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The F-35 Lightning: Jack of All Trades, or Master of None?

It has proven to be one of the most expensive and controversial projects of our time, the 

F-35 Lightning, initially intended as a means of cutting the costs and improving the efficiency of any modern military’s arsenal, has now become the symbol of a bloated military-industrial complex. On one side there are those who point to the success of the engineering goals and the value of the advancements in both aeroplane design and computer capability. On the other side there are those who point to the rising development costs, missed deadlines, and call into question the need for such a destructive aircraft in our enlightened age. On today’s megaprojects we are going to cover the development, the design and the controversies surrounding the F-35 Lightning.

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program

f-35 joint strike fighter
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. By Jwnabd is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Joint Strike Fighter or JSF program was the amalgamation of two aircraft development programs: the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter or CALF Program and the Joint Advanced Strike Fighter Technology (JAST) program. Following their integration, the program was renamed to the Joint Strike Fighter.

This new contract called for a state-of the art jet that would be capable of replacing the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 Superhornet and the AV-8B Harrier. The theory was that by rolling all of these different aircraft into one they could cut out many of the costs associated with operating a fleet of assorted jets and that it could be purchased as a one-size-fits-all alternative to purchasing a fleet of jets, each with a single operating purpose and their own personnel training requirements. Paying instead for just 1 training program and taking advantage of the streamlining and the economies of scale that come with it.

When this program was announced in 1993, it quickly became known that it was going to be one of, if not the most lucrative contracts of the century. Many of America’s biggest military contractors participated in the first round of entries for this jet. Eventually these were whittled down to just two manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. Both were given $750 million in order to produce a prototype jet that they would submit to a panel for analysis and testing. The two companies were told that they were not allowed to exceed this pay limit during their initial development due to concerns that the companies would bankrupt themselves if they were allowed to overspend on development, which gives you an idea on just how lucrative this contract was going to be. 

8 years of development later and the two airplane manufacturers were ready to submit their jets, Boeing had produced the X-32 and Lockheed-Martin submitted the X-35. Both had taken different approaches to their methods of achieving Vertical Take off and Landing. Boeing used a similar method to the Harrier jet which if you are curious about how that engine worked I would advise you take a look at our video on Harrier jet, where I/we (whichever sounds more natural to you) go into detail about the inner-workings of the pegasus engine.

However, in October of 2001 Lockheed-Martin won out with their use of a Shaft-Driven Lift Fan design, which had proven to be vastly more capable than Boeing’s submission in almost every area, including being the first aircraft in history to be capable of VTOL and supersonic flight. I also think that the X-32 lost because it just looks so stupid, I mean look at it, it looks absolutely ridiculous! Looks like one of those sharks that always has its mouth open.

DEVELOPMENT AND DESIGN

F-35B Joint Strike Fighter's thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan
F-35B Joint Strike Fighter’s thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan. By Tosaka is licensed under CC-BY

Now the way that we would normally try to structure the development part of a video is by describing the developments in chronological order, however this being such a new technology with a lot of classified informaF-35B Joint Strike Fighter’s thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fanon. All that is to say, while we try our best to bring you the facts here on Megaprojects, we have had to take a little artistic license with some of the events and upgrades made to this jet over time. With that out of the way, let’s get into the development. 

For Lockheed-Martin, this was the contract they had been waiting for and that was because the engineers at the Lockheed-Martin skunkworks had already begun work on their shaft-driven lift fan engine format about 15 years prior to the announcement of the contract. They were certain that once the AV-8B Harrier had run its course they would be in a prime position to snap up the contract for its replacement, which is exactly what happened.

After receiving the JSF contract Lockheed-Martin began further development upon their jet. The X-35 was designed to be a proof of concept, with regard to its flying and take off capabilities. Their aim now was to take it from that experimental format, to a fully capable combat vehicle. This would involve making space within the aircraft for mission avionics, the weapons bay and the extensive computer systems that would be added. 

With these kinds of adjustments, it is often a matter of fine lines, adding and removing seemingly insignificant amounts of material so as to maintain balance all around the aircraft. Often these adjustments can take the form of only a few centimeters of material added or removed but there can be hundreds and maybe even thousands of these tiny adjustments added over time. 

