Friday, 7 April 2017

Head of US Military Kit-Testing Slams F-35, Says it's Scarcely Fit to Fly

Now-retired Dr Michael Gilmore, until recently the Director of Test and Evaluation for the US military, has published his final evaluation of the F-35 program, and it's a treat.

In his parting report (PDF), deliciously dated April 1*, Gilmore details a host of issues remaining with the US$391 billion-and-counting project, with everything from its combat-readiness to its wing design under the microscope.

“The Services have designated 276 deficiencies in combat performance as “critical to correct” in Block 3F, but less than half of the critical deficiencies were addressed with attempted corrections in 3FR6”, the report states.

Even Gilmore's most optimistic scenario regarding the aircraft's Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) is gloomy: “the program will not be ready to start IOT&E until late CY18, at the soonest, or more likely early CY19. In fact, IOT&E could be delayed to as late as CY20, depending on the completion of required modifications to the IOT&E aircraft.”

There remain “hundreds” of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems, the report says; Dr Gilmore also doubts about the F-35A's ability to succeed either as an air-to-air or an air-to-ground fighter.

In an analysis of the report at the Straus Military Reform Project, picks over the report in detail.
The problem with the wing design makes the F-35 a challenge to fly at around the speed of sound:

“All F-35 variants display objectionable or unacceptable flying qualities at transonic speeds, where aerodynamic forces on the aircraft are rapidly changing. Particularly, under elevated 'g' conditions, when wing loading causes the effects to be more pronounced, pilots have reported the flying qualities as 'unacceptable',” the report states...

The bottom line is that the intrinsic design of the F-35 is flawed. It's a flying brick (small wing area) with a similar (slower) performance to an F-105 from the 1950s. However, the flight control software allows the aircraft to be easily pointed in various directions, although the ability of the aircraft to maintain flying speed is lessened. In other words, it can turn, but relative to its emerging threat opponents (new Russian and Chinese designs), it loses a lot of energy.

To add to the aerodynamic issues is that the aircraft has not been built to a high standard so that there are questions as to how tightly the aircraft can turn at speed - how much 'g' can the aircraft pull before it comes apart? Modern air-combat platforms are rated to pull 9g. The F-35 was (and possibly still is) restricted to around 4 or 5g. The argument in defence of this deficiency is that the F-35 doesn't need to dogfight because it is optimised to fight at long range. This might be true, but emerging threat aircraft have better sensors, radar and Infra-red that can see the F-35 at ever increasing distances. The problem for the F-35 is it will need to dodge incoming missiles, which involve high g turns.

The US has wasted a lot of money on the F-35, an aircraft that was put together to make money for Lockheed Martin, not provide an optimal and affordable aircraft. The production of the aeroplane was split among various US States for political reasons to ensure that it would not be easy for the Congress to cancel the program (which would cause job losses). Moreover the Government broke US procurement Law by allowing Lockheed to put the aircraft into production (via the idea of 'concurrency', fixing already deployed aircraft retroactively) before the design had been stabilised (fully tested). Almost all of the problems outlined in the story above should have been resolved BEFORE full scale production was begun.

Now US defence corporations are scrambling to produce '6th generation' fighters that will take over the roles of the existing (and aged) non-stealthy aircraft (the F-16s, F-18s, F-15s) while complimenting the flawed F-35 and current F-22 Raptors, the latter aircraft excelling as an air superiority fighter.

The danger is that the other defence corporations will engage in the same skulduggery as Lockheed Martin in producing an overly expensive aircraft, and shop out production of the aeroplane throughout the country for political reasons. They might also try to produce something that is too ambitious and fall short, or take more than a decade from prototyping to final product.

A quick solution would be to go with a PROVEN aerodynamic design that can be altered slightly and radically upgraded with modern sensors and weapons. Two designs are readily available, although both have issues. One solution would be to restart production of the F-22 Raptor, with new systems, and increased internal fuel (though the latter is limited by its intrinsic design) or to revisit the YF-23, the longer range design that narrowly lost against the YF-22 (the Raptor 'prototype'):

At the end of the day the best course of action for all concerned (this is directed to the defence companies!) is to build something to the best of their ability, at a 'competitive' price that encourages further procurement of the aircraft. If what they have to offer is an excellent proposition then the aircraft will sell itself (consider the F-4 Phantom as a good example from the past).

Related Info:

Joint Strike Fighter (analysis by Air Power Australia)

[Posted at the SpookyWeather blog, April 7th, 2017.]

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