military aircraft

Feb 23, 2013

F-35 sends reminder of worse flying flop

The JSF project, which suffered its own grounding event overnight, has another thing in common with the Boeing 787, which is too much PR and too little critical analysis

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

This photo is described as a JSF inaugural towing ceremony in 2006!

Whatever the fate of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners, there is a reminder today of a far worse and more certain flying flop in the grounding of the F-35 Lightning II, the do-everything X-box with wings that is supposed to maintain Australia’s regional air defence superiority as the JSF or Joint Strike Fighter.

While everyone wants the 787 to succeed, and in due course, there is every chance it will, it is all but impossible to hold out such hopes for the JSF.

Plane Talking stopped following the misfortunes of the JSF some time back to focus almost entirely on airliners and airlines, and the misuse of PR spin in relation to them, which was then, and still is to a lesser extent, a problem associated with the Joint Strike Fighter.

A significant and costly issue for Australia was that the ADF ceased to behave like a critically engaged customer very early in its involvement with the project, and became part of a cheer squad.

With the benefit of hindsight, we saw senior defense figures and the successive federal governments who gave the JSF unquestioning support say some incredibly silly things about it, when questioning support could have resulted in more constructive outcomes, a criticism than can also be made of the uncritical adulation of all things 787 at the formative stages of that project as well.

Now Australia is in the position of buying more Super Hornets to paper over the inevitability of JSF project failure being made manifest well before this decade is over, which is like Poland buying more horses for its cavalry prior to outbreak of World War II, to severely truncate the full horror of those events.

There will be studies of the organisational and managerial failures of the Dreamliner and JSF programs at business schools world wide in the coming decades. The end result of the JSF debacle will be much more serious than that underway at Boeing, where an ultimately functional and reliable if not necessarily profitable outcome is more likely than not.

The JSF can’t do what it promised, it has been outflanked by the onset of the era of the advanced military UAV, it is horrifically unaffordable, and its joint proponents, the US defense and political establishments, are with each official audit and each escalation in cost visibly distancing themselves from impending calamity, including what it means for allies like Australia.


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18 thoughts on “F-35 sends reminder of worse flying flop

  1. fractious

    See also 4 Corners, an entire episode dedicated to the thing’s flaws, not to mention the almost negligent lack of scrutiny by both US and Australian politicians and defence ‘experts’:

  2. ianjohnno

    We can only hope that it will be another F-111; much criticised during its development.

    But I still think we should talk to Czar Vladimir, or even the Chinese.

  3. Horde

    Like the F-22A Raptor, the F-111 was a robust design.

    The F-35 JSF is not and, moreover, has all the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme on steroids.

  4. fractious

    @ Horde, the info on the F35 in that link about its vulnerabilities is almost jaw-dropping. How, with all that money and know-how and time, did they get it that wrong? Also on that site their comparison of the F35 with F22 shows it lacking, according to them the F35 isn’t even anywhere near as good a “bomb truck” as the F-111s.

  5. comet

    It’s a tough competition to work out which aircraft gets the “biggest flying flop” award.

    I always thought that Australia got involved with the F35 for political reasons only, with John Howard and George W Bush members of a mutual admiration society. We did it purely to get closer in bed with the Americans.

  6. Horde

    Comet et al:

    In fact it was AM Errol McCormack, ADM Chris Barrie, AVM Ray Conroy, USDM Mick Roche and a few others in the Defence senior leadership group who decided the JSF was the way to go.

    That was in late 2000 / early 2001, way before the politicians got involved.

    Angus Houston came into the picture in June 2001, and sealed the deal, well before Sept 11 and John Howard’s run to become George W Bush’s deputy sherrif.

    The shadowy figure in the 4Corner’s Program “Reach for the Sky” clearly knows the real story, as do quite a number of others.

    Basically, senior officials misled the Govt and the people of Australia. Some continue to do the same, today.

    The rest is history.

  7. chpowell

    The last words of Angus Houston were to the effect of “how outstanding the F-35 is NOW”

    Houston: the commander of Australian Defense who lost $60,000 in ‘investment’ in Firepower International-the greatest scam in Australian history

    Kind of calls into question his understanding of the second law of thermodynamics……

  8. Fueldrum


    “We did it purely to get closer in bed with the Americans.”

    We’ve done several things like that in the past 50 years. In each case we backed the Americans as they made a hideously bad decision for themselves. And we apparently expected that they would thank us for it.

    Where, today, is the American gratitude for our participation in Vietnam? or Iraq? Nowhere! They would understandably prefer to forget those misadventures. We did the Americans no favours by encouraging them with unmistakable signals of imitation. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Today, the Americans hold us just as responsible as themselves for the consequences of these disasters.

    Unless the F-35 experiences major improvements in maintainability, affordability, performance and reliability it will be certainly be another such disaster. None of these improvements are likely to happen.

    At the very, very, very least we should be telling them frankly (if confidentially) that the sooner they terminate this program the better for all of us.

  9. fractious

    “which aircraft gets the “biggest flying flop” award”

    I don’t know how much Boeing has spent so far on the 787 vs what LM has on the F35, but I don’t think the 787 is anywhere near as short of its claimed performance as the JSF is, nor has it AFAIK had its claimed performance parameters significantly revised (downwards).

