From the Blackberry of Dr Sun Yat-sen*

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union developed its air combat fighters as a State Enterprise. In sharp contrast, the USA used its fiercely competitive private enterprise system to develop new aircraft types, drawing on the diversity of its industrial base and the need for financial success to drive innovation and cost-effectiveness. The winner was awarded profitable production contracts and the loser had to work harder and smarter for the next contract or face financial oblivion.

Today, air combat fighter development has been turned upside down.

After the Soviet Union spectacularly disintegrated, State Enterprises were privatised and have to survive on their sales and earnings. Organisations like Sukhoi and MiG have had to adapt and change rapidly, and provide the air combat fighters customers assess would, in future, dominate their Region. Market driven technological changes like ‘stealth’, networks, precision weapons, international logistics had to be incorporated into the business model and air combat fighter designs.

In the USA, there has been an equally spectacular reversal. Private enterprise no longer invents and funds new air combat projects – this has become a State Enterprise. After a State funded prototype competition, one ‘indicative’ prototype is selected and the State continues to fund development. Specifications are ‘locked down’ to minimise the cost of changes.

For the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the 1990s world on which the specifications are based no longer exists. Stealth has been penetrated by low frequency radars. Infrared sensors and weapons to detect and kill the F-35 are being deployed. Its ‘cyber warfare’ networks have become an Achilles’ Heel, allowing the F-35 to be passively tracked, and its vital information feeds blocked. Powerful and long range missile systems can swat it like a fly if it attempts to penetrate protected areas.

The focus on what technology potential enemies will field and the counters they have been developing has been ignored and replaced with an economic pork-barrel model of development. With the F-35 JSF hoovering up taxpayer’s funds and distributing them to places which will politically support the project and its proponents, the catch-cry is: ‘Never mind the quality of the aircraft – support us and feel the width of the cash-flow’.

Why doesn’t the Joint Strike Fighter Project Office realise the world has changed; that the 1990’s JSF specification has little relevance to the 2015-25 world; and, that the aircraft’s design needs to be changed? The JSF design has been driven by ‘affordability’ and there is no in-built space for growth or new capabilities. The aircraft is years behind its original planned development dates, is over-weight and way over budget. Having ‘locked-in’ its design, it would now take years of redesign and redevelopment to make an air combat aircraft relevant to the 2015-25 era in which it must operate. With an air combat fleet pushing an average age towards 30 years and its potential adversaries modernising rapidly, time is something the USA does not have.

So many promises have been made within the USA and its allies on production contracts based on 3,500 aircraft, that the necessary delays for redevelopment would generate a chorus of complaint, disillusionment and risk that supporters would abandon the project entirely.

So, the JSF program’s promises have created an expectation of financial reward that is so huge, JSF proponents must deliver something, even if it is second-rate, as it is ‘too big to fail’. In an ironic paradox, the program is also so large that it has locked the JSF specifications into a set that are no longer relevant to the deadly art of future air combat, so that it is simultaneously ‘too big to succeed’.

So, in one part of the world, a newly emerged and diversifying industrial base is adroitly developing a deadly stream of air combat fighters, and to survive, will sell them to any Nation that has the cash to buy them. In another, a far less diverse, almost cartel-like industry, oblivious to the overmatching technological developments in other parts of the world, is selling a triplet set of air combat dinosaur aircraft while the project just beyond prototype stage, and way before demonstrating its ability to defeat its potential adversaries.

Millennia of warfare have proven that victory goes to those who have the best technologies and the will to employ those technologies aggressively.

The USA seems to have lost its way in the development and deployment of military air combat technology, and its latest aircraft no longer have ‘the right stuff’.

And the consequences? History has the answer.

* Sun Yat-sen 1866-1925, the revered Chinese revolutionary and political philosopher

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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