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Stealth Turkey

Congressman Paul Ryan’s laudable if sometimes misguided efforts to trim the federal deficit deserve support. So here’s an idea for him. Want to lose a trillion dollars in ugly budget fat? Cut off the F-35 fighter/bomber.

$1 trillion is now the estimated life-cycle cost of the F-35. Some calculations place the figure even higher, closer to $1.5 trillion.

How could the president and Congress contemplate spending that much for an airplane? The answer goes back to the futility and vast casualty count of World War I on the Western Front. Even before that bloodbath ended, men were searching for a better way to make war, one that would collapse an opponent quickly with comparatively small losses. Air power seemed to offer the answer. While strategic bombing had failed in World War I, General Giulio Douhet in Italy and General Billy Mitchell in the U.S., among others, thought it was the key to rapid victory.

It wasn’t, but as propagandists Douhet, Mitchell, and company were highly able. They created a myth that surrounded military aircraft of all types, not just bombers. The associated myth of the fighter pilot as the new white knight added gloss. Today, politicians and the public overestimate what aircraft bring to war. That is why both turn out in large numbers for air shows, and it is also why the notion of spending a trillion dollars for an airplane does not get laughed to death.


If we turn from myths to facts, we quickly see that the F-35 is unnecessary. The United States already has the world’s best fighter planes in the F-15 and F-16. How we got them is a story relevant to the F-35.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Air Force was working to design a new fighter. As each element of the bureaucracy added its favorite bells and whistles, the plane grew in size, weight, complexity, and cost, while combat effectiveness fell—just what has happened to the F-35.

Desperate to reverse the trends, the Air Force called in an ornery, eccentric fighter pilot named John Boyd. Boyd, who developed the energy-management tactics now used by fighter pilots everywhere, converted the tactical qualities a fighter needs into a new set of maneuverability measurement equations that could be applied to fighter design. He turned the incipient turkey into the F-15, a good if overlarge fighter. (Small size is important in fighters because the bigger the plane, the easier it is for the enemy to see and thus take by surprise.)

When the Air Force bureaucracy persisted in adding weight and complexity, Boyd and his civilian associate Pierre Sprey kept working the equations. Their goal was a fighter of half the size and weight of the F-15 with higher maneuverability and a lower price. The outcome of that work was the F-16, which was both better as a fighter than the F-15 and much cheaper. Needless to say, that achievement made Boyd and Sprey the most hated men in town.

The Pentagon says the F-15 and F-16 aren’t good enough now because they aren’t “stealth” aircraft like the F-35. The problem is, stealth is a fraud. Supposedly, enemy radars cannot pick up stealth planes. But they can. Early in our 1999 war with Serbia, the Serbs shot down one of the Air Force’s stealth F-117 fighter/bombers. Beside the wreckage, they put a sign, in English: “Sorry, we did not know it was supposed to be invisible.”

Long-wavelength search radars, like those used in the Battle of Britain and still sold around the world by the Russians, readily detect stealth aircraft, and there is nothing aeronautical engineers can do to get around that problem. They would have to put anti-radar coatings one or two meters thick on the planes’ wings, turning them into unflyable blobs.

The Pentagon replies that stealth will still protect the F-35 from the short-wave radars in enemy fighters and radar-guided missiles. That claim also fails under scrutiny. First, radar-guided missiles—ground-to-air and air-to-air—have a 50-year record of dismal combat performance, with probabilities of kill (Pk) seldom attaining 0.1: one hit in ten shots. It’s hard to justify a trillion dollars to defend against that.

Second, to amortize its cost, the F-35 will have to be in service for decades. How many generations of missiles can be optimized against it in that time?

Third, the short-wave radars carried by fighters can pick up stealth airplanes outside certain limited “cones” of angles. “Stealth” can defeat short-wavelength radars only if the radar is looking directly at the nose or side profile of the stealth aircraft. As soon as the stealth aircraft maneuvers and shows some of its top or bottom area, it can be seen by any radar—and in combat, any plane that fails to maneuver dies quickly. A friend of mine who flew F-16s told me he had once acquired an F-117 on radar. He said it would come and go, but the signal was strong enough to tell him something was there to go take a look at.

[1]If an enemy fighter does go looking for an F-35, the stealth plane will be in trouble. The design characteristics required for (non-existent) stealth make the plane a grape. It has a thrust-to-weight ratio of just .85:1, less than the F-15, F-16, and most foreign fighters, which means its acceleration is sluggish. Even worse, its wing is so small that every square foot has to support more than 108 pounds of weight. That high wing loading means the F-35 is even less maneuverable than the infamous F-105 of the Vietnam War, which was hated by pilots, who called it the “Thud” or the “Lead Sled.” Its inability to maneuver made the F-105 the favorite target of Hanoi’s MiG-21 pilots. What do you call a fighter that can’t accelerate and can’t turn? A kill.

All this for just a trillion dollars.

As it happens, no thanks to the Pentagon, we have an alternative. Not only would it cost less and perform better than the F-35—anything would—it would cost less and perform better than the F-16, a much tougher challenge.

