More of the same from the DoD and USAF regarding borrowing from their existing fighter fleet’s capability to pay for their Death Star of boondoggles, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
There is a new information out highlighting the continuing “teething problems” with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Cracks in the jet’s motors and structures continue to plague the aircraft’s design, even though Lockheed has said for years that the cracking issues will be fixed in the near term. Then there are the same old usual suspects, the software is far behind schedule, data-fusion is unreliable, the helmet is still an issue and so on. The aircraft’s artificially fabricated and premature initial Operating Capability leaves so much to be desired that it is questionable what the aircraft’s role would be during any sort of combat operations. Then there is ALIS, the jet’s all-encompassing logistical support and mission planning networked database that is not even near being ready for prime time (and one has to think how vulnerable such an integrated system makes the aircraft in a wold of cyber warfare and weaponized malware). The aircraft’s vulnerability to battle damage is still a major concern as is the aircraft’s availability for sorties and the list goes on and on. In reality, the sheer multitude and magnitude of the F-35’s developmental issues has become par for the course for the program. In other words, bad news regarding this bloated and ridiculous concept is the overwhelming norm, not the exception to it.
I have said for years that there is no question that the F-35 will be a capable aircraft, but at what cost, both in terms of national treasure and opportunity cost in relation to procuring more relevant platforms while upgrading existing ones? Keep in mind that the Joint Strike Fighter concept is already almost twenty years old, and the F-35 itself has been flying for almost eight years. In a rapidly changing technological and strategic environment, this aircraft, especially in its A and C model formats, is simply becoming outdated and less than relevant, especially considering its huge price tag.
The reality that the USAF’s version will not be operational till 2016 at best, with the Navy’s version eventually coming on-line years behind that, is a hard and chaos-inducing pill for the DoD to swallow. But what exactly is “initial operational capability” really? With only the most basic capabilities available at best, and an airframe that is only available currently one-third of the time how does this “milestone” seem legitimate? It sounds like IOC capable squadrons will be a glorified and very expensive auxiliary test and evaluation flying clubs at best as the aircraft will lack many capabilities that even legacy F/A-18A/C/Ds have. But in a world where so many have so much hanging on this flawed program, telling the public and low information lawmakers that the F-35 is now “operational” probably seems like the best PR move available, regardless of the reality of the situation.
I would guess that at least one-quarter to one-third of this site is about the F-35 program, the good, the bad and the ugly. The truth is, at least from those who do not get a check from Lockheed or its many surrogates, is that the program is way over budget and way behind schedule, with declining baseline capabilities and overall performance standards. Furthermore,” we” don’t even know about the developmental status of the F-35’s many classified features. We can only guess that there are major issues in this department as well if the rest of the program is any sort of a barometer.
I have posited for years that the F-35 was a stupid concept to begin with, one that will gobble up the budget of the DoD for decades to come even though fantastic alternatives are available. Sadly, this gobbling has already begun, and the F-35 program is proving to be a very hungry beast even though only a tiny fraction of the proposed inventory has been fielded.
The Air Force has shrunk remarkably in size since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of tactical fighters have been prematurely retired in order to “save money,” usually with the resulting diversion of dollars being rationalized as needed for “getting behind” the F-35 program. Additionally, the force that remains, a shadow of its formal self, has seen flight hours and readiness cut at an alarming rate. Yet the USAF at least came to terms with their black hole of a Joint Strike fighter program enough to move forward on an essential upgrade program for the cream of the USAF’s remaining F-16 Viper fleet, those being of the blocks 40/42/50/52. The program would see many of these aircraft upgraded to remain relevant for well over decade to come. In essence, these aircraft are meant to fill the capability and numerical gap left by the lethargic F-35 program. These upgraded F-16s would have to soldier on into the next decade, and possibly well into the one after that.
This F-16 upgrade configuration solidified this year and is now known as CAPES, or the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite. This upgrade is a major one, and would include new large area cockpit displays (essential for delineating all the situational data a pilot has at their disposal), a state of the art digital electronic warfare system (ALQ-213), a new data link system that can exchange information via satellite (Integrated Broadcast System) and most importantly, an AESA radar, in this case the Northrop Grumman Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). Along with this program these F-16s, numbering 300 in total, will receive an essential structural revitalization, commonly known as a service life extension program (SLEP), which will add between 2,000 to 4,000 hours to the airframe’s lifespan. SLEP makes sense as all those new avionics added under CAPES, and the jet’s pilot, would actually have a sound platform to whiz around in for the next twenty years.
