When Do We Say “The Fatal Crack Occurred”?

I think that with a procurement program like the F-35, there’s too much money at stake for anyone to point, and say out loud, “OK, this is not going to work.”

You can point at this situation and say, “OK, there’s the moment when the disaster fully bloomed.” It’s got something to do with seeing those monster propellers against the sky: things are obviously horribly wrong and are not going back to a semblance of normal.

Because the money-pump driving the F-35 program has not yet started sucking air, the program is going to die the death of 10,000 cuts. Basically, that’s what happened to the F-22: it was too expensive, too late, didn’t have a mission that matched “air superiority dogfighter” and they started cutting the program back until it became clear the planes were unmaintainable; then they transitioned to air shows and occasionally dropping bombs on defenseless insurgents.

Today, the “propellers in the air” moment came for the F-35 program, as far as I am concerned. It’s appearing from multiple sources, which means either that it’s being quoted and re-quoted, or it’s a fait accompli that is being announced in the form of a leak. [ukdefence]

“An order for 90 more F-35 Lightning combat jets is to be cancelled in favour of the Tempest fighter, built in Lancashire, while 24 older Typhoon fighters will be retired early. Whole fleets of aircraft will be taken out of service as drones become ever more common.”

It’s hard to turn “F-35” into a “brexit” term: F-35fexit? It doesn’t dance. But even the long-term lapdogs of the US defense industry are giving the F-35 the heave-ho, preferring to spend their massive amounts of money on local products. I think that leaves Israel holding the bag, but generally the US military/industrial system gives stuff to Israel, by giving Israel large amounts of money earmarked for spending on US weapons. I.e.: “Would you buy this car if I gave you the money to buy it?” It’s an offer you can’t refuse. It’s an offer that is barely comprehensible, really.

The British cutback is likely to trigger a cascade of other cutbacks. I’m sure the US taxpayers will be tapped to artificially lower the foreign cost of F-35s, because having the Brits cancel 3/4 of their expected complement is going to affect those “economies of scale” that are allegedly bringing the price of the aircraft down. This is completely not shocking to anyone who follows this stuff: Lockheed Martin Northrup Grumman Boeing have realized that they can charge $130+ million for a single jet fighter, and that’s going to be be the baseline price of a jet fighter forever more. Sure, there will be more expensive jet fighters, but there won’t be cheaper ones unless it’s part of a shell game (buy the fighters for only $50mn each, but the annual maintenance is $50mn) Naturally, the British defence industry looked at all that money going by and said, “waittaminit wots all this then eh?”

The propellers are shining against the night sky.

Meanwhile, in other F-35 news, an F-35 managed to join the exclusive club of “aircraft that have managed to shoot themselves.” [ars] This happens more often than you’d think – which is to say, that it happens at all is kind of unexpected. The F-16 survived: it was shooting at some targets, went into a shallow dive along the flight path of the bullets, which sped the plane up such that it arrived at the same piece of air where the bullets were going, and took some substantial damage. In 1956 an F-11 test pilot shot his own plane down, the same way. It’s an exclusive club and I wonder if they gave him a “confirmed kill” for that incident.

[the drive]

The underside of a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighter was significantly damaged when a round fired from its underbelly 25mm gun pod exploded shortly after leaving the muzzle of the cannon mounted within. The accident, which occurred over the Yuma Range Complex in Arizona earlier this month, did not injure the pilot of the jet, who was able to bring the aircraft safely back to base.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, a “gun pod” for a “stealth fighter” is “fucking stupid.” But Air Force pilots just gotta have their guns because they’re so darned … gunny. Seriously, it’s just another American gun fixation. If you need to shoot something from a plane, nowadays, you use a terminally guided “bullet” called “an air to ground missile” e.g.: a Maverick or something like that. It’s a big, expensive bullet, but it works and it does not come with a collection of contradicting engineering challenges like: “make a great big gas-blast right next to that stealth paint job” and “maintain stealth while dropping a stream of hot brass casings.” The whole “gun pod” design is a give-away: it means they couldn’t practically add a gun to the plane, so they decided to attach a gun in a removable container. I bet a dollar to a donut that it has a mechanism for rapidly discarding the gun pod (i.e.: throw it at someone) in the event that an actual fast thing like a ground-to-air missile comes hauling up on an F-35 and the plane suddenly needs all the maneuverability it can get.

