The estimated cost, $400 billion, has been widely criticized for its price tag. The program aims to replace a wide range of existing aircraft for the U.S. and several “partner countries.”
The F-35 is the world’s only “fifth generation” fighter jet, combining state-of-the art stealth technology with highly advanced avionics and maneuverability. The first F-35 flew in 2006, and 42 have been produced so far. China and Russia are working on rival — and some experts say superior — aircraft.
And according to a pilot who recently landed an F-35 for a celebratory press event, “it’s an operational squadron. The aircraft is not operational.”
The article breaks down the problems with both the concept and execution of the F-35 program:
“We’ve put all our eggs in the F-35 basket,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. Given that, one might think the military would have approached the aircraft’s development conservatively. In fact, the Pentagon did just the opposite. It opted to build three versions of a single plane averaging $160 million each (challenge No. 1), agreed that the planes should be able to perform multiple missions (challenge No. 2), then started rolling them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux–more than a decade before critical developmental testing was finished (challenge No. 3). The military has already spent $373 million to fix planes already bought; the ultimate repair bill for imperfect planes has been estimated at close to $8 billion.
Another obstacle, the Army’s Joint Standoff Weapon [JSOW], an air-to-ground GPS guided munition, incurred a “critical” Nunn-McCurdy Breach, something the Pentagon attributed to drops in procurement on the weapon in the fiscal 2016 budget request. The program unit acquisition cost ballooned by 45.8 percent as procurement of the AGM-154 (C) “UNITARY” variant dropped from 7,000 to 3,185.
Pentagon’s $55 billion mystery plane is secret, but debate on cost is appearing
Highly classified, the program is one of the Air Force’s top priorities — and its most expensive. The service estimates it will cost $55 billion to build as many as 100 of what it calls the Long Range Strike Bomber, which is designed to fly deep into enemy territory undetected until the mushroom cloud begins to bloom.
In the coming months, the Air Force is expected to award a contract for the next-generation bomber, which would begin flying in the mid-2020s, have the potential to fly manned or unmanned and give the military the ability to hit any target “at any point on the globe.”
But that’s about all the Air Force will say about the program, which has been cloaked in a veil of secrecy rivaling the jet’s stealthy ability to creep past enemy lines.
With so little known about it, there is growing concern about the system’s cost. And given the Pentagon’s vast history of cost overruns on major weapons systems, experts worry that even though a contract has yet to be awarded, it is already facing the same troubling problems that have plagued other programs.
The Air Force has estimated each new bomber will cost $550 million apiece, but that figure was set in 2010 without counting for inflation and is already five years outdated. It’s also significantly less than the cost of its predecessor, the B-2 bomber, and not that much more than some high-end commercial jets. Coming in at such a low price will be difficult, if not impossible, analysts said.
“I’m afraid they’re heading down a path here where they have set themselves up politically to not succeed,” said Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “They’ve come out with these cost estimates that are surprisingly low, and they seem to be doubling down on the idea that they can build this bomber cheaper than the last one.”
Meet the most fascinating part of the F-35: The $400,000 helmet
Pilots who climb into the cockpit of the F-35 stealth fighter to fly the costliest military plane ever built, will be wearing a helmet straight out of a science fiction movie. These fighter pilots helmets are designed to see through the body of the plane, uniforms with fabric that conducts electricity, and Ironman-like exoskeletons.
These pilots, flying at Mach-1 at 50,000 feet, will have the ability to essentially look through the body of the plane and see the ground. Beyond speed and altitude, F-35 pilots would also see things such as the location of enemy aircraft or weapons on the ground.
“When the helmet’s tuned correctly to the pilot’s eyes, you almost step into this other world where all this information comes in,” said Al Norman, an F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor. “You can look through the jet’s eyeballs to see the world as the jet sees the world.”
If one or two jets are flying together, they have been able to share information seamlessly. But when there are four jets, communication problems emerge, which can “create an inaccurate picture for the pilot.”
The helmet’s visor does more than shield the pilot’s eyes; it will inform the pilot about the health of the jet, including remaining fuel and altitude and provide pilots with night-vision.
The helmet is similar to the jet in production because they are almost as famous for their production issues as their capabilities. The report said the Pentagon hired a company to set up a back-up helmet in case more issues arrived. Pilots are reportedly flying with the third model helmet made by Rockwell Collins.
