Saturday, 26 December 2009

Best wishes of the season

I've left it until Boxing Day to wish everybody the compliments of the season and offer my best wishes for 2010.

Why? Because I'm slack.

Its been an interesting year - plenty happening on the defence and aerospace side of things: the Australian government has ordered 14 Joint Strike Fighters (why just 14?); the first RAAF Super Hornet is flying and will be delivered early-ish in 2010; the AWD project continues to move along; the RAAF has short-circuited Canberra's cumbersome bureaucracy and laid its hands on a couple of Heron UAVs while the Army and DMO mess around trying to decide what they'e going to do about acquiring Tactical UAVs under JP129; the government says we need 12 bigger and better submarines than the current Collins-class, and mouths are already pursed censoriously at the prospect of an industry program that's bigger and more complex than the Collins, and run by the same stakeholders; and Navy at some point will have to decide what sort of helicopters it wants. Or, rather, somebody will have to tell the Navy what sort of helicopters it's going to get, because it's not a choice I'd entrust to the RAN just at present. There are two contenders and they need to be compared properly, and on its performance to date I'm not confident that the Fleet Air Arm is equipped to either make that choice or cope with the consequences of getting it wrong.

My viewpoint on this has been sharpened by my three-month sabbatical, courtesy of the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) in Melbourne, studying defence industry innovation. I'll be flagging up papers and survey results in due course, but it's becoming clear that there are a number of factors which both stimulate industry innovation and affect the prospect of its success; these include the professional and technical expertise of the customer and their effect on his ability to identify, estimate and manage risk; and the customer's willingness to invest in a developmental project - the two seem to be related.

It's nice to see the DMO concentrating on the professional and technical development of its people, but the recent Mortimer and Pappas reviews of Australian defence procurement urge the government to buy more equipment off the shelf, which could see opportunities for Australian innovators reduced significantly. Hope not, but we'll see.

I'll try and blog a bit more frequently next year; the difficulty is finding something interesting to say that I'm not being to write for somebody else. Is that a New Years Resolution? Fat chance!

Conspiracy theories

Just wanted to bring to readers' attention an article in today's (26 December) The Weekend Australia by David Aaronovich. Published originally in The Wall Street Journal his article 'The Truth Is Out There' is a masterful swipe at the growing band of conspiracy theorists. As the Australian defence community has a few of these on its fringes I thought I'd quote a couple of short passages from Aaronovitch's article.

First: "Even where conspiracy theories are not momentous and may sometimes be physically (if not intellectually) harmless - such as with the gorgeous slew of nonsenses that prefaced 'The Da Vinci Code', involving Templars, secret priories, hidden treasures and the bloodline of Christ - they share certain features that make them work.

"These include an appeal to precedent, self-heroisation, contempt for the benighted masses, a claim to be only asking "disturbing questions", invariably exaggerating the status and expertise of supporters, the use of apparently scholarly ways of laying out arguments (or "death by footnote"), the appropriation of imagined secret service jargon, circularity in logic, hydra-headedness in growing new arguments as soon as old ones are chopped off and, finally, the exciting suggestion of persecution. These characteristics help them to convince intelligent people of deeply unintelligent things."

Secondly: "No inconvenient fact or refutation discombobulates the believer; conspiracists are always winners.Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby reverses can be accommodated within the theory itself or simply discarded. So, embarrassing and obvious problems in the theory may be ascribed to deliberate disinformation originating with the imagined plotters designed to throw activists off the scent."

There's more from Aaronovich, and it's all good; the article is based on a book he's publishing early next year titled "Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History", which will be published in February 2010 by Riverhead. Looks like it may end up on my bookshelf alongside "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre and "The Australian Miracle - an innovative nation revisited" by Thomas Barlow - useful reality checks, all of them.

For those who enjoy a good conspiracy consider The Stone of Scone, aka The Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish kings were crowned on Moot Hill, at Scone Palace, until King Edward 1 took it south to England in 1296. Supposedly (and there is good reason to believe this) the Monks at Scone Abbey, who had charge of the Stone, were forewarned of Edward's raid on Scotland's heritage and provided him with a poor-quality substitute instead, and this has been in Westminster Abbey for most of the past 700 years, until its recent return to Scotland.

The real Stone, by this account, was a much more elaborate and decorated piece of Pictish art carved from a single chunk of rock, possibly of meteorite origin, possibly something a bit less exotic. It was supposedly spirited away by the Monks and hidden in a cave on nearby Dunsinane Hill. Why is that name familiar? Because it is the site of Macbeth's castle - you know, Macbeth? Three Witches? Lady Macbeth? Killed King Duncan? Got topped by "Lay On" Macduff in Shakespeare's play of the same name? The Hill exists, and there are bare remnants on its summit of a pre-mediaeval castle; from the top of Dunsinane it's possible to watch and control the northern and eastern approaches to Scone and Perth - from the military point of view it's perfectly sited and no doubt Macbeth in his day was familiar with it. On one side of Dunsinane Hill, about a mile north-west, lies the hamlet of Collace with a beautiful stone church whose foundations go back to at least the 12th century (roughly contemporaneous with Macbeth), and possibly further. On the other side, a mile or so south-west towards Bandirran, lie the remnants of a celtic stone circle.

Being so close to Scone, this suggests there was obviously something in the Scone-Perth-Dunsinane district of spiritual importance to the Picts. It isn't hard to imagine the Monks from Scone Abbey hiding the 'real' Stone somewhere near Bandirran. The location of the Stone is a secret known only to a few and guarded by "men of strong opinion".

So far, so conventional - nice legend and all that. What about the conspiracy?

Okay, here goes: You may not be aware that the Depot and Training Centre for one of the British Army's most famous Highland Regiments was in Perth, about seven miles southwest of Dunsinane. The home of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) has been for over 200 years at Balhousie Castle in Perth; but its roots go back to the mid-1600s and earlier when independent companies of men were formed by local clan chiefs to police or 'watch' the Highlands.

Apart from tradition, what reason was there to maintain a standing force of soldiers in Perth? Can't you see it? They must be guarding The Secret of the Stone! The Black Watch are the "men of strong opinion" whose spiritual duty it is to guard Scotland's greatest treasure. For what exactly? Doesn't matter - Make something up.

