Counting The Legs

The last few days of F-35 news took me back in time. To a point two years after a well-remunerated pundit had declared that “if you don’t follow the defense business closely, then you can be excused for believing that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is in trouble”, followed a matter of weeks later, in February 2010, by the unscheduled, nay, rocket-assisted departure of program director MG David Heinz. RAdm Dave Venlet had then been brought in to right the ship, fired much of the team, and discovered that nobody had an earthly clue how big the hole in the hull was.

In December 2011, the first report based on the work of Venlet’s clean-up crew was leaked and I commented about it on Aviation Week’s Ares blog. After listing a few of the problems I signed off with what I thought was one of my better closers, although it is fair to say not everyone agreed:

The full report is densely packed and makes fascinating reading. Personal view? What keeps going through my mind is Gus McCrae from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, after one of the Hat Creek outfit has ridden into a nest of water moccasins:

“Eight sets of bites, not countin’ the legs. Ain’t no point in countin’ the legs.”

So far this week (it’s Wednesday after all):

The Government Accountability Office on Monday updated its reporting on sustainment costs. Of course, there was a top-line scary service-life total for people to argue about, but some of the elements in that total were more worrisome.

Good news: the services now estimate that using their favored metric – operating cost per aircraft per year – their costs are within the “affordability target”. The bad news is that this has been accomplished in two ways since 2020: by reducing the planned flying hours by 21 percent, to 187 hours in the case of the Air Force; and for the Air Force, by raising the affordability target from $4.1 million to $6.8 million.

You can justify lower flying hours, in a way, by observing that a highly automated modern aircraft takes less hands-on pilot training and proficiency flying, and that a lot of training can’t be done outside the simulator because of security issues. But you’re increasing the gap between normal and surge/deployed operations, which is a risk.

And let’s not forget that a fundamental element of the case for JSF, from the word Go, was that it would cost less to operate than in-service fighters.

The GAO also reported that mission-capable rates for the F-35, particularly for the Air Force fleet, are not only below threshold requirements but have declined since 2020. That is not at all good news for a program that should, in theory, be maturing.

But for once the gloomy-guts bean-counters of the GAO got upstaged the next day.

F-35 program director LTG Michael Schmidt testified to the House Armed Services Committee on progress with the TR-3/Block 4 upgrade, or, more precisely, the lack of progress therewith.

When the first TR-3/Block 4 airplane flew in January 2023, TR-3/Block 4 deliveries were due to start in the last quarter. Some of us said “pull the other one” and indeed deliveries have yet to start. Schmidt told HASC that the number of completed but undeliverable aircraft, and their location, is undisclosed. But that was just the beginning of a narrative arc that resembled the old tale That’s What Killed The Dog (if you’re French, Madame la Marquise) in its relentless unpacking of ever worse news.

The program hopes to restart deliveries in August or September, but Schmidt cautioned that any problems requiring another code release will delay that event, by four to six weeks per release. This still wasn’t the worst.

At that point, all that will be released is a “truncated” version of Block 4. This had been foreshadowed in earlier briefings, and was confirmed on Tuesday. Unfortunately, as Schmidt confirmed in discussion with HASC chair Rob Wittman, there is an issue with the truncated version: the missing functions include some essential to combat capability, which won’t arrive until 12-16 months later. That’s last-quarter 2025 – a slip of more than two years since January 2023. Slippages that outrun the calendar are not good news.

Phew, the customer might say, that’s bad but I can live with…

Sorry. The entire multi-year, 80-plus-item Block 4 project is, in Schmidt’s words, being “reimagined”. Already late, the project is being stripped down to a “subset of capabilities that give us the most bang for the buck” because “we have signed ourselves up to pipedreams”. A British colleague asks where that leaves Meteor and Spear 3 – I would say, forget it, this side of 2030.

A basic problem, as Schmidt says, is that “hardware design maturity [is] a significant complicating factor in software integration… we find
ourselves using software to overcome hardware design maturity challenges.” That’s usually a losing game in the design of complex systems. It’s the story of Nimrod AEW3, of the B-1’s original electronic warfare suite, Future Combat System and a lot of other things.

But as Schmidt has also noted, another running problem is that system performance in ground rigs does not always correspond to performance in flight. The idea behind F-35 avionics development and testing was that designs would be demonstrated in the system integration lab on the ground, and then flown in the CATBird testbed, a modified 737 – and then transferred with minimized risk to a real aircraft. It hasn’t worked out that way and CATBird has been parked for years at Palmdale.

But no good tale of horror would be complete without an ominous warning of something making noises in the basement. As Schmidt added in his written statement: “In February, F-35 stakeholders gathered for a Corrosion Summit, where team members identified new corrosion prevention initiatives to maximize mission capability across the fleet.”

That fleet is quite new. Yes, one has heard things. Alloy 7085, anyone?

Do we need to count the legs?

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