Sunday, February 01, 2015

It's Ugly, Too

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

As I mentioned last week, one of the things Republicans always use to dismiss any idea that helps the middle class is, “How are you going to pay for that?” Infrastructure spending, help for college, getting more people insured — it’s always the same sneer: “How are you going to pay for that?”

Well, I have one idea that would help pay for a lot of good stuff: Junk the F-35 program.
In case you’re not familiar, permit me to indulge in a little aviation geekery. The F-35 “Lightning II” is a multi-purpose warplane developed by Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon intends to buy 2,400 of them over the next few years at a cost of $400 billion.
The Lightning II is intended to do it all: bombing, close air support of ground troops, air defense, recon — it’s like the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft. The naval variant is designed to operate from aircraft carriers. A version for the Marines has vertical takeoff and landing capability. The idea is that using one type of aircraft for multiple roles and branches of the military will standardize parts, repairs, etc.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, right? 
There’s only one problem: The bloody thing doesn’t work.
Last summer, the entire fleet of existing F-35’s had to be grounded because one of them caught fire on the runway. It’s the 13th time the fleet’s been grounded since 2007. Multiple studies have revealed a host of other problems. The pilot’s helmet-mounted display doesn’t work. The inertial navigation system doesn’t work.
It can’t land safely on an aircraft carrier because the tailhook doesn’t work. It doesn’t accelerate well because it’s so heavy, and using the afterburner for extra speed damages the aircraft. The main air to air missile doesn’t work, and no one can seem to figure out why. A new and sophisticated threat detection system can’t tell the difference between an incoming missile and the airplane’s own flares.
According to a report from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the “lift fan” that gives the Marine version the ability to take off and land vertically is so vulnerable to “catastrophic damage” from ground fire that a single bullet could bring the plane down. As the old saying goes, this thing’s so broke down, if it was a dog I’d take it out back and shoot it.
And yet the military seems determined to go ahead with this boondoggle, exhibiting truly Rumsfeldian arrogance in the process.
For instance, a test pilot who’d flown hundreds of hours in the F-35 expressed concerns that the cockpit design made it hard to spot threats from behind, which is more than a minor concern for a fighter pilot. So how did the program manager for the project respond? According to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told a group of Department of Defense bigwigs, “Put that pilot in a cargo aircraft, where he won’t worry about getting gunned down.”
In December, defense reporter Tyler Rogoway revealed an Air Force report that the plane’s finicky engine has problems running on fuel from trucks warmed by sitting in the sun (a bit dicey when you think about where these things are likely to be operating). The Air Force’s solution: Don’t fix the plane, paint the fuel trucks white.
They’re even fighting to retire planes that do work, like the venerable A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, to free up money and ground crews for a plane that isn’t going to be ready for years — if ever.
The other day, Iraqi sources reported that an A-10 attacking elements of ISIS in Iraq had four anti-aircraft missiles fired at it, “but that did not cause the aircraft any damage, prompting the remaining [ISIS] elements to leave the bodies of their dead and carry the wounded to escape toward the Shirqat district.”
So we’ve got a ground attack plane that can shrug off four AA missiles and send the terrorists scurrying, and that’s the plane the military wants to replace with one that catches fire on the runway.
We still need warplanes, but we need ones that work. We can save money modernizing and upgrading the ones that are proven able to do their jobs, rather than blowing billions on a lemon like the F-35.
That $400 billion will build a lot of roads and bridges. It’ll send a lot of young people to school. It’ll get a lot of people health care. So you want to know “where we’re going to get the money” for programs to help Americans? Let’s start by getting rid of a hideously expensive fighter jet that defends no one but the bank accounts of defense contractors and looks like it’ll kill more American airmen than the enemy will.