Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Boondoggle

This article from blog friend Eric Palmer on F-16.net last week has been picking up some traction, with a story picked up in The Telegraph yesterday, and even on the CNN blog. Apparently Lockheed Martin forgot to design the tailhook on the F-35C correctly, and the aircraft cannot land on aircraft carriers. From Eric Palmer's original article:

a November 2011 U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) quick-look report relating to engineering challenges arising from what is being called “concurrency issues” revealed that all eight run-in/rolling tests undertaken at NAS Lakehurst in August 2011 to see if the F-35C CV JSF could catch a wire with the tail hook have failed.

The report also mentions that the tail hook on the F-35C CV JSF is attached improperly to the aircraft. The distance from the hook to the main landing gear is so short that it is unlikely the aircraft will catch the landing wires on a ship's deck. This graphic from the review explains part of the problem. It illustrates the distance between the main landing gear and the tail hook of previous warplanes qualified to operate from aircraft carriers and compares these distances with that found on the F-35C CV JSF. In this regard, the report refers to the F-35C CV JSF as “an outlier”.

An industry expert who is a graduate Flight Test Engineer (FTE) of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS), Peter Goon, stated that, "Given the limited amount of suitable structure at the back end of the JSF variants, due primarily to the commonality that was being sought between the three variant designs and the fact that the STOVL F-35B JSF is the baseline design, there was always going to be high risk associated with meeting the carrier suitability requirements."
The F-35C program no longer makes any sense at all to me. The extra cost of the F-35C over the F-18 Superbug all drive towards capabilities in the strike role; specifically stealth and range. Considering the strike role for naval aircraft is in decline over other alternatives (like submarine and surface launched cruise missiles), I can no longer support the Navy down the F-35C road. I still believe the F-35B is important, but I have no idea if the Marine Corps can afford it.

There are many reasons why the US Navy needs credible fixed-wing manned aircraft, but the strike role appears to be the primary reason for fixed-wing aircraft the naval aviation community is focused on, when in fact fleet defense, early warning, electronic warfare, and battlespace information dominance (among many others) is where fixed wing naval aviation is required. Is the JSF a good interceptor? Maybe, and maybe that is the reason to buy a few, but certainly F-35C is not an optimal intercept fighter and I have serious questions if the F-35C cost difference represents a meaningful value advantage in capability for intercept relative to the Superbug.

I have read a lot of procrastination following SNA regarding the challenges facing the Navy and some have even severely elevated the importance of certain shipbuilding programs like LCS to the level that it's success or failure will somehow make or break the the surface force. That sounds like some ignorant hot air and nonsense to me, because the future of the surface force depends on the high end capabilities, not LCS. The LCS program is no longer discussed publicly with any attempt towards objectivity in perspective - by the Navy, by LCS supporters, or by the LCS critics.

So here is some perspective for why I think the LCS criticism is a complete distraction from serious challenges facing the Navy today. The program of record that is killing the US Navy budget and - in my opinion, causing severe damage to the future of US naval aviation - is the Joint Strike Fighter program. For even bigger context, keep in mind the cost growth of just the first Ford class aircraft carrier is already greater than the cost growth of the entire Littoral Combat Ship program to date. Some have suggested LCS is too big to fail. What utter nonsense; in context of the Navy's budget, LCS really is too small to matter.

The JSF is the program apparently too big to fail, at least in the mind of some, and all evidence suggests failure is the rule rather than the exception. Lockheed Martin has made a mess of JSF, and there is no evidence things are getting better despite the actions taken to date regarding program management and leadership. I believe the Ford class still makes sense with or without JSF, and even if some roles of naval aviation are in decline relative to alternative methods for conducting those roles, but the naval aviation community does not appear to believe that. How the JSF has survived this long is a mystery to me, but in my opinion, it is past time for the naval aviation community to evolve past F-35C.

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