F-35 stealth fighter factory

WASHINGTON: Breaking Defense pretty much ignored the error-ridden piece that Vanity Fair ran about the F-35. We yawned when the Washington Post spent six months investigating the program and came up with a decent summary of the program and not much more.

So when 60 Minutes, still the biggest name in TV news, finally ran its piece on the F-35 (after six months of reporting, filming and editing) we had to take a peek, especially when a first look led me to conclude producer Mary Walsh and reporter David Martin had actually done their homework and gotten the basics right. They even broke a bit of news.

What was the news? They reported that the Marines received at least one F-35 with gaps in its critical stealth coating. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle (that rara avis, a liberal arts graduate who has succeeded in the military’s upper reaches) got on the horn and told Lockheed Martin executives this was not acceptable and to fix it. He clearly put it in much more vibrant and direct fashion but was bashful about admitting it on camera. (After all, Marines never cuss…)

The sexiest portion of the 60 Minutes reporting was their coverage of the helmet. Breaking D readers won’t learn anything new, but the visuals are fun and Schmidle’s explanation of the targeting function is clear and useful. The description of the troubled ALIS software is useful. Schmidle makes the point simply. Lockheed and its subcontractors need to fix ALIS so pilots can override her when necessary.

The most surprising thing about the F-35 video was the complete absence of any of the plane’s critics. While avoiding Winslow Wheeler, Pierre Sprey and some others might be a fairly easy editorial decision, what about Sen. John McCain or perhaps Phil Coyle, the Pentagon’s former top tester. McCain seems to go hot and cold on the plane, so perhaps he wasn’t interested in speaking right now. Or perhaps he wasn’t approached.  Coyle’s status as the former head tester would seem to make him an obvious choice. But there you go.

I’m not a TV critic, so I won’t blather on about how strong the stories’ visuals were or how tough Martin’s questioning appeared to be while on camera (after all, TV producers like Walsh are the main reporters for most stories). But I’ll give 60 Minutes credit for covering something they — and the rest of their ilk — should have been covering in much more depth and for much longer. After all, how to defend our country is the single largest spending decision an administration or Congress makes each year about the money taxpayers give the government. Then again. maybe we’re happy the major news shows, newspapers and such do such a spotty job…

One whom we can never accuse of spotty reporting is Tony Capaccio at Bloomberg. Tony reports the Pentagon budget better than anyone and he was fed the news that the upcoming budget will trim the planned purchase of F-35s by eight down to 34 from what was planned in the last budget.

Given that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen.Mark Welsh and Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, had pledged to protect the plane in the budget, this looms later than it might otherwise.

Just six days ago, this is what Kendall said about the F-35 at the Singapore Air Show:

“You have to look at weapons on their value to the war fighter and a system like the F-35, which is a high-cost system comparatively, is a very high-value system,” he said. “The F-35 remains, despite its relatively high cost, a premier, number-one priority conventional warfare program for us, so we’re going to continue that under almost any budget level I would imagine that we would have to live with.”

Now trimming a purchase by eight planes from last year’s planned levels is not remarkable except when it’s such a tough budget time, the administration’s commitment to the aircraft is so robust and it’s, well, the most expensive conventional weapons system ever. Any appearance of a lack of American commitment to the plane, any sign that the politically sensitive cost per plane may increase and some of our European allies may back further away. And if they back away and buy fewer planes, then the costs per plane go up even more and the cycle can begin to turn into the dreaded death spiral.


  • Don Bacon

    Schmidle’s explanation of the targeting function is clear and useful

    It was as clear as all the other unsubstantiated JSF claims, but — useful? The simple fact is that the VSim (Verification Simulation) for operational testing is not yet functional so JSF response to enemy threats can’t be properly tested and evaluated.

    2013 OT&E Report

    VSim is a man-in-the-loop, mission software-in-the-loop simulation developed to meet the operational test agencies’ requirements for the Block 2B operational utility evaluation and Block 3F IOT&E. The program is now at significant risk of failing to (1) mature the VSim and (2) adequately verify and validate that it will faithfully represent the performance of the F-35 in the mission scenarios for which the simulation is to be used in operational testing.

