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Jun 19, 2010


In a parliamentary speech this week Liberal backbencher Dr Dennis Jensen accuses Tom Burbage, the executive vice president for F-35 program integration at Lockheed Martin of misrepresenting, or at worst, telling lies about aspects of the Joint Strike Fighter’s price and performance.

The criticism of Burbage followed his visit to Australia to discuss the F-35, and considering the generally unquestioning media coverage that ensued, dictate the stories that appeared.

Dr Jensen’s speech as recorded by Hansard is published below, preceded by a YouTube of the actual delivery.

It would be useful if Lockheed Martin were to respond line by line to Dr Jensen, and Plane Talking will be pleased to publish any such response.


Jensen Hansard


Jun 17, 2010


From Eric L Palmer's ELP Defens(c)e blog
From Eric L Palmer's ELP Defens(c)e blog

The author of this succinct picture of defence reporting the Australian way (above) which is with few exceptions, apologetic and subservient, has provided Crikey with a snapshot of the state of Australia’s JSF purchase, on which our air power superiority depends, and for which the defence establishment of this country has become the de facto sales and promotions agent of the consortium.

Defence blogger Eric L Palmer writes:

I give you the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project. Over-priced, obsolete and tailor-made for the easy mark.

Tom Burbage, from US defence firm Lockheed Martin, will be in Australia this week to brief the gullible on the status of Operation: Ponzi Scheme.

This is the effort to lift from the Australian taxpayer by trick or device a minimum of $16 billion — minimum because, at this time, no one has a clear figure on what the F-35 Joint Strike Fiasco will cost. Yet there are many in government clearly willing to pitch in for the swindle.

I weep for our Defence Minister John Faulkner, who inherited this mess. He is a politician who is being used for the sole purpose of his office to push this military version of the global financial crisis. Due to little fault of his own — he is only as good as what his advisers tell him — he is being used as a puppet to help carry the water for a dysfunctional defence bureaucracy.

Let us compare the global financial crisis to the F-35 Joint Strike Failure program. Organisational groupthink? Check on both. A total indifference to what is real? Check on both again. A need for a government bailout when serious problems arise? Yes.

This year, the top procurement person for the US Department of Defense (DOD), Ashton Carter, signed off on a recertification of the F-35 program after it had significant cost blow-outs that triggered a US Congressional law that gives the option to cancel the project or recertify it. The reasons Carter gave for the re-certification were weak at best.

This was after testimony he made to Congress, which stated that the US DOD lost up to two years of proper corrective action of the program’s health because the first of two back-to-back negative reports by an independent auditor was ignored by the leadership of the time.

For Australia, our elected officials must demand that none of the $3.2 billion are handed over for the proposed first instalment of 14 aircraft Faulkner stated he wants purchased. With less than 3% of the flight testing done and over three times the software of an F-22, there are years of work still to do on the F-35 before it can be evaluated for purchase.

It is time for our civilian leadership to break this cabal that is taking money from us for no good reason. Once that is done, then maybe more sane minds can start over with a blank piece of paper and take a good hard look at what kind of an air force Australia needs. This is not being an ungrateful ally. It is being an intelligent purchaser of military hardware.

This article appeared in the Crikey subscriber email bulletin on June 16. The writer’s blog is found at ELP Defens(c)e

Update: Saturday June 19, Liberal backbencher Dr Dennis Jensen attacks the veracity of  claims made by LM head of the project Burbage using parliamentary privilege.  Read the Hansard and see the speech here.

NewGen 01

Boeing has sent an email seeking my support through my Congressional representatives (!) for their bid to win the massive US contract for a new aerial tanker, the KC-X project, to replace the ancient, but distinguished fleet of Boeing KC-135 tankers currently serving the USAF.

The KC-135 was the precursor of the Boeing 707, and a total of 732 of them were built, making it a franchise Boeing is ultra keen to retain in pitching a replacement based on the Boeing 767 against competition from one based on the Airbus A330-200, as chosen in this country by the ADF.

May the best jet win. At the moment, here, the EADS (Airbus based) multi role tanker transport is said to have been slipped onto the list of defence projects at risk in Australia, except that this list is a secret. It is rumoured to include just about every major defence acquisition in this country still requiring funding, except, unaccountably, the Joint Strike Fighter.

The EADS MRTT project has not tracked smoothly, so far.

But it is the Boeing plea (top of item) that offends, not the merits of its jet. (For those who are rendered distraught by this try replacing the words Boeing with Airbus, and replace the words America or American with France, Germany, Spain and Europe as you see fit.)

The WTO ruling relied upon comes from an unpublished confidential ruling into EU subsidies for Airbus, and is one of the two parallel cases, the other brought by the EU concerning allegedly illegal subsidies to Boeing. That decision is expected to be leaked by the parties involved toward the end of June.

Airbus has also claimed, again without showing the entire document, that the first ruling rejected 70% of the claims made by the US authorities on behalf of Boeing.

In the real world, there would be no Boeing nor Airbus as we know them without what in pure terms are illegal subsidies. There would not have been any utilities as we know them today either, or many of the services and enterprises we take for granted.

The statement that these illegal subsidies have contributed to the loss of 65,000 aerospace jobs in the US is no doubt correct. And misleading. The principal causes of the loss of those jobs has been off shoring by Boeing, which has exported American jobs on a massive scale to the UK, Europe, Japan and China, and Boeing ineptness or shortcomings in commercial strategy and design and engineering support.

It is No2 in the world of commercial aviation because it was beaten. It squandered its aviation leadership in the aftermath of its merger with McDonnell Douglas. It milked US state governments for subsidies on a grand scale, went to war with its own unionised work force in Washington injuring its customers in that process , and drove away its skilled people, discovering the hard way that the investment the company held in long term, experienced engineers and designers was far more valuable than recent managements with diluted aerospace experience ever understood.

This process of begging Congress to in effect, forget and forgive is demeaning. If Boeing was half serious about the current state of affairs it would make the 787 Dreamliner program a truly American enterprise, not something that outsourced not only the work but the equity, risk and design details to contractors all over the world, including tanker rival EADS, which makes the all composite rear pressure bulkheads for the ‘plastic fantastic’ in Toulouse, France. It would never have given half ownership of all of the engines used on its NG 737 series to a Franco-American consortium. And it would certainly not have outsourced part of the design work on the now really, very late Boeing 748F to Russian design shops which apparently did not perform to expectations.

If the amendment proposed to Congress is to be fair to US taxpayers, rather than just Boeing, it surely needs to deal with the second WTO ruling, due soon, into illegal American subsidies.

But this document is pitched more at the tea baggers than any serious consideration of the reasons why US industry is in such dire straits. America, like the UK, and Australia, wilfully let go of too much of its capacity to make things. Refocusing on innovation and manufacturing rather than services, (coupled to constantly rising consumer debt), is going to need more than populist pleadings.


May 21, 2010


Defence Minister Faulkner and
Defence Minister Faulkner and Air Marshal Mark Binskin at a ceremony

The Netherlands parliament has debated and passed three motions which make it very unlikely that country will persevere with its involvement in the F-35 JSF project, although it will come under fierce pressure to remain a customer.

This ‘Dutch roll’ comes at a time when Australian Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner, is officially ‘unhappy’ with the Euro torpedo fiasco, the MU 90-not the currency-leaving one to wonder what he might feel about defence’s handling of the far larger JSF related expenditure in this country.

But first, to The Hague.

