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Marine F-35 Jump-Jet PR: Caveataxpayer Emptor

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Ken Kalemkarian / U.S. Marines

A Marine F-35B Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter prepares to land vertically at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., March 21. "This marks the first vertical landing of a Marine Corps F-35B outside of a testing environment," the corps said.

The Marines issued a flashy press release last week: “first operational F-35B conducts initial Vertical Landing.” It was an amateurish, somewhat slimy piece of hype.

In one important way, the press release contradicted itself, and in another it inadvertently revealed one of the many reasons why the Marines’ Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 – that’s the F-35B — will never be the battlefield-based close-combat support bomber the Marines like to advertise it as.

The corps’ headquarters’ release repeatedly described the “operational” nature of “the first STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment.” It also characterized the event as “another milestone” toward “revolutionizing expeditionary Marines air-ground combat power,” that perhaps—the press released tried hard to imply—would be available for combat use as soon as “late 2013.”

The press release, which was formatted as if it were some sort of news article, inadvertently cued alert readers to the fact that this “first” “operational” “STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment” was flown by a test pilot.

His name is Maj. Richard Rusnok, as the press release says, and as a different Marine Corps press exercise reveals, he has been flying for 13 years.

In the world of F-35-double-talk, it is apparently reasonable to announce flights as operational when they are flown by test pilots.

The term “operational” was stretched even further in a second respect in the press release, which featured the photograph above showing the F-35B landing vertically with its lift fan doors open and its flaps deflected. Note the area below the aircraft; note that same area in the later stages of a video at YouTube also released by the Marines’ PR team.

That light-colored portion of the airfield at Yuma looks different from the rest of the surrounding airfield area. That’s surely the special preparation the airfield surface needs to withstand the extremely hot, very high-velocity engine exhaust of the F-35B that impacts the landing area in a vertical landing.

Close observers of the F-35B have been paying attention to this matter. One of them is Bill Sweetman of Defense Technology International and Aviation Week. He wrote a highly informative news article (not a press release) on the matter in late 2011.

Based on Sweetman’s reporting, the Marines had a special pad installed at Yuma (and two other F-35B bases) to withstand the heat and blast of the F-35B vertical landing exhaust–to prevent spalling of standard runway concrete (or even more vulnerable asphalt).

The images the Marines let slip may be the special refractory (think “pizza oven”) concrete Sweetman describes as poured into slabs, or it may be a different type of pad he describes, also said to be at the F-35B facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.: a specially constructed aluminum-alloy mat laid over concrete.

Now ponder the Marine press-release rhetoric about “revolutionizing expeditionary Marine air-ground combat power in all threat environments.” The Marines love to advertise that the STOVL F-35B will be able to operate from “unprepared, forward operational airbaseson or near the battlefield. Articles by skilled and experienced journalists like Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio often describe the F-35B as able tohover and land like a helicopter, according to the Pentagon(note his caveat), and others describeits ability to operate closely with the US Marines.”

As recently as Tuesday, Marine Corps Major General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the F-35B gives the Marines the “revolutionary” even “transformational capability” for the F-35B to operate out of so many multiple, distributed bases that they defy targeting.

The so-called “unprepared, forward” F-35B operating bases up close to Marines on battlefields is a fabrication without the construction of 100-foot square slabs of refractory concrete and/or layers of aluminum-alloy matting—the latter which the Air force has described as “heavy, cumbersome, slow to install, difficult to repair [with] very poor air-transportability characteristics.”

These requirements—well beyond what is required for either the Marines’ STOVL AV-8B or even their vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) V-22—mean “advanced high temperature concrete material” (described in contract solicitations), specially transported and constructed to accommodate the F-35B’s extraordinarily finicky requirements for vertical landing operations.

Real-life facilities for F-35Bs employing the vertical landing capability will be very considerable bases, especially given the F-35’s other, immense logistical requirements beyond refractory concrete or aluminum-alloy pads.