After 2 years of development the engineers at the Lockheed skunkworks had managed to get the jet into the precise shape that they wanted. However, it had also cost them about 1000 kilos of added weight to the aircraft (2,200 lbs) with the majority of the weight and alterations coming from the expansion of the weapons bay. This added weight had rendered the aircraft incapable of all 3 Vertical Take off Criteria. So, in order to get the weight down they sent in the SWAT team. Not even joking, they formed a team called the STOVL Weight Attack Team who were tasked with cutting off the excess weight from the jet. Sounds like the sort of thing the A-Team would form when they started dieting. These days Lockheed-Martin is a market leader in low calorie snacks and misleading acronyms. 

Following this aggressive dieting rescheme the jet lost 1,400kg (3000lbs) and was beginning to take its final form. It was at this point that the decision was made to create 3 separate, specialized formats of the aircraft. The F-35 A, B and C; one for each branch of the armed forces, A for Army, B for Boats and C for Can’t find a link between Air Force, and the letter C. We are of course only joking-these actually denoted the 3 separate specializations that each format had.

F-35A would be the lightest of the 3 variants and was specifically designed for Air Force use. Because they would have access to Air Force base runways there would be no need for the jet’s VTOL capability and would only be capable of Conventional Take-off and Landing. This also made it the lightest of the 3 variants, and the most agile, capable of handling 9Gs or 9 times the pull of gravity during a sharp turn.

The F-35B would be designed for versatile use, between any of the 3 services and it would be the only one of the 3 variants capable of Vertical take off and landing. This would make it a good vehicle for forward operating bases that are close to the front line and so may not have a paved runway. 

The F-35C would be designed for use on Naval Carriers. The design would be specially modified to be able to take the high forces associated with the catapult-assisted take-offs and the arrested recoveries required for aircraft carrier operations. This variant would also have larger wings than either of the other two variants, drastically improving the stability of the aircraft at the lower speeds required for landing on an aircraft carrier. Later development added integrated folding wing tips to assist with the storage of the jets in the limited space under the carrier deck. 

Finally there was the engine, which had been the subject of constant research, tweaking and optimizing throughout the entire 6 year development process. During the competition phase, the vehicle that Boeing had pitched used vectored thrust engines, if you recall this was the same engine format that was in the Harrier jet. This technology was well understood and would be a safe bet as it was known to be reliable and relatively cheap. However it was also inefficient, and it was believed that it was already reaching the upper limit of its performance. Lockheed Martin on the other hand, had submitted a Shaft-Driven lift fan design. The decision to go with an unproven technology was a serious gamble but it seemed to pay-off, as it was already exceeding the capability of the vectored thrust engines. 

Yes, this technology worked in an experimental aircraft but once all the armaments, combat computers and avionics had been put into the jet, (not to mention the significant amount of weight they would carry as well). There was a risk that the engine was not going to be able to perform and so Lockheed-Martin put a significant amount of research into perfecting this new jet technology in order to ensure that it could reliably operate in swath of conditions.

All that being said, you may now be wondering, what is a shaft-driven lift fan and how is it different to what the Harrier had been using? To which I would say, why thank you for asking precisely the question I was hoping for, random commenter. The Shaft-Driven lift fan or SDLF design is pretty simple in theory, as we have said in our previous VTOL videos. The key difference between a regular jet engine and a VTOL jet engine is that ability to produce thrust in both the horizontal direction and the vertical one. What’s more, it needs to be able to produce enough downward thrust that it can lift the entire weight of the plane off the ground. In the case of the F-35 the SDLF configuration uses two separate engines rather than the conventional single engine that the Harrier used. And this is one of the coolest parts about this jet, seeing footage of it entering into its S/VTOL mode looks like something out of a Sci-fi movie. 

The process of transitioning to VTOL mode is a particularly complicated one, almost entirely controlled by the jet’s onboard computers and the engines “full-authority digital engine control” software. In a compartment behind the pilot is a lift fan which, during normal flight, is disconnected from the larger engine system. When switching to VTOL mode, a clutch in the gearbox engages connecting the two separate parts of the engine system and activates the lift fan. It is at this point that doors in the fuselage, above and below the lift fan, open up. 

