The mangled myths dogging the joint strike fighter

With the RAAF’s first two operational joint strike fighters arriving in early December, long-time critics have launched a fresh wave of claims that the aircraft is a disaster.

Early in September, a writer in a major Australian newspaper declared that US pilots had ‘finally forced into the open one of the greatest cover ups in the modern world: the disaster that is the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) or F-35’. This claim is maybe one of the most ironic of all myths about the JSF, given it’s one of the most openly reported and heavily scrutinised development projects in world history.

The report went on to say, ‘America’s pilots could see that the JSF was no match for equivalent Russian and Chinese aircraft. Add to that bad management in the US air force and the US pilots have been leaving the USAF force [sic] in droves. Who wants to fly a death machine into battle?’

The big problem with the resurrection of myths about JSF capability trouble is that they are wrong. Another problem with the regurgitation of earlier claims is that many issues aired earlier have been resolved over the course of the JSF’s development. So we are hearing old news dressed up as new insights.

It’s worth saying something simple up front: the jets are operational with US and Israeli forces. The Israelis have used them operationally this year.

And the jets have proved very effective in the US Red Flag exercise—the most rigorous air combat contest held in peacetime—which pits forces from the US and allies such as Australia against teams trained to perform as the ‘enemy’ and equipped as much as possible to fight using the tactics of a potential adversary. F-35s achieved kill ratios of over 20 to 1. That’s an impressive empirical proof of capability and performance.

The US company that builds the JSF, Lockheed Martin Corporation, flew Australian journalists, myself included, to its plants in Fort Worth, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, to examine the project. The information I gathered through that trip, including from US Air Force personnel, is helpful in understanding the actual status of the jets and the production program.

So, on to some of the claims.

Are JSF pilots voting with their feet?

No. US Air Force pilots across all aircraft types are being recruited by airlines that can pay more than the US government, but JSF pilots aren’t unique in this situation. The pattern of competitive recruitment from airlines recurs as economic conditions change.

JSF pilots I have spoken to say the stealthy, multi-purpose fifth-generation jet is easy to fly, revolutionary in its capabilities, and very popular with those operating it.

On the claim that Russian and Chinese aircraft are superior, Lockheed Martin employees said that on the scant information available about aircraft such as the PLA’s Chengdu J-20 fighter and Russia’s Su-57, it appeared that both lagged the F-35 by 10 to 15 years in terms of stealth and other key capabilities. The Russians seem to have switched effort across to the Su-35, maybe showing the developmental and funding difficulty they were having with the Su-57.

The head of ASPI’s defence and strategy program, Michael Shoebridge, says various analysts tend to toss up comparisons between the JSF and the Russian and Chinese aircraft and usually combine this with a list of JSF developmental problems over time.

Shoebridge says that what these critics miss in their analysis is the exhaustive scrutiny of such US projects through the transparency built into them. The US government, through Congress, the US Department of Defense and the US Government Accountability Office, has provided reams of warts-and-all disclosure on the development of the JSF. In contrast, there’s almost no disclosure of the developmental difficulties in the Russian and Chinese programs.

This leads to analysis focusing on the JSF’s problems, while these other nations’ capability programs are almost assumed to have no issues. That is likely to lead to two consequences:

  • underestimation of JSF capability (particularly when it operates as part of an integrated force of systems, sensors and shooters—as it is designed to do)
  • overestimation of the Chinese and Russian capabilities—a bad case of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns’—with nothing but upside attributed to others’ efforts, despite the inherent difficulty of their programs.

Shoebridge agrees that the JSF program has indeed experienced problems and delays. Even a critical eye, though, has to recognise there is a track record of resolving complex issues through that development.

A June 2018 Government Accountability Office report notes the extensive work required across the life of the JSF to adapt the capability through continuous development. Shoebridge says that’s a sensible assessment for a system that will remain in service for decades.

‘To me’, he says, ‘the bigger message is the fact that the GAO report focuses mainly on controlling the acquisition cost and cost of ownership and improving overall system reliability. That’s a symptom of technical success.’

One oft-repeated claim is that the JSF is massively more expensive than its fourth-generation predecessors. In fact, as the jet shifts from development into production the cost is sliding down.

While the first models off the production line cost well over US$100 million each, the current tranche of F-35A models—the version Australia will buy at least 72 of—cost US$94.3 million each.

Lockheed Martin executives insist that by the time the RAAF pays for the bulk of its jets, the ‘fly-away’ cost will be below US$80million per plane. By comparison, the latest Super Hornet advanced fourth-generation jets cost US$78 million each.

The company says it’s working to drive F-35 maintenance costs down to around the equivalent of maintaining fourth-generation fighters.

A gap in the F-35’s capability is the need for a more effective maritime strike capability. Australia is working with Norway to build such a weapon to be added to the JSF arsenal.

An old claim re-emerged this week that the JSF could be taken down by a lightning strike. Lockheed Martin said that issue had been resolved and the aircraft could survive a direct strike by lightning. And while it’s never entirely safe to fly any aircraft into lightning conditions, there are no specific or unique restrictions on the JSF flying in such conditions.

Let me give one example of the inordinate level of scrutiny the JSF is exposed to and take the time to rebut it in equally inordinate detail.

A safety issue which emerged over a year ago was concern that the weight of the helmet could result in the shock from a parachute opening breaking the neck of a very light pilot ejecting from the aircraft.

The helmet is heavy because it’s a key part of the aircraft’s capability. It’s linked to six cameras placed around the fuselage to give the pilot an extraordinary level of all-round vision. The pilot can look ‘through’ the fuselage or down through the floor and see the landscape below.

For a time, pilots weighing less than about 62 kilograms were barred from flying the aircraft.

The risk to the pilot was reduced by installing a switch in the ejector seat, which slightly slows the parachute’s deployment at high speeds and reduces the opening shock.

In addition, a support panel has been added to the parachute’s rear risers to stop the pilot’s head being flung backwards during ejection. The helmet’s weight has also been reduced.

The pilot weight restriction has now been lifted.

It’s also been claimed often that the F-35 has proved inferior to older aircraft in dogfights. US and Australian pilots have pointed out that the F-35 is designed to identify its enemies and destroy them long before the opposing pilots even know it’s there. That is an operational advantage of far more importance to survivability and combat success than dogfight performance.

Back to the Red Flag results, if facts can help slay myths …