Marines’ Stealth Fighter Repeating Navy Jet’s Embarrassing History
F-35B making same mistakes as canceled A-12, test pilot Chip Dudderar warned
In 2010 air power consultant Dudderar, a retired Navy test pilot, penned informal, unclassified analyses for several admirals outlining the problems with the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Dudderar focused his attention on the Marines’ F-35B jump jet model.
Read the first analysis here. What follows is the second of Dudderar’s warnings to the Navy, edited for length, style and clarity.
The Pentagon’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the biggest weapons development in history — and one of the most important.
But it’s not without precedent, especially in all the ways it’s going wrong. The JSF’s vertical-landing F-35B model, in particular, is repeating the same mistakes that doomed the Navy’s A-12 Avenger stealth attack plane in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
I should know. I piloted Navy warplanes over a 28-year career that included operational flying and testing. I flew in Vietnam. I flew light-attack and strike fighters for most of three decades. I flew the AV-8A Harrier operationally on exchange duty with the U.S. Marine Corps for three years.
I had three tours of duty participating in the flight testing of every tactical jet flown by the Navy and Marines in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. I flew many airplanes belonging to the other military branches as well as those of our allies.
And after leaving active duty I extensively studied the A-12, which went down in flames in 1991 after contractors McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics copped to weight increases, budget overruns and schedule delays. The bill totaled nearly $2 billion. But it could have exceeded $50 billion if development had continued.
As an expert witness for the Department of Justice for five years, I analyzed the technical and programmatic flaws of the doomed A-12 effort to a degree that was not even possible for contemporary participants in the program, due to the security classification.
Looking back, I realize that the A-12 and F-35 programs share several remarkable and disturbing similarities.
Parallel paths to perdition
The A-12 was conceived to apply a single technological trait — low observability (LO), or stealth — for somewhat uncertain mission enhancements. In the process of applying LO, the airplane had to suffer some flying quality and performance penalties that significantly reduced its flexibility and range of mission capability, therefore narrowing its utility to the Navy.
But the Navy and industry fell in love with LO as an end in itself and forgot that this airplane had to succeed in day-to-day operations in the uncompromising environment aboard a ship. The A-12 contractors promised miracles knowing that they could not deliver in the time and with the money they bid for the program. The A-12 pitted the Navy against their industry partners in a nasty battle over cost, schedule and performance that resulted in a fatal loss of candor and intellectual honesty.
In desperation to save the failing program — although one could fairly argue that it was doomed from its very first day — both parties fudged their cost and program risk estimates and passed along that bad data to the public and to program oversight bodies. Basically, they lied.
In the end, the A-12 house of cards finally collapsed under very superficial scrutiny from within the Office of Secretary of Defense. Many of the really gory details were later squeezed out of the security murk during the years of litigation that followed the program cancellation. It’s clear in retrospect that the nation, the Navy and industry were all saved from a horribly expensive blunder by the cancellation of the A-12.
The stealthy, vertical-landing F-35B is traveling a parallel path in almost all respects. The single technology that has spawned the lust for F-35B is short takeoff vertical landing, or STOVL. The Marines have built their entire argument for F-35B around the unique virtues of STOVL, claiming this attribute is indispensable for future war.
But STOVL has never been used — and never will be used — as the Marines contend. For that reason, a conventional fixed-thrust tactical airplane such as the F-35C could perform the Marines’ missions just fine.
The penalties imposed by STOVL, mostly in the form of the variable engine thrust and specialized flight controls, will fatally narrow the range of mission capability available to the nation due to the physical limits they impose on the really important combat capabilities necessary for close air support of ground troops.
The F-35B will also produce an absolutely prohibitive logistical burden on the Marines and Navy when deployed in a true STOVL environment: the proposed austere operations ashore or afloat.
The F-35B development program, like the A-12 before it, is also outrageously expensive — more than $400 billion to design and build 2,400 copies — and is floundering technologically, with repeated delays, safety groundings and spec downgrades.
And due to the classified nature of much of the technical data, we’re in the middle of development of the new plane and we don’t actually know how bad things really are. Again, just like happened with the A-12.
Since the F-35 has not been cancelled and investigated, at present we can only guess what the new plane will ultimately cost us as a nation.
Regardless of the final tab, however, the nation will not get its money’s worth for this program. Plus the F-35B actually puts its healthier and more robust siblings, the non-vertical A and C models, at serious programmatic risk by adding cost and complexity to their designs and management.
The Marines may know all of this, but their lust for a STOVL airplane, like the Navy’s lust for the stealthy A-12 two decades ago, has blinded them to reality. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
The Marines had very little to do with the A-12. That could help explain why they don’t see this F-35B issue as a repetition of that sordid chapter in military acquisition history. Perhaps we should remind them — and alert their unknowing or duped allies in Congress and the Pentagon about the rest of the story.
The Navy recovered nicely from the A-12 program disaster by returning to basics and applying better judgment in their plans for the future. The sailing branch, which oversees USMC weapons development, should impose that logic on the Marines.
Canceling the A-12 saved America a lot of money and possibly even spared lives in wartime. Likewise the F-35B should be terminated immediately to limit the damage it’s inflicting on our budgets and our fighting ability.
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