The trillion dollar jet
It was an absurd Australiana-themed rock show. Curtains fell to the thunder of power chords, didgeridoos, and glittering, technicolour lights. The delivery of an Aboriginal message stick to the RAAF somehow marked the official rollout of Australia’s future killing toys: $12.4 billion worth of F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets, a total domestic fleet of 72.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35s are intended to be a revolutionary family of ‘fifth generation’ aircraft, made of three models, which will replace the bulk of the tired ‘fourth generation’ military jets, such as the F-18 Hornets or Top Gun’s aptly-named F-14 Tomcats. The new F-35s have a single seat cockpit, single engine, an astonishing 2000 km/h top speed, and will be virtually undetectable in the air. The centrepiece is a game-changing ‘helmet-mounted display’ (HMD), which replaces the standard projected display, and essentially gives pilots x-ray vision. If the pilot looks downwards, they will see through their cargo pants, legs, and the jet itself to the ground and comparatively impotent victims below—while still being able to keep track of all other flight data. Featuring basically zero physical controls, the cockpit is comprised of what is essentially a few iPads hooked up to an Oculus Rift. They’re also meant to have unparalleled operational versatility: a one-size-fits-all aircraft for use by navy, marines, and air force—all of which have radically different design needs.
The US plans to build a fleet of 2500ish F-35s for domestic use, while twelve other nations have committed to bringing some into their fleets, including the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Israel, and—of course—Australia, taking total orders to over 3000 units.
But the program has been plagued by problems and criticism since day one. After receiving initial development approval by the US government in 1996, the jets are now more than a decade behind schedule and orders of magnitude over budget. Initially intended to be well and truly ‘combat ready’ by now, they’re instead failing basic test flights and won’t even be ready for rigorous testing until 2019. In contrast, the previous-generation F-16s took only eight years from concept to combat.
The list of major design issues is encyclopaedic. Currently it’s not allowed to reach supersonic speed as prolonged use of its afterburners leads to bubbles forming in its radar-absorbing coating, knocking out two of its big hallmarks: speed and stealth. Its turning circle is highly restricted as parts of the plane’s body can’t withstand the immense g-forces. And the Pentagon’s supposed “all weather” fighter is currently only flyable in clear meteorological conditions. The F-35, also officially known as the Lightning II, actually cannot safely fly within 25 miles of lightening—the risk being that a strike could ignite the oxygen in its fuel tanks. The pilot’s HMD helmet—the supposed jewel in and on the crown—has also been wracked with glitches. At over $500,000 apiece, the augmented reality headpiece ‘jitters’ under non-perfect conditions, has poor video resolution, and suffers potentially lethal latency issues (where the image lags behind reality, causing motion sickness and poor reaction times).
In July this year the planes were scheduled to make their grand airshow debut in Southern England—advertised on billboards for the preceding months throughout London. But days before the entire fleet was grounded due to an engine fire—the thirteenth such grounding since 2007.
Both Russia and China are currently designing and producing their own fifth generation aircraft. And by most accounts, these planes are simply worlds ahead: outperforming the F-35 at a fraction of the cost and within expected timeframes. Former air warfare strategist in the Australian Defence Department Chris Mills ran a series of simulated war games, pitting the US and Russian rivals directly against one another. The Russian jets consistently annihilated their American counterparts, ruthlessly gunning them down as they fled from lack of fuel and munitions—aided by the helmet’s other fault: not being able to see directly behind the aircraft.
The blame for what sandy-haired journalist Kerry O’Brien has called the “grandaddy debacle of them all” lies on two of Lockheed Martin’s controversial acquisition practices: commonality and concurrency.
Commonality means the three planes in the F-35 family—intended for marine, air force, and navy operations—are meant to share key design features. Originally, the plan was that 70% of the planes’ parts would be common across the range. Sharing parts is supposed to keep costs down, reduce the time spent in the research and development phase, and create compatibility among allied air forces. But it seems Lockheed Martin were much too optimistic. Engineering a part that’s suitable for all applications is difficult and can have unintended consequences. The weight of the aircraft in particular has suffered, the common parts being heavy and often unnecessary for the different applications. Basically it’s trying to do too much—a “jack of all trades, master of none” situation. Today, only around 25% of parts are shared across models.
Putting a plane into production while it is still being designed and tested is called concurrency, and has likely been the primary cause of the F-35’s woes. Concurrency is meant to get the planes ready earlier. But as Vanity Fair reported, in effect, it “creates an expensive and frustrating non-decision loop: build a plane, fly a plane, find a flaw, design a fix, retrofit the plane, rinse, repeat.” Every time a manufactured part is found to have a fault, they have to go back to the drawing board. Redesigning and retrofitting the planes already built is an incredibly expensive and inefficient exercise.
All this has meant the cost has blown out farcically since Lockheed Martin was first given the contract for ‘System Development and Demonstration’—edging out competitor Boeing—in the month following the September 11 attacks. Now expected to foot a bill exceeding a trillion dollars—that’s $1,000,000,000,000—the program has become the undisputed Most Expensive Weapons Program in History. By comparison, the entire Manhattan Project, which produced the nuke, cost around $55 billion and Avatar in 3D a paltry half billion. And as Hayes Brown from Think Progress back-of-napkin calculated, for the equivalent price tag of the program, the US could have literally bought every single homeless person in the country a jacuzzi and fireman-pole fitted mansion.
Despite all this, there’s been very little criticism of the program within US congress, the F-35 maintaining uninterrupted bipartisan support across its decades-long lifetime. But it doesn’t take much to figure out why: Lockheed Martin have spent $15 million lobbying congress annually—$159 million since 2000—and reportedly fund one in ten congressmen. The company has also strategically scattered the research, development, and production of the F-35 across 46 US states, involving over 1400 separate contractors and employing some 125,000 citizens. This cunning feat of political engineering has meant the bulk of congress from both parties have a vested interest in the continuation and up-scaling of the program. And by securing multibillion dollar contracts and extending production to more than a dozen other nations, Lockheed Martin has made it in everyone’s best interest to see the project through, seemingly regardless of cost. Even the Pentagon has admitted the program is now “too big to fail”.
Australia first committed to buying the troubled jets back in 2002, when the then-PM John Howard met with Lockheed Martin in a controversial closed-door deal. Contracts were signed with almost zero public debate or scrutiny, and directly against military advice. At that time, defence minister Robert Hill stated the planes would cost around $40 million a pop, excluding maintenance (which is generally another 2–3 times the initial purchase cost). Now, depending on who you’re talking to and how they’re making their calculations (Lockheed Martin have a habit of leaving the plane’s engine out of its estimates), we’re looking at anywhere between three and five times that amount—all for an aircraft that Air Power Australia founder Peter Goon says “is not coming within a bull’s roar of its specifications”.
Abbott’s more recent, upgraded announcement, where we could be now laying out up to $35 billion of taxpayers’ money, has made Australia the biggest customer of the world’s largest weapons exporter, the US. We now buy 10% of all America’s weapons exports. But the F-35 is already so far behind schedule that in 2007 Australia had to lay out $6 billion for 24 Super Hornets to supplement our ageing fleet—the planes the F-35s are meant to replace—and we’re now considering getting another 24.
Although some countries—including Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands—have drastically reduced or cancelled their orders after this decades-long boondoggle, Lockheed Martin and Abbott & Co. are adamant the planes will be delivered as promised, ready to protect our borders from the scourge of Boat People and great whites. So much so the company has recently been touting its virtues in full-page ads to the apparently defence-obsessed readership of The Monthly. But whether Australia’s relationship with Lockheed Martin will be as misaligned as their marketing strategy is yet to be seen.