatever the final cost and whatever its failings, indeed the US Marine Corps expects to have operational aircraft by 2015. There remains the spectre of US sequestration which would impose heavy automatic cuts on the US defence budget. Although F35 will undoubtedly survive, the F35B variant for the USMC is a possible target for these emergency cuts. In the event that the F35B was axed by the US, the UK government would be in a very embarrassing position which could require another u-turn back to F35C or even the death of the carrier project.

Cost and Risk

One of the many criticisms of the project is the spiralling unit cost of the planes and that no one will give a final exact price. Current estimates are around $220 Million (£143M) ‘fly-away’ cost for each plane. (Incidentally an F35 is also estimated to cost around $32,000 per hour to fly, although there are many variables that will affect this figure in UK service.) Just consider that figure £143 Million. Modern jets have always been expensive but this is a whole new paradigm. A single fighter/strike aircraft that costs as much as a small warship, a couple of hospitals… etc, A plane so precious and costly that it cannot be unduly risked? Although modern simulators will be able to prepare new pilots to a very high standard before they take the controls of a real plane, sooner or later they will have to fly real training sorties, and take the risks that accompany any flight in a fast jet. Even masters of aviation, the RAF have managed on average to lose at least one Tornado through accidents each year since it came into service. Sooner or later F35s will have very expensive training accidents, it is a fact of military flying and most definitely a fact of carrier aviation. The cost will severely limit the number of planes we can buy and the training hours available to pilots. An older pilot’s view of this situation is that while an aircraft maybe superb and the simulators can help, there is no absolutely substitute for experience & realistic training. The counter to this argument is that in an era of unmanned aircraft the F35 is so sophisticated, and the flying controls so simple, that even a very average pilot flying and F35 will still have the edge. Is this an over-reliance on technology or has technology developed so far that the human is becoming semi-redundant? And what effects will the value of these planes have in combat? Will we have to decline critical missions due to the unacceptable economic impact of the loss of an aircraft? Weighing up risks has always been a big part of military operations but by placing so many eggs in one basket we further narrow the commanders options. The loss of one or more £143M aircraft could be such a serious a strategic loss that it may outweigh any tactical gain. The attraction of purchasing 2 or 3 times the number of ‘cheaper’ F-18 Super Hornets which are more dispensable, can be risked and deploy in greater numbers while flown by pilots with more training hours is obvious. Currently the UK has only actually purchased 3 F35Bs and the MoD remains vague about the number the UK will order. A figure of 48 has been mentioned but as yet there is no firm commitment to what would be an approx £7Billion purchase. In addition there will be the costs of training, spares, support infrastructure and integration of various UK air-launched weapon systems.

VSTOL

The F35B has little in common with its predecessor the Harrier other than its ability to take off and land vertically. This allows it to land in very small spaces and take off over short distances thus saving the complexity of equipment for launch and recovery of a conventional aircraft carrier. There is some additional operational flexibility that allows VSTOL aircraft to land on small ships or without a runway on improvised landing pads. Whether these incredibly expensive and fairly delicate aircraft will be used for very close-support missions in rough and ready fields seems unlikely but maybe one day it will come in handy. In theory the RN could use smaller carriers, HMS Ocean or even converted merchant ships as temporary homes for the F35Bs. This flexibility is useful but must be set against the considerable disadvantages of the VSTOL variant. The engine and jetpipe require many more moving parts and is more complex, costly and will require more maintenance. This engine is also larger  and heavier, reducing weapons payload and operating range. Although an advance on the Harrier the reduced range is an issue especially as without Cats and Traps the carrier can’t operate dedicated air-air refuelling tankers. There have been laughable claims that land-based RAF or allied tankers can always be on hand to provide support when required. Not only is this a mis-understanding of independent carrier operations, but flies in the face of historical precedents where naval operations dependent on land-based air support ended in disaster. When trying to find a small carrier in a very large ocean every drop of fuel becomes important. While VSTOL offers a kind of operating flexibility on one hand, we have sacrificed range and the reach of the carrier’s power while adding to the cost and maintenance headaches.

Stealth

The F35 is a “stealth” aircraft – this does not mean it is completely invisible to radar, rather at some angles it is virtually undetectable by radar. Technically it is “Very Low Observable” but the KPIs for stealth have been revised downwards as the aircraft has developed. Obviously being hard to spot on radar is a big advantage either when fighting other aircraft or attacking defended targets. However it comes at great cost, requiring expensive, hard-to-repair composite materials for the outer surfaces and compromises on the size and shape. To maximise stealth all the weapons must be stored internally in small bays which both complicates launching and reduces payload. Stealth is undoubtedly a big contributor to the vast cost of the F35 but as yet it is hard to really analyse whether it is worth it. It also seems likely that radar systems will also evolve over the lifetime of the aircraft reducing its effectiveness.

In Part 2 we look at the roles of the F35

 

 

F35B in focus (PART 2) The multi-role marvel
Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers