F-35 Lightening II (JSF): Jack of All, or Master of None?

Posted on 05. May, 2009 by in Featured

Is the F-35 the Holy Grail of tactical aircraft design? An aircraft that can do all missions for all services from a single platform, or is it the latest example of engineers trying to put ten pounds in a five pound bag? Historically in aircraft design, if you wanted an aircraft to do two things it necessitated a trade off or compromise. The past given was; if you wanted an aircraft to go fast you made the wing small. But if you wanted it to turn well, or carry a lot, you needed a bigger wing. Fighter aircraft were known for going fast (F-104) or being able to turn (F-100). The thesis every service is betting on; is that technology (some of it yet to be proven) will make all things possible with the F-35.

Attack aircraft needed to carry a lot of weight (bombs) and a lot of fuel; so they needed bigger wings which made them slower. Past technology only went so far. A designer could make a sleek wing and then put extendable high lift devices (flaps and slats) to get it slow enough to land. But those gains were offset later by new heavy electronics, especially radar. And the radars were big; the result was large fighter and attack aircraft. Early attempts to do both used a sweeping wing; forward for takoff and manuvering, aft for high speed. The design added more weight and complexity which translated into very expensive hardware.

The huge amount of dollars set in motion a search for the aviation Holy Grail; a multi-mission fighter that every service could fly for every mission. The MBA’s told us more units equates to lower cost. The practical results unfortunately were cost over runs and late schedules as engineers tried to get aircraft do what their designs would not allow. The first Albatross was the F-111; the US Navy backed out of the program quickly. Next came a simple trainer the T-45; the USAF cried “no mass” after years of delay caused by the technical difficulties of converting a land based aircraft to carrier service.

Some might point to the F-4 Phantom II and the A-7 Corsair II as joint success. True, both were employed by the USN and USAF. The Phantom was deployed by every major Air Force and Navy in the free world during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. However in both cases the aircraft were Navy aircraft that proved so capable that the USAF bought them virtually unchanged. There were not different versions.


Notice the forward swept wing of the F-14 at the end of the column; it was the apex of forward swept design.

Another, the FA-18 could be argued as the first successful multi-mission aircraft. In reality (when it first deployed) it could not match the long range Fighter/Interceptor capability of the F-14 Tomcat or all weather Attack capability of the A-6 Intruder. To be fair, it was designed to replace the A-7E and the F-4S. It attempted to meet both sets of requirements through the use of fly by wire technology and leading/trailing edge devices to allow the turn of a big wing with the speed of a small.


It was never fast enough to meet the Phantom requirements and didn’t hold enough gas or bombs to meet the Corsair’s. A new set of requirements labeled “Strike Fighter” appeared. Magically, they were the exact performance parameters of the FA-18A Hornet. Hardly a success; I was on the USS Midway during the transition and we finally gave up trying to get the Hornet to make the cycle and just shortened them from 1+45 to 1+30 minutes. Can’t meet the standards, then lower them. To the Navy’s credit they made it work, they had to; it was the only option especially after the A-12 was cancelled. Which is my point, the Navy had to settle.

When the problems surfaced with the JSF it became obvious that there would be a gap in aircraft and if they didn’t fill it quickly carrier decks would go empty. The USN rushed through the Super Hornet, a bigger version of the FA-18 (30%). The program was a success; but still did not replace the reach of an F-14 or the all weather capability or weapons carrying capacity of the A-6 and the ASW (anti submarine warfare) mission of the S-3 was abandoned. In a few short months, as the venerable EA-6B Prowler is replaced the only jet aircraft on carrier decks will be Hornets.

Technology and circumstance allowed the degradation to be transparent. The Cold War ended, and with it the submarine and the long range bomber threats. Technology in weapons delivery has made them much more effective (accurate), so the amount of bombs required to be mission effective has been greatly reduced. So if the threat stays static, littoral (anti-terrorist), then the capabilities of the US Navy will be adequate. However if a “Blue Water” Navy is required in the future, to counter say an emergent China or Russia then long range will be required again.

Is the F-35 (JSF) the answer? I hope so, because the USN, USAF and USMC are all betting the future on it. Each with a different variant (carrier/VSTOL/land based) required to meet all the missions of all the services. It is behind schedule by years and over budget by billions. In flight test we called it a single point of failure. My Mom called it all your eggs in one basket.

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