The Amityville Horror, AKA F-35B is back in the news. “Rick, there are Cracks in the Fuselage, I tell you, I am shocked, shocked I tell you”.
Another structural failure observed and reported in the continuing saga of the certification of the airframe to it (Sic) operational design lifetime of 16000 Hrs. And they were so close, well closer than the last time structural failures were observed and reported. This time the observed failures were report around the 7000 Hrs. mark. Back to the drawing board for that part, that has got to hurt LockMart bottom line (probably not LMT executive will present some argument as to how and why it is the DOD fault, and that DOD should pay for it), after DOD has already paid to fix this problem once before, and given the United States Budget issues, and especially the DOD portion of the budget issue, are we the people going to be asked to pony up for this error (Yes).
On a side note it is a very challenging engineering problem, to design and build an aero structure that will meet the reliability requirements and yet still be light enough to not make too big of a dent in the performance envelope of the aircraft, it will be a trade off between the two requirements, one gives you an under performing airframe that will last for a long time, and the other givers you an airframe with an excellent performance envelope but does not hold up to the daily grind, and becomes a maintenance whore. But either way at the end of the day it will be a very expensive airframe to operate and maintain.
This latest development begs the several question about the F-35 program and its two most troubled variants F-35B (Marines) and F-35C (Navy), not that the F-35A part of the program is a thing of beauty and a cakewalk.
F-35B cannot seem to get pass the 8000 Hrs. mark, without a cracks in the bulkhead flange, and mind you this is the redesigned bulkhead flange, aka the Mark 2 design. So I guess it off to redesign and we try it a third time, aka the Mark 3 design. Mean while the aircraft being produced are with the Mark 2 design bulkhead, the prototypes had the Mark 1 design bulkhead.
Questions abound about this latest issue. One question concerns just how good is the software that was used to design the Mark 1 and Mark 2 bulkhead flange, and possibly the Mark 3 bulkhead. Maybe the third time is the charm. Or it could just be the definition of insanity, you know doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result. Lockheed has now done it twice and the results were pretty close to being the same.
Just how good is the finite element simulation software that was and is being used in the design and development. It might be that simulation software is acceptable but that the tuning parameters were in error. It might be that the simulation software is not acceptable and the tuning parameters were in error. Could it be that the aero structures engineers just do not have a very good handle of the stress, strains and vibrations that this particular part of the airframe is experiencing, or has Lockheed just run out of Unobtainium.
The program is very quite on the F-35C front, and the continuing efforts to carrier qualify this variant. Not very many if any successful traps, something to do with the arresting hook location on the airframe (too far forward relative to the main landing gear, due to the main landing gear being placed so far aft on the airframe and the of the general absence of any significant load bearing flight elements aft of the main gear, and the high angle of attack required to get the arresting gear to project below that of main landing gear). All of these many-failed traps have been at the hands of some of the hottest sticks in the service; God knows what it will be for the average Naval Aviator. Will the F-35C become the Navies new F7U-3?
Night traps were called by many practice bleeding, Day traps were exciting, but nothing compared to a night trap. Given the very unique flight profile for the F-35C currently being used in the attempts to make a trap, I suspect that day traps in this airframe will become the practice bleeding exercise, and night traps will be just exercises in pure terror.
As said before this program is looking more and more like the TFX/F-111 program. It is time to cut our losses. This will be one of the great legacy problems that the out going SECDEF will leave to the incoming SECDEF. There is a need, for some type of Stealth attack aircraft, more so since the United States Air Force decided to retire the F-117A. (Yes I know that the F/A-22 can do some of the mission, and the B-2 maybe kind of sort of adapted to parts of the mission, but you really would not want to.)
Given what we do know about the program the question is do we need 2000 plus of the jewels?
The service that is going to be hurt the most if the F-35B is a failure is the United States Marine Corp, the Royal Air Force will be a close second. There is not follow on for the AV-8B, which are getting pretty long in the tooth, parts are becoming a major issue for this aircraft. It might be a time for the Marines to start to rethink their doctrine on VSTOL. Other than in exercises have the Marines been forced in any significant military operation to operate the AV-8B in VTOL mode only, or have they had the luxury of operations from CTOL facilities?
If the issues with the F-35C continue The United States Navy still has a plan B, in the FA-18 E/F/G. The United States Air Force could continue with the F-35A, but limited the number of airframes purchased to a few hundred, produce a new block variant of the F-16 and or an uprated F-15E.
It comes down to a basic question, which I just have not seen discussed much anywhere, and that is “Just how many stealth aircraft are really needed after you have obtained control of the battlefield airspace”? Given that the past few major actions would at best be characterized as High versus Low and Stealth is not a predominate factor for a majority of the engagement, it does have it place early in the engagements in the SEAD mission, but once the air defense system have been render ineffective either by being destroyed or due to lack of replacement parts and reloads, stealth does not play any role in the continuing engagement.
