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McCain Misfires on F-35: Rushes Towards the Past

Posted by Robbin Laird on

Robbin Laird, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is a well known supporter of the F-35. When he read Sen. McCain’s recent criticism of the program Laird immediately began to pen a rebuttal. We present his analysis and commentary.

The whirling dervish of the Senate has struck again. Rather than rebuilding US and allied defense capabilities after Afghanistan and Iraq, the senator is stuck in the 20th century. Rather than building a force appropriate to the 21st century around a core element – the F-35 – the senator continues his attacks on the program at the center of U.S. and allied and defense restructuring. These suggested actions would accede to the Chinese grand plan in the Pacific Basin by making our total joint Air Forces (US and allied) vulnerable to their missile systems and help ensure Chinese strategic superiority.

Not a good way to remember Pearl Harbor Day, we would think.

Focusing on the falsehood of the $1.2 trillion dollar airplane, and a complete disregard of every innovation generated by the program which will allow for a complete re-norming of Allied and US defense, the senator stands firm on cutting the program and stabbing our allies in the back. J’accuse, senator: you speak for the past; the future has left you behind.

Let us start with an amazingly flawed speech. We will then highlight what Sen. McCain either deliberately ignores or simply does not know. Either is bad enough.

Let us start with this. “If these costs of developing and buying the aircraft were not high enough, the Pentagon now estimates that operating and sustaining these new aircraft may cost as much as $1 trillion over their planned service life. Thankfully, we have reason to believe that this jaw-dropping number may be artificially high and can be reduced.”

To set the record straight, the senator should ask his staff to do some homework. Shifting from the legacy air fleet to the F-35 fleet will save trillions of dollars in operational support. Although the headlines were generated on the more than $1 trillion in support costs of the F-35 fleet in 2065 dollars, what was missed that the legacy fleet in those very 2065 dollars would cost more than $4 trillion dollars.

The plane has been designed to optimize maintainability and to reduce the amount of touch labor on the plane by at least 30%. And the fleet commonality will lead to significant ability to operate, deploy and sustain fleets of aircraft.

Indeed, the JSF is a fleet, not a single plane. The senator never mentions the allies to whom the U.S. has committed to produce this aircraft soon and in manufactured numbers. The allies are completely missing in the senator’s worldview, which is so Inside the Beltway.

The F-35 is part of enabling a coalition of like-minded states and of shaping a global fleet capability. Notably, allies worldwide are building ships upon which the F-35B could land and operate. The Italians have a carrier upon which the F-35B will land. And the senator apparently wishes to put our ability to work with the Italians and their generous hosting of the USN and Air Force in Italy at risk. Italy was the base from which most of the Libyan operation unfolded, yet there is not a shred of evidence that the senator connects his tirades on the F-35 with US allies. It reminds one of the great line in Animal House: “Your f…..d: You trusted us.”

The myopic IOC focus on cost, forgets the capability issue, most notably coalition capability. In a cost downturn, the US wants to have fewer or more allies? The US wants to have a globally enabled fleet of C4ISR linked aircraft, or stovepiped fleets located on specific US decks?

By being a fleet, of As, Bs, and Cs, deployed worldwide the US and its allies can shape core capabilities in common. The senator simply misses this point. And as we have argued recently here the ability for allies to shape hubs, not bases, to allow the expansion of capability, for which the US taxpayer will play precious little.

And then there is the interview with the PAO [PEO Vice Adm. David Venlet] of the F-35 program with which the senator tees up his speech. If he or his staffers could read carefully, the core topic sentence for the interview as published is this one: “The required changes to the aircraft aren’t a matter of safety or of the F-35’s ability to perform its missions, Venlet said. They’re necessary, though, to make sure the plane’s structural parts last the 8,000 hours of service life required.”

And the interview highlighted why the F-35 is a solid aircraft.

• The “weaknesses” are not an unusual occurrence in fighter aircraft development programs.

• “The discoveries are not a quote, ‘problem’ with the airplane.”

• Flight-testing of the F-35 is ‘going extremely well.’

• The modification vignette outlined in the fourth paragraph of the article is common practice for every current U.S. fighter aircraft program in existence today.

• By the end of the first quarter of 2014, the concurrency issues outlined in the article will be largely mitigated — first lifetime durability testing will be complete (mid-2013) and full hardware qualification will be complete (Mar 2014). This provides maximum transparency and engineering insight for the production decision and final hardware configuration. Though Block 3 software development and testing will be on-going in 2014, the hardware necessary for Block 3 capabilities (TR-2) will be part of all Japanese LRIP-8 deliveries.

• Meeting the Stealth and Mission requirements of a 5th Generation Fighter

• Production completing at 2 per month and will be at 4 per month next year

• All known “hot spots” will be fixed by LRIP 8.

The plane is ready to be built now. It is built around an insertable chip and software upgradeable ongoing insertion package. The software will never be finished until the plane stops flying. The key change is that the hardware does not have to be modified dramatically with the insertion of chips and hardware,

The F-35 is not designed for the early century’s concept of the knife fight; and it has the growth potential for internal changes to its systems to always incorporate the best weapons while expanding empowerment of combat pilots to have three-dimensional knowledge to elevate the fight to a new level.

In other words, the F-35 may actually be its own follow-on. For example, instead of the old paradigm of needing to completely build another fighter to move from the F-2A “grape” to F-4U “Whistling Death,” the Marines can just change and update the F-35B system, sensors and weapons. The Marines flying the F-35B with a pre-planned product improvement design philosophy to pull and replace or add system capabilities will have total flexibility to add new sensors and improved AA missiles currently being designed.