The motions were tabled by the SP (Socialist Party), PvdA (Labour) and GL (Green Left) and may be summarised as follows:

Proposal 1 (SP):
The government not be permitted to contract any new obligations with the JSF program

Proposal 2 (Labour)
Cancelling the contract for the First LRIP3 test aircraft and get the money back from the US for the long lead items. Not buying/ signing contract for the Second LRIP4 test aircraft. Cancelling the participation in the MOU-IOT&E (Initial Operational Test and Evaluation)

Proposal 3 (Green Left)
Because the Evaluations of the F16 replacement in 2002 and in 2008 were based on wrong estimates and unreliable data, there needs to be a new evaluation done with new RFPs (Requests for Proposal).

All three proposals were approved by the Netherlands Parliament.

This development follows two highly critical audit reviews of the JSF project in the US, the firing and replacement of the military head of the project, and most recently the triggering of the Nunn-McCurdy law under which defence projects that exceed cost increase limitations must be revalidated by Congress to receive continued funding. That Congressional review is underway.

The Australian government however remains uncritically enthusiastic for the JSF, which will officially cost $12.5-13.5 billion for 100 of the aircraft that are supposed to replaced the FA 18s, the interim Super Hornets, and the F-111s, and maintain regional air superiority.

Or does it? Faulkner is responsible for a defence establishment that blew $1 billion on the failed Seasprite project, can barely manage to keep a single Collins class submarine combat ready, and has brushed aside performance issues with the Wedgetail airborne early warning and command aircraft and the MRH-90 helicopters, the latter currently grounded after one experienced a serious, but hushed up engine failure in South Australia in April.

So far Faulkner appears to have become as captured by the culture of incompetence that has an iron grip on defence purchases in Australia, as it has in turn been captured by the manufacturers.

But this can’t go on forever, and as some have noted, and even recorded (top photo) Faulkner shows signs of impatience with defence. The critical difference between our Defence Materiel Organisation and its overseas equivalents is that it represents the sellers not the buyer. It sells to the government, rather than act as a critical and vigilant buyer. There is no more prone and obsequious defence establishment than Australia’s yet it can’t become the last choir boy still singing in the chapel, especially as public scrutiny of the JSF project gathers momentum in the US.

Having become ‘unhappy’ with the torpedo farce, how soon will it be before Faulkner seizes upon the realities that are being confronted in Washington DC and The Hague?


May 11, 2010


Catching a Phantom Ray standing still, photo by Boeing
Catching a Phantom Ray standing still, photo by Boeing

Boeing’s Phantom Ray unmanned defence systems test vehicle looks the part of a 1950’s comic book, but will it be able to tell the difference between a wedding party, a school, or village, and a collection of baddies in central Asia?

That’s the burning question. It’s a serious one, but the answers probably lie in how remote war fare uses ‘intelligence’ rather than technology.

The Phantom Ray was revealed overnight in St Louis and will fly late this year on a series of test missions exploring automatic in-flight refuelling, and strike and surveillance capabilities. And, one might hope, the foolproof transit of air space used by airliners.

The device conforms to the obvious requirements of ‘stealthy’ flight, using radar deflecting and absorbing materials and cross sections, as well as a propulsion system with a very low thermal signature and radio quiet on-board systems.

It isn’t very big, or fast, or high flying, being only 10.9 metres long, 15.2 metres wide, and intended to cruise at a mere mach 0.8 at 12,000 metres.

But if no-one can see or hear you, being slow and comparatively low is irrelevant.

The revelation of the Phantom Ray contrasts with another smart flying device at the ultra light end of the scale shown off by Boeing in February, which looks at first glance like the model planes that get flown in parks or beaches.

The RM-1 gets hand launched in a St Louis stadium, photo by Boeing
The RM-1 gets launched in a St Louis stadium, Boeing photo

This is the 2.5 kilogram battery powered Rapid Manufacture or RM-1 demonstrator, designed to be easily carried, and overlooked once launched, to carry out individual hits or intelligence gathering for very specific purposes at short notice.

Fascinating. While it looks like nothing more than a sleek powered model plane, sort of like a version of the rapidly manufactured rubber band powered devices I recall launching on short often disastrous flights at high school, it offers something Australia could afford to invest in, while delivering the same defence capabilities as the Joint Strike Fighter.


Mar 21, 2010


There is a fascinating insight into why Defence Minister John Faulkner’s advisors may have been so keen for him to commit $3.2 billion to the JSF project last November contained in this passage in the GAO or Government Accountability Office report into the fiasco published last week.


Get it. Faulkner was conned into promising $3.2 billion upfront for 14 completely useless, undefined, and definitely undeliverable by 2014 initial low rate production F-35s because Lockheed Martin is running a project with the capacity to swallow a very large fraction of US and western allied GDP .

And it isn’t anywhere near to delivering the air power superiority that is promised either, in a world where the changing nature of the threat in our region would make it irrelevant even if it did work as promised.

Flashback to Faulkner’s words, or rather those written for him, about how spending this incredible amount of money on an initial batch of F-35s would enable us to better assess their costs?

Give us a break. Are we getting our money back if they prove too costly? Or are we just shoving cash into the program up front because it badly needs the loot before it gets closed down or substantially slashed?

Back in January when the head of the JSF project was fired for incompetency it was revealed that the jets Australia had signed up for aren’t defined as doing anything. They have no firm capabilities. We’ve bought something that even the US government can’t work out what it will actually do, because it’s capabilities are undefined and unknown. Faulkner has no way of knowing whether the first JSF’s we get will be 1% relevant to the product we want because it will at least have decals in common, or 50% relevant. How dumb is this?

Faulkner must ask himself, who was it who urged this on me, and what did they then know about this program that has only recently been disclosed in a US procurement audit in January and now in the GAO report as being in serious if not terminal difficulties.

Defence has gone deadly quiet about the JSF program and the con-job on the Minister for these initial production units since the GAO report was released last week.

Perhaps the defence bureaucrats who one might reasonably conclude have been masquerading as Lockheed Martin marketing assistants and apologists, have digested it and come to the same conclusion as Bill Sweetman on Aviation Week’s The Ares Blog, who says:

“The good news for the JSF program in the March 20 GAO report – combined with the other numbers released in March – is that the program is no longer at risk of failure.
The bad news is that it has already failed.”

But can someone please explain why voices of dissent on this program like Air Power Australia, or career bureaucrat Erik Peacock, have been so accurate, and the defence establishment almost totally wrong in every single thing they ever said about this project?

Why is failure so ingrained in the defence establishment. Why can’t we get submarines right, why can’t we get helicopters right? Is it because good people get trapped in an administrative culture that tries to call winners too far in advance and then gets enmeshed in group think, where the investment in a solution becomes so large so quickly that contrary voices or changes in technologies or the recogition of changed circumstances have to be suppressed? Is it because foreign policy or trade imperatives have excessive leverage over prudent acquisition? Or do we just engage our money faster than our brains?

Whatever the reason, we face a crushing financial burden to support a failing project, or if Sweetman is right, some very serious writeoffs and fresh investments in an alternative solution, whatever that proves to be.


Mar 12, 2010


There is an urgent need for Defence Minister, John Faulkner, to tell parliament what he knows about the state of Australia’s most costly and vital defence acquisition, the F-35 JSF or Joint Strike Fighter.

He was tipped off by the US deputy defense secretary William Lynn, about the parlous state of affairs on February 15-16 when he came to Australia with the bad news.

This morning the GAO (Government Accountability Office) report on the JSF Joint Strike Fighter project was released in Congress, and it is a shocker.

The cost of the F-35s has shot up by 60-90% per jet, they are running at least two and half years late, making complete liars out of the lead contractor Lockheed Martin over its mealy mouthed statements about how everything is really progressing well, and making fools out of the Australian defence hierarchy, which conned Faulkner into pledging $3.2 billion for 14 ‘early’ (read useless) versions of the JSF from 2014 last November.

Not only that, the jet may not (suddenly) be able to meet its objectives and not be produced in the originally promised volumes.

And Faulkner was seriously persuaded we’d start to get 14 of the initial low rate production jets in 2014!