There’s going to be some glorious finger-pointing over this one, but it’ll probably be classified to keep it from being too embarrassing. It would appear that a round that is not expected to arm itself or explode until it’s away from the plane did explode – and exploded right next to the gun itself. That must have been a bit of a shock for the pilot. Instead of “Brrrrrrrr brrrrrr” they got “BrrrWHAM” (I imagine that Air Force pilots secretly make little boy lip noises when they do the pew pew pew because that’s all they are, in their hearts: big expensive little boys)

Let me explain, so you can contextualize this better: the gun pod is because the F-35’s internal gun doesn’t work: [ni]

In particular, the F-35A – the land-based version flown by the U.S. Air Force and other nations – has a problem with its cannon, which is mounted internally inside the aircraft. “Units flying newer F-35A aircraft discovered cracks in the outer mold-line coatings and the underlying chine longeron skin, near the gun muzzle, after aircraft returned from flights when the gun was employed,” DOT&E found in its annual FY 2019 report.

Compounding the problem is that the F-35A’s cannon can’t hit the target, a problem that has been reported in previous years. “Based on F-35A gun testing to date, DOT&E considers the accuracy of the gun, as installed in the F-35A, to be unacceptable,” said the audit. “F-35A gun accuracy during SDD [the System Development and Demonstration phase of the program] failed to meet the contract specification. Investigations into the gun mounts of the F-35A revealed misalignments that result in muzzle alignment errors. As a result, the true alignment of each F-35A gun is not known, so the program is considering options to re-boresight and correct gun alignments.”

Rather than go “Hey this gun is broken, fix it!” the Air Force apparently reached for a strap-on.


  1. lurker753 says

    Well, the Air Force A model’s gun is internal, the B and C have external (and incompatible, naturally) pods. The Air Force sneers at strap ons, even though…. damn! they have more ammo than we do! Damn!

    TBH, the switch from 20-mm to 25-mm is really three-ways stupid:
    * “better effectiveness against ground targets”…. as if anybody is ever going to permit these planes to do low-level strafing against anybody who might shoot back.
    * bigger shells means fewer – the F-16 has 511 rounds, the F-18 has 578, the F-15 has (drumroll)… 940. All 20-mm. The F-35A has 182 x 25mm, the B and C have 220 x 25mm. At 3000 rpm it’s all over in 4 seconds.
    * bigger shells means much higher recoil (probably part of the aiming problems – see the A-16 debacle – yes, the Air Force hate the A-10 more than they hate strapons).

    I guess the 25-mm thing probably started as (a) a way to make more money by building A New Thing, ‘cos It’s Gotta Be New!(tm), (b) a way to claim that the F-35 is nearly an A-10, (c) a way to make more money, and (d) a way to make more money.

    (Not arguing for or against guns on fighter jets, but the 20-to-25mm thing is a really pure example of What Was The Rationale Again? Oh, making more money, that’s it!)

  2. JM says

    I think that with a procurement program like the F-35, there’s too much money at stake for anyone to point, and say out loud, “OK, this is not going to work.”

    This is very true. A large part of the problem is that a large commitment to buy the planes was made before the design and testing was done. These two processes need to be separated entirely. The project to design the planes and actually buying them for use by the military need to be two separate projects. The design project gets to be more of the open ended billing project but the government also gets unlimited rights to any patents and other technology, trademarks, and such required to build the planes. Once the design is finished the government then puts out requests for bids to actually build the planes.
    The company that did the design work would have an advantage bidding to build the planes but it wouldn’t be a sure thing. More importantly the division would give the military a chance to step back and say “We learned a lot of valuable knowledge about designing this sort of vehicle from this project but we have decided not to move forward with this design”. With no committed money at stake they will be able to get out of the project easily.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … little boy lip noises when they do the pew pew pew …

    And people wonder why Repubs object to Cancel Culture© coming for Pepé L Pew!

