Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Winslow Wheeler: The Jet that Ate the Pentagon


For those who might be attentive to defense contracts the STOVL fighter that began to be proposed in the later Reagan/Bush years is finally getting to the ... well ... it's still not quite fully acquired I guess.
It's almost axiomatic that whatever is cutting edge currently deployed military gear is actually going to be the apotheosis of whatever was cutting edge twenty years ago.

In discussing the F-35 with aviation and acquisition experts -- some responsiblefor highly successful aircraft such as the F-16 and the A-10, and others with decades of experienceinside the Pentagon and years of direct observation of the F-35's early history -- I learned that the F-35's problems are built into its very DNA.

The design was born in the late 1980s in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon agency that has earned an undeserved reputation for astute innovation. It emerged as a proposal for a very short takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft (known as "STOVL") that would also be supersonic. This required an airframe design that -- simultaneously -- wanted to be short, even stumpy, and single-engine (STOVL), and also sleek, long, and with lots of excess power, usually with twin engines.

That wouldn't have been the first time mutually contradictory goals were shoehorned into the requirements of a single defense department proposal, just go dig up everything you can on the F-111.  In my Cold War naive teenage self I thought any jet fighter was a cool idea.  Twenty years later and with a tiny bit more military history and military procurement history under my belt and I have different thoughts. 

Wheeler does not mention something that is spelled out succinctly in Bill Gunston's old book on the history of the A-10, which is to say that the A-10 is arguably one of those cases where pork barrel politics was exactly what was needed to get the right plane built at the right time for the right tactical and strategic situations.  If you have ever wondered why pork barrel politics gets ripped apart by pundit after pundit and politician after politician yet so little seems to be done you may want to do yourself the favor of looking into the A-10 to understand that the reason pork barrel sticks around is because, like it or not, it has been shown to be good for some things.  It's bad when a senator can impose massive purchases of aircraft carriers the Navy doesn't even really want, to be sure, but let's bear in mind that pork barrel can use some nuance.

President Bill Clinton's Pentagon bogged down the already compromised design concept further by adding the requirement that it should be a multirole aircraft -- both an air-to-air fighter and a bomber. This required more difficult tradeoffs between agility and low weight, and the characteristics of an airframe optimized to carry heavy loads. Clinton-era officials also layered on "stealth," imposing additional aerodynamic shape requirements and maintenance-intensive skin coatings to reduce radar reflections. They also added two separate weapons bays, which increase permanent weight and drag, to hide onboard missiles and bombs from radars. On top of all that, they made it multiservice, requiring still more tradeoffs to accommodate more differing, but exacting, needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

Again, the problematic precedent of the F-111 seems like an instructive comparison point here.  Had this joint strike fighter been left firmly in the domain of dedicated air superiority the boondoggle might have been avoided, maybe. In the 1990s stealth may have turned out to be for the DoD what the swing wing was in the 1960s and 1970s, an idea that became too popular because it was interpolated into functions for which the point of stealth would not be apprpriate.

This mediocrity is not overcome by the F-35's "fifth-generation" characteristics, the most prominent of which is its "stealth." Despite what many believe, "stealth" is not invisibility to radar; it is limited-detection ranges against some radar types at some angles. Put another way, certain radars, some of them quite antiquated, can see "stealthy" aircraft at quite long ranges, and even the susceptible radars can see the F-35 at certain angles. The ultimate demonstration of this shortcoming occurred in the 1999 Kosovo war, when 1960s vintage Soviet radar and missile equipmentshot down a "stealthy" F-117 bomber and severely damaged a second.

Now for a bomber (tactical or strategic) or surveillance aircraft stealth is important. You have a plane that will have offensive capability but lacks defensive performance and armament. It makes sense to design a spy plane or a plane that pounds the ground with ordinance to be as hard to detect as possible.  Applying this basic philosophy of combat to close air support where you'll be diving into the hottest of hot zones makes little sense.  The sheer likelihood of being taken out by ground fire in those settings would be too high.  If an F-117 were running hundreds of hours of low altitude, ground-hugging tactical bombing missions the odds of a shoot-down incident would approach 1.  It's just the nature of high risk and dumb luck.  As fighter pilots have said for generations, I'd rather be lucky than good any day.

Now of course Wheeler's whole pespective might be considered biased but everyone has a bias.  What I can say, admitting up front that I thought of enlisting at one point and have never really been anti-defense, is that Wheeler presents arguments that I think are worth passing along.  He may not lay out quite as thorough a historical case for why he believes the F-35 was doomed to failure at the outset.  Arguably one of the big red flags was that it was conceived as a joint strike fighter.  All three of those words could have been construed as red flags in that combination.  It's been tough to find gear that even two, let alone three branches of the military will agree on.  It's never worked out too wonderfully for any variation of strike fighter. The F-15 would be the exception that proves the rule once you realize what a collosal thrust to weight ratio that plane has.   But I'm not meaning to digress into all those details. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a really fascinating book that touches on some of the history behind this, titled Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (http://ow.ly/aDUXK).