In short, the vertical landing so touted by the Marines’ as a demonstration of the Corps “expeditionary” culture and “transformational capability” is more applicable to advertising for gullible denizens of Capitol Hill and for air shows—if, indeed, the host facility has a few thousand square feet of refractory concrete and lots of fencing to keep spectators well away from high velocity foreign objects catapulted by the F-35B’s vertical jet exhaust.

At best, the F-35s will be employing 3,000 to 4,000-foot takeoffs and landings at unique “STOVL-only” runways specially prepared by the Marine Corps—and by the F-35B’s gigantic logistical tail.

It is not even clear if these large facilities will even be appropriate for vertical landings and will, instead, accommodate just the medium-speed rolling landings the F-35B can also perform (and shown in the USMC PR video). Or, the F-35B will be restricted to the Marine Corps’ small aircraft carrier amphibious warfare ships, which also require various special requirements to handle the F-35B and its demanding operating characteristics.

The vertical landing capability of the F-35B also comes at considerable cost. According to DOD’s latest Selected Acquisition Report, the airframe and engine for the “B” are $27.8 million more expensive than the Air Force’s already far-too expensive “A” model. And thanks to the extra weight and bulk of STOVL propulsion, the F-35B has even less range, payload, and maneuverability than the Air Force’s unacceptably low-performing “A” version.

That’s not all, however. The Marine’s fastidious STOVL requirement was baked into the basic airframe design of all three F-35 models. As several aviation-technology experts explained to me, both the Air Force’s “A” and the Navy’s “C” versions lack the STOVL-specific lift fan and associated hardware, but they bear the burden of the extra weight and structure that had to be built into the basic airframe and engine to accommodate the STOVL version.

It doesn’t stop with just the extra weight—estimated by one to be at least 2,000 pounds. Thanks to the Marines’ STOVL requirement, both the Air Force and Navy versions had to be a single engine, short-coupled, stubby-winged design with all the unhappy compromises that implies for drag, acceleration, maneuverability, range and payload. And, there are other cost and performance compromises forced on the Air Force and Navy by the Marines, according to my sources: for example, some regrettable performance characteristics in the engine. Many (but far from all) of the fundamental flaws of the F-35 family of aircraft can be traced back to the Marines and their STOVL requirement.

The biggest blast of dubious rhetoric in the Marine Corps’ March 22 HQ press release comes close to the end. In the second to last paragraph, it states that the F-35B “is central to maintaining tactical aviation affordability and serving as good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Given its lower performance at higher cost—compared to the already unaffordable, underperforming F-35 alternatives—the F-35B would more accurately be characterized as the antithesis of affordability and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. That that the F-35B has imposed even lower performance not just on itself but the Air Force and Navy makes it a killer aircraft, but unfortunately of our own.

14 comments
wuzafan
wuzafan

this reminds me of the mcnamara TFX disaster of the 1968 time frame. they chose GD to build thier F111, a design that had huge flaws in both design and execution,. they tried to serices to accept this thing, where the Navy said hell no, and built the superb F14. but the AF was stuck with buying some of them, and never had a good use for them.

the Navy should buy SU-31s or their latest navel version from the soviets, since it a great performer, and is much cheaper.

