The F-35 Issue: Food for Thought
by Gherardo Albano
These days there’s a big discussion on whether Italy should buy 90 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs. The aim of this article is to analyze the overall picture within which such an important decision should be taken. In particular, there are two separate fields of analysis, one purely military and another related to economic issues. Let’s analyze them separately.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
From a strategic point of view, at the moment, it is not foreseeable that a crisis may result in a conventional war. Of course this does not mean that we can dismantle the entire military. Defense continues to be necessary to every nation, in the present geopolitical framework, including peaceful countries such as Switzerland and Sweden, and certainly cannot be dismantled if it cannot be restored quickly in case of emergency.
As far as we are concerned, the Italian Air Force now has a line of flight divided between air defense, consisting of about 72 Eurofighter Typhoon, and attack, consisting of 36 AMX International AMX and 48 Panavia Tornado PA-200. Then there are of course all the other non-combat operational units like tactical transport, refuelers, rescue, VIP transport, training, and so on.
The Italian Navy has about 15 McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II Plus aircraft characterized by the ability of short take-off — the vertical take-off is militarily marginal — and short or vertical landing. This capability is an essential but expensive element of protection of the fleet which makes it different from most of the other navies in the world.
The combat aircraft lineup is now a dim memory of what it was in the eighties, when during the Cold War there were more than 200 aircraft for air defense and 350 for the attack role. They have already been reduced due to the organic decrease of the external threat. What remains can be considered a core of resources, human, material and methodological facilities to maintain the expertise, knowledge, methodologies and a minimum of military capability in case the need arises.
It is clear therefore that cutting or reducing it further would mean loosing a capability that needs between 5 to 10 years to build up again if a serious threat becomes visible. Italy would rebuild their forces almost from scratch hoping to have the time to do it. New combat-ready rookie pilots would need about 5 years. Ordering, receiving and organizing for new aircraft, performing maintenance, recruiting technicians, would again require between 5 and 10 years. In the case of the Navy, rebuilding would take much longer if we were to lose the aircraft carriers.
McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II Plus
The above considerations lead me to say that maintaining a capacity in the defense sector by replacing aircraft that reach the end of service life with more modern and competitive aircraft (relative to hostile forces) is a crucial need. The alternative would be a great risk for our country given the current geo-political instability worldwide.
The attack aircraft in question will still need to be replaced over the next 6-12 years for reasons of obsolescence and useful life. The older a plane becomes, like a car, the more maintenance costs until the situation becomes untenable.
The current situation is the following:
- the AMX are technologically obsolete and should be replaced soon;
- Tornadoes are being updated and this standard can last another five-ten years or even more;
- AV-8B Navy aircraft have 20 years of operating life and do not need to be replaced now, but in the medium term, unless unexpected problems of maintenance arise.
Let’s see now what could be the alternative having already narrowed down to the most plausible hypothesis:
- replace the strike aircraft with the F-35 variants A and B, taking into account that B is the only possible replacement for the Navy’s AV-8B as there are no other STOVL aircraft types;
- replace the AV-8B with F-35B and all others with more Typhoon, Tranche 3, which have advanced attack capabilities.
This suggests that for the Navy it is important to buy the F-35B while the Air Force has in fact two possible choices. Let us see the features of the two possible candidates.
The development program for the F-35 is not proceeding well. Let’s say that there were basic errors: starting production of the plane when the development was still in progress and the desire to develop three versions — Standard A, B vertical take-off, C for aircraft carriers with catapult — from a single basic design coming to affect all versions with the requirements of the most difficult vertical take-off version.
This has led to a significant increase in costs and the forced relaxation of specifications to be met, without which the project would had been unfeasible. In any case we are talking about a highly advanced aircraft not only for the use of new stealth technology mdash; which basically means opposing radar has difficulty in detection — but also for new production technologies and the integration of a lot of electronics called sensor fusion mdash; to put it simply, allowing better awareness of the situation around the aircraft.
Panavia PA-200 Tornado
The program currently sees continuation of testing, and the manufacture of aircraft is not yet at the minimum standard for combat. In short, the aircraft to the current date is not satisfactory, but over time it will be excellent in the attack role. It will remain however, in my opinion, insufficient in the role of air defense, since it hasn’t a powerful enough radar. In addition, currently the F-35 can only carry two anti-aircraft missiles when in stealth mode and this severely limits the ability to deal with numerous enemy formations. Kinematic capabilities also contribute to a poor verdict on its air to air performances. Cost for purchase and maintenance remains to be firmly determined, which will be discussed later.
The alternative to the F-35A is the Typhoon, a European project which is already mature owing to further development with the so-called Tranche 3 (T3) that Italy should acquire, funds permitting, to complete the line of air defense. The T3 develops the plane incorporating a new type of AESA radar and new types of weapons for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, increasing significantly the military value and configuring it as a true multi-role aircraft. The Typhoon does not have stealth technology, but has top rated kinematic capabilities — speed, acceleration, turning — and self-defense exceeding the F-35. For comparison a Typhoon has at least six missile, has wider antenna coverage and can go higher and faster.