Never mind a housing roof insulation fiasco by a junior minister. This is the absolutely critical foundation stone of Australian air power superiority in the future, and the minister has been taken for a ride by a defence establishment that behaves like the marketing arm of a US defence company that has been exposed as struggling to deliver on its promises by this report and the earlier defence acquisition audit by Mike Gilmore, the US Director of Operational Test & Evaluation.

Quaint though the notion of accountability in defence, or any government acquisitions, is in this country, Australia’s commitment to the JSF has now been overtaken by diligent government oversight in the US.

Given our slavish tradition of being led by the nose by the Pentagon in defence matters, is it not time for Faulkner to fall onto line, and condemn the state of the project, and demand changes in his own see-nothing-know-nothing, tell-the-minister-nothing defence establishment.

Or does he want to do a Garrett, and let it smoulder for as long as possible before it all goes up in flames.

Faulkner has already told parliament of his displeasure over excessive expense claims in defence. How about outright lies about the state of the JSF program?

What can be more important that to get timely, impartial advice and warnings about the state of the JSF project, things clearly not shared with the minister when he signed a $3.2 billion deal in November.

The chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, says the outlook is ‘dismal.’

Levin says “The facts are painful because you got a 60-90% increase in the projected cost of each plane.”

Will the minister please clarify whether this means the $3.2 billion initial deal for non-performing jets which will be late as well as useless now rise above $5 billion?

And could the minister explain why the only truthful official statements about this project are being relayed by the media from Washington, and not from Canberra. Why doesn’t he try something novel, like informing the public himself without taking a cue from DC?


Mar 9, 2010


The MH-60R option, image from the public domain
The MH-60R option, image from the public domain

While away, in a place cut off from on-line media, the choice of an anti-submarine warfare helicopter platform for the RAN was raised in the JSF discussion by Bushranger 71 and 12Bravo with the suggestion of a separate discussion.

Which is a suggestion keenly welcomed. It’s a topic which is arguably not beset by all of the core considerations in the JSF debate, but there are some similarities, the critical one being how we best equip Australia to defend itself and maintain defence credibility and superiority. As just a single voice more concerned with public administration than the actual choice, I’m not allied with any firm view in favour of the MH-60R or the NH-90 NFH (NATO Frigate helicopter) , and I’m intrigued by the notion that there is a viable third course of action, at this late stage, which could utilise an upgrade of older platforms to achieve a lower cost but effective solution. In an election year this issue may struggle for oxygen, but it surely merits discussion even though general media reports are essentially confined to the tender process.

Or, the NFH90 option, image from the public domain
Or, the NFH90 option, image from the public domain


Mar 1, 2010


The pace at which the US is discovering the dismal state of the Joint Strike Fighter JSF F-35 program continues to outpace the capacity of the Australian Government to deal with the reality, and the inability of its defence establishment to recognise and react to the disclosures.

This story, using documents obtained under American FoI rules, is published this afternoon in a Texas newsaper, the Star-Telegram.

The report isn’t supposition. It is hard factual documents, containing information that would have given pause to any Minister responsible for the most important defence acquisition in Australia’s history. It is about facts that our defence establishment was incapable of finding or bringing to the Minister’s attention. Why?

Australia’s claims to air superiority are welded to the JSF project. The quality of the advice Defence Minister John Faulkner has received from our defence establishment is looking worse by the day.

Among the many critical questions that confront the Minister is who really owns the people who pumped him full of nonsense about the progress of this project to the extent that he committed $3.2 billion last November to an initial batch of F-35s that are over budget, late and ill-defined.

Why didn’t, or couldn’t, defence tell the minister what these documents told a Texas broadsheet?


Feb 16, 2010


The first public appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10, Sukhoi supplied picture
The first public appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10, Sukhoi supplied picture

About now Defence Minister John Faulkner is having tea and biscuits with William Lynn, the deputy secretary of the US Defense Office, who is breaking some awkward news about the JSF Joint Strike Fighter project.

Namely, that March is going to be a very difficult month for the troubled project.

But if the Minister had already read the very long and detailed analysis released early this morning by Airpower Australia of the Russian answer to the JSF F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA, which made its first ‘public’ flight on January 10, the conversation might have been even more fascinating, and difficult, for Lynn.

The analysis has very grim implications for the JSF project.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn ((centre) provides SA Premier Mike Rann (at map) with a photo opportunity at the Techport  shipyard. Photo DoD
Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn ((centre) provides SA Premier Mike Rann (at map) with a photo opportunity at the Techport shipyard. Photo DoD

But first, Lynn and the Defence Secretary Robert Gates are according to sources in DC doing the rounds of JSF client states bringing them up to date over the issues befalling the project in March

The anticipated unfavourable review of the JSF program by the US Government Accountability Office report to Congress next month will trigger the Nunn-McCurdy amendment to the Defence Authorization Act of 1982 which will force the government to get reauthorization to continue its funding because of unit cost overruns.

This embarrassment will occur less than two months after the official audit review into the project by Mike Gilmore, the US Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, which lead to the firing of the head of the project and the cancellation of $700 million in ‘progressive’ payments due to be made to the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, this year.

In their report the co-founders of the Air Power Australia defence think tank, Dr Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon say:

“Analysis of PAK-FA prototype airframe aerodynamic features shows a design which is superior to all Western equivalents, providing ‘extreme agility’, superior to that of the Su-35S, through much of the flight envelope. This is accomplished by the combined use of 3D thrust vector control of the engine nozzles, all moving tail surfaces, and refined aerodynamic design with relaxed directional static stability and careful mass distribution to control inertial effects. The PAK-FA is fitted with unusually robust high sink rate undercarriage, intended for STOL operations.

“The available evidence demonstrates at this time that a mature production PAK-FA design has the potential to compete with the F-22A Raptor in VLO performance from key aspects, and will outperform the F-22A Raptor aerodynamically and kinematically.

“Therefore, from a technological strategy perspective, the PAK-FA renders all legacy US fighter aircraft, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, strategically irrelevant and non-viable after the PAK-FA achieves IOC in 2015.

“Detailed strategic analysis indicates that the only viable strategic survival strategy now remaining for the United States is to terminate the Joint Strike Fighter program immediately, redirect freed funding to further develop the F-22 Raptor, and employ variants of the F-22 aircraft as the primary fighter aircraft for all United States and Allied TACAIR needs.”

They warn that, “if the US does not fundamentally change its future for the planning of tactical air power, the advantage held for decades will soon be lost and American air power will become an artefact of history.”

Their analysis also moves on from previous arguments by Air Power Australia that the F-22 Raptor is the comprehensive answer to air superiority to a qualified view that only with an investment in both larger numbers and upgrades of the type can the line be held against the PAK-FA and then only with significant losses on both sides.

Designed to compete against the F-22 in traditional Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and Within Visual Range (WVR) air combat, the PAK-FA shares all of the key fifth generation attributes until now unique to the F-22 – stealth, supersonic cruise, thrust vectoring, highly integrated avionics and a powerful suite of active and passive sensors. While the PAK-FA firmly qualifies as a fifth generation design, it has two further attributes absent in the extant F-22 design. The first is extreme agility, resulting from advanced aerodynamic design, exceptional thrust/weight ratio performance and three dimensional thrust vectoring integrated with an advanced digital flight control system. The second attribute is exceptional combat persistence, the result of a 25,000 lb internal fuel load. The internal and external weapon payload are likely to be somewhat larger, though comparable to those of the F-22A.

The authors say “Russia intends to operate at least two hundred PAK-FAs, India two hundred and fifty of the Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) variant, with global PAK-FA exports likely to add at least 500 more tails to the production tally. The stated intent is to supply the PAK-FA as a replacement for existing T-10 Flanker series fighter aircraft.