Tiredofmedialies
Tiredofmedialies

The amateurish and slimy is clearly this piece of "reporting" without facts. The landing surface is a concrete pad made for Harriers and F-35B, it used to be Aluminum matting until it was so worn and prone to foreign object debris damage the Harriers stopped using it. It was built before the F-35 arrived and Harriers use it mostly. The darker color of the surrounding area is the infield of the airfield, it is simply a light coat of asphalt over dirt and rocks to reduce rocks, in most airfields this is grass, the desert southwest has a lot of rocks and this is a Mitigation that was in place for many years prior to F-35. This pad is not on the runway, it is a offshoot of the taxiway and the taxiway is the same light color. The author's homework clearly did not involve going to Yuma and looking at anything or speaking to anyone with direct knowledge. Armchair statements or quoting armchair observers, like Mr. Sweetman, make for poor journalism. And Vstillwell wishing this plane would go away would certainly stop you from hearing the garbage sensationalism in the negative about this plane, but would just have these vultures of less than misinformed journalists focus on whatever other hot topic was out there to get people riled up. USMC plans to use this airplane takeoff and landing like a Harrier, primarily from L-class ships with other aircraft. The current ships have to be very slightly modified (yellow tram line offset) and the new ships are simply replacements for the Navy's aging fleet, they are simply building in the few F-35 differences into those ships. As for runway length...at best it is not 3,000-4,000 foot runways, it will be 750 foot L-class amphibs parked close to the fight, closer than any CV much like happened in Libya. When there is more runway, the F-35 will operate like other aircraft, or do slow landings. The vertical capability, much like the Harrier, is primarily for recovering to a ship. It can land on short runways or long ones, or vertical land on ships. The pilot had less experience than some of the pilots in the operational squadron, since it was the first the squadron flew someone with test experience who brought that stovl flying test experience to the current operational pilots so they can learn and fly it as we'll, nothing slimy or hyped up as the author would lead you to believe. The event was real, it was the first STOVL event conducted without test engineers in instrumented aircraft monitoring everything in the jet, it was a pilot who had stovl experience flying a jet that is in operational use with no special instrumentation on the jet flying operational procedures, nothing test about it. Mr. Rusnock was selected because of his experience flying STOVL to bring that training to the operational forces, not for any of his test report flying training. Just so happens the test pilots are the only ones with that experience to bring to the operational forces, nothing slimy or hyped up as the author would also have people believe. I could go on and on...the comment about the Navy being forced to have a stubby winged variant because of the USMC is another laughable lie, the Navy version has entirely different wings, the USAF version chose to keep the standard wingspan of 35 feet vice the Navy's 43 feet. I can't find much correct with the article or most these days, but this one was particularly lacking in facts.

James_Inwood
James_Inwood

I know this isn't the point, but it still bothers me as a Latinist. Time is one of the great media giants of the Republic. It should not be pushing such a terrible abuse of the West's classical tongue as "Caveataxpayer Emptor."

Caveat is the subjunctive verb "let [noun] beware," emptor is the noun "buyer." Taxpayer is a noun and should be modifying the noun. Every time you modify a verb with a noun in Latin, Cicero cries and God causes a toga party to happen.

What you want is "Caveat Emptaxpayor."

vstillwell
vstillwell

I wish this plane would just go away. I'm tired of reading about the cost overruns and the overall uselessness of this thing. I would rather spend money on the home front than on this crap. 

vstillwell
vstillwell

I forgot to add that the Navy has already built a carrier specifically for this plane. Yeah, the things not even ready yet and we already have a multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier for it. Another one is being built as we speak. 

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

How about the "C" service?

Mar 18, 2013
Navy Stuck Between the Rock and Hard Place on Joint Strike Fighter

In public statements, it has become very common to hear Admirals say the Navy 'needs the F-35C,' but it has become uncommon to hear any Admiral praise the aircraft. Why the Navy needs the F-35C is never addressed in context, primarily because the well documented problems of the F-35C make it clear that the Navy needs are not yet met by the F-35C at this time, and it is unclear if some of those problems can ever be truly fixed. Anyone who has read the latest annual report released by the Pentagon’s director of test and evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, - not to mention the latest GAO report on the Joint Strike Fighter, knows that the Joint Strike Fighter program still has very serious problems.

What is important about the comments of both LT. General Christopher C. Bogdan and Admiral Jonathan Greenert is that when it comes to the F-35C, the F-35C is now being purchased by the Navy primarily for reasons of National Security Policy and not for any reason related to maritime policy or strategy. The Navy is now required to continue to pay for the F-35C for purposes of cost consideration of the entire program - all variants, and that consideration is primarily being driven by the multinational character of the program. It is now fair to say that Navy budget spending for the Joint Strike Fighter is now more important to the Department of the Air Force and the Department of State than it is for the Department of the Navy, because it is more important for the National Security Policy of the United States for the F-35A to be affordable to multinational partners than it is for the F-35C to fly off US Navy aircraft carriers.
http://www.informationdissemination.net/2013/03/navy-stuck-between-rock-and-hard-place.html

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

Besides cost, problems and mission shortcomings, there is that one engine. Ingest a foreign object over water and it's Davy Jones time.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

This expensive demonstration took place three years after the $300m F-35B's first mid-air hover test.