    But what’s new pussycat — from the 2009 OT&E Report

    Block 2 OT&E and Block 3 IOT&E will not be adequate without a verifi cation simulation (VSIM) capability that meets the minimum standards described by the JOTT. The shortfalls identifi ed by the JOTT in the VSIM capability planned by the contractor for verifi cation activities must be addressed in order for the simulation to be adequate for JSF OT&E.

  • david gori

    Impressive job, impressive tv quality and article too. And impressive bunch of people working around that aircraft.

  • Don Bacon

    The description of the troubled ALIS software is useful. Schmidle makes the point simply. Lockheed and its subcontractors need to fix ALIS so pilots can override her when necessary.

    That trivializes (for teevee consumption) the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). The high-tech ALIS is at the core of operations, maintenance and supply-chain management for the F-35, providing a constant stream of data from the plane to supporting staff. It is is the largest part (lines of code) of the 24-million line F-35 Program.

    ALIS integrates a broad range of capabilities including operations, maintenance, prognostics, supply chain, customer support services, training and technical data. A single, secure information environment provides users with up-to-date information on any of these areas using web-enabled applications on a distributed network.

    ALIS is meant to feed information on the health of each F-35 to maintenance crews and mission commanders, automatically detecting problems and scheduling the jets for maintenance among other tasks. As such, ALIS is a “heck of a complex system . . . if we don’t get [ALIS] right, we don’t fly airplanes,” said [General] Bogdan.

    So you don’t just override ALIS.

    2013 OT&E Report

    The Program Office continues to develop and field ALIS in incremental capabilities similar to the mission systems capability in the air vehicle.
    Overall, the ALIS is immature and behind schedule, which adversely affects maintainability and sortie generation. Shortfalls in functionality and data quality integrity require workarounds and manual intervention. To date, diagnostic system performance has failed to meet basic functional requirements, including fault detection, fault isolation, and false alarm rates.

  • squidgod

    “Tony reports the Pentagon budget than anyone and”

    Better? Worse?

  • CharleyA

    The most unsurprising thing about the F-35 story was the complete absence of interviews with Lockheed Martin leadership, past or present (they declined the interview request.) What I thought was interesting was the supposition that F-35 can detect an opponent at 10x the range that the opponent can detect the F-35. Although Gen. Schmidle softened that claim to some extent, it’s still a pretty bold statement. I’m still impressed by Gen. Bogdan. I will never forget sitting in the briefing area and hearing him convey his impression of contractor relations – that was bold. What would be a useful followup to Bogdan’s words would be the actuals – how much are these aircraft costing us off the assembly line? The overages/savings? The manufacturer’s final fee, etc? We haven’t seen hard numbers for a while now, only (bold) predictions of future costs.

  • Gary Church

    I don’t think the B model will work. That will start the death spiral. But like the V-22, no matter how bad this program becomes, it will never be canceled- it has parts made in too many congressional districts. The defense industry has discovered the secret to successful theft- just buy all the politicians first. But the production run will get cut- and cut again. And in the end we will have too few of them and for a fantastic expenditure beyond anyone’s wildest nightmare. But the shareholder checks will keep going out and PR will make it look good- just like they have portrayed the Osprey as a success. I am just curious when the foreign buyers are going to start backing out.

  • TerryTee

    Seems they forgot to mention the Navy wants out of the Junk Strike Fighter, or at least to buy far fewer and buy more Super Hornets.

    Navy Looking for Some F-35 Relief

  • bridgebuilder78

    The JSF is no longer about the defense of the nation; it’s become a pork barrel jobs program.

    This is Socialism with American characteristics, as a certain Mr. Deng would like to phrase it.

    • Gary Church

      Well, all weapons projects are job programs by definition. They redistribute wealth from our pockets into the defense industry. What is your point? Define Pork. One person’s pork is another person’s vital weapon we cannot survive without. IMO we are in the age of robots and missiles and the majority of the trillion plus dollars is corporate welfare spent on….junk. Worthless, useless, JUNK!
      But talk to someone else and they will swear on a stack of bibles are nation will fall without nuclear aircraft carriers- that are just floating targets- or a couple billion a year on missile interceptors- that can’t hit anything- or…..the junk strike fighter. The public only knows what they watch on 60 minutes- the few who watched it.
      The industry figured it out with the Osprey; buy the politicians first and it cannot be killed. All the mergers made it possible to finally cooperate on the big rip-offs.

      It is not socialism- it is actually closer to fascism. Welcome to corporate America.