The PAK-FA from below showing some of the design issues discussed in the Air Power analysis
The PAK-FA revealing some of the design issues discussed in the Air Power analysis

“Initial analysis of PAK-FA imagery and public disclosures by the Russian government and Sukhoi bureau indicate that a production PAK-FA will yield greater aerodynamic and kinematic performance to the current F-22A design, and similar low observables performance to the F-35A JSF.

“While the basic shaping observed on this first prototype of the PAK-FA will deny it the critical all-aspect stealth performance of the F-22 in BVR air combat and deep penetration, its extreme manoeuvrability/controllability design features, which result in extreme agility, give it the potential to become the most lethal and survivable fighter ever built for air combat engagements.

“It is important to consider that the publicly displayed PAK-FA prototype does not represent a production configuration of the aircraft, which is to employ a new engine design, and extensive VLO treatments which are not required on a prototype. A number of observers have attempted to draw conclusions about production PAK-FA VLO performance based on the absence of such treatments, the result of which have been a series of unrealistically optimistic commentaries.

“PAK-FA Low Rate Initial Production is planned for 2013, and Full Rate Production for 2015, with initial deliveries of the Indian dual seat variant planned for 2017.

The analysis raises time line issues for the decision announced last November by Faulkner to spend $3.2 billion on 14 low rate initial production F-35s for delivery in 2014 in order to evaluate them. If the IOC for the PAK-FA is 2015, even the on time delivery of the early F-35s, which the Gilmore report describes as poorly defined, wouldn’t make sense.

In a position report on the PAK-FA and the US decision to limit production of the Raptor and deny its sale to allies, RAAF Wing commander (retired) Chris Mills says the killing of that program was a ploy to ensure that the F-35 JSF would become a forced monopoly in the production and sale of US air combat aircraft.

But he points out that this could fail massively if Israel, which already makes avionics for the Sukhoi range of military aircraft, and Japan, were to join India in buying the PAK-FA to ensure their future survival and combat superiority in battle zones in which the JSF would not prevail.

The quality of advice the Minister had received from defence at the time of embracing the early batch of F-35s needs to be called to account as it coincided with the quality of the review that Gilmore was conducting with such damning effect on the project in the US.

There is an obvious quality gap in the oversight this project is receiving in Washington DC and in Canberra.


Feb 6, 2010


One of many T-50 images to 'escape' into the public domain on January 29
One of many T-50 images to 'escape' into the public domain on January 29

Did this PAK-FA or T-50 (above) take to the sky for the first time on January 29, or is there another element to the stealth characteristics of the Russian answer to the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF F-35 on which the future air superiority of Australia depends?

This note is being circulated by Peter Goon, the co-founder of Airpower Australia.

Now having reviewed the many images and videos of the PAK-FA that are now available in the public domain, it is now possible to state, if this image has not been modified by the removal of details on the control surfaces of the aircraft, then the attached photo image is not from the first ‘public’ flight of the PAK-FA T-50 aircraft on the 29th of January, 2010.
Also, due to differences in other details between this image and images from the first ‘public’ flight, there is a distinct possibility this is likely an in flight photo image of a PAK-FA prototype aircraft other than the one that flew the first ‘public’ flight.
This is but one small part of the analysis that goes to show that those who think Sukhoi have a long way to go and many risks to overcome to develop this aircraft to operational status are card bearing members of the “don’t know what they don’t know about things they are not equipped to understand” part of our society.
As ever, the devil is in the details.
In terms of wake-up call for national pride, let alone strategic threat, the advent of the PAK-FA T-50 should rankle at the same level as the radio signals beamed back to earth by the orbiting Sputnik satellite.
The alarms in people’s heads should sound doubly loud given the direction the Gate’s OSD and those who have occupied that office are now taking US TACAIR and overall Air Power capabilities.
What is most curious and one of the sustained harmonics of these ringing alarm bells is the number of those who have passed through the Office of the Secretary of Defense who had worked for and, now, either work in or consult for Lockheed Martin Corporation.
A similar observation can be made for other US Government departments such as Justice and State.
This all keeps getting curioser and curiouser while the alarm bells keep ringing louder and louder.

After reading this note I question whether there is more than one T-50 involved in the full Russian language version of the shorter english language edit included in our initial report, and the animated discussion that followed.


Several things can be said with confidence. The photos and videos that flooded the public domain with what has to have been official blessings include at least one that was almost certainly not taken during the ‘official’ first flight, and is most likely of a different T-50.


Jan 30, 2010


Russian TV screen grab of the T-50 first flight
Russian TV screen grab of the T-50 first flight

This is the T-50, making its first flight in eastern Russia this week. It changes everything in air defence and strategy.

The defence establishments of the west, including the obsequious branch office of the JSF strike fighter project that comprises defence planning and procurement in Australia, have been warned about this development for a long time, and ignored it.

They have endangered the very survival of this country by pursuing policies that will underscore the loss of air superiority that is already in train on a potent scale to our north.

And they will continue to churn out absurdities about our preparedness and superiority in military technology, especially in the air, until Washington DC tells them an abrupt change of reality is the imperative, and that everything they said before is ‘no longer applicable’, as it hasn’t been for quite some time.


The timing of the Moscow press conference which released the details and video shown in the above YouTube falls between President Obama’s first state of the union address and next Monday’s release of the US defence budget. Its use as a weapon of political influence has begun, not just for Russia, but India, which plans on acquiring 200 T-50s.

Russia’s revenge for the Ronald Reagan Star Wars hoax? Not really. The T-50 is real. Star Wars panicked the fossilised power structure and economics of the Soviet Union and helped speed its inevitable collapse. But it wasn’t going to work as advertised either. The T-50 looks seriously workable, to a budget and timetable that will see it operational between 2015-2017, years before the JSF, if pursued, has a ghost of a chance of being deliverable in anything remotely resembling the spun time lines that Australia fell for when it announced a $3.2 billion order for 14 of the F-35s for ‘initial training and testing’ from 2014.

Just how disconnected from reality was a decision that will have us spending a fortune on initial production F-35s at the same time as the bullshit free development program in Russia is putting its answer into operational service?

Australia’s involvement in the JSF project is that of endorsing an early 1990s solution to our air power needs that has struggled to make meaningful progress toward readiness by the latter half of this century’s second decade.

The basic numbers seem to have the T-50 capable of mach 2.5, a sustained lean fuel cruise at mach 1.9, a refuelling endurance of three or more hours and a payload of 7 tonnes of ordinance. It is a stealth design, with minimal radar visibility.

Wing commander (retired) RAAF Chris Mills, who has strongly criticised the JSF and the public administration failures that lead to its selection on the Air Power Australia web site says:

If the US intelligence agencies aircraft assessments of the PAK-FA were worth a penny, they would have been screaming for the build of additional F-22As, funded by F-35 cancellations, the development of the FB-22B with the missing IRST sensors and an ability to fly penetrating fighter-strike-recon missions over contested airspace, and a follow-on program to get the F-22 for the USMC and the F-22M for the USN.

So, now the spectre for the projection of US air and sea power is the PAK-FA flying sweep to knock down any pesky Hornets and lumbering F-35s, followed by Su-35S with either a centreline KH-41 Sunburn or a brace of Novator 3M-54AE Sizzlers, with a predictable result.

As predicted by APA, the military world as we know it has passed though a gate, and will never be the same.


Jan 21, 2010


If it hasn’t already happened, there needs to be some serious questions asked by Senator John Faulkner, Defence Minister of those who scripted his recent enthusiastic endorsement of the JSF or Joint Strike Fighter.

Faulkner is no fool, and it very unlikely he will tolerate being made to look as captured by the rhetoric associated with this program as the words provided for him in his press releases earlier this year on this project imply.