The F-35 program is a classic -- it will be used in future Program Management course to illustrate how not to manage a weapons program. Fifty years ago David Packard published the seminal DOD Directive 5000.1, Acquisition Management Policy.
One key element: "“Technical uncertainty shall be continually assessed.  Progressive commitments of resources which incur program risk will be made only when confidence in program outcome is sufficiently high to warrant going ahead.  Models, mock-ups and system hardware will be used to the greatest possible extent to increase confidence level."
But the f-35 program includes simultaneous testing and production -- and it's proving to be a bad way to go.

According to the recent annual JSF test report:

While the JSF program has recently initiated the fifth of 11 initial production lots, it is only completed 34 percent of the flight testing. The program did not accomplish the intended progress in achieving test objectives (measured in flight test points planned for 2012) for all variants. Certain test conditions were unachievable due to unresolved problems and new discoveries.

The need for regression testing of fixes (repeat testing of previously accomplished points with newer versions of software) displaced opportunities to meet flight test objectives. Overall progress in mission systems was limited. This was due to delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered, and regression testing of multiple software versions (required to fix problems, not add capability).

No combat capability has been fielded. Reliability is poor and repair times are excessive. Regarding the F35B, according to the test report there are eleven major door and propulsion problems alone.
http://timemilitary.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/f-35-jsf-dote-fy12-annual-report.pdf

These last facts indicate that the F-35 configurations with a $300m acquisition cost growing to $400m because foreign buyers are backing out, will incur operations and support costs of triple that per aircraft. You can read about it here in an article by  Maj Christopher J. Cannon --  "F–35B Needs a Plan B."
http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/article/f%E2%80%9335b-needs-plan-b

patriot43
patriot43

This rant clearly illustrates how simpletons like Winslow Wheeler, Mark Thompson, Bill Sweetman, David Axe and, clearly looking below, some of the readers associated with these opinionistas don't get it. 

First, MadMax9, there are plenty of reasons of how the Marine Corps justifies the STOVL capability - Libya during the Arab Spring known as Operation Odyssey Dawn and the TRAP mission that took place during that same operation just to provide you with two. MadMax9, I noticed you are wearing your military equipment in your photo. Do you need validation from others about your service? How about being a quiet hero? Either way, your comments are without merit as the offer no justifications why the program should actually be stopped. Your comments are also completely expected coming from a self-defined skid guy as if that offers any credibility about jets. I also think you are a fraud regarding your claim to being a pilot. You didn't say you were speaking to a fellow pilot you said a "Marine pilot" as if you are neither a Marine nor a pilot. Even if you are both as you say your lack of loyalty to such an important Marine program as both a Marine and an aviator is shameful. Do every Marine a favor and stop telling others you are a Marine.

Duduong, did you really assert that Winslow has technological insights? If the rants of the likes of Winslow Wheeler are what pass as intellectual writing by you, please tell us all where you went to school so we can ensure we never send our children there. Also, your comments are useless much like that of Winslow's - blah, blah, insult allies, blah, blah, I just want to read criticism of government and military programs so there is more money for social programs that I rely on. Got it, thanks Duduong.

Winslow, I know why you write at TIME, because what you write is devoid of actual work. You quoted others' arguments and then agreed where it fit your opinion and criticized when it did not. The good news for you is that Mark Thompson isn't much better so you may have a future at TIME. 

