By Stuart Smallwood, contributor
U.S. defense analysts and strong critics of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Striker Fighter say if South Korea purchases the F-35 they will be stuck with an increasingly expensive airplane that will fail their air defense program.
Seoul is currently considering purchasing 60 F-35s to serve as its “fifth generation” airplane upgrade. Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project in the United States, says the JSF F-35 is destined to be a little-used aircraft, even by the United States, and will be the butt of military industry jokes for decades to come.
“It’s a failed design from the get-go and it’s proving itself to be completely unaffordable,” Wheeler said. “Even if the airplane lives up to every performance specification it will be a huge disappointment.”
Wheeler says the F-35’s capability has been exaggerated by both its production company, Lockheed Martin, and certain media who have overlooked design flaws for the sake of wishful thinking.
“If you believe the brochure level stuff you can easily become a wild-eyed advocate of this airplane and come to the conclusion that it’s obviously gigantically expensive but it’s such a wonderful airplane and we should buy it,” says Wheeler. “But you have to close your eyes to a lot of things to come to that conclusion.”Failed design
Ben Freeman, a National Security Investigator for the Project on Governmental Oversight (POGO) in the United States, says it is due to its design as an all-purpose, three-in-one airplane that the F-35 has been a failure from the beginning.
“The F35 is designed to do all these different things - air-to-air, air-to-ground, and some surveillance as well. You have all these functions and it sounds great on paper,” says Freeman.
Freeman says the roles of air-to-air (fighter) and air-to-ground (bomber) airplanes are totally different.
“When you put these things into practice, it’s sort of like a Swiss army knife,” says Freeman. “Yeah it can do all these things, it just can’t do any of them well.”
Wheeler says due to complex radar systems and stealth coating the aircraft is simply too heavy and has too much drag to be a close-up fighter airplane. It has other flaws that affect its maneuverability including an insufficient thrust-to-weight ratio and wings that are too small for its weight. As a bomber its payload is much smaller than world-class bombers, it is too fast to find targets or distinguish enemies from friends on the ground and doesn‘t have the necessary fuel capacity to stay above troops on the battlefield for long.
“For survival against enemies in the air, the F-35 will depend on the same technological dream of BVR (Beyond Visual Range) combat,” Wheeler wrote with co-author Pierre Sprey in Jane’s Defense Weekly. “It has to - as a close-in dogfighter, it is a disaster.”The “fifth generation” myth of BVR and stealth
The most widely praised performance capabilities of the F-35 are its “stealth” and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) components. Both Freeman and Wheeler argue that stealth is nothing more than hype.
“Man has yet to develop anything that is completely invisible to radar all the time,” said Freeman.
During the Kosovo air war in 1999 an F-117, a former stealth-reliant airplane, was shot down by Serb forces and another was severely damaged by a radar missile using Long Wavelength Radars (LWR). Wheeler says using this technology allows enemies to see a stealth airplane from long distances. All the Serbs had to do was figure out how to get the missile to the target without using tracking radar - a problem they solved.
“In [the U.S.] a lot of people keep their eyes closed toward this and the Air Force doesn’t run exercises where these 1950s Soviet-vintage radars are able to see the F-22 and F-35,” Wheeler says. “They’re not being required to change their tactics accordingly.”
“They seem to think everything is going to run in warfare just the way they want it to.”
Ben Freeman also questions why Seoul needs 60 stealth airplanes that don’t have the same performance capabilities as other far cheaper models.
“Even if everything Lockheed says is true and they really are some kind of James Bond-type weapon - just completely invisible - you send a dozen, two dozen in, you knock out the enemy radar and boom, your fine.”
Wheeler says the long-range BVR-based combat system that the F-35 must rely on (because it is so poor as a fighter up-close) is also nearly worthless.
Beyond Visual Range is a technique designed to be used by an airplane to target and attack an enemy aircraft well before it is in visual range of that aircraft. But BVR radar has not yet proven to be reliable even though it has been pushed by the U.S. Air Force since the Cold War.
There are still no reliable methods of distinguishing if a target is a friend or a foe. Further, the special radar signal emitted by BVR actually alerts the enemy, giving it ample time to maneuver away from an incoming missile.Lockheed has completed only 21 percent of testing
Many of the F35s problems are incurred in the production process.
In the United States Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report to Congress this month the office discussed myriad problems the developers are still experiencing with development of the F-35. The report concludes, “Much of the instability in the JSF program has been and continues to be the result of highly concurrent development, testing, and production activities.”
Concurrent development is essentially mass-production of airplanes while testing is still in early stages. Even today, a decade into the program, Lockheed Martin has only completed 21 per cent of developmental flight testing (not including flight testing the finished product).
“It is phenomenal idiocy the way this program has been run,” says Freeman. “What a normal person would do - what the military was doing throughout most of its history - is to have a design, make a prototype and then test the heck out of it and figure out what it can and can‘t do. Then you make all these changes to it.”
It was only after testing, and realizing what works and what doesn’t, that traditional programs went into large-scale assembly production. Freeman says F-35 production has been the exact opposite of this.
“We said, ‘I’ve a general idea of what I want this plane to do and I‘m going to build a bunch and while I’m building that bunch I’m going to tack-on all these other new requirements.’”
The results are a lot flaws in production, the need to restructure planes already made and much higher costs than initially predicted by the developers.
“Unless you’ve got a very basic design you can’t just go straight to the production line,” Freeman says. “By definition - fifth generation - they are very complex. What we have isn’t the final product, yet we still keep producing them and that is costing a ton of money.”
The GAO report says only four per cent of the systems required to run the airplane have been completed. Recently, the airplane has been grounded due to problems with the headgear system, which the report says is integral to the operation of the F-35’s complex system.Production continues despite lack of testing
The GAO report also says even when developmental flight testing is complete the “most challenging tasks” related to the program will still be unfinished.
Wheeler says an earlier report from the GAO indicated only 17 per cent of the airplane’s actual performance characteristics will be fully completed at the end of this testing. The rest will be examined, not by actually flying the plane, but through computer simulation and desk studies.
“The jury won’t even be in when developmental testing is complete in 2017,” he says. “We will have to go through some operational testing and deployment periods before we understand what the hell this horrible airplane really is.”
Technical issues have been a major concern with the airplane, but even worse, there is the possibility that flying these airplanes makes pilots sick. Several incidents have occurred with the F-22 where pilots have had to abort flights due to dizziness and nausea. Some analysts have expressed concern the sickness may be caused by the stealth coating on the F-22. Freeman says the very similar stealth technology on the F-35 has led to some public concerns about the safety of these jets for the pilots flying them.
Stuart Smallwood is an Asian Studies Master’s Student in Seoul. His website is www.koreaandtheworld.com"
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