Sadly and illogically, sequestration and a darkening F-35 fiscal “black hole” have taken their toll, and it looks like the Washington’s priority remains the faltering F-35 program, as the rumor is that CAPES will be cancelled in the 2015 federal budget. There are hopes that the accompanying SLEP will remain intact, but the budgetary axe hangs low over this program as well. If this proves to be true, it will be yet another idiotic act by those under the F-35 ether, or who have their next star or careers teetering on it.
The USAF’s capability gap, especially in the tactical aircraft field, is shrinking rapidly. Other nations, like China, are actively working on fielding AESA radars on their mainline non-silver bullet fighter aircraft force. The sickening reality that we cannot even afford to fund a logical upgrade of 300 existing and paid for F-16s is just another symptom of the DoD’s F-35 disease. The potential abandonment of CAPES basically says that the USAF, and its Washington surrogates, do not see keeping the air force they have viable, relevent or tactically effective, as a serious priority. Instead, it seems like they find it more important to invest deeper into the most volatile defense program in recent history, if not ever.
I ask the Washington decision makers behind such a misguided decision what their intentions are should a conflict break out where your enemy is more capable than uneducated men packing AK-47s and hiding in mud huts? How effective will your investment in the F-35 be when few, if any, are ready for sustained multi-role combat operations even into the next decade? Dollars-wise, I have not found an exact amount CAPES/SLEP would cost for the 300 F-16s that are currently planned to receive. Let’s just put the avionics upgrade at $15M and the structural upgrade at $10M. So $25M per jet. This would equal $7.5B for the entire upgrade program. How many F-35As is that? Let’s take the generous number of $120M per copy for the F-35A, that means we are going to deny the existing air force 300 extremely capable and cost-effective platforms in the immediate future in trade for a measly 62 F-35As that will be delivered sometime in the future, maybe.
At some point the USAF needs to come to terms with the value of numbers over topline capability. The “numerical advantage” if you will (see the Sherman Tank for proof of this concept). For many, if not the majority of tactical fighter missions, low observability, omnipotent situational awareness and virtually seamless sensor fusion is not a necessity. Additionally, an aircraft can only be in one place at one time, and the more complicated an aircraft is, that place ends up usually being on the ground broken. 300 upgraded F-16s that sport high bandwidth connectivity, an advanced electronic warfare suite, large color cockpit displays, and most importantly, a state of the art AESA radar is much more combat relevent than the promise of 70 F-35s sometime in the future. The F-16 CAPES/SLEP upgrade will give us a frontline “known commodity,” a reliable and effective combat tool that will be fiscally reasonable to operate during sustained combat operations.
The fact of the matter is that these theoretically upgraded F-16C/Ds do not only make themselves more survivable and potent alone. Their radar picture and sensitive radar warning receivers can send their data to other aircraft that do not possess the same capabilities, especially un-upgraded F-16s that will be interoperating with them. In other words, one or two CAPES equipped vipers in a mixed formation of four or eight F-16s is much more capable and survivable than that same formation without a CAPES configured aircraft or two. In other words, by heavily upgrading 300 F-16s, the other 300 or so that will be serving alongside them also get a large majority of their situational awareness and targeting capabilities enhanced. In other words, this upgrade is not just an improvement for the airframes involved, it is a force multiplier for the total force overall.
In the end the Air Force and Washington see the F-35 as too big to fail, but sadly this is not for strategic reasons. This mode of thinking is more about the fighter’s rocky export potential and the dollars it may bring home to the states it is built-in, along with the outcome of the careers of all those who so rabidly supported it. When it gets to the point that upgrading 300 F-16s has to be sacrificed for the F-35’s future, this almost perverse fixation on a single flawed weapon system becomes close to criminal. The CAPES/SLEP upgrade should be an absolute priority for USAF, DoD and Congressional leadership, not as an alternative to the F-35, but because of it and its never-ending developmental issues. If it is not, than those in power may have to answer to the families of the pilots who had to fight in antiquated equipment against the rapidly evolving weapons capabilities of a host of potential enemies, and did not come back to tell the American people how their Air Force got them killed in an attempt to buy 70 more aircraft that still only remain viable on paper.