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What Now, Icarus? Is Western Combat Aviation Falling Out of the Sky?

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The future of Western combat aviation today rests largely on one airplane: The Pentagon's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The Defense Department currently plans to buy 2,456 of these Lockheed aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. As a "multi-role" fighter-bomber, it will ultimately replace almost all tactical aircraft now in our inventory, except for the F-22, for which production beyond 187 aircraft was canceled this past summer. Major allies, including Britain and much of the rest of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Israel, plan to buy the aircraft. Sales to many others are postulated, and those who do not intend to buy the F-35 plan to copy it to the extent their treasuries, government bureaucracies, and technological development permit.

There are, however, a few problems. The F-35 is unaffordable. It is a technological kluge that will be less effective than airplanes it replaces. And it will increase our own combat losses.

That is not the consensus now; many will vociferously dispute each of the assertions stated above, and below. But, in time the finger pointing will start. That's when someone will have to pick up the pieces to give our pilots a war winning aircraft. The road between here and there will be neither smooth nor pretty, but it is time to take the first step.

A financial disaster? How can that be? Visiting the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas last August, Secretary of D Robert Gates assured us that the F-35 will be "less than half the price ... of the F-22."

In a narrow sense, Gates is right. At a breathtaking $65 billion for 187 aircraft, the F-22 consumes $350 million for each plane. At $299 billion for 2,456, the F-35 would seem a bargain at just $122 million each.

F-35 unit cost will ultimately be much higher. In 2001, the Pentagon had planned to buy 2,866 aircraft for $226.5 billion - $79 million per airplane. It was in 2007 that the expense increased and the quantity went down; resulting in the current - $122 million - unit cost.

In the next few weeks, the program will have to admit to another increase. Gates and his Deputy Secretary, William Lynn, have re-convened a "Joint Estimating Team" (JET) to reassess F-35 cost and schedule. Last year, while a part of the Bush administration, Gates basically ignored the Team's recommendations, but the new JET is about to reconfirm them: the F-35 program will cost up to $15 billion more, and it will be delivered about two years late.

Those findings address only the known problems; there's a huge iceberg floating just under the surface. With F-35 flight testing barely three percent complete, new problems - and new costs - are sure to emerge. Worse, only 17 percent of the aircraft's characteristics will be validated by flight testing by the time the Pentagon has signed contracts for more than 500 aircraft. Operational squadron pilots will have the thrill of discovering the remaining problems, in training or in combat. No one should be surprised if the final F-35 total program unit cost reaches $200 million per aircraft after all the fixes are paid for.

None of these prices is "affordable." The latest version of the F-16, heavily laden with complex electronics and other expensive modifications, costs about $60 million, twice its original price - in today's dollars. The A-10, which the F-35 will also replace, cost about $15 million in today's dollars. Thus, to replace the almost 4,000 F-16s and A-10s built with just over 1,700 F-35s, the Air Force will have to pay far more to buy half as many airplanes.

In an age when the Air Force budget looks to increase only marginally, if at all, while simultaneously planning to buy several other major aircraft (new aerial tankers, new transports, new heavy bombers, and new helicopters), this plan to distend the fighter-bomber budget is a fool's errand.

While most, but not all, in the Pentagon and Congress remain oblivious to the unaffordability of the F-35, some of its foreign buyers are becoming horrified. Despite their governments' investment of hundreds of millions, parliamentarians and analysts in Australia, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands are expressing real concerns. The F-35's single largest international partner is the United Kingdom. There, the Royal Navy and Air Force have just decided to reduce their F-35 buy from 138 aircraft to 50. The reason: "We are waking up to the fact that all those planes are unaffordable."

The problems with the F-35 are not limited to its cost.

As a fighter, the F-35 depends on a technological pipe dream. Having failed to develop in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s an effective (and reliable) radar-based technology to shoot down enemy (not friendly) aircraft "beyond visual range," the Air Force is trying yet again with the F-35, like the F-22 before it. Both have the added development of "stealth" (less detectability against some radars at some angles), but that new "high tech" feature and the long range radar have imposed design penalties that compromised the aircraft with not just high cost but also weight, drag, complexity, and vulnerabilities. The few times this technology has been tried in real air combat in the past decade, it has been successful less than half the time, and that has been against incompetent and/or primitively equipped pilots from Iraq and Serbia.