The notes that will give the Minister, and anyone else on the government and opposition benches cause for concern are found in the just revealed report to Congress by Mike Gilmore, the US Director of Operational Test & Evaluation concerning the JSF project in 2009.

This has been provided to us by Dr Carlo Kopp, defence analyst, at Air Power Australia. The interest for Plane Talking is in the extremely serious political and strategic consequences that would result from this program failing.

Kopp says:

This is the strongest language seen in any DOT&E report – far more critical than widely publicised OT&E criticisms of the Super Hornet some years ago, which many may recall.

This is evidence of pervasive and systemic failure in basic design of the airframe and systems. Every single problem or area of difficulty has been previously identified by APA, and far too frequently not believed, or dismissed.

What is abundantly clear is that the JSF is the least survivable new US combat aircraft design seen for many decades. Not only, as APA has proven many times over, is it easy to engage and hit, but as the DOT&E report shows abundantly, it is highly vulnerable and easy to kill if it is hit.
What the Director of OT&E has said in this 2009 report about the JSF Program bears all the hallmarks of an aircraft that has been designed by committees dominated by people other than professional Aerospace and Systems Engineers with currency and credence in the design, operation and effective management of the development of air combat fighter aircraft.
Even the simulation and modelling tools, that are intended to support testing, will only have “. . .50 per cent of the models will be accredited”, and this will not be achieved till “. . . during the final year of flight test, an approach with substantial risk”. Flying blind, in other words.
And, then, of course there are the considerable risks, issues and concerns about the autonomic logistics global sustainment (ALGS) system as recently put by APA to Australia’s DoD.
As if there isn’t enough to consider that warrants a complete re-assessment of Australia’s continued involvement in the JSF Program, the contents of this report, alone, should make this the highest imperative of the Australian Department of Defence Capability Acquisition Program and its related steering committees.
Clearly, the Air Combat Capability Review done in early 2008 by Mr Neil Orme failed to adequately consider, let alone address, the quite substantial and substantive risks and supporting analyses provided by APA and many other experts.
Any doubt as to the veracity of this observation can be readily dispelled by comparing the ACCR / Orme Report with the submissions provided, and this latest report from the US Director of OT&E.
The considerations and concerns listed in this DOT&E report are but a small number of those provided to Mr Neil Orme, some two years and many Australian tax payer dollars ago; not to mention the capability and Industry opportunity costs.
What is an unavoidable observation at this point in time, is that all of APA’s biggest concerns about this dysfunctional program were not only warranted, the reality is worse than APA predicted.

Here are some of the highlighted sections in clearer resolution.

mark up 01mark up 02The report says that “in 55 total flights during the fiscal year the integrated test force resolved a total of seven mission system success criteria of the 284 allotted to the CATB.

assessment 04

assessment 03

The report says, “The program needs to protect against the tendency to use models before they are ready.

“The impact of not doing so will be to create more risk of discovery of deficiencies during flight test, which the reliance on models was intended to avoid….

“Expectations of capabilities in early lots…of aircraft need to be adjusted to the realities of what can be developed and verified before delivery.”

The non-performance of this project last year could not have been unknown to those responsible for the defence materiels organisation. What exactly did our defence people do on their hosted trips to the US. How much of what they are paid to know did they faithfully and accurately convey to the minister.

Where is this tragic screw up leading us?

Some notes from Lockheed Martin concerning our notes.

Statement for DOT&E Report:

The report covers Fiscal Year 2009 and does not reflect progress that has been made recently.  Although late deliveries of aircraft from production to flight test have impacted early test results, the program has turned the corner of both production and test and verification and we fully expect to complete developmental testing in the prescribed time frame (2014).

Fifteen of the 19 SDD aircraft have been delivered including six ground test articles and nine fliers.   The remainder will be delivered in 2010.

Four of the 13 SDD flight test aircraft have flown (AA-1, BF-1, BF-2, and AF-1).   The next aircraft to fly is BF-3, our third STOVL aircraft, early this year.   We have flown about 140 times, which is below plan, but early flight test results are encouraging.  According to the story, the DOT&E report goes through FY09 and counts 16 flights. As of today that number is 49, not counting AA-1 flights. None of AA-1’s 91 flights appear to be included in the DOT&E info that Bloomberg discusses.
Software is approximately 80% complete.  Software stability and reliability is about 20 times greater than the F-22 program at this stage in the program.
We have an excellent  airframe design with the first ground-test article, STOVL BG-1, recently having completed its testing ahead of schedule, with more than 200 test points.  AG-1, CTOL variant, is ahead of this pace completing full airframe tests (13.5 Gs) with no failures.
Not reflected in the DOT&E report are recent significant accomplishments:

First Flight of the optimized CTOL variant on 11/14/09
The ferry of the first of the first STOVL aircraft to PAX River on 11/15/09 and subsequent ferry of BF-2 on 12/29/09.
Finally, and probably most significantly we engaged BF-1s  STOVL propulsion system in flight on two different sorties for the first time in January.  The successful tests are the first in a series of planned STOVL-mode flights that will include short takeoffs, hovers and vertical landings.

Although the SDD aircraft have incurred delays in entering flight test for several reasons, there are important technical achievements that have been demonstrated to date which are significantly more advanced than in any legacy program:

o       Exceptional static testing results on the STOVL and CTOL variants (full envelope verification in half the time of legacy) with CV variant ground testing scheduled to start this month.

o       Exceptional software stability demonstrated in our ground and flying laboratories and now undergoing initial F-35 mission system tests, compared to legacy platforms.

o       Exceptional sensor performance on surrogate airborne test platforms.

o       Exceptional signature test results, both near and far field coupled with robust, supportable Low Observeability characteristics.

Each of these technical accomplishments reflects soundness in the underlying engineering design and indicates a level of confidence entering flight test that has not been experienced on previous programs.
The flight test program is structured around conservative factors related to refly and regression testing and we believe we will be able to progress faster than legacy programs based on the extensive investment in integrated laboratories, flying test beds and modeling and simulation capabilities.


Nov 11, 2009


The wall of lies and delusions that surrounds the JSF project is starting to crumble apace in Washington DC, and the only question that really counts in Canberra is how quickly the government will take to get on top of its defence establishment.

The full and original story ‘The Self-Dismembering F-35’ by Winslow T Wheeler is in CounterPunch, and a wider look at the publication in general is recommended.

Also recommended is this more detailed challenge to the capabilities and so called 5th generation fighter credentials of the JSF and its pricing issues by Air Power Australia.

wheeler top

Lockheed’s refutation of the Joint Estimating Team (JET) analysis of cost growth and delays in the F-35 program borders on the hilarious: new computer aided design, simulation, and desk studies (un-validated by empirical testing) make cost growth in truly modern defense technology a thing of the past, they assert. Indeed, just like in DDG-1000, LCS, FCS, VH-71, etc., etc., etc…..

How pathetic.

Even sadder than Lockheed’s desperate grasp for reasons to do nothing to fix the self-dismembering F-35 program is the fact that the future of Western combat aviation relies on it. The 2,456 models of it on order for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will ultimately replace almost all tactical aircraft now in our inventory, except for the F-22, for which production beyond 187 aircraft was cancelled this past summer. Major allies, including Britain and much of the rest of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Israel have all made commitments to buy the aircraft. Sales to many others (there’s a long list) are postulated, and those who do not intend to buy the F-35 will probably copy it to the extent their treasuries, government bureaucracies, and technological development permit.

Unfortunately, the F-35 is unaffordable, and it is a technological kluge that will be less effective than airplanes it replaces. It will undo our air forces and our allies’, not help them.

Few agree now, but in time the finger pointing will start. That’s when someone will have to pick up the pieces to give our pilots a war winning aircraft. The road between here and there will be neither smooth, pretty, nor short, but it is time to take the first step.