      • paulrevere01

        Though my knowledge of weapons systems strategies is bleak at best, what I do understand is economics, the DOD and politics in America as no less than the brazen illusion it is.

        The melding of the two has led to contrasts like China spending 80 billion a year on ‘defense’ and the US spending 700 billion and yet the entire industrialized world is petrified of China and continues to suck our American treasury dry either first hand (Israel, UK) or second hand by purchasing or being given the outdated by a month, models.

        Now let’s add to that the last 20 yrs missing 6.5 TRILLION completely unaccounted for and not ever addressed…by anyone, anywhere, except of course, conveniently the day before the towers fiasco by good ol Rummy.

        So, 6.5 divided by 20 comes to a standard of over 300 billion dollars a year dissappearing completely with no fuss, no muss, no bother.

        Stop talking 1.5 trillion dollar soon to be obsolete due to robotics boondogles and let’s tighten up the theft and larceny so obvious in the entire DOO (Department of Offense) supply chain…ey?

  • Ronald Seagrave

    This was mere spotty coverage of a major issue facing America – where’s the coverage of out-sourcing parts and software? Insider trading? And dealing whose is actually in-charge of these programs?

  • Tritium3H

    Fantastic piece by 60 minutes. However, I was disappointed that the F-22 cancellation decision was not brought up…as that, IMHO, was a MAJOR mistake on the part of Gates and the administration. The cancellation of the F-22 program, after such limited production numbers (185 planes), has forced the USAF to now place considerable reliance and trust on the F-35 for Air Dominance / Air Superiority fighter role. A role it is absolutely NOT designed for. It was meant to be a strike platform against A2/AD contested battlespace. The F-22 was meant to be the “Tip of the Spear”, for establishing control and dominance of the contested air-space. In other words, an unmatched fighter with the capability and lethality to neutralize enemy fighter aircraft. If this isn’t accomplished, the F-35 primary role/mission is effectively compromised.

    Furthermore, the F-22 had the possibility for future upgrades/evolution beyond it’s primary role. Just like the F-15 evolved a precision ground strike capability…a similar role was already in the plans for future F-22s. A peerless air superiority fighter (such as the F-15, F-16 and F-22) has the inherent ability to be modified for multi-role missions (e.g. precision ground strike, EW, ISR, etc.). However, the F-35 has no possibility of being elevated to the role of a bona-fide air superiority / air dominance fighter to compete with 5th generation fighters either flying or being developed by Russia and China. It just doesn’t have the energy-maneuverability performance metrics…and never will have.

    • R. Finkle

      Spot on. F-35 kinematics plus the fact that the jet can only carry two AMRAAMs and zero AIM-9Xs internally is a clear indication the joint STRIKE fighter was never intended to perform the air superiority mission. With two AMRAAMs, mission planners can only count on each F-35 shooting down one fighter at most. Add more missiles to the wings externally and the F-35 loses its stealth advantage and becomes a 100 million dollar pig that will at best let the pilot know when enemy missiles are inbound and he should preemptively eject. Meanwhile the Russians and the Chinese will be happy to sell hundreds if not thousands of kinematically superior/thrice the missile carrying PAK FA and J-20 5th generation fighters through out the world with avionics/systems specifically designed to defeat the F-35. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media will never report on the impending loss of America’s ability to establish air dominance because they were the mouth piece for Gates and Obama when they foolishly convinced the Senate to cancel the F-22. Idiots.

  • PolicyWonk

    The sad fact is that the F-35 (regardless of variant) is and remains unable to meet even the reduced mission profiles. So far – all the F-35 program represents is a victory for the boardroom at Lockheed, at the expense of the taxpayers – and US national security.

    Lockheed is also sadly involved in the initially-decently-conceived yet putridly executed Littoral Combat Ship, that takes none of the hard learned lessons of littoral warfare of the past into account in its design. LCS, too, has been panned by every reviewing agency, is hugely over budget, and according to the Navy’s own Inspector General – incapable of fulfilling the missions its commanders intend for it.

    Both programs share several things in common: massively over budget; tremendously late; incapable of fulfilling the missions they are intended for; and significantly reduced mission profiles as they repeatedly demonstrate an ability to perform.

    This is what’s known as defrauding the taxpayers.

  • mici

    “error ridden” Vanity Fair story — can you be more specific, what were the errors?