How do I know this? I don't - I just made it up, based on my own meagre knowledge and some family connections with the area. But all the elements of a wonderful conspiracy are there - this could rival the Loch Ness Monster. All it takes is a short visit by Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) carrying lots and lots (and I mean LOTS) of money to unlock my secret knowledge. And the beauty of it is, there's nobody who could disprove what I'm suggesting: anybody daft enough to believe it would take an official silence, or even worse outright denial, as the automatic response of a secretive Scottish "elite" with something to hide.

Come to think of it, I might write the damn novel myself....

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Australian defence innovation

As some of you might know, I'm taking a three-month sabbatical to pursue my Ph.D, thanks to the generosity of the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC) in Melbourne. I shall be one of its first Research Fellows and I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge publicly the support of its CEO, Dr Mark Hodge, and some of its board members and staff, particularly Mr Viktor Verijenko and Mr Tony Quick.

My Ph.D research topic is "Factors affecting innovation performance in the Australian defence industry". It's not something too many other academics have explored in detail, one of the leaders in this area being Bob Wylie at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra.

Why this topic? Because when I emigrated to Australia in 1991 I was struck by one of the big differences between the UK and Australia. In the UK, where I had previously lived and worked for British Aerospace, it was generally accepted that the government and industry would invest in defence R&D and then commercialise the resulting knowledge to develop new products, processes and services for the UK Armed Forces and for export customers.

The contrast with Australia is stark. Even allowing for the significant difference in size between the UK and Australian defence forces, the relative lack of innovative locally-made equipment in frontline service with the Australian Defence Force has continued to puzzle me.

Cynics might say that many Australian defence officials would rather eat their own children than buy anything designed or built in Australia; others would no doubt argue that Australian companies are too small to be able to compete with northern hemisphere rivals, and that the domestic market is too small to sustain a competitive local industry base in any case; and some might argue that Australian defence manufacturers simply aren't as innovative or smart as they think.

Any of these suggestions, or none of them, may be true. The whole area is a maze of urban myths, convenient (and inconvenient) truths and half-truths and downright ignorance.

What I intend to do is find out what encourages, or inhibits, innovation in the Australian defence industry and the factors that make innovation success more likely.

If you're a member of the Australian defence industry (or working for Defence) and you'd like to offer some thoughts I'd be very glad to hear from you. And if you receive a request from me to take part in an industry survey, please don't reject me out of hand. I'm actually trying to help.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A day of shame for Scotland

The justice secretary in Scotland's devolved government, one Kenny MacAskill, approved the release and return to Libya of a man convicted of taking part in the 21 December 1988 Lockerbie bombing, in which 270 people were murdered aboard a PanAm Boeing 747 and on the ground in and around the Scottish border village of Lockerbie.

MacAskill said he had made the decision on 'compassionate grounds', and had been assured that the arrival in Libya of the convicted terrorist Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi would be handled in a 'low-key and sensitive fashion.'


The compassionate grounds are that the terrorist is dying of prostate cancer and has only a few months to live. Both Scottish and, let it be remembered, US federal law have provisions enabling the release of convicted prisoners on these grounds. But surely the decision ought to take into account the compassion this terrorist showed to the 270 innocents who died a sudden and terrible death aboard PanAm Flght 103 and in Lockerbie as a result of his actions.

As for the promise of a 'low-key and sensitive' return home ceremony - this (broken) agreement, and recent revelations in the UK media suggest that the release of this terrorist was part of a complex and squalid deal between Libya and the British government (quite possibly with the knowledge and tacit blessing of the US government) to bring Libya back into the civilised community of nations, and within reach of UK and US oil companies eager to get their hands on Libya's petroleum reserves.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has maintained an eloquent and damning silence. This in turn suggests that he knew of and smiled upon the proposal to release the terrorist, and that he is happy to allow MacAskill to carry the blame for it.

Not only is this decision an insult to the Lockerbie victims, it is an insult to coalition troops currently fighting terrorism of a different flavour in Afghanistan. It offers no comfort to the families of the victims, it offers no reassurance to British soldiers that they are doing a worthwhile job, and it proclaims to terrorists and rogue states that in Britain principle and conscience have no value - only a price, which can be negotiated if necessary.

I am sickened by what the Holyrood government in Edinburgh has done, with the (to me) clear collusion of a Scottish prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown.

I am a proud Scot and I grieve for my country.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

One of the really interesting things...

....about my recent trip to France, just before the Le Bourget air show, was observing the interplay between different parts of the French Ministry of Defence and between these and the French defence industry.

The French defence ministry's Delegation Generale pour l'Armement (DGA) combines the functions of Australia's Defence Science & Technology Organisation (DSTO), its Capability Development Group (CDG) and its procurement agency, the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) it also fills the role carried out by the UK government's Defence Export Sales Organisation (DESO).

In Australia these functions reside in separate, and often widely separated, stove pipes. Their purposes and goals aren't well aligned, and there seems to be nobody except the current minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, Greg Combet, who has any responsibility for ensuring they work efficiently together.

The difference is stark: France's defence R&D, capability development and acquisition processes are integrated, and the whole adds up pretty much to the sum of its parts - not even the French would claim they've got it right. Australia's processes, by contrast, add up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. Frankly, if the Australian defence industry didn't exist it's hard to imagine this would make the slightest bit of difference to the way DSTO, CDG and the DMO do their business - and that's very sad. (in fact, if the defence industry didn't exist, I suspect there would be many in DSTO, CDG and the DMO who would be quite grateful.)

I asked Combet about the French approach recently. He acknowledged that Defence in Australia needs to streamline its processes without compromising the outcomes it's currently generating; he also pointed out that the French government owns considerable chunks of the French defence industry which in turn colours its approach towards capability development, procurement and industry development.

However, many observers I've spoken to feel that even though the Australian government doesn't own the means of defence production, and therefore can take a disinterested, rationalist view of the consequences of its capability development and acquisition decisions, it wouldn't be hard to achieve a better alignment between the various organisations charged with these functions. And it wouldn't be hard to achieve a closer alignment with Australia's defence industry without compromising the probity and integrity of these processes.

Wouldn't it be nice to think Australia's forthcoming defence industry policy statement (due out around the end of this year) could incorporate some of this thinking? Nice thought, but I won't be holding my breath.

Sorry for the long silence...

...but I've been a bit busy, and wrestling with the 'flu (not Swine 'flu, probably, but bad enough), and trying to balance work and study - more of which in future posts.