A financial disaster? Impossible. Visiting the F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas last August, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assured us that the F-35 will be “less than half the price … of the F-22.”

Technically, Gates is right – for now. At a breathtaking $65 billion for 187 aircraft, the F-22 consumes $350 million for each plane. At $299 billion for 2,456, the F-35 would seem a bargain at $122 million each.

However, F-35 unit cost has barely begun to will climb. In 2001, the Pentagon had planned to buy 2,866 aircraft for $226.5 billion – $79 million per airplane. In 2007, that unit cost increased to $122 million, thanks to more cost and fewer airplanes being planned.

In the next few weeks, the program will have to admit to another increase. Gates and Deputy Secretary William Lynn have re-convened a “Joint Estimating Team” (JET) to reassess F-35 cost and schedule. Last year, while a part of the Bush administration, Gates basically ignored the Team’s recommendations, but the new JET is about to reconfirm them: the F-35 program will cost up to $15 billion more, and it will be delivered about two years late, and there are rumors the JET’s findings may even be worse.

Moreover, those address only the known problems. With F-35 flight testing barely three percent complete, new problems – and big new costs – are sure to emerge. Worse, only 17 percent of the aircraft’s characteristics will be validated by flight testing by the time the Pentagon has signed contracts for more than 500 aircraft. Operational squadron pilots will have the thrill of discovering the remaining glitches, in training or in combat. No one should be surprised if the final F-35 total program unit cost reaches $200 million per aircraft after all the fixes are paid for.

This kluge is not “affordable,” either. The latest version of the F-16, heavily laden with complex electronics and other expensive modifications, costs about $60 million, twice its original price – in today’s dollars. The A-10, which the F-35 will also replace, cost about $15 million in today’s dollars. Thus, to replace the almost 4,000 F-16s and A-10s built with just over 1,700 F-35s, the Air Force will have to pay far more to buy less than half as many airplanes.

In an age when the Air Force budget looks to increase only marginally, if at all, while simultaneously planning to buy several other major aircraft (new aerial tankers, new transports, new heavy bombers, and new helicopters), the plan to distend the fighter-bomber budget is a pipe dream.

While most, but not all, in the Pentagon and Congress remain oblivious to the unaffordability of the F-35, some of its foreign buyers are becoming horrified. Despite their governments’ investment of hundreds of millions, parliamentarians and analysts in Australia, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands are expressing real concerns. The F-35’s single largest international partner is the United Kingdom. There, the Royal Navy and Air Force have just decided to reduce their F-35 buy from 138 aircraft to 50. The reason: “We are waking up to the fact that all those planes are unaffordable.”

The problems with the F-35 are not limited to its cost.

As a fighter, the F-35 depends on a technological fantasy. Having failed to develop in the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s an effective (and reliable) radar-based technology to shoot down enemy (not friendly) aircraft “beyond visual range,” the Air Force is trying yet again with the F-35, like the F-22 before it. Both have the added development of “stealth” (less detectability against some radars at some angles), but that new “high tech” feature and the long range radar have imposed design penalties that compromised the aircraft with not just high cost but also weight, drag, complexity, and vulnerabilities. The few times this technology has been tried in real air combat in the past decade, it has been successful less than half the time, and that has been against incompetent and/or primitively equipped pilots from Iraq and Serbia.

If the latest iteration of “beyond visual range” turns out to be yet another chimera, the F-35 will have to operate as a close-in dogfighter, but in that regime it is a dog. If one accepts every aerodynamic promise DOD currently makes for it, the F-35 will be overweight and underpowered. At 49,500 pounds in air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 pounds of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight and acceleration for a new fighter. In fact, at that weight and with just 460 square feet of wing area for the Air Force and Marine Corps versions, the F-35’s small wings will be loaded with 108 pounds for every square foot, one third worse than the F-16A. (Wings that are large relative to weight are crucial for maneuvering and surviving in combat.) The F-35 is, in fact, considerably less maneuverable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 “Lead Sled,” a fighter that proved helpless in dogfights against MiGs over North Vietnam. (A chilling note: most of the Air Force’s fleet of F-105s was lost in four years of bombing; one hundred pilots were lost in just six months.)

Nor is the F-35 a first class bomber for all that cost: in its stealthy mode it carries only a 4,000 pound payload, one third the 12,000 pounds carried by the “Lead Sled.”

As a “close air support” ground-attack aircraft to help US troops engaged in combat, the F-35 is too fast to identify the targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire, and too short-legged to loiter usefully over embattled US ground units for sustained periods. It is a giant step backward from the current A-10.

It is time to start fixing this mess. Needless to say, the complexities of Pentagon procurement regulations and especially the circle-the-wagons mentality of the Pentagon and Congress present serious hurdles to be overcome, most of them ethical.

First is the need is to accept the facts as they exist, rather than as Lockheed and self-interested bureaucrats in the Pentagon would prefer them to be. That will mean accepting the JET recommendations as currently written – not watering them down to make them palatable, or ignoring them as they were in 2008 under Gates’ first term as SecDef.

Let’s watch closely and see if the original JET findings are watered down by Deputy Secretary Lynn or others who helped to father the Joint Strike Fighter in the Clinton Administration, or others, such as Acquisition Czar Ashton Cater, who will have to re-jigger the Air Force’s entire long range budget to accommodate more F-35 cost. His having been forthright about underhanded Air Force behavior on the F-22, perhaps we can hope that Gates will insist on ethical behavior on the F-35. We shall see.

Comparing the original JET findings with whatever comes out the other end should be easy. The details of the study were reported by Jason Sherman at; other outsiders are familiar with just what is in the JET analysis, and quick reaction professionals like Colin Clark at DODBuzz will surely have a field day if top Pentagon management tries to fudge what’s in the JET study. The glare of public understanding is always a good way to appeal to the patriotism of top Pentagon management.

In addition to listening to the facts, we will need to exercise the professed spirit of the new Weapon System Acquisition Act, signed into law by President Obama last May. While the fine print of the new law is hopelessly riddled with loopholes to protect business as usual, the bill purports to control costs and inspire competition, especially the “fly-before-buy” competitive approach that has worked so marvelously well the few times it’s been tried.

This is the same vision that President Obama expressed to the VFW in Phoenix last August when he said he wanted to stop “the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget.” Clearly, no one has told the President that the F-35 is a leading poster child for those evils.

Finally, the biggest step, would be to suspend further F-35 production until the test aircraft, all of them now funded, can complete a revised, much more thorough flight test schedule. Once we know the F-35’s realistically demonstrated performance and problems, and the full extent of its costs, we can make an informed decision whether to put it into full production. To do that, the upside down F-35 acquisition plan — which buys 500 aircraft before the “definitive” test report (the one that only flight tests 17 percent of F-35 characteristics) is on Gates’ desk — needs to be radically recast into real fly-before-buy plan. Just the kind of plan the new Acquisition Reform Act pretends to advocate.

In the almost certain event that the F-35 is found by uncompromised, realistic testing to be an unaffordable loser, there are viable alternatives. If an active consensus develops to reverse the current aging and shrinking of the existing tactical aviation inventory (as opposed to today’s silent conspiracy encouraging those trends to worsen), a short term, affordable fix to restore combat adequacy is needed: Extend the life of existing F-16 and A-10 airframes for the Air Force and continue purchasing F-18E/F aircraft for the Navy and Marine Corps. For the part of the inventory that most urgently needs immediate expansion, the A-10 and the close support mission, hundreds of airframes now sitting in the “boneyard” can and should be refurbished – something that can be done at extraordinarily modest cost.

