Designing and producing a new military aircraft is a challenging and at times torturous business. Problems often emerge relatively late in the development process or even when the first aircrafts are rolling off the production line. Then, the manufacturer has to scramble to fix the problems. Almost invariably, the initial unit price proposed for the aircraft turns out to be optimistic or at least dependent on production rates that are difficult to achieve. Yet, over the past four decades at a minimum, the United States has fielded a succession of military aircraft – fighters, bombers, transports, intelligence collection platforms and even unmanned aerial systems – that dominate the skies.
The experienced F-35 program is typical of a military aircraft program. It has had its share of technical, cost and schedule problems. It also suffers from some unique challenges such as that of building three different variants of the same aircraft, including one that can take off and land vertically. Yet, even as the cost of the F-35 comes down, problems are corrected and the threats to fourth-generation aircraft become more severe, the critics continue to hound the program.
If you think that the F-35 is a particularly problem-plagued aircraft or that it must be a lemon because of all the criticisms leveled against it, you are wrong. Virtually every modern military aircraft, particularly fighters, have been subject to nearly identical criticisms. In fact, each of the airplanes that the critics say should be preferred over the F-35, the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 E/F and the A-10 were in their day the targets of similar critiques, sometimes by the very same individuals who today are excoriating the Joint Strike Fighter. Many of these debates were catalogued in a terrific article by Peter Grier in Air Force Magazine.
Back in the day, there was a stormy debate both within the Air Force and in public over the relative merits and cost-effectiveness of the F-15 and F-16, the two fighters that redefined aerial combat in the modern age. The F-15 was criticized by a group of pilots and analysts dubbed the “Fighter Mafia” as being too large, heavy and costly. One persistent F-35 critic trashed the F-15 for being too dependent on air-to-air missiles and too big to win in a close-in dogfight. In 1982, Senator Carl Levin thundered: “This is a dubious purchase costing billions. Why not use a less expensive plane?” He wasn’t talking about the F-22 or F-35 but about the F-15. The F-16, in turn, was opposed by a different faction within the Air Force precisely because it was lightweight and cheap, relying on a single engine. In addition, both airplanes also suffered from teething problems that led U.S. News and World Report to characterize them both as “America’s Jinxed Warplanes.”
Another fighter often cited by critics as an alternative to the F-35, the F/A-18 E/F, went through its own trial by fire. Sold to Congress as a simple upgrade of the extant F/A-18 C/D, the E/F cost almost as much as a brand new design fighter. After procurement had begun, the E/F demonstrated the problem of “wing drop” that would have rendered it unfit for combat. At the time, the Navy withheld $1 billion dollars in payments to Boeing waiting on the fix. Another of the F-35’s current critics opined at the time: “We’re not talking about incompetence as far as aeronautical . . . engineering here; this kind of thing happens all the time. What is terrible about this thing is that it’s in production.” This statement encapsulated the challenge of concurrency both then and now.
The plan to employ the F-35 for the mission of close air support (CAS) currently performed by the A-10 has some experts and pundits almost literally spitting nails. However, it is worth remembering that, at the time, the Army didn’t want the A-10, preferring instead its brand new AH-64 Apache. In the 1980s, critics both in and out of the Air Force questioned the survivability of a low-flying, slow moving airplane in the face of formidable Soviet/Warsaw Pact air defenses.
If we had listened to the critics then (and, in fairness, if the companies building the aircraft hadn’t been able to fix the problems) we would not now have the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 E/F, A-10, B-1, AWACS or C-17. But each of these platforms surmounted technical problems and operational issues to perform magnificently. Our mistake (or more exactly the mistake made by Secretaries of Defense Dick Cheney and Robert Gates) may have been listening to critics regarding the B-2 and F-22. Now that the F-35 appears on a development and cost track very much like all its predecessors, maybe the critics should show a little humility and take a rest.
Find Archived Articles: