F-35 And Cognitive Dissonance

Doubt that anyone wants to hear my opinions on the F-35 yet, but I’d like to point out some facts that induce cognitive dissonance.

There’s no doubt that the F-35 has enjoyed a run of market success, particularly across NATO, leading some to call it “the real Eurofighter”. The evaluations were conducted with different degrees of transparency, but Finland’s was notably open, and included strong offerings from the current Eurofighter and neighboring Sweden, which included GlobalEye airborne radar platforms and advanced decoys.

One factor in this success is that new customers will get the still-in-development Tech Refresh 3 core configuration and Block 4 upgrade, with new displays, more powerful L3Harris mission computers, an updated radar and electronic warfare system, and many other changes, all for their negotiated unit cost. U.S. taxpayers will have eaten the non-recurring cost of TR3/Block 4, which at last count stood at $16.5 billion.

What is not baked into the latest sales is a solution to the thermal management problems that have been a nagging issue for the F-35 since around 2010. The operational impact of these problems is not clear, but they seem to impose flight-time restrictions, more so at lower altitudes and higher speeds. The currently favored solution is the Pratt & Whitney Engine Core Upgrade (ECU), a new high-pressure section, but RTX Collins has also been offering to replace Honeywell’s Power and Thermal Management System (PTMS).

The ECU has been described as something that is very necessary for the Block 4 hardware, which uses more power and generates more heat. The new PTMS is variously regarded as something that will add margin, and something that is needed to reduce restrictions. For those unfamiliar with the PTMS: it is a complex piece of kit that functions as an auxiliary power unit, a starter (providing electrical power to the electric starter/generators), an emergency power unit and the core of the environmental control system.

The development and unit costs of the ECU and PTMS are undefined.

Everyone needs to read the GAO report on sustainability, released on September 21.

A common theme throughout is that contractors, in the course of guarding their intellectual property, are providing the customer with manuals and training materials that are not adequate. This means that contractor reps are needed to assist maintenance operations that service personnel should be able to accomplish, to track the status of parts in the repair cycle and even to identify part numbers. Also, the delays in the contractor-managed system means that new parts are often used because repaired parts are lost in the depot somewhere. 

All of this prevents the DoD from getting more work done by its own people, while making more money for the contractor, and meanwhile dragging down readiness. And that’s not all: see p21, where a “primary subcontractor” is withholding data because they don’t want LM to get it, presumably because they don’t want to help LM to recompete their contract.

The report heaps most of the blame on the customer for signing the contract that way, and for skimping on depot capacity (~2017) to keep the production rate up – but then, Congress resisted all cutbacks and everyone was still being told that the F-35 would pretty much maintain itself. 

Meanwhile the DoD is investing >$40bn R&D up to 2028 in follow-on combat aircraft, NGAD and F/A-XX. Since being “committed” to 138 F-35s in 2015, with a strong implication that Typhoon would not see 2030, the UK has performed an epic reverse-ferret into GCAP and ECR2. These organizations know a lot about F-35. So does the JPO director, which makes the content and tone of this interview significant, addressing risks of more delay in Block 4.

And yet the F-35 keeps selling. I have theories.

2 thoughts on “F-35 And Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Blain says:

    Would love to hear your theories. Any guesses on NGAD?

    1. Bill Sweetman says:

      Keep an eye out for RAeS Aeronautics magazine next month…

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