Just a life-extension program will not address long term needs. Accordingly, competitive prototype fly off programs should be immediately initiated to develop and select new fighters to build a larger force that is far more combat-effective than existing the F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s. Just such programs — that lead to an astonishing 10,000 plane Air Force within current budget levels — are described in detail in “Reversing the Decay in American Air Power,” a chapter in the anthology America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress (Stamford University Press).

You can almost literally hear the howls of protest right now. The F-35 is too big to fail. Gates himself seems trapped by that logic; he said “My view is we cannot afford as a nation not to have this airplane.” We take the opposite view. The F-35’s bloat — in cost, leaden weight, and mindless complexity — guarantees failure. It will shrink our air forces at increased cost, rot their ability to prevail in the air and support our ground forces, and will needlessly spill the blood of far too many of our pilots.

We have to take the first steps to better understand the extent of the F-35 disaster and to reverse the continuing decay in our air forces.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He is also the editor of the anthology “America’s Defense Meltdown: Military Reform for President Obama and the New Congress.”


Two brief items in this week’s Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report stand out from its pages.

If the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF that is the be all and end all, perhaps very much the ‘end all’ of Australian air defence, is so inadequate that there is a case for slashing the US commitment, isn’t it time to ask how the winged wonder box of the ’90s is going to serve Australia in the 2020s?

Especially at massive per unit cost, for deployment toward the end of the second decade of the new century if we are ‘lucky’, and against threats from states investing in equipment and strategies specifically devised to anticipate, detect and destroy the capabilities of a project that is characterised by an inverse relationship between cost and progress.


Sep 13, 2009


New analysis at Air Power Australia covers the new Russian counter-stealth radar carried in the leading edges of the Flanker wing and operating at the 1-2 GHz L-band frequency which bypasses the 8-16 GHz optimised stealth in the Joint Strike Fighter.

Translation: The complacency, inertia, massive spending and spin doctoring that characterise the multi-national JSF program are placing the west at a risk that demands urgent attention.

size 01size 02size 03size 04


Aug 10, 2009


From the Blackberry of Dr Sun Yat-sen*

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union developed its air combat fighters as a State Enterprise. In sharp contrast, the USA used its fiercely competitive private enterprise system to develop new aircraft types, drawing on the diversity of its industrial base and the need for financial success to drive innovation and cost-effectiveness. The winner was awarded profitable production contracts and the loser had to work harder and smarter for the next contract or face financial oblivion.

Today, air combat fighter development has been turned upside down.

After the Soviet Union spectacularly disintegrated, State Enterprises were privatised and have to survive on their sales and earnings. Organisations like Sukhoi and MiG have had to adapt and change rapidly, and provide the air combat fighters customers assess would, in future, dominate their Region. Market driven technological changes like ‘stealth’, networks, precision weapons, international logistics had to be incorporated into the business model and air combat fighter designs.

In the USA, there has been an equally spectacular reversal. Private enterprise no longer invents and funds new air combat projects – this has become a State Enterprise. After a State funded prototype competition, one ‘indicative’ prototype is selected and the State continues to fund development. Specifications are ‘locked down’ to minimise the cost of changes.

For the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the 1990s world on which the specifications are based no longer exists. Stealth has been penetrated by low frequency radars. Infrared sensors and weapons to detect and kill the F-35 are being deployed. Its ‘cyber warfare’ networks have become an Achilles’ Heel, allowing the F-35 to be passively tracked, and its vital information feeds blocked. Powerful and long range missile systems can swat it like a fly if it attempts to penetrate protected areas.

The focus on what technology potential enemies will field and the counters they have been developing has been ignored and replaced with an economic pork-barrel model of development. With the F-35 JSF hoovering up taxpayer’s funds and distributing them to places which will politically support the project and its proponents, the catch-cry is: ‘Never mind the quality of the aircraft – support us and feel the width of the cash-flow’.

Why doesn’t the Joint Strike Fighter Project Office realise the world has changed; that the 1990’s JSF specification has little relevance to the 2015-25 world; and, that the aircraft’s design needs to be changed? The JSF design has been driven by ‘affordability’ and there is no in-built space for growth or new capabilities. The aircraft is years behind its original planned development dates, is over-weight and way over budget. Having ‘locked-in’ its design, it would now take years of redesign and redevelopment to make an air combat aircraft relevant to the 2015-25 era in which it must operate. With an air combat fleet pushing an average age towards 30 years and its potential adversaries modernising rapidly, time is something the USA does not have.

So many promises have been made within the USA and its allies on production contracts based on 3,500 aircraft, that the necessary delays for redevelopment would generate a chorus of complaint, disillusionment and risk that supporters would abandon the project entirely.

So, the JSF program’s promises have created an expectation of financial reward that is so huge, JSF proponents must deliver something, even if it is second-rate, as it is ‘too big to fail’. In an ironic paradox, the program is also so large that it has locked the JSF specifications into a set that are no longer relevant to the deadly art of future air combat, so that it is simultaneously ‘too big to succeed’.

So, in one part of the world, a newly emerged and diversifying industrial base is adroitly developing a deadly stream of air combat fighters, and to survive, will sell them to any Nation that has the cash to buy them. In another, a far less diverse, almost cartel-like industry, oblivious to the overmatching technological developments in other parts of the world, is selling a triplet set of air combat dinosaur aircraft while the project just beyond prototype stage, and way before demonstrating its ability to defeat its potential adversaries.

Millennia of warfare have proven that victory goes to those who have the best technologies and the will to employ those technologies aggressively.

The USA seems to have lost its way in the development and deployment of military air combat technology, and its latest aircraft no longer have ‘the right stuff’.

And the consequences? History has the answer.

* Sun Yat-sen 1866-1925, the revered Chinese revolutionary and political philosopher


Jul 12, 2009


Various analysts have warned that counter measures to the JSF are being developed and deployed much faster than the troubled project is moving towards delivery.

One of them, an authoritative and experienced military identity, who wishes to remain anonymous until he chooses otherwise, has sent us a review of this dilemma for the JSF in language accessible to lay readers.

Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying: “Quantity has a quality all its own”. And so it goes with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. America plans to provide about 2,500 to its Armed Forces, and Lockheed Martin plans to sell another 1,000 to the USA’s Allies. The more hopeful marketers in Lockheed Martin are suggesting that the JSF will annihilate its competition, creating a monopoly market for up to 6,000 aircraft.

How people feel about this quantity of F-35 JSFs depends on two factors – firstly whether the aircraft will be protecting or attacking them, and secondly whether it will be effective or ineffective at National-Defence-critical roles such as air dominance and penetrating strike.

Many in the Western World have full confidence in the F-35 ‘Lightning II’, and are comfortable with the thought that this world-wide armada of aircraft will protect them, their Nation and its global interests. They are willing to pay an unknown price for the privilege. Cost estimates have the price at least $150M a copy – the most expensive production fighter aircraft – ever.

Outside the West, the view is different. How would Nations like Russia and China feel about having 3,500 combat aircraft arraigned at them? Insecure? Threatened? Non-Western military arms companies might see this differently. A threat of this magnitude presents a huge opportunity to develop effective countermeasures which can be sold in large volumes for large profits.

And so Russian and Chinese military arms companies have been investing substantial resources in analyzing the F-35 JSF to find ‘chinks’ in its armor. They draw on the immutable laws of physics to find their answers and opportunities.

‘Stealth’ is the main attribute that the Lightning II relies on for its combat effectiveness. The simple logic is: ‘If you can’t see me, you can’t kill me’. After the success of predecessor ‘stealth’ aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, the F-22A Raptor and the B-2 Spirit, ‘stealth’ has been ‘designed-in’ the JSF – but with compromises made to yield ‘affordability’.