I was interested in Prometheus's response to my last post (OMG - that was way back in Feb - ouch!). There's still plenty for the JSF to prove and much of the burden of achievement lies ahead of the project, but as I've noted before the JSF project is like no other fighter project I've ever seen.

Prometheus wrote: "The stealthpart of the Raptor are still handmade in a special of LockMart. So we will see how the JSFs NextGen will be made." When I visited Lockheed Martin's Ft Worth factory in 2008 the group I was part of was shown the surface coating bays where the low-visibility coatings (invisible paint?) will be applied by hand and machine in what, for this type of technology, amounts to a mass production technique.

The game-breaking intent for the JSF program is to make a 5th generation stealth fighter as affordable to buy and operate as a 4th generation fighter. That puts the focus on production engineering as much as on designing and developing the warfighting capabilities of the aircraft. Developing and proving the manufacturing and assembly techniques, getting the supply chain to work to this new paradigm - that's hard work, but it's what's needed to challenge the traditional cost base for combat aircraft. And you couldn't even contemplate such a radical approach without a massive production program and the buy-in of the USAF, USN and US Marines. The Europeans between them don't buy enough of the jets they build to be able to capture these production economies, and the glacial progress of the Eurofighter program has pushed its costs to ridiculous levels.

The challenge for the Europeans is, somehow, to make their collaborative programs more efficient - that means getting several European governments to agree to bite the same bullet that the US government did when it embarked on the JSF program.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

I hope this answers your question...

Richard Pawloski wrote:

“OK Gregor - well put, and since you are " large", I think it would be a good time to speak up. How do you see all this - are there any "winners" first of all, if Australia throws its treasure at an inferior fighter how do you make do? If the argument is all wet, then still, how do you deal with the rising tide of challenge in the Pacific. Is doing nothing going to work? What is your view... I'd sure like to know


Richard, I hope this answers your question…

The campaign being run by Air Power Australia, of which Peter Goon is one of the principals, is aimed at displacing the F-35A Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) from the Australian Defence Force shopping list. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. It is clear that Air Power Australia believes the RAAF should be equipped instead with the F-22A Raptor, and also that the RAAF should keep its F-111C strike aircraft in service for up to another 10 years, and possibly longer (they’re currently due to retire at the end of next year).

These aircraft, so the argument goes, would provide the air defence and strike capabilities Australia needs to deter or defeat a direct attack on its soil or its paramount interests.

Air Power Australia (APA) has questioned the F-35 on three main points: whether or not it is survivable and effective against current and anticipated Russian-developed fighters, air-air missiles and ground-based air defence systems; secondly, whether or not it has the payload and range to be an effective strike aircraft; and thirdly, as a consequence, whether or not the F-35 is the right aircraft for Australia.

These are all separate though inter-related questions and I’ll deal with each in turn.

Air Combat
The air combat tactics and fighter design revolution wrought by John Boyd during the 1960s and ‘70s resulted in the design of (relatively) lightweight, agile fighters such as the F-16 and F-15, leading eventually to the development of the formidable MiG-29 and Su-27/30/35 family. His emphasis on agility and acceleration was driven by the need to get into an adversary’s “six o’clock” and either launch an air-air missile or fire a gun at him from relatively close range.

Assuming a 1 v 1 engagement, in Boyd’s day the advantage lay with the superior platform – once close enough, the pilot of the better aircraft could engage or disengage almost at will.

Boyd also pointed out that “combat always starts at subsonic cruise speed and almost never reaches supersonic speed. Never mind that the trade-offs necessary for an airplane to reach such speeds would seriously degrade dogfighting performance. As for range, there is no faster way to degrade performance on a fighter than to ask for too much.” [“Boyd – The fighter pilot who changed the art of war”, p227: Robert Coram, Back Bay Books – an imprint of Little Brown & Co]

However, Boyd’s thesis may have been overtaken by emerging technologies: by his reasoning neither the F-22A nor the Flanker are designed correctly for the sort of battles he envisaged. In any case, improved seeker heads on air-air missiles can offset platform advantage, and so can a well-integrated weapon system. The crucial ability to engage or disengage at will has become increasingly a function of missile seeker and kinetic performance.

Over 15 years ago I was warned by an air defence analyst at the Defence Science & Technology Organisation (DSTO) in Melbourne that Within Visual Range (WVR) air combat was to be avoided, if at all possible, because the speed, agility and seeker head capabilities of modern WVR missiles meant there was no escape from them: a dog fight between two fighters equipped with modern WVR missiles would become the proverbial knife fight in a telephone booth – mutual death was virtually guaranteed.

To the extent that WVR combat is inescapable (owing to rules of engagement), or the adversary is genuinely inferior, nose pointing ability is as important as sustained turn rate: get your nose even close to the right direction and all-aspect WVR missiles with a high off-boresight engagement capability, and especially those integrated with something like the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Device (JHMCD), enable accurate and lethal snap shots which couldn’t be contemplated even a decade ago.

Of course, the picture is clouded by developments such as signature management technologies (IR as well as RF) and the employment of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). You could analyse these issues to death, but suffice to say that WVR engagements don’t take place within the comfort zone of modern fighter pilots.

This means that air forces necessarily favour engaging adversaries at medium and long range.

The technologies and tactics employed to engage air targets at Beyond Visual Range (BVR) are somewhat different from those required for a WVR engagement. Situational awareness across the entire battlespace is critical, and so is sharing this between elements of a fighter force. So also are new rules of engagement that acknowledge the dangers inherent in WVR combat and seek to employ network-enabled technologies to ensure friendly forces can maintain the initiative and the option to engage at BVR distances.

As the fighter jocks keep saying, the aim is ‘first look, first shot, first kill’. In a BVR engagement thrust to weight ratios, wing loadings, specific excess thrust, and instantaneous and sustained turn rates matter a lot less than they might in a WVR engagement.

The critical determinants of air combat success now include missile performance, the integration of key enablers such as airborne early warning and tankers, and mastery of the electro-magnetic and IR spectra: RF and IR sensors, stealth and countermeasures; low probability of intercept radio communications; Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); and shared situational awareness.

The F-35 is designed to be networked and extremely stealthy, in both RF and IR domains. It doesn’t dogfight like a Flanker or an F-22A, but nor do many other aircraft out there, and it does have other unique qualities. Its performance is respectable rather than mind-blowing: think clean F-16, but that’s important, too. With internal fuel and weapons it suffers far less parasitic drag than the vast majority of 4th generation jet fighters and so in combat configuration its acceleration, fuel consumption, range and endurance (and combat persistence) are not degraded as much as an adversary’s (or an ally’s) would be in both cruise and combat.