At the same time as all of that, the other half of the engine starts making its own modifications. In a truly mind boggling display of engineering, an assembly called the “three-bearing swivel duct” enacts what can only be described as a scene from Transformers, beginning with two doors directly underneath the primary engine exhaust port opening up. This swivel duct system can be used to adjust the engine exhaust anywhere within a 105-degrees of continuous range, from straight back to directly downwards. After all of these transformations have taken place the sum total of the engines vertical thrust is around 40,000 lbs. or just under 55,000 Newtons. 

This is what makes the SDLF design such an excellent alternative to the Harrier’s engine design, where the Harrier’s vectored thrust engines lost a great deal of energy in the process of diverting the flow of air downwards. This more efficient method cuts down the amount of fuel and energy needed to create an equivalent amount of thrust. All this is to say that, despite the F-35 having a less powerful engine than the Harrier, it can still outperform and out maneuver it in almost all situations. And the stats coming from Lockheed back this theory up. Despite the F-35 being more than twice the weight of the Harrier and having only 75% of the Harrier’s engine power, it is capable of carrying 11 tonnes more upon take off than the Harrier’s maximum take-off weight, while maintaining the ability to reach the speed of sound, a feat the Harrier was never able to achieve. 

Returning to the F-35’s development story, we now find ourselves nearing the completion of the first development phase. The year is 2006 and the F-35 is about to be revealed to the world with Lockheed-Martin wrapping up their initial development phase. All that was left to do was give this jet a name and what they landed on was the F-35 Lightning II, in honor of Lockheed’s WW2 era plane the P-38 lightning. 

Finally after years of development the jet was ready for public view. However, this was only the first test flight of the jet and it would not be truly ready for combat for another 10 year. Not that this would stop Lockheed-Martin from taking orders for their jets. Between the years of 2006 and 2011, each variant of the F-35 was rigorously flight tested, highlighting some serious design flaws which caused further delays to a deadline that was already months behind. During this testing period they were also focusing on organising the jet’s production line in preparation for the completion of flight testing. 

THE CONTROVERSY BEGINS

Once the F-35 was revealed to the world, there was an initial positive reaction among those who take interest in these matters. This was going to be the next generation of jet technology; what is known as the 5th generation fighter jet. Few jets currently fall into this category currently there are only 4 jets in active service that come under this banner, but these are at the bleeding edge of jet technology and the F-35 is no exception. 

The jet Lockheed-Martin had come up with was a multi-role combat aircraft capable of VTOL and supersonic flight. It could be used as an air superiority machine and as a strike fighter; it was capable of being used for electronic warfare, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. In short they had achieved every goal that they had set out with, (pause) and it has cost billions, and it was going to cost still more in the coming years.

Lockheed-Martin Lightning II
Lockheed-Martin Lightning II. By Alan Wilson, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

You remember early on in the video when we said the JSF program originated from several development programs? You remember that one of them was called the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter Program? Yeah, we’re pretty sure they meant that in a jokey, sarcastic kind of way because this Program has cost upwards of $400 billion Dollars as of October 2020 and that isn’t the end of the spending. Estimates put the Program’s lifetime cost at some $1.727 trillion… let’s just take a moment for that to sink in… $1.727 Trillion, with a T! Remember the International Space Station, often called the most expensive object in existence, valued at about $150 billion… You could buy 11 International Space Stations with the cost of the F-35 program and still have about $75 billion left over. 

We could say that that many dollar bills laid out on the ground would cover the surface area of the Earth, one and a half times over, and that would be a fun representation of just how much money was spent on this program, but it would also be misleading. You see, the issue with those kinds of statistics is that while they aren’t incorrect, they certainly don’t give a good representation of the truth. That number, $1.727 trillion, is often touted by those who wish to detract from the program to emphasize how out of control military spending has gotten. It is also a high estimate from a third-party source, while it is difficult to pinpoint, precisely just how much the program will cost in its entirety, it will lie somewhere between $1.1 and $1.727 trillion. 

Now, those are still astronomical numbers, I don’t think anyone would dispute that, however they also do not account for the hundreds of billions that will be made from selling this jet to foreign militaries. The total value of orders is already in the billions of dollars and this is only going to rise over the coming decades. At some point there will be a tipping point where the orders coming in will outweigh the costs and will become profitable enough to begin paying back the large investment that the US and participating countries have provided. 