Is it really your assertion that the Marine Corps needs to put down special concrete in an austere environment to land STOVL aircraft? Wrong. Secondly, to that point, airfields are constructed anytime we take part in a protracted war - a lesson we learned after World War II. Also, the assertion that the Marine Corps will land these aircraft at Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) is also incorrect. STOVL can be used at Expeditionary Air Fields (EAFs). FOBs and EAFs are not synonymous or interchangeable terms. I'll bet if you would have called the Marine Corps to discuss this you could have learned something, but instead your attribution comes from a press release and an article by Sweetman. Moreover, neither you nor your simple readers explored another very important use of the STOVL capability by the Marine Corps - taking off and landing aboard amphibious ships. Doing so allows the Marine Corps to be more responsive to crises around the world while simultaneously services host nation concerns about foreign troops on their soil and sovereignty. This fact would have required a real understanding of the capability, its use, and the issues that concern STOVL that you nor your readers have in even the slightest measure. These  Good work, you have escalated the lazy, irresponsible journalist to a new low. Your efforts at TIME as a journalist (I use the term loosely) is what is wrong with journalism and news media in our country. It is watered down to include rants from those who operate like you- from their arm chairs without any real understanding of the issues other than what they have read from other sub-par journalists. This fact is evident by the fact that you are clearly not a Defense writer, because you don't even understand the ways in which the word "operational" is used by the Marine Corps or other military services. Winslow, and for your readers, just because you say you write for a forum that covers Defense doesn't mean you are a Defense writer or that you know what you are talking about.

So Winslow to you and your readers, I provided real world examples of STOVL's operational use (Operation Odyssey Dawn) and conceptual (and operational) use (Taking off and landing aboard amphibious ships). I also provided you and your readers with an understanding between FOBs and EAFs, which is how they would most likely be used. I provided more credible information in this reply than you and your readers combined. Stop doing what it is you do as a writer or start learning how to do it properly. Your writing is irresponsible and purposefully divisive for no reason other than it suits your personal opinion. You are a hack and your readers are fools, especially if they consider this article reputable.


Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

@patriot43ad hominems are always, always an indication of weakness. When we see that, we discount all the rest. They are not usual on this blog-site and are not appreciated, Cut it out. If you have an argument, make it. That's what we do here.

Especially, an attack on established authorities like Winslow Wheeler, Mark Thompson, Bill Sweetman and David Axe by an anonymous reader, one who won't even use his name, is a non-starter. Not smart.  Indicates a larger agenda. And a nefarious purpose.

Is your check in the mail from Lockheed,  patriot43? Or did you receive it already.


duduong
duduong

It is a pleasant surprise to find an article with such good technological insights into a weapon program here at Time, considering that even Aviation Week sometimes prints BS materials. Kudos to the author.

The F-35 has always been intended as an export plane, and therefore the unspoken rule is that it is perfectly ok for it to suck a little, particularly after the Europeans gave up their own plans for a stealth fighter. Yes, the American tax payers will be taken to the cleaners for a real turkey, but this is just collateral damage because the real targets are those moron allies like Japan, Korea, Singapore, Aussies, Canada, and various Europeans. Shareholders of LM have to be very happy and very determined to keep the circumstances that way. This is why this project will go on, regardless of everyone else's objection.

MadMax9
MadMax9 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I was recently deployed to Kabul, and was arguing with a Marine pilot about this (not a Harrier driver). I pointed out that a VSTOL/STOVL aircraft has NEVER been a deciding factor in any battle the marines have fought in (and hasn't even *seen* a lot of combat period). I asked him what possible justification there was to keep building such aircraft, especially in light of how it has 'highjacked' the scope and cost of the F-35 program? He paused for a long moment, and all he could come up with was, 'It's part of Marine avaition tradition and heritage.'

What a load of BS. If ever there was a time to kill such a program, it's now! Better to build more, updated A-10s, and bring back a new version of the OV-10 Bronco - two aircraft that are ideal for the kind of wars we've been in in CENTCOM, and would also be great for Africa and other upcoming hotspots. Just my opinion (BTW, I formerly flew AH-1Ws in the Corps myself, so it's nothing personal re: Marines).

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