Evolving concepts of Marine Corps operational development is at chapter one, because recognizing and exploiting man-machine three-dimensional knowledge is truly a brave new world. Consequently, the F-35B is capable of constantly updating the next generation of U.S. fighters but not by building a new airframe but staying inside the F-35B basic airframe and adding the next generation of systems and weapons.

The learning curve to improve sensors, system capability and weapons carried quickly compared to building another airframe may be a new American way of industrial surging. The American arsenal of democracy may be shifting from an industrial production line to a clean room and a computer lab as key shapers of competitive advantage.

And the Senator seemingly misses the 21st century fight. There are several aspects of what we already know about the F-35 that puts us into the future of air combat and does not keep us flying 40-year-old airframes and cobbling together fleets of stove-piped assets.

First, this year’s Northern Edge highlighted the radar and mission systems of the F-35 are needed NOW. The performance of the systems was significantly greater than legacy aircraft, which, as the senator knows, are seriously compromised. A little staff work would be good here.

Why the policy community wishes to ignore Northern Edge is beyond us. But the survival of the US air fleet and every defense aspect, which depends on it, needs to take lessons learned already from the so-called non-functioning F-35 systems, which the senator alludes to.

Second, rolling out a Pacific strategy, which can deal with a determined and innovative competitor, will be difficult with less assets and financial pressures on the United States. So why not build an allied centered strategy built around F-35s and Aegis ships in the Pacific. Nearly 50% of those assets could be foreign and allow the US to play a considerably more effective role in the Pacific.

Third, core Asian allies can provide significant capability to defend themselves as well as to shape an effective networked capability for operations and deterrence. And significant defense reform is enabled by an act as simple as replacing the three F-16 squadrons with F-35As. As Secretary Wynne could remind Sen. McCain, three squadrons of F-35A’s deployed throughout South Korea would be more survivable and save on manpower and support costs.

This early deployment would also bolster our position across the Pacific. South Korea would be seen as an anchor point for operations from Alaska to Australia. Australia is to receive their tranche of F-35′s in the out years; and would be thrilled to mix and match pilots into the Korean operating theater.

Fourth, if you did not have an F-35 you would have to invent it. A central capability of the F-35 is the integrated combat systems within the aircraft, which make it a very different animal than simply a replacement tactical aircraft. The F-35 is the first combat aircraft, which can see 360 degrees around itself and see more than 800 miles away. And the combat systems allow it to manage that space.

Notably, the Distributed Aperture System (which allows the 360 degree part) can provide the key tool around which missile defense systems can be integrated into a new sensor shooter relationship. As faster and longer-range missiles enter the world’s inventory, an ability to defeat them is essential to the viability of a power projection force like the United States. The F-35 is the centerpiece of this new sensor-shooter relationship.

Even more compelling is the impact of the F-35 on infrastructure. First, there is the infrastructure to deploy. The F-35 is part of shaping a capability to have an economy of force strategy, whereby the availability of the joint services as well as partners will reduce the need to surge a unique service’s planes to the problem.

Second, the maintenance revolution will reduce deployment costs. The shaping of a global sustainment strategy will allow sharing of parts and transparency in supply to allow for basing to become global. And the demands on the transportation system – notably air mobility assets – will come down.

Third, when returning from operations, the fleet will not need to bring home all of the kit it takes to battle. The global sustainment system allows for significant reductions in the footprint that needs to go to the battle. The recent leave-behinds in Iraq reminds one of how useful it is to have an agile sustainment system.

There are many other infrastructure commonalities. The new hangers being built now in Yuma, Arizona and at Eglin AFB will be essentially the same worldwide. The new deck coating laid down on the initial amphibious ships will be used widely to support the fleet. The list is long in this area. Again, having a fleet means economies of scale and savings.

But back in the IOC igloo, we are focused on today’s estimate or perhaps sustainment dollars in 2065. Operational realities apparently do not matter.

Even more amazing is that the allied dimension is of no significance to residents of the IOC Igloo. Many of our closest allies are in the F-35 program. Every F-35 they buy becomes a member of the global fleet. Admiral Mullen once talked about the 1,000-ship Navy as something created by allied cooperation. This cooperation is built into every F-35 bought by allies. The notion of driving up costs by cutting numbers of aircraft runs in the face of supporting core allies.

Why don’t the IOC Igloo residents just come out and say it: there is no strategic perspective on the table and it does not matter if the US throws its allies over the side. At least Lindbergh was honest enough to argue for his isolationist perspective in the 1930s. Eviscerating the global fleet of F-35s would be just that: Lindberghism for the 21st century.

We close with a simple fact. The F-35 is central to the viability of the Navy-Marine team. Without the F-35, the amphibious ready group will soon not have strike aircraft. Instead of being able to deploy 19 supersonic strike aircraft on a USS WASP, you will have none.

The Carrier Battle Group will become less capable of defending itself as the Chinese and others deploy more effective missile threats. If there is no F-35 as a key part of the offensive and defensive capabilities, these expensive assets can become wasting assets. This need not happen.

As we remember Pearl Harbor and the greatest generation, let us not forget this new one, and the I-Pad generation pilots. You cannot be the best flying 40-year-old airframes.

Robbin Laird, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is an international defense consultant, owner of the Second Line of Defense website and a former National Security Council staffer. Ed Timperlake, the co-author, is a former U.S. Marine who works with Laird.

This article has not been written at the direction of or under the behest of any corporation, service or element of the U.S. government. The views in this piece are those of the authors.

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