However the issue with that conservative statistic of $1.1 trillion is not accounting for the fact that even though the US paid for the jets to be developed, they will also have to pay for the jets when adding them to the military arsenal, not to mention the required infrastructure, pilot training and other such costs, all of which will come off the militaries bill and therefore further cost to the US taxpayer. Now, some argue that, that money could have been better spent on infrastructure projects, researching renewable energy or other such worthy causes. However, the main point we want to emphasise here isn’t whether or not this was a good use of money. The point of this was to illustrate just how easy it is to manipulate facts and statistics, just to make a point. In reality, this topic has had its faults and its positives. 

This project alone has pushed the capability of computers well beyond what we thought possible in areas such as material engineering, spacecraft design, medical fields you name it, the research that has come from this project will assist mankind for decades to come. On the other hand it has brought out some of humanity’s worst traits, greed, warmongering and tribalism to name but a few. It is pretty much an unspoken agreement that companies like Lockheed-Martin don’t optimize their company structure so that projects like this can be artificially extended, thus making them far more money than if they had done it on time and on budget. Or in their own words “Like many high-technology programs before it, reaching that capability has put the program above its original budget and behind the planned schedule.” 

We felt that this was a necessary section to add into the episode today because disinformation is so prevalent, not only around this topic but around almost any topic. In this day and age everyone has an agenda and now anyone can share that agenda, through the likes of social media. We here at Megaprojects and all the other channels that I do, work very hard to provide the correct facts and information and put it in an unbiased way. Obviously, we can never be 100% successful at either of these things, we are only human after all, but that is all the more reason, even when it is a source that you trust, even when it is something that you want to hear or it supports an opinion of yours, that should be all the more reason to doubt rather than accept.

THE SPECS

Ok, so with our little PSA out of the way we can now get into the fun stuff. What Lockheed-Martin had produced was nothing short of mind-boggling in its capabilities. They had effectively taken a stealth bomber, fighter jet, ground support vehicle, reconnaissance aircraft, a super-computer and an information relay station, crammed it all into a jet and made it travel faster than sound. 

The three jet variants have a length of 15.7 meters (51.5 foot), the A and B variants had a wingspan of 10.7 meters (35 feet) while the C was 13.1 meters (43 foot). All 3 jets stand somewhere around 4 and a half meters tall and have an empty weight between 13,150 kg and 15,700 kg. Each has a maximum payload between 6000kg to 8000kg, (15,000 lb. to 18,000 lb.) depending on the variant and the maximum range is 1,200 nautical miles or 2,200 km. They can also comfortably climb to 15,000 meters or 50,000 ft. 

But those numbers aren’t what make this jet so remarkable, what brings this jet above, pretty much anything else in existence right now, is it’s avionics and computer systems and like we said before this thing is pretty much a supercomputer with wings. There are a suite of sensors and avionics aboard these jets, obviously this is some of the areas that the military are the tightest lipped about though some of the ones we know about are the AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar, the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda electronics warfare system, the AN/AAQ-40 Electro-Optical Targeting system and the AN/ASQ-242 communication, Navigation and identification suite. What do all those letters and numbers mean? Absolutely no idea but what we do know is that because of these sensors and a very cool helmet the pilot can now literally see through the fuselage of the jet. 

Seriously, the pilot has a pair of glasses in their helmet that when activated, create not only a heads up display but a real time AR environment that allows the pilot to see threats in any direction, night vision included of course and allows for identifying threats that otherwise would be invisible to the pilot because of things like clouds and the fuselage of the jet getting in the way. The helmets alone cost $400,000 each. 

This jet also has a voice recognition system, so an F-35 pilot can ask the jet to do key tasks like adding milk to the shopping list or asking how many miles we are from the sun. It also does military stuff as well I think.  

And, there are about a hundred and one more examples of these kinds of ground breaking technologies, packed within the jet alone, not to mention the advancements in materials production, engine design and efficiency and aerodynamics, the list goes on, many of them with applications outside of the military. By this point pretty much all the research has now become focused on perfecting the computer systems, both in the software and the hardware. 

This is one of the main aspects of the jet that has justified the ever rising cost and ever retreating deadlines. The design of the software within the jet allows for it to be updated and upgraded much like your smartphone. With Lockheed-Martin producing regular updates to the jet software, it will be able to remain at the cutting edge of jet technology for much longer than other new jets could have in previous generations. 

