Chinese expert says F-35 fighter has become an expensive toy


Date:2010-04-15 Source:china-defense-mashup By:环球网 Viewed:

Apr.14 (China Defense News cited from — The F-35 Lightning-II fighter, planned to be the new workhorse of the US armed forces, has run into a financial crisis. The price of a single aircraft has jumped from $50 million to $90 million, and possibly even up to $120 million. The US is revising its previous plans to purchase 2,400 of the fighters. What does this tell us about the process of military research and development? Global Times (GT) reporter Peng Kuang interviewed Chen Hu(Chen), editor-in-chief of World Military Affairs magazine, on balancing financial costs and defence needs.
4月14日(来自环球时报的中国防卫新闻)—按计划,F-35闪电II攻击型战斗机本应成为美国军队新主力,但却陷入了资金危机中。一架战斗机的价钱从5千万美元飞涨到了9千万,甚至还会涨到1 亿两千万。美国正在修订其预计购买2400架F-35战斗机的计划。这一举措能告诉我们军事研究发展过程中应注意什么呢?环球时报记者彭匡(音)就如何平衡财政支出与国防需要这一问题采访了《世界军事》杂志主编陈虎。

GT: What is the F-35 Lightning-II? It’s a product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, but what does this mean?
环球时报F-35闪电II攻击型战斗机是什么?它源自于“联合打击战斗机计划”(Joint Strike Fighter,简称JSF),但这是什么意思?

Chen: In 1996, it was a big surprise when the US Air Force introduced the concept of a joint strike fighter.

The aim of the JSF program was to try to combine three types of fighter aircraft: conventional aircraft for the Air Force, the catapulted ship-borne aircraft for the Navy, and vertical take-off-and-landing aircraft for the Navy Marine Corps.

At the same time, the JSF program planned to produce different models from the same assembly line, and to standardize most parts across all models. The JSF was intended to be a stealth fighter with the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds. It was intended to be reliable enough for different missions in land, sea and air conflict.

GT: What will the impact be after the sudden hike in the price tag from $50 million to as much as $120 million?

Chen: After the increase, it will be difficult to buy the aircraft in the quantities expected, so the US Air Force is likely to start evaluating alternative projects soon. The British armed forces are also likely to purchase fewer F-35s than they originally planned.

The crisis in the design of the F-35, the most advanced fourth-generation fighter in the world, throws a shadow on the future of aircraft development and deployment in the US and elsewhere. The chief lesson this teaches us is that making new equipment affordable has become a major problem in the research and development (R&D) process of any major new piece of military hardware. All R&D institutions should be concerned about this.

GT: What can we do to ensure the new equipment is affordable?

Chen: First, a prior feasibility study is necessary. This process should be a standard form of R&D for any large piece of military hardware. In other words, how the new equipment will be used and what criteria are suitable to evaluate them needs to be carefully considered to reach a balance of costs and effectiveness.

During the R&D process for the US fourth-generation fighters, this process was carried out intensely. But, the biggest problem for these new fighters is that the initial hypothetical battlefield environment into which they may be deployed has tremendously changed.

They were originally developed for the battlefield environment during the Cold War, where they would encounter strong opponents in air combat.

Due to such high-risk combat environment, the new generation of combat aircraft had to be excellent.

This has substantially increased the difficulty of R&D, led to soaring R&D costs, and finally threatened the progress of the whole project.

There have been many cases of military hardware failing because of problems in feasibility studies, such as the case of the F-104 second-generation fighter in the US.

At the time, there was a push for high speed and the ability to climb to high altitudes, but these were not needed in the real battlefield environment. Soon afterward, the F-104 was withdrawn from service and became a typical case of an advanced aircraft failing due to R&D problems.

Now the F-35 is suffering from the same problems, but this time the difficulty is not in technical performance, but in R&D costs.

Therefore, accurately understand the changing of battlefield environment and reflecting that in early studies of new equipment is a key issue for effective R&D.

GT: Why have the F-35s become so expensive? Are the technical barriers too high, or was there poor financial management? Or were the original requirements simply not reasonable?

Chen: The problems exist in all these aspects. The final reason is that one piece of hardware has been required to perform so many tasks, but the requirements from the air force, navy and marine corps are different.

Under this united criteria, four major indicators were set for the fourth-generation fighter aircraft.It needed to be stealthy, fly at supersonic speeds, have advanced electronic systems and have a good capability to maneuver in the air.

The US military has often suffered financial losses because of the pursuit of versatility. Because manufacturers in the US are not owned by the state, they are used to producing complicated technology for more profits.

The best way for them to profit is through entirely new models of aircraft, not gradual reform, which drives them into aiming for large-scale integration and producing multi-functional hardware. Another plane, the F-111, initially designed as an “all-round fighter”, finally turned out to be useless

GT: Does the US have a tendency to pursue unrealistic security demands?

Chen: The term “security demands” is not accurate, since the US has no problem with security. Can any country attack the US? We can say they are working toward their military requirements, but not security demands, because US behavior has far exceeded the concepts of national defense and security.

The military strategy of the US is an offensive one, which requires their weapons to be equipped to a high standard. They attempt to overwhelm others in military actions.

The original idea of their fourth-generation fighters is to have an aircraft capable of beating any other contender. They put too heavy a burden on it, so the final product has become an oversized monstrosity capable of doing nothing.

GT: What does the US need to do now?

Chen: To ensure new equipment affordable, the emphasis needs to move to audits after the R&D process has started. Audits are also important throughout the process of pre-feasibility studies, R&D, and deployments.

Some large-scale military hardware projects, like the F-35, seem to be nothing more than fishing trips designed to test the waters for new equipment and make as much money as possible.

The original plan held up the F-35 as being less expensive, but that’s fallen through. Since the research company wanted to pursue the maximum profit, it is impossible for them to set the price of new generation aircraft at the same level as old ones.

The original price for the F-35 is $50 million. After the F-22 was withdrawn, the price of the F-35 was inevitably pushed higher and higher.

GT: What China can learn from this experience?

Chen: The experience of the F-35 is meaningful to China. Lots of countries are engaged in building fourth-generation fighters. Should we copy the US pattern, or work toward our own needs?

Russia has designed their own fourth-generation fighter, the T-50, which is not exactly the same as the F-35 or F-22. The US requires that their own fighters can be used globally and are equipped with offensive functions.

China, as a developing country, doesn’t have the same demands. What are the demands of China’s security environment, and what requirements do these place on military development? China’s policy emphasizes national defense, so our military hardware should reflect this.

We mainly focus on the defense of the homeland, and our strategy cannot be entirely passive. So we need offensive capabilities, but not to the same degree as the US.

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