Sunday, December 22, 2013

The end of an era?

I just read this article on the F-35 program. It does get technical in places, but I'll try and summarise it, long with a few thoughts of my own:

1. Not for the first time, the US military is trying to develop a "universal" military jet : the trouble is, this did not work the last time it was tried (F-111) and this time it's even worse: they don't have any other plane projects (apart from drones). they cite the F-4 as being a successful example of this idea but I'm not seeing it. The F-4  was not designed for multi-role operations and it certainly was not designed with a VTOL version in mind. 

2. The main problem is that the Marines want a VTOL version of the F-35 to replace their "Harrier" VTOL planes. This has meant that the design is a lousy compromise between the needs of the three different air forces (Airforce, Navy and Marines): if it were not for the Marines' demand for a Vertical Takeoff version, the whole thing would be a whole lot simpler, lighter, thinner and as a result, cheaper and faster. 
As a general theme, maybe the Navy starts with an airforce plane and toughens it up for carrier landings with stronger airframe and landing gear,  adds the tailhook and larger, folding wings so it can land on a carrier, but mostly the plane is not that much off the land based model: not so for the Marines version though.

This half-assed idea that you can make "universal" plane is really the source of the problem. On the surface it looks like you are going to save money -  which looks good on paper, only the savings are more than offset by the fact that you will end up with a dud that doesn't do any of the three or more jobs you wanted it to because the requirements are all different

3. The bureaucracy has exploded. I chalk up the death of the British aircraft industry mainly to the burden of bureaucracy that was visited on it by their government: check out the TSR-2 project. It was actually a good design that would still hold up well today but the whole process of getting it into the air was dragged out by endless committees and and dithering about things that should have been decided by one manager and then done. The result? cost overruns, huge burdens of paperwork that achieve nothing and the decrease of the plane's effectiveness . . . It sure looks to me like the Americans have the same sort of problems here. 

I suspect the real problem here is the same one the Brits had: the budget has shrunk so they are trying to "economise," except the nature of bureaucracy itself works against such things: in tough times, huge swathes of people try to shoehorn themselves into public servant jobs since it is "secure", and where is more secure than the defense related industries?then there are all the "watchdogs": office buildings worth of paper pushers who are there to make sure that things get done wihout waste . . . . except that they themselves are part of the problem itself.

Okay, you can take that last one with a grain of salt if you like, but the signs are there: any industry where all of the competing companies are being swallowed up into one is a sad sign.  Competition is what keeps costs down and performance up: when there is no real competition, those two things go south.  BAck in the time of the F-4 there were at least six aircraft companie making jets that could compete for contracts. Sure , there was a bit of derring-do and crookery going on but the competition was still there: what we have now is a monoculture: Boeing (who really make airliners) and LockMar. 

I just hope our own defense folks are looking relly carefully at the next cheque for the F-35 project because it looks to me like a waste of money we don't really have . . . .

Uncle Sam better be hiding some good aces up his sleeve or he's gonna hafta hand in his World Sheriff badge.
Will US stealth drone fighters really wipe the asses of those uppity Chinese fighter pilots - or will Chinese hackers jam their signals and render them useless (or worse!)?
We may find out soon . . . .

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