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Flashy F-35 Press Release Misses Landing

F-35 Landing

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter prepares to make a vertical landing aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., March 21, 2013.

The Marines issued a flashy press release last week: “first operational F-35B conducts initial Vertical Landing.” It was an amateurish, somewhat slimy piece of hype.

In one important way, the press release contradicted itself, and in another it inadvertently revealed one of the many reasons why the Marines’ Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the F-35 – that’s the F-35B — will never be the battlefield-based close-combat support bomber the Marines like to advertise it as.

The corps’ headquarters’ release repeatedly described the “operational” nature of “the first STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment.” It also characterized the event as “another milestone” toward “revolutionizing expeditionary Marines air-ground combat power,” that perhaps—the press released tried hard to imply—would be available for combat use as soon as “late 2013.”

The press release, which was formatted as if it were some sort of news article, inadvertently cued alert readers to the fact that this “first” “operational” “STOVL flight for an F-35B outside of the test environment” was flown by a test pilot.

His name is Maj. Richard Rusnok, as the press release says, and as a different Marine Corps press exercise reveals, he has been flying for 13 years.

In the world of F-35-double-talk, it is apparently reasonable to announce flights as operational when they are flown by test pilots.

The term “operational” was stretched even further in a second respect in the press release, which featured the photograph above showing the F-35B landing vertically with its lift fan doors open and its flaps deflected. Note the area below the aircraft; note that same area in the later stages of a video at YouTube also released by the Marines’ PR team.

That light-colored portion of the airfield at Yuma looks different from the rest of the surrounding airfield area. That’s surely the special preparation the airfield surface needs to withstand the extremely hot, very high-velocity engine exhaust of the F-35B that impacts the landing area in a vertical landing.

Close observers of the F-35B have been paying attention to this matter. One of them is Bill Sweetman of Defense Technology International and Aviation Week. He wrote a highly informative news article (not a press release) on the matter in late 2011.

Based on Sweetman’s reporting, the Marines had a special pad installed at Yuma (and two other F-35B bases) to withstand the heat and blast of the F-35B vertical landing exhaust–to prevent spalling of standard runway concrete (or even more vulnerable asphalt).

The images the Marines let slip may be the special refractory (think “pizza oven”) concrete Sweetman describes as poured into slabs, or it may be a different type of pad he describes, also said to be at the F-35B facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.: a specially constructed aluminum-alloy mat laid over concrete.

Now ponder the Marine press-release rhetoric about “revolutionizing expeditionary Marine air-ground combat power in all threat environments.” The Marines love to advertise that the STOVL F-35B will be able to operate from “unprepared, forward operational airbaseson or near the battlefield. Articles by skilled and experienced journalists like Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio often describe the F-35B as able tohover and land like a helicopter, according to the Pentagon(note his caveat), and others describeits ability to operate closely with the US Marines.”

As recently as Tuesday, Marine Corps Major General Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the F-35B gives the Marines the “revolutionary” even “transformational capability” for the F-35B to operate out of so many multiple, distributed bases that they defy targeting.

The so-called “unprepared, forward” F-35B operating bases up close to Marines on battlefields is a fabrication without the construction of 100-foot square slabs of refractory concrete and/or layers of aluminum-alloy matting—the latter which the Air force has described as “heavy, cumbersome, slow to install, difficult to repair [with] very poor air-transportability characteristics.”

These requirements—well beyond what is required for either the Marines’ STOVL AV-8B or even their vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) V-22—mean “advanced high temperature concrete material>” (described in contract solicitations), specially transported and constructed to accommodate the F-35B’s extraordinarily finicky requirements for vertical landing operations.

Real-life facilities for F-35Bs employing the vertical landing capability will be very considerable bases, especially given the F-35’s other, immense logistical requirements beyond refractory concrete or aluminum-alloy pads.

In short, the vertical landing so touted by the Marines’ as a demonstration of the Corps “expeditionary” culture and “transformational capability” is more applicable to advertising for gullible denizens of Capitol Hill and for air shows—if, indeed, the host facility has a few thousand square feet of refractory concrete and lots of fencing to keep spectators well away from high velocity foreign objects catapulted by the F-35B’s vertical jet exhaust.

At best, the F-35s will be employing 3,000 to 4,000-foot takeoffs and landings at unique “STOVL-only” runways specially prepared by the Marine Corps—and by the F-35B’s gigantic logistical tail.

It is not even clear if these large facilities will even be appropriate for vertical landings and will, instead, accommodate just the medium-speed rolling landings the F-35B can also perform (and shown in the USMC PR video). Or, the F-35B will be restricted to the Marine Corps’ small aircraft carrier amphibious warfare ships, which also require various special requirements to handle the F-35B and its demanding operating characteristics.

The vertical landing capability of the F-35B also comes at considerable cost. According to DOD’s latest Selected Acquisition Report, the airframe and engine for the “B” are $27.8 million more expensive than the Air Force’s already far-too expensive “A” model. And thanks to the extra weight and bulk of STOVL propulsion, the F-35B has even less range, payload, and maneuverability than the Air Force’s unacceptably low-performing “A” version.

That’s not all, however. The Marine’s fastidious STOVL requirement was baked into the basic airframe design of all three F-35 models. As several aviation-technology experts explained to me, both the Air Force’s “A” and the Navy’s “C” versions lack the STOVL-specific lift fan and associated hardware, but they bear the burden of the extra weight and structure that had to be built into the basic airframe and engine to accommodate the STOVL version.