An aircraft system that tries to be everything to everyone in the end typically becomes nothing to anyone. The F-35 is beginning to look that type of weapon system, a veritable Swiss Army knife, it looks good but for many situations, however it is just not that good and for the most part impracticable if not impossible to use in any meaningful way. Given the total program costs to date that first bomb dropped in anger by the F-35 will be very expensive.
I was taught that war is the application of violence to achieve a desired outcome in an effective, and efficient manner. Will the F-35 meet this definition? It should be effective; the question is will it be efficient?
The F-35 is thought of as some type of magic silver bullet. Stealth will protect it in combat. The problem is that stealth will only get you so far, yes can delay detection, and yes it can mitigate interception, but once the darkness has been pierced it will not stop holes appearing in the airframe from bullet, or shrapnel. Just like the British and German night bombers of World War II once you were caught in the spotlights you were shot down no matter what you did.
If the ultimate mission for the F-35 is to penetrate and either destroy or render a high tech oppositions Command, Control and Intelligence infrastructure and systems ineffective we might possibly want to look a cheaper can opener. Instead of a magic silver bullet, we might want to think about a swarm of a thousand of unmanned or autonomous not so magic silver bullet to do the heavy lifting with a much smaller fleet of manned aircraft to clean up the surviving enemy assets.
You can only swat a few down at any one time, while you are concentrating on the few, the many have already delivered packages, and completed their mission. They would be the Divine Wind on grand scale. This is especially true with increased uses of Cruise Missiles, UCAV, and armed RPV. That is the order that you would use them in. These systems were either design to make the initial penetrations of enemy airspace or have been adapted to make the initial penetrations of enemy airspace. When used in significant numbers these systems are capable of the destruction of an enemy’s fixed based ground assets (fixed radar sites, offensive and defensive systems sites, power generation and distribution facilities, communication switching facilities, POL, Logistics and transport facilities, and air defense/operation facilities), and to a limited extent mobile ground based offensive and defensive system.
These various unmanned or remote operated systems are about as exciting as paint drying. They are cheaper to develop than the current manned aircraft system. Provided they are developed with either a single mission type or to a few limited mission types their development costs can be easier to control.
It is to be expected that significant numbers of the vehicles will be loss in combat. In the case of the cruise missiles 100 percent will be loss, therefore they should be the some of the cheapest to produce. In the case of the UCAV and the RPV initial combat losses rate in excess of 50 percent should be unexpected. In the cases where damaged UCV and RPV do return, the operational philosophy should be to salvage and then scrap. Forward field repair should not be an option. Forward field repair is too expensive. Salvage and scrap would only be performed at depot levels.
The goal should be to reduce logistics footprint of the forward operational units, it will also reduces the intrinsic knowledge and training level required of the system for the forward deployed personnel (when forward operational loss do occur the pipeline for the replacements are significantly reduced). On one side it will place more slightly more strain on the logistics system to get fresh rounds/systems out to the forward units and to recovered damaged round/systems. But on the other side it will significantly reduce the sustainment requirements for the forward units, they are just not going to be that big, food, fuel, water requirements will be significantly reduced. It takes a great deal of pallet space to support a forward deployed soldier, so every one that you do not have to forward deploy is significant savings.
These systems should be cheap to produce even to the point of reducing reliability of the individual round, and they should be produced in large numbers. They should be thought of much in the same way as any ammunition round be it a bullet or an artillery shell. One could argue that in many ways they are nothing more than artillery rounds with greater range (I know that this will hurt the feelings of members of the various services aviation communities, but you all are big boys and girls and you will get over it), with more smarts, but no more smarts than is required to perform its designed function. But just like the artillery round once it is fired it is on its way. In the situations where the environment is hostile to the performance of the mission due to counter systems you must put enough of these rounds on the target to overwhelm the defensive system and destroy the target. The round does not care if it hits a target that has been render ineffective or destroyed by the previous round.
The Israel Iron Dome system is a very nice system, but I am sure that given the right conditions even it can be overwhelmed. The Iron Dome system is not cheap, and its rounds are not cheap. You are basically destroying a dumb cheap round with a very expensive smart round. Economics are not on the defenders side.
Israel has been lucky that to date the opposition forces have not massed enough weapons for such an attempt, or maybe they were just trying to get a handle on the systems performance envelope? One question that the IDF should be asking is what did the opposition forces learn about the Iron Dome system from their last demonstration? I suspect that various interested parties were watching and watching intently, observing, and cataloging the various events as they unfolded, and that today they are formulating new tactics and test scenarios.
At the end of the day the winner will be the guy with the last round and the ability to put it down range on the target. On the surface it appears that it is easier to be the offense (your systems do not have to be that smart, and for that matter that accurate, and if they not accurate you just put a larger war head on it). The defense has the more difficult problem to solve, and he has to keep solving the problem with a high degree of accuracy and consistence in order to be successful.
The Offense just has to throw enough projectiles at a single target within a limited amount of time to succeed (One big Time on Target problem, with multiple threat axis if possible).
To the new SECDEF, reduce the F-35 Program, it will bankrupt the United States, there are other options available.