Did I mention that the internal fuel capacity of an F-35A is roughly the same as the combined internal and external fuel capacity of a Flanker? And that a Flanker carrying nine tonnes of fuel is extremely g-limited?

Air combat isn’t like mediaeval jousting or putting two boxers into a ring to slug it out mano a mano. If you want to use a sporting analogy, you’d want your opponent to have to complete a triathlon before he even comes close to you, so that he arrives after dark in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where you can sneak up and shoot him in the back from a safe distance without laying a glove on him.

We could argue the fine detail on this, in one different scenario after another until Kingdom Come (and I’m sure Peter Goon would be happy to do exactly that); the point I want to make is that for me the old measures of combat capability are relatively less important than they were a generation ago. The complexities of modern air combat provide plenty of opportunities to fight to your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

The Falklands War of 1982 highlighted many of the untidy asymmetries and discontinuities of modern air combat. Despite lacking airborne early warning, and super-cruise, and even a supersonic dash capability, and despite being hamstrung by a high wing loading the Fleet Air Arm’s Sea Harriers destroyed over 20 Argentine Mirages, Skyhawks, Daggers, Canberras, Pucaras and C-130s for no loss – the Sea Harriers had superior AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles, good airborne radars, adequate radar coverage from air defence picket ships (which suffered a terrible toll from the Argentine air attacks), good intelligence from sources well to the west of the Falkland Islands and good tactics. They never once resorted to their party trick of thrust Vectoring in Forward Flight, or VIFF-ing, to out-manoeuvre an opponent.

The Fleet Air Arm’s crushing victory over the Argentine Navy and Air Force in the Falklands was ultimately one of force over force, and this was true also of the RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

I’m sure students of air power know all this – I just want to provide some background to my reasoning.

Is the F-35 designed with all that in mind? Yes, I think it is. Is it as agile or fast as a Su-27 or F-22A? No. Does that matter? Good question.

Anybody who argues that the ultimate determinant of a force’s air dominance is platform agility in a 1 vs 1 canopy-to-canopy dogfight has far too narrow an understanding of air power.

The great big bogeyman cited by Goon (among others) is the Su-27/30/35 Flanker, a massive aircraft – maximum take-off weight is over 60,000lb - with long range and a M2+ top speed. Yet it is also incredibly agile – in airshow configuration, at least. To impress the crowd it performs maneuvers that would get it shot down in a heartbeat in a real war. But in combat configuration is it as effective as its advocates suggest? Plenty of western fighter pilots who don’t fly the F-22A believe they still have the goods on the Flanker at present; I’m surprised more commentators and analysts don’t ask their opinion.

Air combat superiority is so contextual and so dependent on a range of critical enablers that attempting to compare one aircraft directly with another can be meaningless, unless specific conditions and scenarios are set out. In air combat Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats are not always obvious or intuitive. They frequently emerge only after considerable scenario-based modelling and operational analysis.

Instead of trying to appreciate a situation, there’s a danger that the observer will instead situate his appreciation and draw false or misleading conclusions.

Much of the above applies also to the strike/attack domain. Stealth matters in this area and even its critics concede the F-35 is well suited to this role.

The issue of range is important: its critics claim the F-35 lacks the payload/range capability of the F-111. But nothing has the much-vaunted payload/range capability of the F-111 – not even the F-111 itself, once it starts turning and burning in reheat at low altitude to evade threats while carrying heavy, draggy bombs and missiles on its underwing pylons.

The F-35 carries more internal fuel than the F-22, more than a Super Hornet carrying external fuel tanks – and much more than a Flanker that’s in combat configuration. Given the typical payload/range of contemporary 4th generation fighters, frankly I’m surprised this is considered to be an issue.

The F-35 was conceived as a strike fighter so not surprisingly it’s designed to perform well and to be survivable against current and anticipated surface-air threats.

There has been some debate recently, triggered by an Air Power Australia analysis, over the F-35’s stealth capabilities and potential vulnerability to new and emerging Russian air defence sensors, fire control systems and missiles. I’m no radar expert but it doesn’t take a doctorate in radar engineering to spot some fairly obvious gaps in the analysis and modelling carried out by critics of the F-35 such as Dr Carlo Kopp.

This isn’t to disparage Kopp gratuitously – he does a conscientious job of trying to analyse the RCS of the F-35 and doesn’t try to conceal the fact he’s working with incomplete and not necessarily accurate data on its shape and surface treatments. It’s reasonable to assume that stealth technology has advanced considerably since the F-22A was designed nearly 20 years ago. So I wonder if he is able to identify, analyse and measure the contribution to the F-35’s RCS from every low-observable treatment or technique embodied in the aircraft? And does his operational analysis take into account air combat tactics which employ the RF and IR spectra and networking technologies in new and unusual ways?

Where I have a problem is with Air Power Australia’s assumption of infallibility: its principals, Kopp and Goon, present the results of their analysis as the definitive judgement on the capabilities of the F-35.

They have disparaged operational analysis and research carried out by others and present their findings as sufficient reason in themselves for Australia to cancel the purchase of the F-35A and instead acquire the F-22A. To see my more detailed examination of their work check out my Blog -

So how good is the F-35, really?
If it’s not good enough, then nine (and possibly soon eleven) customer governments are in for an embarrassing and very expensive shock.

And that’s the difficulty with the current debate over the F-35: its manufacturer, the Pentagon and the eight international partners can’t really address the detail of much of the criticism levelled against the aircraft without giving too much away. They either tell us too much about the strengths of the aircraft or, if they’ve all been lying to all of their taxpayers about the true capabilities of the F-35, they incriminate themselves.

That sounds like a cop-out on my part, but it’s not. I have asked the questions and got the very same not-very-detailed answers from the RAAF, the Australian department of defence and Lockheed Martin that I’m sure have been provided to people like Kopp, Goon and the Australian Liberal MP Dr Dennis Jensen. These unclassified responses are general, not very informative and can seem simplistic enough that they don’t really inspire much confidence.

Except that I do know people, including sceptics, who’ve had a classified brief on the JSF, and without exception they have all said the briefing answered any criticisms they may have had, and they were confident they weren’t being lied to or manipulated. And they’ve said no more than this, because they are not able to disclose the content of those briefings.

