December 28, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Criticising the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program isn’t especially useful if the people doing it are just flat wrong in their assumptions. Take for instance an article penned by Winslow T. Wheeler and Pierre M. Sprey in the The Huffington Post called, “A Tale of Two Pigs”.
F-35B - STOVL
In it, the authors start out by leading anyone ignorant of air combat history to believe that certain aircraft were failures and that this somehow compares to an aircraft that doesn’t have a combat record to speak of; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Wheeler and Sprey try to re-write the history of the P-38 Lightning. Most of the P-38s adversities in combat are brought up without mentioning any of its contributions to the war effort. Conveniently not mentioned are any bad days endured by other U.S. fighter aircraft like the P-51 or P-47. For example, like the P-38, the P-51 had inline liquid cooled engines, this means that one shot into the cooler and your engine would stop spinning very soon. While the P-47 had air cooled radial engines and could take a lot of punishment, this didn’t keep scores of them from being shot down when pressed into the ground attack role. War being messy and all that.
It took time, but the P-51 became stellar high-altitude long range fighter aircraft. Had the British not suggested putting a different engine in this design, all of the glorious P-51 history would never have happened. Why? Because it’s roots were from the A-36 that had a limited engine system which started wheezing in the thinner air above 10,000 feet.
The contribution of the P-38 in the European theater was that it was available when other aircraft were still being developed and fielded. All of the aircraft mentioned contributed something to the war effort. Aerospace science—only few dozen years after the Wright Brothers—still had a lot to learn about many things taken for granted today. Trying to find any kind of perfection this early in an emerging technology is asking too much. Even with that, some, like Colonel Robin Olds
with the P-38.
The P-38 did well in the Pacific for many reasons. Again, because it became available to the theater earlier than other high performance aircraft. This is in part due to the Europe-first decision on how to deal with a two-front war. The P-47 and P-51 wouldn’t see the Pacific until much later.
When the P-38 and the F-4U Corsair appeared in the Pacific theater, the U.S. had the ability to choose when to pick a fight with Japanese air formations. If it was not of their choosing, a P-38 or Corsair formation could decide not to fight. This advantage included being able to set up an attack on terms suitable to the P-38 and Corsair. When these aircraft appeared, the Japanese did not have this option. While the Japanese would eventually field some higher performance aircraft, there were not enough to go around and certainly not enough properly trained pilots to make any impact on the war. For a number of reasons, Germany and Japan never had a properly resourced pilot pipeline where after so many missions, a pilot went home to teach others how to fly in combat.
For the Pacific, the P-38 gave Army planners many more options on how to hit the enemy. The aircraft had a long combat radius. This was made even longer after Charles Lindbergh did a Pacific consulting tour. The P-38 was the only aircraft at the time available to take advantage of a known regional inspection visit of Admiral Yamamoto. A P-38 mission was created to shoot down this very important and effective Japanese military leader.
The gun arrangement in the nose of the P-38 gave the pilot more range and hitting power compared to fighters with their guns in the wings that depended on intersecting bullet paths at specific ranges. The low survivability of most Japanese aircraft with no self-sealing fuel tanks or armor plating added to their own destruction.
So all that and more, including that the two top scoring U.S. aces of World War II flew a P-38 were not mentioned in Wheeler’s and Sprey’s version of history.
So how about the F-111? Wheeler and Sprey are a little closer here in their efforts to rewrite history. The development and procurement of the F-111 was pretty messed up. In the end the F-111 got sorted out to be an effective long range strike aircraft. In 1986 the F-111 performed well in Eldorado Canyon, a punitive mission to bomb Libya. In Desert Storm, the F-111, with its precision strike capability helped decimate Iraq ground forces. At the end of the Cold War when the non-electronic attack F-111s were retired, one squadron that had a glass cockpit modification was able to achieve 90 percent mission capable rates. Finally, for Australia, it is the only long range precision strike asset in the region.
We hope that the F-35 can be turned around to have a history this good, but so far the indicators aren’t there. While some of Wheeler and Sprey’s criticisms about the F-35 program are good, their inability to draw the correct conclusions from history are their weak point. This won’t serve their readers well.
So how about the F-35 program? So far, critics outside the program have trumped the makers of the aircraft and the gone-native DOD
F-35 program office by a wide margin when predicting ills. For the past several years all we hear from the F-35 program faithful is that everything is “on-track” all while more promises about the schedule are broken in a flurry of blue-sky marketing and misleading statements. As aviation writer Bill Sweetman stated; “The Donner Party
was on-track. They just were not on-schedule.”
Just as disturbing is that in 2009, with all the evidence available of F-35 program troubles, the head U.S. military service chiefs sat in front of our elected officials and stated everything is going well. The reality hit in a recent closed door meeting on the Hill that looked at trying to clean up the F-35 program management mess. One of our elected officials commented that he wished we knew all these problems before voting to spend billions on the aircraft in the recent budget. Duh.