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Slimy Double-Talk About the F-35

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

A Marine F-35B Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter prepares to land vertically at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.,

March 21. “This marks the first vertical landing of a Marine Corps F-35B outside of a testing environment,” the corps said.

The Marines issued a flashy press release last week: “first operational F-35B conducts initial Vertical Landing.” It was an amateurish, somewhat slimy piece of hype.

In one important way, the press release contradicted itself, and in another it inadvertently revealed one of the many reasons why the Marines’ Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 – that’s the F-35B — will never be the battlefield-based close-combat support bomber the Marines like to advertise it as.

The corps’ headquarters’ release repeatedly described the “operational” nature of “the first STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment.” It also characterized the event as “another milestone” toward “revolutionizing expeditionary Marines air-ground combat power,” that perhaps — the press released tried hard to imply — would be available for combat use as soon as “late 2013.”

The press release, which was formatted as if it were some sort of news article, inadvertently cued alert readers to the fact that this “first” “operational” “STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment” was flown by a test pilot.

His name is Maj. Richard Rusnok, as the press release says, and as a different Marine Corps press exercise reveals, he has been flying for 13 years.

In the world of F-35-double-talk, it is apparently reasonable to announce flights as operational when they are flown by test pilots.

The term “operational” was stretched even further in a second respect in the press release, which featured the photograph above showing the F-35B landing vertically with its lift fan doors open and its flaps deflected. Note the area below the aircraft; note that same area in the later stages of a video at YouTube also released by the Marines’ PR team.

That light-colored portion of the airfield at Yuma looks different from the rest of the surrounding airfield area. That’s surely the special preparation the airfield surface needs to withstand the extremely hot, very high-velocity engine exhaust of the F-35B that impacts the landing area in a vertical landing.

Close observers of the F-35B have been paying attention to this matter. One of them is Bill Sweetman of Defense Technology International and Aviation Week. He wrote a highly informative news article  on the matter in late 2011.

Based on Sweetman’s reporting, the Marines had a special pad installed at Yuma (and two other F-35B bases) to withstand the heat and blast of the F-35B vertical landing exhaust–to prevent spalling of standard runway concrete (or even more vulnerable asphalt).

The images the Marines let slip may be the special refractory (think “pizza oven”) concrete Sweetman describes as poured into slabs, or it may be a different type of pad he describes, also said to be at the F-35B facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.: a specially constructed aluminum-alloy mat laid over concrete.

Now ponder the Marine press-release rhetoric about “revolutionizing expeditionary Marine air-ground combat power in all threat environments.” The Marines love to advertise that the STOVL F-35B will be able to operate from “unprepared, forward operational airbases” on or near the battlefield. Articles by skilled and experienced journalists like Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio often describe the F-35B as able to “hover and land like a helicopter, according to the Pentagon” (note his caveat), and others describe “its ability to operate closely with the US Marines.”

As recently as Tuesday, Marine Corps Major General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the F-35B gives the Marines the “revolutionary” even “transformational capability” for the F-35B to operate out of so many multiple, distributed bases that they defy targeting.

The so-called “unprepared, forward” F-35B operating bases up close to Marines on battlefields is a fabrication without the construction of 100-foot square slabs of refractory concrete and/or layers of aluminum-alloy matting — the latter which the Air force has described as “heavy, cumbersome, slow to install, difficult to repair [with] very poor air-transportability characteristics.”

These requirements—well beyond what is required for either the Marines’ STOVL AV-8B or even their vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) V-22—mean “advanced high temperature concrete material” (described in contract solicitations), specially transported and constructed to accommodate the F-35B’s extraordinarily finicky requirements for vertical landing operations.

Real-life facilities for F-35Bs employing the vertical landing capability will be very considerable bases, especially given the F-35’s other, immense logistical requirements beyond refractory concrete or aluminum-alloy pads.

In short, the vertical landing so touted by the Marines’ as a demonstration of the Corps “expeditionary” culture and “transformational capability” is more applicable to advertising for gullible denizens of Capitol Hill and for air shows—if, indeed, the host facility has a few thousand square feet of refractory concrete and lots of fencing to keep spectators well away from high velocity foreign objects catapulted by the F-35B’s vertical jet exhaust.

At best, the F-35s will be employing 3,000 to 4,000-foot takeoffs and landings at unique “STOVL-only” runways specially prepared by the Marine Corps—and by the F-35B’s gigantic logistical tail.

It is not even clear if these large facilities will even be appropriate for vertical landings and will, instead, accommodate just the medium-speed rolling landings the F-35B can also perform (and shown in the USMC PR video). Or, the F-35B will be restricted to the Marine Corps’ small aircraft carrier amphibious warfare ships, which also require various special requirements to handle the F-35B and its demanding operating characteristics.

The vertical landing capability of the F-35B also comes at considerable cost. According to DOD’s latest Selected Acquisition Report, the airframe and engine for the “B” are $27.8 million more expensive than the Air Force’s already far-too expensive “A” model. And thanks to the extra weight and bulk of STOVL propulsion, the F-35B has even less range, payload, and maneuverability than the Air Force’s unacceptably low-performing “A” version.

That’s not all, however. The Marine’s fastidious STOVL requirement was baked into the basic airframe design of all three F-35 models. As several aviation-technology experts explained to me, both the Air Force’s “A” and the Navy’s “C” versions lack the STOVL-specific lift fan and associated hardware, but they bear the burden of the extra weight and structure that had to be built into the basic airframe and engine to accommodate the STOVL version.

It doesn’t stop with just the extra weight—estimated by one to be at least 2,000 pounds. Thanks to the Marines’ STOVL requirement, both the Air Force and Navy versions had to be a single engine, short-coupled, stubby-winged design with all the unhappy compromises that implies for drag, acceleration, maneuverability, range and payload. And, there are other cost and performance compromises forced on the Air Force and Navy by the Marines, according to my sources: for example, some regrettable performance characteristics in the engine. Many (but far from all) of the fundamental flaws of the F-35 family of aircraft can be traced back to the Marines and their STOVL requirement.

The biggest blast of dubious rhetoric in the Marine Corps’ March 22 HQ press release comes close to the end. In the second to last paragraph, it states that the F-35B “is central to maintaining tactical aviation affordability and serving as good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Given its lower performance at higher cost—compared to the already unaffordable, underperforming F-35 alternatives—the F-35B would more accurately be characterized as the antithesis of affordability and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. That that the F-35B has imposed even lower performance not just on itself but the Air Force and Navy makes it a killer aircraft, but unfortunately of our own.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.