That’s frustrating, and especially so for reporters whose time-honoured modus operandi is to ask a direct question and try to extract a direct, honest reply. In attempting to assess the true capabilities of the aircraft and the integrity of the people building it and contemplating purchasing it, it’s been necessary to do so indirectly, by triangulation and inference rather than direct observation and measurement.

One of the most important indicators is this: I haven’t come across anybody who’s been briefed on the full capability of the aircraft who has subsequently said for any reason that they consider it inadequate in either a general sense or for Australia’s specific needs.

What I’ve heard suggests to me that my earlier thesis about the changing nature of air combat is robust and accurate; that older measures of air combat performance are less important (though not entirely invalidated). What I can’t do is put a hard measure on specific performance or capability parameters.

In the end it comes down to this: whom do you trust? I don’t need to take the word of Lockheed Martin or the RAAF; I’ve got other sources who’ve been sceptical and hardnosed and who’ve had access to classified information. They haven’t shared it with me, but I trust their independence and honesty and have no reason to doubt them when they tell me the F-35 is a very stealthy, capable, survivable combat aircraft.

Air Power Australia argues the exact opposite, and makes no secret of its agenda. To promote the F-22A for Australia and mount a case for retaining the F-111 in RAAF service means, in effect, highlighting every real or perceived shortcoming of the F-35A and every other potential contender, including the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block 2.

The asymmetry here is this: there’s a lobby determined that the RAAF shall have the F-22A and most of what its supporters say and do seems directed towards this end. I don’t have an agenda or goal or desired outcome beyond the security of Australia and I’m relatively agnostic about how that’s achieved. The pro-F-22A lobby is also concerned with the security of Australia but defines the issue so narrowly that it can advocate only one paramount capability solution, regardless of cost, regardless of any distorting effect on Australia’s defence budget and broader force structure this solution might have.

Finally, the F-22A isn’t available to Australia, and in my opinion probably will never be. Arguing for a force structure built around an aircraft we may never be allowed to buy is as pointless as buying an aircraft to carry out a job we don’t need it for.

Cost and Schedule
The Eurofighter Typhoon program typifies the delays and difficulties encountered by most modern jet fighter programs. Multi-national programs move at the pace of the slowest and poorest team member. They accrete unnecessary costs through an insistence on uneconomic and inefficient workshare arrangements and multiple final assembly lines: there are no less than four Typhoon final assembly lines for a build of barely 700 aircraft.

By comparison, the F-35 will be assembled on just two lines, in the US and Italy, and its production run is expected to exceed 5,000 units.

More importantly, the project is structured to pursue unit cost reductions compared with previous aircraft, and to hit development and production milestones on time, or as close as possible.

For the first time the focus has been not just on developing the capability of the platform, but doing it in an affordable and timely way. The consequences of designing an aircraft that’s late and too damned expensive, regardless of its capabilities, are illustrated by the B-2 bomber and F-22A Raptor programs.

People outside the aerospace industry simply don’t realize how different the JSF program is from almost every major fighter program that’s gone before.

The Pentagon’s response to Norway’s 2008 Request for Binding Information (RBI) provides a very rough pointer to the costs of the JSF.

Norway’s 48 F-35As would cost US$58.7 million each in 2008 dollars, with deliveries to begin in 2016. The deal includes an initial batch of spares, training and support worth a further US$668.2 million, giving a package price of US$3.486 billion.

However, the JSF program includes a global logistics support and training system and the Pentagon has reportedly quoted a life cycle support cost to Norway of US$2.27 billion, on top of the US$3.486 billion purchase price. So by that reckoning Norway’s 48 JSFs would cost US$5.75 billion over a notional 25 years, or $120 million each including through-life support – all at 2008 dollar values.

Australia plans to order 100 aircraft, so you need to double the figures provided to Norway and add a sizeable chunk for inflation: Australia’s acquisition chief, Dr Steve Gumley, CEO of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) reckons inflation will push up the 2013 unit price to around US$70-75 million an aircraft, and I’d estimate an approximately pro rata increase for the other components. That’s a very rough and imperfect estimate, but it helps calibrate expectations.

That’s a pretty good price for a modern fighter; for a 5th generation fighter, if it delivers its full potential, it represents very good value for money. The JSF Joint Program Office (JPO) in Washington doesn’t help its case politically by stating prices in constant 2002 dollars, or whatever – these are meaningless to most people, the actual figures they cite are unrealistic and the impression is they’re trying to hide something. What matters are the numbers on the cheques the customers will sign.

Without wanting to be a Pollyanna, I firmly believe the JSF project has the best chance of any jet fighter program in recent times of getting close to its cost and schedule targets (we already know it won’t actually meet them). The biggest threat to the project schedule at present is probably the prospect of Congressionally-mandated delays or budget cuts.

That said, the flight test program has now entered the high-risk phase and the potential for delays and difficulties associated with software development and integration for the avionics and sensor suite is enormous. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand things can still go pear-shaped.

Australia’s needs
Back in 2002 the Australian Department of Defence was working up its New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project, code-named Air 6000. Among the platforms it was studying closely were the Typhoon, Rafale, Super Hornet Block 2, Joint Strike Fighter and Saab Gripen. The F-22A was not then, and is not now, available for export.

To the surprise of many people (including myself) the government announced in June of that year Australia would join the System Design and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the JSF program.

It’s arguable that it made this decision after insufficient analysis of its own needs and the alternatives available, and exposed the Australian taxpayer to considerable risk.

It’s also arguable that the US government and Lockheed Martin were able to convince the RAAF and the Australian government (and seven other governments) that the technical, operational and cost advantages of the F-35 were significant enough that the decision was quite an easy one to make.

However, the Australian government hedged its bets by ordering an interim fighter, the Super Hornet Block 2, and delaying a final purchase decision until later this year.

So does the F-35A satisfy Australia’s needs, or does the RAAF really need the F-22A?

The F-22A is designed for high-end air dominance. It’s the 800lb gorilla of air combat. But it’s expensive to buy, requires a lot of maintenance (due to its low observable treatments) and it’s also not the world’s greatest strike aircraft, which is one of the reasons the USAF started developing the F-35A.