    I’ve been doing some more reading on the F35 (much at ausairpower). From what I can gather, its shortcomings aside, the US will use it alongside the F22 Raptor which is much more powerful (speed, range, payload etc). Unfortunately a significant problem arises with its intended use in Aus as we will not get the F22, leaving the F35 (if it ever arrives) badly exposed, especially against potential opponents using Su30 or Su35 Flanker.

    OTOH as Ben points out much manned airpower will be made redundant by the use of UAVs anyway.

  10. Fueldrum


    “much manned airpower will be made redundant by the use of UAVs anyway.”

    That’s actually a shaky assumption. Air Marshal Houston made a similar statement almost a decade ago on ABC TV.

    Small aircraft can be remote-controlled but larger and more expensive UAVs (like the Global Hawk, for example) have had unacceptable and unaffordable accident rates. In the same way that a human surgeon still gets better results than a robot, a human pilot still lands an aircraft more safely than a remote-controlled system.

    Of course, small and inexpensive aircraft are much cheaper if there’s no pilot on board. A certain number of crashes per thousand landings becomes an insignificant expense in comparison. But if the aircraft weighs tens of thousands of pounds to begin with, removing the pilot only slightly reduces the aircraft’s weight (which is the primary determinant of any aircraft’s cost). If the plane will also be expensive to replace if it crashes on the runway, then a human pilot remains an excellent investment with currently available UAV control technologies. A further problem with UAV crashes is that they’re especially dangerous in Naval aviation.

    What’s the backup plan if current UAV concepts don’t work out?

  11. fractious


    “That’s actually a shaky assumption. ”

    Possibly so, I am merely an amateur repeating what I’ve read on several websites. OTOH I would imagine the technology in UAVs is improving all the time, though I understand your point that they cannot replace manned aircraft in all roles.

  12. Mi Kanic

    Why are we wasting our time with this aircraft and why are we trying a stop gap solution with an inferior plane. Australia must procure to it’s needs and not lose itself in unwaving support of the US defense industry. There can only be two future threats if possible to call it that way, China and Indo. Both have to cross large swaves of ocean and seas. With JORN we see them coming but get outperformed by Sukhois and range to hit invasion forces further offshore. We had an offer to build Su’s ourselves to which we could have added Israeli avionics but for obvious political reasons we didn’t. OK then whats wrong with a F-15E or SE stop gap, it can compete with SU’s and deliver big Anti ship missiles at range. This is Australias fight if it needs to be part of US intervention forces and task forces then outfit modify when the cash becomes available either the Adelaide or Canberra with a few F-35 STOVL. IMHO we need range, proper Subs one good tank division in the north and we should be just fine.

  13. Sanjay

    If buying the JSF was to give us protection from the northern neighbours then it was a cost effective way of not having a defence force, even if the thing never flys.

  14. SBH

    Hmm seems larger than the Qaher F313, otherwise……

  15. Achmad Osman

    Gripen, Rafale or Euro-fighter anyone? Proven jets without the “stealth” vapour-ware.

  16. maxcelcat

    I’ve been following this JSF right from the start, and indeed I was working for the DSTO when the decision was made.

    It looks to me like the F-35 has a superb set of sensors, including a radar that can work as as a jammer of other radars, including that of the F-22. But it’s all been packaged into a shitty little airframe that looks like an F-22 mated with an F-16. They should keep the sensors, and create a new airframe for them.

    Or possibly keep the F-35B, the STOL version, as a replacement for the Harrier – it’s be an improvement on that old plane – and ditch the other versions.

  17. Fueldrum


    “a shitty little airframe that looks like an F-22 mated with an F-16.”

    Those two exceptional airframes should not be mentioned in the same paragraph as the F-35. The sensors you mention could be fitted to existing aircraft without the ridiculously fat fuselage, ridiculously vulnerable fuel tanks and ridiculously expensive system of trapdoors that is found on the overweight, underpowered, underarmed and overpriced machine.

    The F-35 is not a result of an intelligent goal being pursued by a team of skilled and capable people to a logical conclusion. The F-22 and the F-16 both meet that description, and they are both capable of their intended roles.The F-35 is the result of stupidity, greed, incompetence, laziness, bureaucracy, ignorance,cowardice and politics.

    Always a bad combination.

  18. fractious

    To dilute the amount of 787 fail on this blog, here’s some more F-35 fail, both recent articles in Wired.

    1) 7/3/2013: Test Pilots: Stealth Jet’s Blind Spot Will Get It ‘Gunned Every Time’

    ““Aft visibility could turn out to be a significant problem for all F-35 pilots in the future,” the Pentagon acknowledged in a report (.pdf) obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C. watchdog group… The damning report, dated Feb. 15, summarized the experiences of four test pilots who flew the F-35A — the relatively lightweight Air Force version — during a September-to-November trial run of the Joint Strike Fighter’s planned training program at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The report mentions a number of shortfalls of the highly complex F-35, including sensors, communications and aerial refueling gear that aren’t yet fully designed or just don’t work right.”

    2) 11/2/2013: Pentagon Downgrades Specs for Its Premier Stealth Jet — Again

    I don’t know if this is old news or not, but anyway…

    “For the second time in a year, the Pentagon has eased the performance requirements of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The reduced specs — including a slower acceleration and turning rate — lower the bar for the troubled trillion-dollar JSF program, allowing it to proceed toward full-rate production despite ongoing problems with the plane’s complex design. Under the old specs, the stealth fighter, due to enter service in 2018 or 2019, probably wouldn’t pass its Pentagon-mandated final exams.”

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