By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more” — Snoopy vs. The Red Baron
The priapic reaction to Trump’s firing off a few JASSM and Tomahawk missiles — followed, naturally, by the inevitable tristesse — gives me the opportunity to focus on another technological wonder: The most expensive weapon ever built, if built is the word I want: the F-35. It seems that the Pentagon has refused to accept delivery of the latest batch of Lockheed product. Reuters:
[D]eliveries were paused again over a dispute as to who will pay for what will likely be a complex logistical fix that could require technicians to travel widely to mend aircraft based around the world, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
When the Pentagon stops taking delivery of F-35s, foreign customers can also be affected. So far at least two foreign governments have stopped accepting F-35s as a result of this issue, two of the sources said.
During routine maintenance at Hill Air Force Base in Utah last year, the Air Force detected “corrosion exceeding technical limits,” where the carbon fiber exterior panel is fastened to the aluminum airframe.
At the heart of the dispute is the government’s inspection of the planes during Lockheed’s production, which failed to discover problems with the fastenings, the sources said. Because neither party caught the issue at the time each is pointing the finger at the other to pay for the fix.
Evidently, there are quality control problems on Lockheed’s production line:
A joint government and industry investigation found that Lockheed had failed to apply a primer to prevent corrosion in the fastener holes for an aluminium cover plate.
This isn’t the same corrosion that was found back in 2016. Military.com:
[ Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Pentagon] said the corrosion issue is not the same as the corrosion found in the lines back in Sept. 2016. The Air Force grounded 13 out of 104 F-35s in the fleet then, “due to the discovery of peeling and crumbling insulation in avionics cooling lines inside the fuel tanks,” the service said at the time.
Although that corrosion, too, was a quality control problem on Lockheed’s production line:
[I]nsulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant.
The fix for the current corrosion problem sounds like it’s pretty simple:
The JPO, international partners and Lockheed are developing a plan to inspect about 250 F-35 already delivered and fix any panels with corroded fasteners, the JPO adds.
“In the interim, primer will be applied to fastener holes of fielded aircraft as panels are removed during routine F-35 maintenance operations,” the JPO states. “Lockheed Martin has taken action to correct the production line work order error to ensure primer is applied to all fastener holes on future aircraft.”
The fix for 2016’s corrosion problem wasn’t quite so simple:
[Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer with the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) said that] the JPO, Lockheed Martin, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Naval Air Systems Command “have come up with an engineering solution in which we will go in by cutting holes in the wings—and there are access panels we can go through also—and remove that insulation and FOD [foreign object damage)] and close the airplane up and allow it to get back into flight.”
Cutting holes in the wings. All this matters, because if the F-35 is to be stealthy — assuming it can be stealthy, and that the whole stealth technology is not an enormous scam — you really want to be touching its surfaces as little as you possibly can. Defense News:
In order to reduce the F-35’s [radar] signature, the panels making up its airframe must be precisely aligned. As each panel goes through the production process — build, then installation, then joining to other panels — small deviations can make it very difficult to meet standards, even for an experienced mechanic.
“It’s not a human problem; that’s just the result of our ability. We’re approaching the limits of our ability to build some of these things from precise-enough technology,” Babione said.
Still, he allowed that some human error remains.
“On the other hand, we inadvertently scratch the coating system, and we have to repaint it. Or when the mechanics spray the airplane [with LO coating], not all of it is robotically sprayed. There’s some overspray, and they have to go clean that,” he said.
Summarizing, it’s not like, whoops, accidentally dropping a hammer on a wing is bad; it’s like scratching the wing is bad. So you can see why “cutting holes in the wings” would be a concern. Or going near the thing with tools made out of metal, or that have edges.
Anyhow, I did get a bit sidetracked by the hilarity of the F-35’s hardware problems — Who’s doing quality assurance on the F-35 line? Elon Musk? — because what I really wanted to do was look at the F-35’s even more hilarious software problems. Brig. Gen. Scott Pleus, director of the Air Force F-35 Integration Office, doing public relations clean-up back during the 2016 corrosion leak story, provides a convenient segue:
Seated behind an F-35 helmet-mounted display system, he predicted the Lightning II will exceed all other fighters in performance once it receives its Block 3F full mission systems software release.
“Once we get to 3F software and full warfighting capability on this airplane, I’m confident it’s going to deliver an awesome combat capability,” Pleus said. “In terms of lethality and survivability, the aircraft is absolutely head and shoulders above our legacy fleet of fighters currently fielded.”