A bunch of the guys who designed the F-16 have been working on a worthy successor. They have conceptualized a superb fighter—very small, incomparably agile and lethal—that could put America ahead of everybody else for years to come. Note to Paul Ryan: it’s so cheap we could buy it and still save around a trillion dollars.

That, of course, is why the Pentagon won’t talk to the designers and Congress has never held a hearing to look at their ideas. The F-35 is good at only one mission, but that mission is the one that counts: bringing in bucks. A trillion of them, from our pockets.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Stealth Turkey"

#1 Comment By Sean Gillhoolley On May 29, 2012 @ 9:42 am

What I find troubling is that it took an economic disaster for people to even consider chopping this boondoggle.  It never should have made it off the design board.  The military budget is so far out of whack that I find it hard to believe that there is anyone not personally invested in the defense industry who would argue otherwise.  How many teachers, police, and fire fighters could be re-hired for the cost of one of these planes?  What has happened to America is an absolute shame.  What is even worse is how few Americans even seem to care.

#2 Comment By Iohannes Clancularius On May 29, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

What is this “worthy successor”?

#3 Comment By political_proxy On May 29, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

Why do people think the military is immune to cronyism?

#4 Comment By Scott Locklin On May 29, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

Glad that someone else noticed the wing-loading issue. I mentioned it in Takimag about 6 months ago; made the comparison to the ultra lead sled and everything, and wondered if I might have been wrong, as everyone else seems to ignore this issue.

The story of the Hungarian baker who nailed the F-117 is an inspiring one. Don’t know why more folks don’t mention it.

There is also the matter of IR “stealth,” which is a lot cheaper to deploy and more useful, since it’s IR missiles which tend to take out fighter aircraft. Supposedly the F-35 has it. Why not put that cheap technology in a cheap jet?

There is a decent argument to be made for a new fighter. The fleet is old and the Chinese and Russians have made a few innovations that are worth keeping an eye on. F-35/F-22 engines are  pretty impressive. Since that work is done, there seems one could build a decent and actually inexpensive F-16 type thing around it.


#5 Comment By Jonathan Martin On May 30, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

As an avid aviation enthusiast (particularly military aviation), I, like Iohannes, would also ery much like to know more about this “worthy successor” to the F-16. Being quite familiar with that plane, I almost can’t imagine how one could do much better than the Fighting Falcon.

#6 Comment By S. R. Cundiff On May 30, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

After reading Martin van Creveld, Airpower, 2011, I agree completely with Mr. Lind. 

#7 Comment By Scott Locklin On June 1, 2012 @ 2:54 am

I’m assuming the good Mr. Lind is referring to some sessions with his fighter mafia pals. I hope they make their plans public soon; even Congress wants some alternatives.

#8 Comment By notakhan On June 1, 2012 @ 7:47 am

“Stealth is a fraud.”

Amazing to see this simple statement of fact for the first time after so many years….

I remember a press conference — wish I had the video — by some U.S. Air Force head honcho over a 15 years ago singing praises of the B-2 “stealth” bomber. A reporter did ask how could it be “stealth” if radars can pick it up from 1500 miles away. The gentleman responded with something like “The B-2 will be always accompanied by a group of fighter jets that will first take out those enemy radars so they will be able to see the B-2.” He was serious and this is no joke (though to this day I breakout laughing whenever it comes to mind) 


#9 Comment By notakhan On June 1, 2012 @ 7:57 am

Related reading:
The Pentagon’s 300-Billion-Dollar Bomb (B-2 Bomber)

#10 Comment By elmysterio On June 1, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

The F-35 program is nothing but corporate welfare to the MIC. The program has been plagued with design problems & budget overruns. Pilots who have flown the aircraft report it to be like flying a minivan. 

In the height of the cold-war, while the American MIC was producing high-cost aircraft, the Russians were churning out low-cost MIGs that were just as performant as the western planes, for half the cost. Now of course, that strategy is “bad for business” for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but good for the budget. It’s clear that profits for the weapons manufacturers trumps budgetary wisdom for the country. 

#11 Comment By elmysterio On June 1, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

That’s very true Sean. If you look at budgetary spending as an indication of government priority, clearly US military world domination far outweighs the domestic needs of the population. Infrastructure is crumbling, social services gutted, states and cities on the verge of bankruptcy, yet there’s no shortage of money for weapons of war. Seems like insanity to me. For all the talk about the military defending “Freedom and Liberty”, if there’s no room in the budget for domestic needs due to the lion’s share going to the military, there soon be nothing left worth “defending”. 

#12 Comment By Roger On June 26, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

As soon a plane turns on its radar, it’s sitting right out there for everybody to pick up.

The early generation radars, like those used in WWII pick up the new “stealth” planes just fine!

The F-35 is a ridiculous plane that does not excell at ANY of the parameters for which it was designed!

#13 Comment By Picard578 On June 29, 2014 @ 4:35 am

“The United States already has the world’s best fighter planes in the F-15 and F-16. ”

It HAD world’s best fighter planes in the F-15 and F-16, but now both are outmatched by Eurocanards. In any case, United States could learn from Gripen – operational costs, ease of maintenance and road basing ability are far more important than a laundry list of technologies.