At Home And Abroad, Criticism Of F-35 Persists

At Home And Abroad, Criticism Of F-35 Persists
September 20th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: At Home And Abroad, Criticism Of F-35 Persists

At Home And Abroad, Criticism Of F-35 Persists
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
September 18, 2008
Pg. C1

By Bob Cox
It will be years before the F-35 Lightning II takes off on its first combat mission, but the next-generation military aircraft is certainly flying through a lot of flak in the meantime.
As Lockheed Martin builds and tests airplanes in Fort Worth, it continues to fight off attacks from media and political skeptics at home and abroad.
The latest dogfights took place in the past week. A former Pentagon official involved in the development of the F-16, F-18 and A-10 aircraft in the 1970s said in an influential defense publication that "the F-35 is a dog."
Newspapers in Australia, where the government's plans to eventually buy F-35s are a subject of intense political debate, reported that the planes were "clubbed like baby seals" in a computer-simulated war game conducted by the U.S. Air Force.
Lockheed and the Pentagon's F-35 program office have tried to counter criticism that they call ill-founded, ill-informed and just plain wrong.
"The critics seem to get credibility, but the program doesn't," said Tom Burbage, Lockheed executive vice president, F-35 program manager and designated political fireman.
The latest anti-F-35 volley was fired by Pierre Sprey, who as an aide to then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger in the early 1970s was a key part of the Fighter Mafia that outmaneuvered the Air Force brass and launched the "lightweight fighter program" that became the F-16.
Sprey and Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information in Washington authored a scathing op-ed piece that ran in the authoritative Jane's Defence Weekly.
Citing technical problems and cost increases, Sprey and Wheeler said that F-35 costs will rise sharply and that the armed services will be forced to buy fewer than needed.
The piece said that "even without new technical problems the F-35 is a dog. If one accepts every performance promise the DOD [Department of Defense] makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be overweight and under-powered."
Burbage and Gen. Charles Davis, the top Pentagon official overseeing the F-35 program, fired off a rebuttal, which Burbage said doesn't seem to have gotten as much attention.
The problem with the Sprey-Wheeler analysis, Burbage said, is that the nature of air warfare has changed. The air-to-air, close-quarters dogfight, he says, has been made obsolete by long-range radar and precise guided missiles.
"People see fighter-jet maneuvers at air shows, and that's really not relevant," he said.
The Australian media reports really have Burbage's dander up. Based on comments by a political leader who claimed to have been briefed by defense officials, the reports said the F-35 came off badly in computerized combat exercises in Hawaii against Russian Sukhoi jets.
The exercises were secret, Burbage said, but Air Force officials told Davis that they didn't even involve pilots "flying" simulators.
"To have somebody extrapolating that into clubbing baby seals is pure B.S.," Burbage said.
The opposition to and skepticism of the F-35 seems to be growing as the program inches forward. Opposition political parties in the nations planning to buy F-35s, often prodded by fans and officials of competitors, keep raising new questions and can usually find local military support for their views.
Burbage says that back in his Navy pilot days, he saw a similar reaction from many colleagues who were skeptical that the new F/A-18 Hornets could adequately perform the roles of the existing A-7 Corsair II, which was the backbone of the Navy's carrier air arm.
"The more real the project is, the more capable the plane becomes, the more entrenched the legacy program becomes," Burbage said.
By all accounts, the Pentagon and the U.S. military services remain reasonably happy with the F-35's progress. Budget planners are trying to devise scenarios that would provide increased funds for the Air Force to buy more planes sooner, beginning in 2010.
Congress is another matter. The House and Senate, in their 2009 defense budget deliberations, have proposed cutting two planes from the planned 16 to pay for development of a second engine that the Pentagon doesn't want to buy.
That's a troublesome development, Burbage says, because the key to reducing the cost of airplanes lies in increasing production rates.
Much could yet go wrong in F-35 production and testing, as critics point out, but Burbage says data from flight testing and production efforts indicate that the program is on track to meet the revised budget, timetable and performance goals set more than two years ago.
"We just have to keep proving to everybody we are doing what we said we would do. And we think we're doing a pretty good job of that."

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