A comparison of the F-35 and Typhoon T3 must be set to a period of the useful life of about 30 years which brings me to the following considerations:
- the F-35 is more technologically advanced and this is reflected in a number of benefits including that in the next 10-15 years, a further development potential is possible to adapt the plane to new threats;
- the stealth technology is the F-35′s primary means of protection from interception, but there are many plans to reduce the effectiveness of this technology and high maintenance costs of stealth protection is a sustainability issue;
- Italy overall has few aircraft and multi-role capability, although not a main requirement, will definitely have value. In this respect, the Typhoon is great for air defense while the F-35 is marginal;
- in the attack role the F-35 is invaluable in the event of a confrontation with technologically advanced opponents in the early days of the war when air defenses are fully functional; when the fight shifts to trucking bombs, the two aircraft are substantially equal.
A single flight line on the Typhoon would have major economic benefits for training, spare parts and so forth while the same proposition cannot be said for the F-35 since it is not an interceptor.
In the future, industries are developing unmanned combat aircraft vehicle (UCAV) stealth such as the X-47B. These are designed, much like the F-35, to carry out attacks in extremely dangerous air defences. Therefore, the specific strength of the F-35 could in the future be better carried out by a European UCAV.
Regarding the choice of the Air Force to ask for 60 F-35As and 15 F-35Bs, I consider that, assuming we stick to the F-35, the best solution would be to buy all F-35As because: the B version costs 30% more than the A; is, performance wise, inferior to the A version; but most importantly because the operational motivation is rather weak. In fact, the F-35Bs were required by the Air Force to be used in support of expeditionary situations where adequate runways are not available. If this is the need, then it would be more effective to use F-35As for the Navy, considering an increased purchase to 20. To save money, in case of F-35 purchase, a unified management of today’s separate lines of flight of the two armed forces, including training, should be enforced.
Economic and industrial matters
The Typhoon is a plane in which the domestic industry’s original share — design and production — was 21%, but in the case of additional, future purchases may be negotiated higher. Also with the manufacturer of the Typhoon consortium, in case of additional purchases, or beyond the commitments entered into with the consortium, you could negotiate a package of financial compensation even exceeding 100%, just like the big world buyers (India, Brazil, Korea, etc.). In addition, the extension of the production of the Typhoon could lead to further sales abroad, with additional financial benefits for Italy.
In contrast, the Italian share of the F-35 project is 4% for Development and is not assessable for the production, as the supply tenders are still in progress. Italy has invested over the years about 1 billion U.S. dollars in the development of the F-35 and so did Finmeccanica partnering with the MoD for the “FACO” in Cameri. We must consider that, while the percentage is lower, it is on a much larger number of planes and a hypothetical 4% of 2,000 aircraft is comparable with a 100% of 75 aircraft.
Technologically, Italian companies are fully conversant with Typhoon production technologies while those of the F-35 are partially unknown. The original contribution to the development of the F-35 was finalized contingent on the acquisition of new technologies for Italian companies, but the U.S. has severely limited these knowledge transfers. In addition, if Italy will purchase F-35s, any national enhancement, update or integration cannot be performed without U.S. approval and involvement, so the F-35 should be considered a “limited sovereignty airplane”.
Both the UK and Israel have strongly opposed the American policy in this regard, but for now, only Israel has managed to get limited access to electronic systems in order to make partial integrations nationally. To better understand the implications, if tomorrow the Italian Air Force requires the integration of a weapon or an external tank, it would have to ask the U.S. to perform it, paying and waiting for their development cycles in which, predictably, they would not be a priority.
On acquisition costs for the F-35, there is an extensive bibliography, made of figures difficult to compare and review — a real jungle — so if there are two numbers are one is double the other, they could be both true since they are based on different assumptions.
In addition the F-35 is in the development stage and not yet in full production, having acquisition costs that vary from year to year. We now have, for the A model, an approximate figure well above $100 million. Flight costs per hour is also a topic for fortune tellers, but the numbers are scaring the USAF.
The Typhoon is well known for acquisition and flight costs.
AMX International AMX
In my view, the purchase of the F-35 should be only for the 15-20 copies for the Navy, to be purchased along a period of 7 to 10 years from now, allowing the maturation of the aircraft and the reduction in purchasing costs. To date, a fully operational aircraft is scheduled for 2019, if there are no serious problems on software development, a key component in the present day for a fighter plane.
The Air Force, in contrast, has a technological option that makes it possible, even if with operational differences, to purchase the F-35A or the Typhoon.
It is my opinion that it is useful, both economically and industrially, that Italy, since there are no orders signed besides 3 F-35As, reviews in detail the alternatives, requiring two offers, with guaranteed costs and industrial compensations, for the two alternatives: Typhoon T3 and F-35A.
The timing for the purchase of the 75 aircraft, may be over a fairly long period and without immediate financial commitments. In case of confirmation of the F-35, it would be desirable that the purchases were delayed until 2018 to 2020, in time to start replacing the AMX.
This would be a nice as we consider the current crisis that does not allow for non-essential digressions. Defense cannot be neglected, but we can certainly wait a few years before deciding and purchasing.
Gherardo Albano © 2013 – All rights reserved