The Rockwell Collins company said in a statement that the helmet provides “the F-35 aviator unmatched situational awareness and an unsurpassed advantage.” The F-35 Gen III Helmet Mounted Display System offers revolutionary technology, the company said, with active noise reduction, a custom fit for pilots and video capability.
“Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program. It must succeed,” Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley said in September.
The Pentagon’s weapons look like something out of ‘Star Wars’
Under development for years by the military and the defense industry, lasers have moved from science-fiction fantasy, to the laboratory and, just recently, to the Persian Gulf. They sizzle rather than go boom, providing pin-point accuracy that proponents say can prevent the kind of collateral damage that’s unavoidable with missiles or bombs.
These laser weapons represent the Pentagon’s most aggressive efforts to use technology to bolster brute force.
In announcing a Defense Innovation Initiative last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that in order to keep its battlefield edge, the military needs to move with the urgency of a Silicon-Valley start-up in developing breakthroughs in technologies such as robotics, autonomous systems, big data and 3-D printing.
While the U.S. has focused on fighting wars for more than a decade, he said that potential enemies have taken the time to innovate. “Countries like Russia and China have been heavily investing in military modernization programs to blunt our military’s technological edge,” he said.
Last week, the Navy announced a big step in that direction. For months, sailors tested a $40 million, 30-kilowatt laser mounted on the deck of the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. Using a video-game like controller, service members practiced taking out drones and small boats. And now the weapon, which looks like a giant telescope, is ready to take out real threats if necessary, officials said, meaning the Pentagon could soon record its first kill with a laser.
Unlike missiles, lasers travel at the speed of light, so they hit their target almost instantaneously. Once built, their expense is essentially limited to the cost it takes to fuel it. Navy officials said the USS Ponce’s laser, for example, costs 59 cents a shot, while the cost of some missiles that would perform the same attack can cost in the millions of dollars.
As long as there is power, lasers can also keep firing with an “unlimited magazine” that never needs to be reloaded, which is especially helpful for a ship at sea. The power of lasers can also be changed. A low-energy pulse may disable a drone’s sensors, a maneuver known as “dazzling.” Crank it up, though, and drone soon becomes fireball.
But laser beams fire dead straight and can’t bend or easily change directions, so there has to be a clear line of sight to the target. And if it’s raining, or even cloudy, the moisture in the atmosphere can make them less effective. Smoke and pollution can cause problems, as well.
And the enemy doesn’t always attack on clear, sunny days.
“If you want to know the problem with lasers, try using a flashlight in the fog,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst and consultant.
For years, lasers have been a key focus for many of the biggest defense contractors–including BAE Systems (British Aerospace Electronic Systems) , Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. And the industry has been making advancements toward mounting them on trucks, tanks, aircraft and even drones, analysts said. In recent years, laser technology has reached a “tipping point,” said Rick Hunt, director of Raytheon’s Navy/Marine Corps Programs, and soon could be widespread.
“This isn’t something in a Buck Rogers comic book,” said Tom Captain, a vice chairman at Deloitte who leads the consulting firms aerospace and defense sector. “It’s being deployed now.”
Boeing has also developed a massive truck it calls a High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator for the Army with a laser designed to take out rockets, mortars and drones. During a recent demonstration, the laser targeted a dime-sized beam on the 10-inch mortar, and fried it until the mortar exploded mid-air.
While many of the lasers in development would be used for relatively short distances, within a few years companies will start producing far more powerful weapons capable of much longer ranges, officials said.
Developing the rules of engagement for lasers took top Pentagon officials a year to develop, and that the Defense Department would “comply” with the Geneva Convention, which prohibits weapons that blind.
“We are going to honor the conventions with this laser system,” Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research said. “We’re not going to use it to directly point and kill people.”
“The weapon is more effective, when it’s used to destroy the engines or sensors of ships and drones,” he said.
Patrick Wilcken, a trade and human rights researcher at Amnesty International, said that lasers should be “very strictly regulated and controlled so that it is never used against a human target where there is a risk of eye damage.”
Despite the advancements, many think that lasers won’t replace guns, cannons or missiles, but rather augment them.
“The main budgetary drawback is that no one is proposing they replace existing weapons,” said Thompson, the defense analyst. “They’re saying why don’t we have lasers, too.”