Why would you need an 800lb gorilla? Advocates of the F-22A for Australia argue that the regional threat demands it. Threat scenarios in which Australia comes under direct attack by a country whose air forces are equipped with significant numbers of Flankers and the full range of modern Russian air-air and air-surface missiles conjure up visions of a bloody, Battle of Britain-type air battle fought over the Arafura Sea or Indian Ocean.

But are these realistic? Nobody with the power to mount a direct attack on Australia could do so without first taking into account the ANZUS Treaty and the certainty that the US would come to Australia’s assistance, and the political, diplomatic and economic consequences that would result from such an attack.

The only two regional powers with the sheer mass to contemplate a direct assault on Australia are India and China. It’s very hard to imagine circumstances in which India and Australia would come to blows; if such a tragedy were to occur, and the US was unable to assist (again, something that’s extremely difficult to imagine) India would need to reach out right across the Indian Ocean to strike at Australia’s mainland. The difficulties in achieving this, and even of mounting a sustained attack on Australia’s offshore territories or oil and gas installations in the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea should not be under-estimated, regardless of the level and intensity of Australia’s own military response.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which Australia and China would go to war with each other; but if China did want to mount a direct attack on Australia it would need first to conquer or neutralize in some way the United States and then every sovereign state between Hong Kong and Darwin.

As I said earlier, air combat superiority is very context-dependent. Based on what I’ve read, seen and heard, I’m pretty confident that a force of F-35As armed with the right weapons and backed up with airborne early warning, tankers and an effective ground-based air defence command and control system (and great and powerful allies) will be sufficient to deal with any credible contingency – with emphasis on the word credible.

A direct attack on Australia would be what the strategists call “a war of necessity” – that’s the kind of war you absolutely must win. Other conflicts, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be characterized as “wars of choice” – that is, the Australian government is able to choose, to a very significant degree, the level and duration of Australia’s engagement in such a conflict and the conditions and mechanisms for entry and disengagement. Such a war would almost by definition involve Australia acting as part of a coalition, probably one led by the US. If the threat demanded a capability such as the F-22A then that’s probably what Uncle Sam would deploy.

You could write a book on the broad strategic issues and the fiddly details (and many people have), but in my humble opinion there are no credible scenarios for a war of necessity which would compel Australia to acquire the F-22A; and absolutely no conceivable scenario for a war of choice which demands that Australia buy the F-22A.

Oh, and by the way US law forbids the export of the F-22A in any case; the chances of getting the law changed look pretty slim from where I’m sitting and it’s been said the cost of re-working the F-22A so that it might be exportable (always assuming the production line is still open when this is being deliberated) could be up to US$1 billion over and above the cost of the aircraft themselves – and the US Government isn’t going to pay that out of its own pocket.

Like I said earlier, lobbying for a force structure built around an aircraft we may never be allowed to buy is as pointless as buying an aircraft to carry out a job we don’t need it for.

The debate over Australia’s future air power requirements is important, because Australia’s important. It’s also important because there’s a lot of money at stake.

The late, great Bill Bedford, the test pilot who flew the first successful VSTOL aircraft, the Hawker Siddeley P.1127 Kestrel, once told me, “The perfect is the enemy of the good enough.” That’s a useful maxim to bear in mind when trying to reconcile your needs, wants and resources.

Somebody else (whose name I can’t remember, unfortunately) warned me, when trying to appreciate the situation, not to make the mistake of situating the appreciation.

So what does this mean for Australia’s air power?

In my humble opinion the F-35A will almost certainly be good enough to defend Australia against any credible direct threat and to be deployed to good effect where necessary in support of Australia’s broader interests.

Reservations? The F-35 needs to work – it must negotiate its avionics and software development and flight test programs successfully. It needs to arrive on time and at an affordable cost. And while the claims made for its low observable and electronic warfare performance are credible I have reservations over the nature and mechanism for technology transfer in these areas; this will be controlled by the US government International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime which seems designed to confound and insult the intelligence of America’s defence industry and the integrity of America’s allies.

But who gives a damn what I think? I’m not trying to sell anything - I’m just a journalist trying to take a rational approach and make sense of big, complex issues while negotiating my way around agendas, conspiracy theories and the wiles of the military-industrial complex.

Richard, I hope this answers your question: this isn’t an exhaustive march through the theory and practice of air power but some thoughts on why I’m pretty comfortable with the choice of the F-35A, subject to the reservations stated above. I’m not a radar, or propulsion, or EW, or aerodynamics or stealth expert – but I’m a taxpayer in a wealthy country: I have people who do those things for me. I reserve the right to examine, question, report and comment, so far as my knowledge, experience and insight allow, and I do. And I shall continue to do so.

Don't go away!

I promised Richard Pawloski a response to his email to me of a few days ago:

“OK Gregor - well put, and since you are " large", I think it would be a good time to speak up. How do you see all this - are there any "winners" first of all, if Australia throws its treasure at an inferior fighter how do you make do? If the argument is all wet, then still, how do you deal with the rising tide of challenge in the Pacific. Is doing nothing going to work? What is your view... I'd sure like to know


Be patient! I have a life and a day job and some deadlines to clear, and a car that needed servicing and all that stuff. Watch this space.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Great book - check it out!

One of my Christmas presents this year was a great little paperback titled 'Bad Science', written by a chap named Ben Goldacre. He's a doctor (of medicine) and writes the Bad Science column in the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

The book is well written, laugh out loud funny and confronts a number of myths created by pseudo-science groups (including the complementary medicine and nutrition industries) and perpetuated by a credulous, uninformed or just lazy mainstream media.

Among other things, it lays to rest furphies such as the supposed link between autism and the MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccination, or scare stories about mercury amalgam fillings. In neither case was there a scientific basis for the scares, but that didn't prevent well-meaning (for the most part) activists and a compliant media from beating them up and scaring the living daylights out of countless parents.

Author Ben Goldacre's basic thesis is that there's a good reason why the scientific method has developed over the years. His acid test of a new medical 'scare' story or 'miracle' cure is simple: if you read about it in a newspaper or magazine, or saw something about it on TV, then you should be able to track down a peer-reviewed scientific paper setting out the basis for the claim. If you can't, then be very wary because the story was probably fed to the media by a snake oil salesman of some kind.

If somebody isn't prepared to subject his scientific research to peer review then the research probably wasn't scientific in the first place, and therefore the effect of the snake oil is probably largely psychosomatic. In discussing scientific method and the conduct and reporting of research, Goldacre even manages to make statistics and the placebo effect sound interesting.