  4. sonofrojblake says

    It’s hard to turn “F-35” into a “brexit” term:


    You’re welcome.

  5. Ketil Tveiten says

    This flying coffin keeps impressing; there seems to be no bounds to how garbage it is.

    I wonder if the saving grace of the US sucker-exploitation arms industry is that the Russian and Chinese equivalents will eventually develop in the same direction, probably before a major shooting war forces saner heads to prevail.

  6. Jazzlet says

    Fexit works, remember ‘feck’ to quote Father Jack, or rather ‘arse, feck, drink’.

  7. lochaber says

    ” Investigations into the gun mounts of the F-35A revealed misalignments that result in muzzle alignment errors. As a result, the true alignment of each F-35A gun is not known, so the program is considering options to re-boresight and correct gun alignments.”

    wait… did they not include a way to zero their gun in the initial design? or was that supposed to be via touch screen or something and got borked along the way?

  8. publicola says

    I seem to recall there being two candidates under consideration during the testing phase. I wonder how good the other design must have been to be rejected for the F-35. Knowing the Pentagon, it was probably cheaper, simpler and more effective. Of course, I’m being sarcastic, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

  9. dashdsrdash says

    The Tempest project seems to have a lot going for it:

    – no stealth coating to flake off, just the angles to reduce reflections

    – scheduled for 2035, which is a nice long ways into the future (many quarters of revenue)

    – by a consortium of British companies that have actually built fighters and engines, so they have credibility

    – an RAF project, not a combined AF/Navy/Marines/Army Heath Robinson device

    – “able to fly unmanned” is an achievable goal. They might even be able to land it unmanned on clear days. Despite the chatter of AI this and that, they aren’t actually promising autonomous combat, just remote control

    – while claiming to have roles as all of [air-air combat, air-ground attack, recon and e/w], they aren’t actually promising air combat superiority plus interception plus close ground support. A Typhoon can already do all of the claimed roles, depending on what you arm it with, so it’s not ridiculous

    – Everything bizarrely novel is somebody else’s problem. Drone swarms, AI something something, directed energy weapons: “we can carry and launch it as soon as those other guys have it ready” is an excellent talking point.

    The one real area of concern is that they’re planning on a pure-virtual cockpit. That’s great from the viewpoint of having exactly the same cockpit in the trailers as in the planes, but perhaps suboptimal from a survivability viewpoint.

    Not only can this make many British companies profitable for the next twenty years, it might even produce aircraft that can do many of the promised things.

  10. says

    wait… did they not include a way to zero their gun in the initial design? or was that supposed to be via touch screen or something and got borked along the way?

    You use this little wrench, see? And you loosen those bolts, right? Then you take this little hammer wot I have here, and you tap the mounting over 1/10000 of an inch. And you tighten the bolts. That’s why this hammer is so expensive, it’s got 1/10000in precision, see? See this patch on my jumper that says “Master Sgt”? That’s because I can hammer-tap with precision, I can.

  11. komarov says

    I hate to do this, but can we, as a species*, please, please make an effort to avoid making the exit suffix a regular thing? “Gate” is annoying enough. Worse, I firmly believe we are destined, no, doomed to suffer through “Brexitgate” at some point over the coming years; just as soon as someone gets around to decloseting and neatly arranging all those skeletons brexiteers – sorry – have undoubtedly stashed away. I don’t need a steady background noisy of exitgateexits droning on while that unfolds. Nobody needs that.

    Incidentally, Fuxit/Fexit doesn’t work because it’s too close to what it really is: Fixit. There’s a lot more money to be made by turning it into the fixit plane. Admittedly I’m a bit late to sell this as a great prediction.

    Re: Lurker753

    That’s interesting, although I’m slightly surprised no one has thought of minature ammunitions. If you go through a lot of rounds, you can spend even more money on restocking ammo. Yay! I’m sure a crafty business engineer could figure out a way to charge a premium for tiny precision-manufactured charges made for itsy bitsy bullets, which in turn have to be made from something exotic and expensive in order to do any damage at all.

    *Climate change buggered up, nuclear war a permanent maybe, so perhaps this is the one thing we could get right?

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