In the beginning it was to be the fighter program to end all fighter programs. Almost literally, because it is widely believed that the F-35 may be the last manned fighter, to be replaced in the future by some form of unmanned aircraft. The company, in this case Lockheed Martin, that successfully builds this aircraft will dominate the industry for decades and may even force some of their competitors out of the fighter jet business.
Perhaps the real beginning was in the 1970’s. At that time the US Air Force had dual competitions, one for a high end expensive fighter that was won by the F-15 Eagle, and one for a lower end, less expensive, fighter that was won by the F-16 Falcon. (That competition was also won by the other entrant, the F-18 Hornet, which went on to become Canada’s fighter of choice, but that’s another story in itself.) The F-16 program became one of the great success stories of the jet age. The aircraft was both an excellent fighter and a great attack aircraft. It became the most common fighter of the western world, the standard against which all other aircraft were judged. Thousands and thousands of them have been manufactured in an economically viable program which set new standards for efficiency.
All good things come to an end, however, and a platform designed forty years ago can only be updated so often and forty year old aircraft can only fly so long. With the end of the F-16 era in sight it only made sense to start designing a replacement. After a competition not unlike that of the 1970’s that had produced the F-16 the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning was chosen as a successor. While the F-16 had been designed primarily as a fighter it was as an attack aircraft that it had been mainly used. It was assumed that a replacement fighter would be both an international effort and that its main use would be as a high performance strike aircraft (read bomber) with good secondary abilities as a fighter.
Just as the F-16 had been a generation ahead of its competitors when it first appeared the F-35 was to set a new benchmark for fighter design. This was to be achieved by using stealth technology and highly computerized sensors that fused information to create new standards in situational awareness and network connectivity.
Like the F-16 it was to be relatively inexpensive. In fact one of the most important goals of the F-35 both as an aircraft and as a program was that it would be affordable. The goal was to replace thousands of F-16’s, and other similar aircraft on a one for one basis. The plan was to break a cycle that saw each new generation of aircraft being more expensive then the preceding generation, leading to smaller and smaller air forces as nations found that the cost of one to one replacement could not be afforded. It was believed that that the efficiencies of mass production would lower the average individual cost of the aircraft in a program expected to yield thousands of fighters over its lifetime. Efficient management was to be provided by the private sector in the form of Lockheed Martin. The way to mass production was to replace not just the F-16’s of the Air Force but also the F-18’s of the Navy and the short take-off and vertically landing Harrier jets used by the U.S. Marines and smaller Navies around the world.
The plan was to build the F-35 in three variants with minimal differences between them. The F-35A was the F-16 replacement, the F-35B Stovl model was to replace the Harrier and the longer ranged F-35C was to be an aircraft carrier capable version for the Navy. The armed forces of a large number of western countries, including Canada, were brought into the program with the promise of industrial offsets to guarantee even greater production.
That was the plan, the question is, how is it working out so far?
The great promise of the F-35 was stealth. There is no question that stealth, or more accurately, having a lowered radar signature, is a great benefit in modern warfare. What is not clear is just how important it is or what the cost-benefit ratio is when comparing the cost of achieving stealth with the benefits to be gained. We do know that it is a declining value. The ability to avoid radar detection is largely gained by the shape of the aircraft, and to a lesser extent by the materials used in its construction. As radars and especially computers increase in power and sophistication the ability of stealth aircraft to avoid detection is degraded, and as shape cannot be changed radically in the life of the aircraft the ability of the jet to avoid detection deteriorates over time.
The promise of advanced electronics and radars in the F-35 has also come at steep price both in cost and in reliability. The millions of lines of computer code necessary to achieve the desired results have introduced errors and glitches in the system that are only discovered when something goes wrong. Perhaps more important is that with complexity comes cost, both for development and for maintenance
The belief that mass production would insure low, stable pricing has not worked out. In point of fact modern economic theory holds that with high performance aircraft, economies of scale based on learning curves at the factory level flatten out after about two hundred units. It’s even worse then that. What we seem to be seeing is what has been termed a “death spiral”. As the cost of the aircraft has gone up, customers have responded by ordering fewer, which spreads the cost over a smaller base, causing the price of individual aircraft to rise. The fewer are purchased the more expensive they become and as they become more expensive fewer are purchased. The Canadian Armed Forces are now discussing the purchase of as few as 65 F-35’s to replace an original buy of 138 CF-18’s which has still left 78 Hornets in the active inventory.
It has even been suggested that to retain sufficient numbers of active F-35’s training will be done with the U.S. Air Force so as to avoid the need for a Canadian training squadron.
What can be said at this point is that the F-35 program has been a failure in so far as its ability to economically replace the F-16 and other previous generation jet fighters in western service. The fear is that as technical problems mount up it may also fail to reach its performance goals.
Where does all this leave Canada and the RCAF? The government is, for the moment, stuck with its support for the purchase of 65 F-35’s to replace the present force of F-18’s. As costs mount and development targets are missed it may become easier for the government to resist the demands of the R.C.A.F. for the latest generation fighter, the blandishments of the private sector for a part of the, diminishing, production pie, and the arm twisting of the U.S. to maintain procurement levels. When this happens an alternative will have to be found.
It is not clear that the traditional acquisition program advocated by the opposition parties is the answer. Doing it “by the book” has not been a guarantee of economic and efficient results in the past. It may be time to look at alternative methods of delivering results. The Air Force may have to revisit its insistence on a single multi-purpose type fighter to fulfill all its needs. Canada has had mixed fleets of fighter aircraft in the past and could again look at mix of high and low end aircraft tailored to specific missions.
One of the motivating factors for many involved has been the belief that any aircraft procured will be in use for two or three decades and therefore must be as modern as possible so as to delay inevitable obsolescence. Is this true? What are the economics of leasing jet fighters for a specific period? One thing is certain; the other aircraft manufactures are motivated to deal. They don’t want Lockheed Martin to dominate all future sales of jet fighters and right now it is a buyer’s market for the products of other manufacturers.
A government that was sufficiently clever and flexible could save a lot of money and cast itself in the role of a wise steward of the public’s money.