In the 1990’s the main threat to air combat aircraft was radar with wavelengths of about 10 cm. Deflecting these incoming waves away from receivers and absorbing those that cannot be deflected is the stratagem for creating ‘Low Observable’ aircraft. In the F-35, this has been achieved quite well for the front quarter, with the radar-cross-section about the size of a golf ball. From other aspects, building a truly ‘stealthy’ aircraft is expensive, so ‘affordability’, and the sheer physical difficulty of ‘stealthing’ slab-sides and complex, open shapes like jet nozzles, means that the all aspect observability is not ‘golf ball’ all-round, but ‘Pacman’ – low from the front, but higher from other directions. And large enough for the more powerful 10cm radars to detect, engage and kill it.

At frequencies longer than 10cm, another problem appears. Low frequency radars with wavelengths of a couple of metres – TV frequencies – resonate on aircraft structures and produce strong returns. Absorption is not an option, as the layers would be so thick as to make the aircraft un-flyable.

Then there are the equally troublesome higher frequencies, such as Infrared. The F-35 JSF’s F-135 engine is the most powerful and hot air-combat engine ever made. As it takes a lot of power to propel a ‘chunky’ stealth aircraft, a lot of heat is generated. So the Lightning II has a large Infrared signature, and its size and design does not allow these emissions to be masked as was done for the F-117, the B-2 and to some degree, the F-22A.

Finally, ‘Network Centric Warfare’ has become the flavour of the second Millennium. Mobile networks rely on radio transmissions and receptions, so are inherently ‘un-stealthy’. While it might confer a tactical advantage to be ‘network connected’, the transmissions are sources that can be detected, especially in electrically quiet areas like the Pacific Ocean. Networks that rely on nodes such as Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft are subject to attack and destruction, partially blinding network dependent aircraft like the JSF in the process.

So, with these physical realities, how have the Russian and Chinese military weapons designers responded to the prospect of being surrounded by thousands of F-35 JSFs?

Air Combat

The Russian response can be seen in aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-35-1. This fighter aircraft is an evolution of the widely admired Su-27 series. The large size of the aircraft and its ability to generate large amounts of electrical power has resulted in it being fitted with the most powerful air-to-air fighter radar currently in production, and the large antenna gives it a high sensitivity. ‘Low Observability’ is not ‘No Observability’. If radar is powerful enough, and sensitive enough, it will detect and track small radar-cross-section targets.

And so it is with the F-35 JSF. Even front-on detection ranges are sufficient to guide air-to-air missiles, and for other aspects the detection range is much longer than the missile range. One of the difficulties with air combat is that there are usually lots of combatants, and so it is impossible to keep your low-observable nose pointed at all enemy aircraft. The later model Sukhois are equipped with their own intra-flight network, so even if the Lightning II points its nose at one Sukhoi, it presents its ‘Pacman’ signature to another. With shared detections, one Sukhoi can be detecting the Lightning II and another guiding a missile at it.

What about the Lightning II’s large, unmasked Infrared signature? Sukhois have for decades employed ‘InfraRed Scan and Track’ (IRST) sensors as an integral part of their weapons system. They also employ Infrared sensors on their Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. So, a Lightning II JSF may be quietly cruising along minding it own business, only to find a non-radiating Sukhoi detects it and fires an Infrared guided BVR missile. The F-35’s first alarm might be the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) detecting the gliding, cool missile at very close range. Whether this detection range provides adequate warning for effective countermeasures is a matter of conjecture, but the smart money is on the missile.

Even the F-35’s ‘Network Centric Warfare’ transmitters, and the aircraft’s radar, albeit ‘Low Probability of Intercept’ (LPI) become missile magnets to a new class of seeker head – passive homers. These missiles are guided to the proximity of a radiating source and then home on any electrical transmission in front of the seeker. As electronic devices become more sensitive, passive homers become more effective. Since these BVR missiles emit nothing, they give no warning of their approach, and present the F-35’s DAS with the same challenge as Infrared homing missiles.

Strike Penetration

One of the striking differences (excuse the pun,) between the Russian and Chinese order-of-battle and that of the West, is that the West has invested very little in ‘area denial’ weapons like Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems. In contrast, Russia, greatly concerned with being surrounded and having its cities like Moscow attacked, has invested a great proportion of their military budget in SAM systems, and has done so for decades. As a result, they have great depth of understanding of the technology.

Recent developments in solid-state digital electronics have greatly improved the capability and reliability of these systems. Furthermore, their operations analysis and miniaturization has guided the development of ‘shoot and scoot’ systems, typically with five minutes or less from set-up, shoot and an evasion movement. This rapid mobility is sufficient to avoid attacks from weapons designed to find and destroy SAMS. Aircraft like the F-35 which rely on the free-fall Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) cannot attack one of these mobile SAM sites and escape without being shot-down by a missile.

Detecting ‘Low Observability’ aircraft targets is easier for ground based systems than for aircraft-based systems, because the constraints on power and aperture are largely removed for these SAM sensors. Where a Sukhoi radar might see the ‘Low Observability’ F-35 at 50 km, a ground-based radar could find it at 150 km – well outside the release range of the SDB and well inside the engagement range of the SAM’s missiles.

It gets worse. The Russians have been reviving Television Frequency radars – and making the beam electronically ‘steerable’ and placing the whole radar on a five minute ‘shoot and scoot’ truck chassis. A two metre wavelength will produce strong returns from the Lightning II’s body. Returns from these radars is of course networked into the SAM’s fire control system, and the large antenna gives sufficiently accurate tracking that the missile can be guided to its detection and tracing distance from these low frequency radars alone. A JSF monitoring the battle-space for the usual SAM high frequencies may miss the low-frequency tracking and consequently be surprised by a guided missile’s attack radar at close range.

And if that is not bad enough, there are the passive detectors. There are different types. The first ‘listens’ with several detectors widely spaced on a range of frequencies that cover the JSF’s own radar and networking transmissions, compares the time-of-arrival, and builds up a track of the JSF’s passage. These tracks are also networked into the SAM sites. The second uses reflections from TV, FM and mobile telephone transmissions and through signal processing, finds and tracks an aircraft, even if it is not radiating. As these systems are passive, it is impossible for a JSF to know that its presence has been detected and is passage tracked.

Point Defences are also proliferating. These are truck-sized self-contained, but networked, SAMs and sometimes integrated radar-directed guns. You could call these ‘Mini-SAMs’. They are designed to catch incoming ‘leakers’ to protect larger SAM systems. Their missiles are rapid-fire and agile, and can detect and engage small targets like the SDBs. The threat for penetrating strike aircraft like the F-35 JSF is that the Point Defence weapons can be instructed to remain silent and undetectable until an F-35 JSF is within its detection and engagement range, and where the F-35 is unable to escape, when the Mini-SAM activates its sensors and shoots a volley of missiles or guns. Again, the smart money is on the Mini-SAMs.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – Predator or Prey?

In the 1990’s environment for which the F-35 JSF was designed, it would definitely have been a predator. Its ‘Low Observability’ would have worked effectively against the low power, low sensitivity airborne sensors, lacking networked situational awareness. For many of the fixed SAM systems, it could have threaded its way safely past the fixed installations, and have come close enough to attack with its free-fall bombs.

In the 2015-25 future when the F-35 JSF is expected to become operational, it will encounter a very different world. Its potential enemies have been assiduous in exploiting its weaknesses, especially in over-powering its stealth defences, networking so what one engagement system misses, another will catch, deploying effective sensors at frequencies where the F-35 cannot hide, and with long and short range engagement missiles and guns that can be directed to within killing range.

Every dog has its day. For the 1990s environment, the JSF was a predating winner. Time and tide has moved on, and in the 2015-2025 era, it looks increasingly that the innovative application of the Laws of Physics and rapid development of effective JSF engagement weapons systems makes it more likely that the future JSF will be prey.

Nations relying solely on the F-35 JSF for domination of the air and unfettered penetration of an adversary’s battle space do so at their own risk and peril.