That hasn’t stopped companies from developing lasers, which many think will become a must-have technology for the Pentagon.
BAE Systems, for example, has showcased what it calls a Future Technology Demonstrator, a tank-like vehicle that has both a machine gun and a laser.
In other words, it can go sizzle and boom!
Patriot, the workhorse of the Pentagon’s missile defense system
It’s usually the missile that gets all the the attention. The deadly rocket that screams through the sky to take out another missile, sometimes traveling far faster than the speed of sound, in what’s often likened to a bullet hitting a bullet.
But perhaps the most important part of the Patriot missile system isn’t the missile. It’s the radar.
That’s the part that first detects the incoming threat. Sometimes it’s an enemy plane, or a drone. Sometimes it’s another missile moving at a mile a second, which makes every second count. The more time to counterattack, the safer you are.
Raytheon, which makes the Patriot, recently announced a significant upgrade to the radar, which the company says will allow it to have a 360-degree view of the battlefield and also see them at greater distances. The company has invested $150 million over the past 15 years in the technology, it said.
“The radar is the key to the system,” said Norm Cantin, who oversees the upgrade effort at Raytheon. “It’s the eyes, and it has to be able to see far enough to give the missile time to hit the target. You don’t want it to take the threat out right above your head.”
Development of the Patriot surface-to-air missile system dates to the late 1960s, when it was designed to protect Europe from an air assault by the Soviet Union. While originally intended to take out enemy aircraft, it was upgraded in the 1980s to defend against other missiles.
Patriot became something of a household name during the Persian Gulf War, when the systems thwarted incoming SCUD missiles, launched from Iraq. (Though there has been some debate about Patriot’s effectiveness during the conflict, Raytheon has vigorously defended its performance.)
The Patriot system has continually gone through upgrades since then, and was used again at the beginning of the Iraq War. In addition to the U.S., the system is used by 12 other countries, including Germany, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Taiwan, Spain, Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
On Thursday, Raytheon announced that the U.S. government authorized it to sell its radar sensor upgrade, called the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), to foreign partners. But it’s not yet clear whether they will be installed in the systems now in use by the U.S. military.
The Pentagon is holding a competition for the radar upgrades. A contract isn’t expected to be awarded until 2017.
The Pentagon’s electromagnetic ‘Rail Gun’
First it mounted a laser aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf. Now the Navy has publicly unveiled another futuristic weapon: the electromagnetic “rail gun.”
In development for years, the weapon would be able to fire a projectile at Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound, hitting targets 110 miles away. (By comparison, a Hellfire missile travels a little over Mach 1.)
Instead of gunpowder as a propellant, it uses electromagnetic pulses, and the projectiles hit with such overwhelming force that they don’t need to be armed with explosives. The impact from traveling at such amazing speeds is enough, thank you very much. Lasers sizzle rather than go boom, as some have said. The rail gun definitely has one heck of a boom.
The gun made its debut at the Navy’s Future Force: Science & Technology Expo at the Washington Convention Center this week.
One top Navy official recently likened the impact to “a freight train going through the wall at a hundred miles an hour.” The lack of gunpowder and explosive warheads eliminates some significant safety hazards for Navy crews, officials say.
FY 2015 Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System
Major Weapon Systems
The combined capabilities and performance of U.S. weapon systems are unmatched throughout the world, ensuring that U.S. military forces have the advantage over any adversary. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 acquisition funding request for the Department of Defense (DoD) totals $153.9 billion, which includes $154.2 billion in new budget authority for FY 2015 offset by the cancellation of $0.3 billion of prior year funding. The $154.2 billion for the base budget, includes $90.7 billion for Procurement funded and $63.5 billion for Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) funded programs.
Of this amount, $69.6 billion is for programs that have been designated as Major
Defense Acquisition Programs (MDAPs). Unless specifically identified as being for
Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), this book focuses on base funding for the key MDAP programs. To simplify the display of the various weapon systems, this is organized by the following mission area categories:
Mission Area Categories
• Aircraft & Related Systems
• Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) Systems
• Ground Systems
• Missile Defense Programs
• Missiles and Munitions
• Shipbuilding and Maritime Systems
• Space Based Systems
• Mission Support Activities
• RDT&E Science & Technology
FY 2015 Modernization – Base: $153.9 Billion