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Hot Stuff: The F-35 Just Became 25% More Vulnerable

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Air Force photo

The F-35 over California.

Darn that gravity. Without it, airplanes would be easier to design (yes, there’s be other problems, like people floating off into space, if you’re going to get technical).

But gravity is what makes designing warplanes so tough. Every ounce added to a plane detracts from its performance.

That’s what the Pentagon’s F-35 program is now grappling with.

The three versions of the plane – the F-35A for the Air Force, the F-36B for the Marines, and the F-35C for the Navy – have reached their maximum weights, about 30,000 pounds each.

But F-35 engineers know that required tweaks down the runway will force them to add weight to the plane — to strengthen parts that need to be stronger, add protection of one kind or another, or if components end up weighing more than predicted. So they’ve been whittling away at the plane’s evolving design to make it as light as possible.

That can be a problem, as the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation shop has just revealed in its 2012 report on the F-35.

Two changes designed to cut the plane’s weight by 11 pounds have made it 25% more vulnerable to exploding in mid-air, and other unfavorable outcomes.

It also makes it more vulnerable – gulp – than the airplanes it is replacing. That’s not good for a program whose price tag of $396 billion for the planned buy of 2,457 aircraft makes it the most costly weapon ever built.

Recent tests show that removing nine pounds of fueldraulic fuses and two pounds coolant shutoff valves “results in a 25 percent increase in aircraft vulnerability.”

Notes the DOT&E report about those 32 ounces of valves:

The aircraft uses flammable PAO [Polyalphaolefin] in the avionics coolant system, which has a large footprint on the F-35. The threat in this ballistic test ruptured the PAO pressure line in the area just below the cockpit, causing a sustained PAO‑based fire with a leak rate of 2.2 gallons per minute (gpm). The program assessed that a similar event in flight would likely cause an immediate incapacitation and loss of the pilot and aircraft. The test article, like the production design, lacks a PAO shutoff system to mitigate this vulnerability.

The F-35’s developers are reconsidering that decision.

18 comments
quikev08
quikev08

When do you realize that 35 years is just far too long to put into any aircraft  design?

Especially one that had all the hallmarks of the proverbial 'albatross' (of the around-the-neck variety) from its first flight.

Even more important will be the time spent figuring out what went wrong - so it doesn't happen next time too.


HenryRheault
HenryRheault

Yes. 32 ounces less weight. That's a small price to pay for a measly 25% greater chance of immediate destruction of Pilot and Plane. 

Nazi Germany; What they did was similar to us today (Not in our policies regarding Jews)  ; in the sense; They moved designs a lot. They never stuck with one and made it better, they just wasted all their money on different designs. 

Let's take CrapperTurdman's suggestion, shall we? 
Keep the A-6 or F-14 airframe, and upgrade it. Make ground-attack versions out of it instead of reinventing the wheel totally. 

JeromeBarry
JeromeBarry

"The F-35’s developers are reconsidering that decision."

Therefore, the developers learned that a proposed weight reduction would result in a 25% increase in vulnerability, so they didn't do it.

Dumbass reporter.

CrapperTurdman
CrapperTurdman

This boondoggle should have been axed years ago. There is nothing wrong with the planes we had, they need to be upgraded. The Russians, the Israelis, the Europeans all do that with a good aircraft, they update it and continue to make it better and up to date. The F-22 is a great plane just needs to be worked out in terms of bugs like any other piece of military equipment. But this F-35 was a disaster from day one. This whole stealth thing is good but to add the kitchen sink mentality to any weapons system is going to cost too much and very rarely if ever works. Just look at the FB-111, it was a kitchen sink design and it failed. An updated F-14 would be as close to a 5th generation plane as could be but we scraped them, why? It was a great design way ahead of it's time.

THEFORREAL
THEFORREAL

The F-35 is too heavy ? Why not try "Graphene" ? It is 300 times stronger than steel yet lighter than aluminum . Armored superplane   in the works.a single sheet 0.3 microns thick can support the weight of an elephant.An elephant would need to balance on a sharp pencil sized object to break it's surface. 

MichaelWeston
MichaelWeston

Wow. 

Spend more get less. 

Stick with the F-16 or F-15.

Spend the money on pilot training. 

mslman71
mslman71

I think you mean a 25% increase in vulnerability to a particular scenario rather than an overall increase. For example, 1.25 fuel related failures per 100,000 flight hours rather than 1.0 related failures per 100,000 flight hours. 

ThomasLovesYahushua
ThomasLovesYahushua


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jacobthestupendous
jacobthestupendous

"Yes, there’s be other problems..." This flagrant grammar error wasn't even hiding in the middle of the article or in a big paragraph; it was right at the beginning, where even the shortest attention spans are still engaged.

Also, regarding "25% More Vulnerable" in the title of the article, it seems misleading and sensationalist for you to phrase it that way. Going from a 4 in a million chance of spontaneous explosion to a 5 in a million chance of spontaneous explosion would be a 25% increase, but the overall likelihood of the jet exploding spontaneously would still be similarly negligible. As you've phrased it, it looks like the engineers decided to accept a 1 in 4 chance of catastrophic death in order to shave 13 lbs from the aircraft, and that is ridiculous. What are the before- and after- rates of failure?