On the issue of MMR the scientific evidence, based on properly conducted research by a variety of individuals and bodies working in isolation from each other across the world, is that there is absolutely no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. That hasn't been widely reported, however, and the lingering fear of vaccination created by a lengthy and sometimes hysterical campaign by a number of British newspapers and TV channels is such that the incidence of Mumps and Measles in the UK has risen.

Ben Goldacre proves that science isn't boring: people just don't realise the part it has played in shaping our lives and abandon rational analysis when confronted with scare stories or improbably good news.

That said, I'm perfectly happy to conduct my own long term research to validate claims that red wine and dark chocolate deliver both subjective and objective health benefits when taken in therapeutic doses...

Go on, buy this book - you'll enjoy it!

*Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, 4th Estate, London 2008

Happy New Year - same old argument

Happy New Year, everybody! This is supposed to be the year in which the Australian cabinet considers 2nd pass Approval for Project Air 6000 - New Air Combat Capability, in other words the purchase (or not) of the F-35A Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

So it's no surprise that strident lobby group Air Power Australia put out a media release last week asserting that recent research shows the JSF's stealth qualities are useless against the new generation of Russian long-range air defence misiles and their search and fire control radars. Coincidentally (or not) on the same day the Federal Liberal MP Dr Dennis Jensen, wrote an opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review criticising the JSF, and the Department of Defence for wanting to buy it.

As well as questioning the cost of the aircraft (and either misunderstanding or mis-representing the various cost figures which are floating about at present), Jensen makes two key assertions: the first, based on Dr Carlo Kopp's Radar Cross-Section (RCS) and stealth performance modeling work for Air Power Australia, is that the JSF is not stealthy; the second is that the RAAF, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon and others are resorting to military secrecy to conceal the fact the JSF is not stealthy. To be quite blunt, he's accusing these organisations of lying to taxpayers and parliament about the capabilities of the JSF.

Jensen states: "Despite what Defence and others may suggest, the basics of capabilities and technologies are in the public domain, and the JSF has no "secret" capabilities, the fundamentals of which are not known in the public domain." He adds, "Be careful when you hear an exhortation that the capability is fantastic, but secret." I'll get to Jensen in a moment, but because he bases much of what he says on Dr Carlo Kopp's analysis, I'll discuss Kopp's work first.

I'm no radar expert, so I'm no position to question much of the mathematics and theoretical physics contained in Dr Carlo Kopp's various papers on platform stealth. I would note, however, that his information on the F-22A Raptor (which he considers to be extremely stealthy) and the F-35A Lightning II (which he considers to be significantly less stealthy, especially in the rear quadrant) is derived from drawings and photographs in the public domain. In his assessment of JSF Defence Penetration Capabilities, Annex C - Joint Strike Fighter Lower Fuselage and Nozzle RCS Modelling (which was the study cited by Dr Jensen), Dr Kopp presents a wireframe model of the JSF lower fuselage, with the caption: "Wireframe rendering of the solid model for JSF lower fuselage geometry employed for RCS modelling. This model accurately represents the complex singly curved section of the lower centre fuselage, but does not represent the longitudinal taper or the problematic doubly curved shapes at the weapon bay and ventral blister transitions. The model was produced by digitising a section from a photograph and after scaling, extending the section into a solid using a custom C language program (Author)."

Such models, derived from public domain photographs and line drawings, seem to be the basis upon which Dr Kopp analyses the RCS and stealth capabilities of these aircraft. As far as I can determine, these models are approximations, albeit relatively faithful, of the real shapes of these aircraft so any RCS data based on them will, by definition, be problematic though to what degree it is hard to say.

Furthermore, it appears Dr Kopp's model of F-35 design features such as the underside of the fuselage and jet nozzle geometry focuses on the shapes of these features and does not take into account attributes such as stealth absorbent coatings, nor the materials from which these elements are fabricated, nor other RCS-attenuating shaping or surface treatments.

That said, he has been diligent in examining what he knows, or can infer, about the design of the JSF and this level of scrutiny can provide an important reality check on some of the raw figures and basic assumptions about the design of the aircraft. It's unlikely that Dr Kopp is the only analyst conducting work of this kind, but he seems to be one of the few to have used his work as the basis for such sustained, vehement criticism of the JSF design.

What troubles me is Dr Kopp’s apparent sense of infallibility: he appears to assume that his shape models of the F-35 and F-22 are sufficiently accurate that he can use them to model the RCS of these aircraft with enough precision to predict their real-world performance. His models may be representative of the RCS of these aircraft, but they may not provide a safe basis for detailed criticism of the aircraft design.

In addition, his modeling appears to be based solely on the shapes of the various structural elements he examines. Notwithstanding an allowance in some of his calculations for radar-absorbent coatings, Dr Kopp’s predictions of RCS and stealth performance seem to ignore other factors contributing to the reduction of RCS. Therefore his assessment of the operational effectiveness of the aircraft may also be unsafe. Undeterred, however, he questions the analytical work undertaken by others: “As with claims made for Joint Strike Fighter air combat capability, claims made for the Joint Strike Fighter concerning the penetration of IADS [Integrated Air Defence Systems] equipped with modern radars and SAMs are not analytically robust, and cannot be taken seriously.”

Lockheed Martin’s response to Dr Dennis Jensen’s article, written by vice president Tom Burbage, addresses the issue of Dr Kopp's RCS modeling and states in part: “Taking the emotion out of the continual criticism from Mr [SIC] Kopp’s group, the technologies of stealth have evolved dramatically from a very basic theoretical understanding of the phenomenology in the early days of F-117, B-2 and A-12. In those days we were limited to rudimentary analysis tools, were very challenged from a computational standpoint (I can recall large CRAY computers running for weeks to calculate facet angles on the F-117) and we had very little experience integrating sensors. All of that early development was done by Lockheed engineers and we spent a lot of internal R&D money to develop the technology. Additionally, we harvested all of the lessons of those programs and today F-35 has the benefit of that plus the benefit of using real US Government and industry experts to oversee our design and development. Today, every element of the airplane’s design is evaluated and integrated to ensure that the design is lethal and survivable. We use internal and external shaping techniques, mature propulsion concepts, advanced aperture and sensor installation techniques, advanced, supportable, light weight materials and other areas that industry and government have invested heavily in over the last decade.