It doesn’t stop with just the extra weight—estimated by one to be at least 2,000 pounds. Thanks to the Marines’ STOVL requirement, both the Air Force and Navy versions had to be a single engine, short-coupled, stubby-winged design with all the unhappy compromises that implies for drag, acceleration, maneuverability, range and payload. And, there are other cost and performance compromises forced on the Air Force and Navy by the Marines, according to my sources: for example, some regrettable performance characteristics in the engine. Many (but far from all) of the fundamental flaws of the F-35 family of aircraft can be traced back to the Marines and their STOVL requirement.

The biggest blast of dubious rhetoric in the Marine Corps’ March 22 HQ press release comes close to the end. In the second to last paragraph, it states that the F-35B “is central to maintaining tactical aviation affordability and serving as good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

Given its lower performance at higher cost—compared to the already unaffordable, underperforming F-35 alternatives—the F-35B would more accurately be characterized as the antithesis of affordability and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. That that the F-35B has imposed even lower performance not just on itself but the Air Force and Navy makes it a killer aircraft, but unfortunately of our own.

Originally published at TIME's Battleland. Image from the U.S. Marine Corps.


By: Winslow Wheeler
Director, Straus Military Reform Project, CDI at POGO, POGO

Winslow Wheeler, Director, Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight Mr. Wheeler's areas of expertise include Congress, the Defense Budget, National Security, Pentagon Reform and Weapons Systems

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Defense, F-35, Joint Strike Fighter

Authors: Winslow Wheeler

Submitted by krypton at: April 19, 2013
Gee, I'm glad they aren't going to vertical-land on aircraft carriers, Or in the same place repeatedly on military runways. Their landings areas are necessarily segregated due to the difference in landing patterns between a STOVL and a normal-lift aircraft. And I'm also glad the vertical life fan is providing all the "real" lift and the engine exhaust (which cost a fortune to allow turning to vertical) is only providing "stability". And Wheeler is really on Lockheed's side, by saving American taxpayers nearly a a quarter-billion per copy for this piece of junk. We need to start a complete gallery of this patriotic corporation's products, perhaps starting with the LCS-1, with a model shown launching STOVLs off its aft deck. The vaunted stealth capabilities of the F35 also seem to be lacking, since part of aircraft turnaround is spent refreshing the stealth paint. BTW, the whole idea of a vertical-lift aircraft being used in close air support is still being argued, even after years of AV-8 deployments. As the Brits found in the Falklands, a Harrier has a great way of ending dogfights successfully (think of a cartoon car slamming on its brakes...). But it also is light on the bomb load, for a plane that CAN carry external stores. Pray for the crew of the LCS-1 Freedom. Pray for the test pilots of the F-35, which seems to include everyone who flies one.
Submitted by Dfens at: April 2, 2013
"A Marine Aviator once stated, 'as long as our forces fly manned aircraft, there should dedicated fighters and dedicated bombers.'" Apparently just because a person picks a screen name invoking one of the greatest fighter/attack aircraft ever (MD's A-4 Skyhawk, flown by the Blue Angles, as an aggressor fighter in Top Gun, and used extensively by the Navy to drop bombs) doesn't mean they have any actual knowledge of aircraft. The F-35 is no gem, and won't carry the weapons load the A-4 would carry despite being larger, but it was developed in this century, not the 1960s, at great cost to the US taxpayer. The least the Navy could do is hold Lockheed's feet to the fire and make them build a few hundred production aircraft. POGO LIED to you and told you the F-35 would be better than the F-22. Now they're lying again telling you the next program will be better. It won't be better. These programs will only get worse, not better, as long as we pay contractors more to screw up than we do for them to produce good weapons on time and on budget -- yet another concept POGO does not understand.
Submitted by Skyhawkmaintainer at: March 30, 2013
Vertical flying notwithstanding, carrier Naval aircraft have to be significantly different than a land based variant, as the punishment of carrier landings is rough on airframes. Besides being fighter attack, which is a concept that short sheets the customer (those poor slobs on the ground who call for close air), as these little birds are designed as fighters only carry a few bombs, are nothing like birds designed to go in "to break things and hurt people," as a Marine Aviator once stated. As long as our forces fly manned aircraft, there should dedicated fighters and dedicated bombers.
Submitted by ivanczar at: March 30, 2013
Good lord , thank goodness to POGO for pointing out this nonsensical endangerment of our pilots and unneeded waste of our tax dollars. All I can say as a USMC ,Nam Vet . WTF?
Submitted by Dfens at: March 27, 2013
Yet again Mr. Wheeler is doing his best to help Lockheed worm their way out of meeting their commitments to actually build aircraft. He helped them get out of building all but 170 F-22s, and now he's trying to help them build even fewer F-35s. It is sad that he cannot put the US taxpayer's interests ahead of his own. It is also obvious by the statements in this article that Mr. Wheeler has no technical skills. He really should discuss an article like this with those who understand aircraft before publishing such an article. The fact of the matter is, the F-35B vertical lift fan is a "cold air fan", similar to the rotor of a helicopter. This fan shares the load of carrying the airplane in for a landing with the hot air coming out of the engine nozzle at the back of the airplane. This nozzle is able to swivel. If the airplane is only landing on a concrete pad once, which is possible, then they don't really care if the concrete gets a little singed by the hot air from the back nozzle. It is only if they plan on doing repeated operations in a location that they need a heat pad. If they are landing from a short runway, they land with enough forward velocity that even though the hot air might hit the concrete or black top, it does not stay on any one spot long enough to cause damage. That's why they can operate out of so many fields with that airplane, because the F-35B can basically land at any airport a Cessna 172 can land on WITHOUT damaging the surface. Come on, dude. Get your facts straight before you publish.

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