The people working on various aspects of the F-35 fighter program must be very frustrated. The program is still highly classified, so that much that is taking place within the program is simply not available for discussion. And yet, the F-35’s critics are baying and howling and often deliberately misrepresenting the program and its products.
The F-35 program is not one program. It is several. Its products are three different aircraft and several brand-new, and highly innovative, technologies. It provides quantum leaps in aviation technology in many different areas. Simultaneously achieving all these technical breakthroughs has obviously proved difficult. But that is not surprising — it is the norm in innovative engineering.
The program is producing three very different aircraft: the F-35A is a conventional takeoff aircraft for the Air Force. The F-35B is a vertical takeoff and landing capable aircraft for the Marine Corps. The F-35C is a catapult takeoff and carrier landing aircraft for the Navy. From a distance, the aircraft look alike and inside they share much avionics and the core of the engine. But don’t be fooled. These are very different aircraft.
The F/A-18 Hornet and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet also look like they are the same aircraft. But they are really two completely different aircraft. The Hornet was developed in the 1970s and was manufactured in the 1980s. The Super Hornet was developed in the 1990s and was in production after 2000. The Super Hornet is 20% larger, up to 15,000 pounds heavier, has 40% greater range and 50% greater endurance. They look alike simply because the Super Hornet borrowed excellent aerodynamic design from the Hornet. Time and money saved.
Then why are they both called “F-18”? Try selling a brand new aircraft to Congress! For that matter, try selling three different aircraft to Congress: just call them all F-35s and make sure they look alike.
The real intent of unifying the various F-35 programs under one management umbrella was to make sure that each of the three different aircraft, and innovative technologies, would be fully compatible for Joint Service Operations. Moreover, there is substantial fabrication and logistics commonality and this reduces overall unit cost and subsequent support cost.
It should be noted that the F-35 development effort is not quite complete. There are still bugs to be fixed. This is normal, and normally provided for in the Integrated Master Plan and Schedule.
At a similar point in the development of the M1 Abrams tank, its critics were howling for program cancellation because of the tank’s many developmental bugs. The bugs were fixed and the M1 proved itself, in battle, to be by far the deadliest tank in history.
Even though Initial Operating Capability (IOC) has been declared for the F-35A and the F-35B, this does not mean that these aircraft have their full combat capability — although some units have been forward deployed. IOC really means that these aircraft are training the crews that will eventually operationally fly improved production models. And, in a pinch, they could fight.
My old boss, mentor, and dear friend, the late Bill O’Neil, used to say that a fighter plane is a truck. Its job is to deliver a munition to the right place at the right time. It doesn’t matter what it looks like. Try telling that to a fighter jock. What he wants is something looking sleek and deadly!
But Bill was right, and his contribution to the F-35 is major. I mentioned that several innovative programs existed under the F-35 umbrella. One of the most important of these is Bill’s Distributed Aperture System — the DAS.
The DAS on the F-35 consists of six infrared sensors (cameras) placed at various parts of the aircraft. A complex computing system seamlessly fuses the imagery and presents it to the helmet visor of the pilot in such a way that wherever he looks he sees the world outside the aircraft as if the walls of the aircraft are simply not there. No need to roll the aircraft to see the ground below, just look down. No need to turn the aircraft to look straight behind, just turn your head. The wings are no longer there to obscure your vision.
Imagine a pilot about to land his nose-up aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is night. It is storming. The carrier’s lights are doused because an enemy is nearby. To the naked eye the carrier simply does not exist. Only the lights of the Optical Landing System are visible. If you have any doubts about the seriousness of this scenario just talk to a carrier qualified pilot, as I have. It scares even the most experienced pilots!
Because the DAS sensors see in the infrared, night looks like day. With DAS, the pilot looks down just below his instrument panel. The now brightly lit carrier’s deck is fully visible to him at all times. Landing is so very much easier. Carrier pilots are going to love the DAS.
But the F-35 DAS is in its infancy. It is easy to envision where this technology is going to go, with greatly increased spatial resolution and hyperspectral imaging. DAS is definitely the future — the future for all aircraft — thanks to the F-35 program.
Any way you slice it, the DAS is a technical achievement of the first magnitude. The F-35 Program Office deserves great credit for betting on the vision, and the genius, of William F. O’Neil.
So the F-35 program not only has produced three different aircraft, it has sponsored major advances in aviation technology — the work of wizards.
Still, the critics howl: The new engines gulp marginally more fuel than 4th generation engines. The air intakes are too large and draggy. Exotic coatings mean aircraft maintenance is increased and availability is decreased. The list goes on. This is selective reporting by the critics.
The critics deliberately fail to note that the F-35 engines have 50% greater thrust with a 50% greater thrust to weight ratio and yet are the same size and weight as the 4th gen engines. With higher thrust-to-weight, range is extended. With the larger intakes high altitude performance is significantly enhanced. With internal weapons carriage range is extended, not diminished.
And, always keep in mind that it is the Government that writes the requirements, not the contractors. The F-35 projects must meet those technical requirements or the companies don’t get paid.
Experienced fighter pilots love the plane. John Venable, in his “Operational Assessment of the F-35 Fighter,” interviewed senior fighter pilots who tested early developmental models of the various F-35’s. Those tests were the source of much of the criticism. Yet, with a few still to be corrected performance measures, the testers preferred these new aircraft to their more familiar 4th generation fighters. Since that earlier report, some of these testers have flown further developed versions of the F-35. They are amazed at the improvement. These planes are shaping up to be real air combat winners.
In all the controversy it is vital to remember the F-35 series of aircraft are stealthy. They can deliver munitions to the right place at the right time inside Integrated Air Defenses that would blow 4th generation aircraft out of the sky.
Yes, the three different F-35 aircraft are still teething. Soon these three kittens will grow up to become ferocious Tigers!