“Most importantly, our analysis and assessment tools and techniques are extremely robust now. Additionally, our modeling and simulation capabilities to demonstrate the effects of these advanced technologies in a projected high threat environment are superb. There have only been three stealth fighters ever built and we have built all three. All of that experience has been applied to the F-35 and our technology, knowledge and experience bases are significantly more advanced today.”

To summarise Burbage’s response: there are techniques and resources not available to Dr Kopp which enable Lockheed Martin and its various government and industry partners to develop a stealthy design for the JSF and refine and validate this using highly sophisticated analysis and assessment tools.

Much of the devil of stealth lies in the detail, hence the requirement for accurate modeling and minute and resource intensive analysis of RCS reduction techniques.

That’s not to suggest projects like JSF shouldn’t be subjected to close scrutiny and I don’t wish to discourage people like Dr Kopp from trying to demonstrate the emperor has no clothes. But Dr Kopp fails to acknowledge a wider body of expertise in stealth technology and therefore presents as incontrovertible fact conclusions based on necessarily limited data.

It must be added also that many mistakenly assume the purpose of stealth is to make an aircraft invisible; this is not the case, and Dr Kopp does understand that. Stealth is designed to reduce, if it can’t entirely eliminate, the likelihood of an aircraft being detected by a sensor of some kind (in this case we’re talking principally about radar), the likelihood of it then being tracked accurately enough for a radar to provide fire control data for a gun or missile system, and then reducing the likelihood of a successful engagement by a missile once this is launched. A stealthy (even semi-stealthy) aircraft derives an important advantage from the deployment of counter-measures: the smaller the RCS of the platform, the larger the apparent RCS of the decoy and so the more effective this is. That’s a very simplistic example, but it serves to illustrate the point.

This is all highly contextual and raw RCS figures based on a flawed, or at least limited, technical analysis don't reflect the tactical subtleties and complexities of modern air combat.

The important measure here is the tactical effectiveness of the aircraft and its weapons, and stealth is just one of the components of effectiveness, albeit in the case of the F-22A and JSF a highly important one.

Defence, Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon appear not to have engaged Air Power Australia and Dr Kopp on the detail of the JSF’s stealth performance for two reasons: firstly, they would reveal more than is safe about the capabilities of the aircraft (and that assumes, as I do, that the JSF is indeed a very stealthy platform – more of this below); and secondly, it doesn’t much matter what they say, in any case. Air Power Australia and Dr Jensen have an unambiguous agenda – to persuade the Australian government to acquire the F-22A; to achieve this they need to highlight any and all of the JSF’s real or perceived deficiencies.

The Head of Defence’s New Air Combat Capability (NACC) project, Air Vice Marshal John Harvey, delivered a by-now characteristically restrained response to Dr Jensen’s article in the Australian Financial Review, noting: “[Kopp’s] analysis of the JSF’s stealth characteristics is flawed based on a number of incorrect assumptions, simplistic modelling, lack of operational analysis and lack of knowledge of sensitive performance information.”

Dr Jensen, despite claiming to have been a research scientist at both CSIRO and DSTO, does not seem to have applied any scientific method to his argument.

After making plenty of assertions but without presenting any supporting data except a reference to Dr Kopp’s analysis for Air Power Australia, Dr Jensen stated: “In short, the JSF is an expensive aircraft, with very limited aerodynamic performance compared to legacy fighters, let alone other advanced fighters. The stealthiness of the aircraft has been shown, with hard numbers, to be poor compared to real stealth aircraft, and its much vaunted networking capability further degrades this.”

Dr Jensen leaves himself open to challenge on almost every aspect of that statement. If he is as interested as he claims to be in this topic there is plenty of credible information in the public domain about the cost and platform performance of the JSF (with the exception of its stealth capabilities, of course), and enough to carry out some theoretical modeling of aircraft performance. His article in the Australian Financial Review was the platform for a poorly constructed attack on the JSF program. In mounting that attack he damaged his own case.

As far as the stealth capabilities of the JSF are concerned, I consider it highly unlikely that anybody associated with the project will disclose detailed RCS data so I need to draw my own conclusions from what I can infer about the project and the behaviours of the various customer and stakeholder groups.

Yes, it is possible that the JSF is the biggest hoax in aviation history: but at US$19 billion (the approximate cost of the System Development and Demonstration, or SDD, phase) it’s a bloody expensive joke, and the Pentagon simply doesn’t have a sense of humour.

Secondly, it is possible that Dr Kopp is the only analyst who has uncovered the hidden weakness of the JSF, or the only analyst with the courage to say so out loud. I think that’s insulting to the many thousands of excellent scientists and engineers around the world who have contributed to the design and development of the JSF or who, on behalf of their respective governments, have carried out studies to validate (or not) the claims for it made by the manufacturer and the Pentagon.

If the JSF was a complete dog somebody would have made the case convincingly by now – heaven knows there are enough alternatives on the market whose manufacturers would make it worth somebody’s while, and no government knowingly spends billions of dollars on unsuitable aircraft.

Thirdly, no government which has joined the program has subsequently withdrawn from it on either cost or capability grounds; conversely, at least two other countries – Israel and Singapore – now want to join the program in some capacity. This suggests the claims made for its stealth capability are based on robust and realistic measures: stealth is so much a core feature of the design that a degraded RCS would undermine much of the justification for the project, regardless of the other attributes of the aircraft.

Fourthly, the JSF has already fought and won its first battle: in spite of strong pressure from its Scandinavian neighbour, Sweden, Norway last year selected the F-35A as the replacement for its ageing fleet of F-16A/B fighters. Swedish aircraft manufacturer Saab was offering its Gripen NG fighter and a very attractive industry participation program but in spite of this pressure Norway’s own analysis showed the JSF was the superior aircraft and offered better value for money.

Finally, the suggestion that there is a widespread conspiracy, involving nine governments and 12 separate air arms to conceal significant shortcomings in the design of the JSF doesn’t withstand scrutiny: the program itself has weathered plenty of hostile scrutiny from within the US armed forces as well as the Pentagon, the Senate and Congress, not to mention parliaments, defence forces and rival aircraft manufacturers around the world. There seems to have been no significant loss of faith that the aircraft will eventually deliver the capabilities promised, though plenty of concern about the cost and schedule of the project.

Conspiracy theories tend to evaporate when examined rationally.