However, it goes further than that. Thanks to the unparalleled connection between the hardware within the jet and the software, in particular the interaction between the software and the jet’s engine, further updates to the software will be able to improve the jet’s handling, maneuvering efficiency and even engine efficiency and top speed. Now, we should also add that thanks to the secretive nature of the project, some of that is fact based speculation, based upon what we already know of the jet and the inner workings of the technology, which is intentionally sparse. 

As for the cost well, they certainly aren’t cheap. As of 2019 the average cost of one of these jets was $108 million, with various discounts for participating countries based upon their contribution to the project, although it is not precisely known what form these discounts are taking.

One thing is for sure though, no matter how you spin the numbers on this project, it will never actually turn a profit. But this was never the expectation going in, however by this point, with public opinion becoming more and more negative on this project, the US Government is starting to tighten the purse strings and put pressure on Lockheed-Martin to reduce their current over-spending. Gotta wonder why they weren’t doing that in the first place.  

CURRENT SERVICE

So we left off in October 2011 with the end of intensive testing and the first jets almost ready for use, The US was the first to begin flight training and implementation within their various branches of the military, beginning in early 2012. Some raised safety concerns over the jet being  implemented so early in the testing phases however the military pressed on, and in 2018 the US Marine Corps became the first of the US military branches to clear the F-35 for combat using F-35B’s from the amphibious assault ship, the USS Essex and carrying out their first combat strike mission in September of that same year against a Taliban target. 

However, the US was not actually the first to use the F-35 in a combat mission, or at least they don’t claim to be, you never can know with those kinds of things. That honor has been claimed by the Israeli Defense Force, who conducted two airstrikes using F-35A’s in the Middle East. Details of this engagement are sparse, however they have been confirmed by Israeli officials.

Including the US, a total of 14 nations are currently in the process of ordering or already in use of the F-35, eight of which were participating program partners, these bing the US, UK, Italy, The Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Canada, with the remaining 6 being foreign military sales- Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore.  Various nations such as Switzerland are looking into buying several of these jets however there have been no confirmations as of yet. 

With the service record of the F-35 being so short, there is not a great deal of information with regard to any recent operations thanks to the secrecy of any military that uses them. We know that the jet is capable of air-to-air combat otherwise known as dog fighting, however there are so far no reports of any air-to-air altercations involving an F-35. 

But what would happen in the event of a dog fight between an F-35 and another jet? Well it is believed the F-35 would win against almost any jet save for the F-22 raptor which is said to have superior maneuverability to the F-35, although many of the test pilots that have become familiar with the F-35 dispute this. The F-22 was the newest jet in the American fleet prior to the implementation of the F-35 and it was designed to be used solely as an air superiority machine, whereas the F-35 was intended as a multi-role vehicle. So the jury is out on who would win however, as the F-22 is in the sole use of the US and the US will only sell the F-35 to nations it has a good relationship with, I would say we will be waiting a while before we see how that fight would play out.

 WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

The F-35 is currently the most advanced, most expensive and most controversial vehicle in the world, possibly in history. And the value of its existence in our world is up for constant debate. We often define generations based upon the cutting edge technology of their day. The Greeks had philosophy and democracy; the Romans had tactics. As we progressed into the Industrial Revolution, we began to measure development based upon another metric; transportation. For millennia the horse, camel or otherwise were our primary mode of transport, then the British began implementing rail and the US followed, opening up the entire nation for the first time ever. Then the Wright brothers took that first flight nearly 120 years ago and our methods of moving through the air became the definition of development. 

Questioning a project like the F-35 is never going to yield an answer because there is no answer. If your metric for worth is a nation’s military might then yes, this is a worthwhile investment. However others might measure a nation’s development not by how ready they are to wage war but how ready they are to leave it behind. Then again if war is what it takes to push progress in such a way then some might argue it is worth the cost. As we say, there are no right answers to this issue. All we can do is wait for is a majority consensus and hope that that consensus is the right one, which does not lead us, as a species, down the wrong path, be that a path to our own destruction or obsolescence. And if you are going to discuss this in the comments please do so respectfully. 

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