If the latest iteration of "beyond visual range" turns out to be yet another chimera, the F-35 will have to operate as a close-in dogfighter, but in that regime it is a disaster. If one accepts every aerodynamic promise Lockheed currently makes for it, the F-35 will be overweight and underpowered. At 49,500 pounds in air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 pounds of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight and acceleration for a new fighter. In fact, at that weight and with just 460 square feet of wing area for the Air Force and Marine Corps versions, the F-35's small wings will be loaded with 108 pounds for every square foot, one third worse than the F-16A. (Wings that are large relative to weight are crucial for maneuvering and surviving in combat.) The F-35 is, in fact, considerably less maneuverable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 "Lead Sled," a fighter that proved helpless in dogfights against MiGs over North Vietnam. (A chilling note: most of the Air Force's fleet of F-105s was lost in four years of bombing; one hundred pilots were lost in just six months.)

Nor is the F-35 a first class bomber for all that cost: in its stealthy mode it carries only a 4,000 pound payload, one third the 12,000 pounds carried by the "Lead Sled."

As a "close air support" ground-attack aircraft to help US troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is too fast to identify the targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire, and too short-legged to loiter usefully over embattled US ground units for sustained periods. It is a giant step backward from the current A-10.

It is time to start climbing out of the F-35 hole. Needless to say, the complexities of Pentagon procurement regulations and especially the circle-the-wagons mentality of the Pentagon and Congress present serious hurdles to be overcome, most of them ethical.

First is the need is to accept the facts as they exist, rather than as Lockheed and self-interested bureaucrats in the Pentagon would prefer them to be. That will mean accepting the JET recommendations as currently written - not watering them down to make them palatable, or ignoring them as they were in 2008 under Gates' first term as SecDef.

Second would be exercising the professed spirit of the new Weapon System Acquisition Act, signed into law by President Obama last May. While the fine print of the new law is hopelessly riddled with loopholes to protect business as usual, the bill purports to control costs and inspire competition, especially the "fly-before-buy" competitive approach that has worked so marvelously well the few times it's been tried.

This is the same vision that President Obama expressed to the VFW in Phoenix last August when he said he wanted to stop "the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget." Clearly, no one has told the President that the F-35 is a leading poster child for the evils he condemned.

Third, the biggest step, would be to suspend further F-35 production until the test aircraft, all of them now funded, can complete a revised, much more thorough flight test schedule. Once we know the F-35's realistically demonstrated performance and problems, and the full extent of its costs, we can make an informed decision whether to put it into full production. To do that, the upside down F-35 acquisition plan -- which buys 500 aircraft before the "definitive" test report (the one that only flight tests 17% of F-35 characteristics) is on Gates' desk -- needs to be radically recast into real fly-before-buy plan -- just the kind of plan the new Acquisition Reform Act advocates, albeit feebly.

In the almost certain event that the F-35 is found by uncompromised, realistic testing to be an unaffordable loser, there are viable alternatives. If an active consensus develops to reverse the current aging and shrinking of the existing tactical aviation inventory (as opposed to today's silent conspiracy encouraging those trends to worsen), a short term, affordable fix to restore combat adequacy is needed: Extend the life of existing F-16 and A-10 airframes for the Air Force and to continue purchasing F-18E/F aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. For the part of the inventory that most urgently needs immediate expansion, the A-10 and the close support mission, hundreds of airframes now sitting in the "boneyard" can and should be refurbished -- at extraordinarily modest cost.

Just a life-extension program will not address long term needs. Accordingly, competitive prototype fly off programs should be immediately initiated to develop and select new fighters to build a larger force that is far more combat-effective than existing the F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s. Just such programs -- that lead to an astonishing 10,000 plane Air Force within current budget levels -- are described in detail in "Reversing the Decay in American Air Power," a chapter in the anthology "America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress" (Stamford University Press).

You can almost literally hear the howls of protest right now. The F-35 is too big to fail. Gates himself seems trapped by that logic; he said "My view is we cannot afford as a nation not to have this airplane." We take the opposite view. The F-35's bloat -- in cost, leaden weight, and mindless complexity -- guarantees failure. It will shrink our air forces at increased expense, rot their ability to prevail in the air and support our ground forces, and will needlessly spill the blood of far too many of our pilots.

We have to take the first steps to better understand the extent of the F-35 disaster and to reverse the continuing decay in our air forces.

Pierre M. Sprey, a long time military reformer and a designer of extraordinarily successful combat aircraft, helped me write this commentary. Both Pierre and I are contributors to the aforementioned anthology "America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress."

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