MezzoForte
MezzoForte

Patently stupid and wasteful. Again and again. The entire system of acquisition needs to be overhauled, the dead weight removed, and the influences shut down...permanently.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

"That’s not good for a program whose price tag of $396 billion for the planned buy of 2,457 aircraft makes it the most costly weapon ever built."

The price tag is actually going up from about $1 trillion dollars (for the maintenance, parts and service over the expected life of the aircraft) to about $1.5 trillion dollars because of maintenance changes and other issues.

It still hasn't flown right.  Their being given to Marine units (They're not the B VTOL version because that still doesn't work, but the Navy's C version) is just a smoke screen to placate investors.  Those planes have no weapons systems because THAT isn't done yet.

The final nail in the coffin of this boondoggle is the fact that it was intended to fight a war that we'll never fight.  Iraq and Afghanistan are the kinds of wars we'll be fighting - urban terrorists.  The integration of a "global economy" makes fighting a shooting war between "superpowers" economic suicide for both sides.  It's a cold-war era mentality aircraft in a post cold-war world.

And it's not the only one.  The F-22 Raptor has been consistently shown up by much less expensive (and, apparently, far more capable) aircraft in head-to-head mock-dog-fights with our European allies.  Add to that the trouble with their oxygen delivery systems, and we have two extremely expensive boondoggles (between them costing about $2.5 trillion dollars or more over their expected service life) that don't work, can't be relied upon and will do nothing to actually protect America.

A fifty million dollar drone could be made to attack targets on the sea, land and in the air based on what we have NOW.  One billion dollars for development tops because almost everything is off-the-shelf technology.  A piloted drone (with a programmed flight AI when direct control isn't possible) is more accurate, cost-effective and CAN out-fly anything anyone has a pilot in today.  A drone can be designed to pull 50+ G turns and easily out-maneuver anything manned..  A human can't do much more than about 10.  A drone pilot can pee, rotate out with a fresh replacement mid-mission, sip coffee, stay awake and alert and even ask someone if the target they've locked on is the right one.  Friendly fire from above could become a thing of the past.

Instead, we spend trillions of dollars on systems that can get shot down by someone ELSE with more vision, more fiscal sense and a far better grasp of the reality behind armed conflict in the 21st century.

GentlemanAdventurer
GentlemanAdventurer

I think this is actually the most telling line, "But F-35 engineers know that required tweaks down the runway will force them to add weight to the plane . . . "

Why?  Why do we have to put up with the reality that any weapon system (air/land/sea) will inevitably morph into something bigger, more complex, supposedly more lethal, but always more expensive?  As a former Intel Officer and definitely not an Acquisitions Officer, I have always taken a darkly comic amusement at the Orwellian term "requirements" when the DoD outlines the systems it wants.  It is as if these O5/O6/GEN or FLAG officers forgot their Clausewitz.  You buy the tools necessary to enable your state to win wars.  If the system in question is sub-par, you don't buy it (or you improve it).  But if you need a BMW to win your war, you don't buy a Bugatti.  Because your war objectives are part of your overall objectives . . . and that includes the fact that the cost difference between said BMW and Bugatti can be spent elsewhere.  Perhaps on the military.  Perhaps on schools.  But the bottom line is . . . you don't need the Bugatti.

Vpanoptes
Vpanoptes

Hmmm, $200 million+ fighter blows up to save 11 pouds, sounds like a bargain to me.  Where is George Carlin now that we need him?

gamerk316
gamerk316

Graphine can't be used in ICs because there is no way to shut off the electric flow due to lack of a bandgap.

Plus, theres cost of production, which would double (at least) the cost of the plane.

swh114
swh114

@mslman71 Was thinking the exact same thing.
Also need to consider whether the 25% is statistically significant.
We've all heard reports of the "murder rate doubling" in a town only to learn that it went from 1 to 2.

Does the F-35 change take the chance of an explosion from 10% to 12.5% or from .0001% to .000125%

AmishBull
AmishBull

@jacobthestupendous Going from 4 in 10 to 5 in 10 would be a 25 percent increase.

JeromeBarry
JeromeBarry

@gamerk316 There's more to the F35 than the IC's.  Things like "airframe" and "Wings".

jacobthestupendous
jacobthestupendous

@AmishBull, that is indeed another example of a 25% increase. Another possible example might be from 60% to 75% (oh no!). Yet another would be from 0.0006% to 0.00075% (that's not so bad). You see, since the risk increase is given in the form of a percentage of the initial risk, and since Mr. Thompson didn't see fit to tell us what that initial risk was, we don't actually know whether or not a 25% increase of risk to this one component is likely to result in a meaningful increase to the real risk that the aircraft will fail catastrophically. 

At best this is a sloppy bit reporting from someone who doesn't understand math, and at worst it's an intentionally manipulative article from someone who wants to scare you and make you think the government is full of retards. There are plenty of legitimate examples of poor government decision making; we don't need Mark Thompson to invent new ones.


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