(It’s not clear that the F-35 has been deployed in the Middle East, though Israel has eight. The aircraft seems not to have played a role in the most recent episode.) So, two things to look at: (1) the helmet and (2) the mission systems software, because the F-35 is, after all, “software intensive.”
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a new report — “F-35: Still No Finish Line in Sight” — on the F-35 on March 19 (reprinted in full at War is Boring); it summarizes the critiques the latest annual report from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) on the F-35 program. Make a pot of coffee if you want to make it your Sunday afternoon reading (and read all the way to the end for a mordant comment on “Block 3F” (“litotes“)). About the famous helmet:
One of the many deficiencies reported is the F-35’s inability to reliably hit targets with its cannon. The problem is most pronounced with the Air Force’s F-35A, the version of the aircraft that would replace the A-10. This variant has an internally mounted cannon. The F-35B (Marine Corps) and F-35C (Navy) both use an externally mounted cannon pod. A footnote in the report states
“Flight testing of the different gun systems on the F-35 (internal gun for F-35A and external gun pods for the F-35B and F-35C) revealed problems with effectiveness, accuracy, pilot controls, and gunsights displayed in the Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS). The synopsis and assessment of specific HMDS problems are classified [I’ll bet they are!].”
For example, the testing teams at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California began conducting air-to-ground tests of the cannon in February 2017, but had to take an extended break when they noticed . The paused tests were completed more than six months later in September 2017 after a tentative fix had been installed. But the F-35’s cannon still had resulting in pilots “consistently missing ground targets during strafe testing.”
And the larger, sensor-integration problems remain:
Equally or more burdensome for the pilot are the multiple false targets and/or false threats being created by the apparently inherent inability of the F-35’s software to merge into one all of the network’s multiple, somewhat inaccurate position reports for any single target or threat.
If an airplane is heading right for you, your senses and brain are able to integrate (“fuse”) the moving image of the plane (eyes), the increasing sound (ears), perhaps even the heat (touch), and the smell (nose) of jet fuel, and calculate that you should duck, fling yourself to the ground or whatever. If you also were holding a cellphone that could display the airplane’s radar signature, you could integrate that too. The HMDS can’t do that; the display — using my imagination here — would present the pilot with one blip for the visual sensors, a second blip for the sound sensors, a third blip for the heat sensors, and another blip for the radar signature. Confusing, especially if there’s more than one enemy plane! And the result:
This also creates more work for the pilots as they have to figure out which targets are real and which aren’t, usually by verbally confirming them with other pilots, the very action the sensor fusion system is intended to replace
“Verbally confirming them with other pilots.” Too bad they just can’t open the canopy and shout, eh?
To the mission systems software. We all know how easy it is to create, upload, and download huge files, especially in the battlefield-like conditions of our desks and coffee shops:
Much of the F-35’s promised stealth capability depends on the F-35 computer system calculating optimal flight paths through the enemy’s defense array of radars, SAM missiles, and airborne fighters. The calculations depend on of threat maps, threat electronic signals, and information about threat missiles, as well as data about F-35 and other friendly systems. These massive files are called (MDLs). Separate Mission Data Loads have to be created to fit the specifics of each potential combat theater. Further, they have to be updated rapidly whenever new intelligence arrives or when the threat and the combat scenario change. Without up-to-date, well-verified MDLs, the F-35’s systems will not be able to properly find and attack targets or evade threats. These MDLs are created at the Reprogramming Lab.
DOT&E has repeatedly reported on the Lab’s shortfalls and inordinate lead times in creating these files: , one for each major combat theater where F-35s might be deployed plus one specifically for the operational test range environment. Because each threat country’s military operates with different equipment, more than five combat theater files may well prove necessary. Based on the estimate provided by DOT&E, the Reprogramming Lab may not even be able to provide the operational test MDL before the end of calendar year 2018, four months after the presently promised start of IOT&E. Unfortunately, despite DOT&E’s repeated warnings regarding shortfalls with the Lab, officials in the Program Office and at Lockheed Martin have not invested enough resources in it. As a result, the Lab lacks effective capability and is late in delivering the much-needed Mission Data Loads, both for the IOT&E and for actual F-35 deployments.
“15 months.” That’s about the time between Fort Sumter and the Battle of Shiloh. Good thing Grant didn’t have to wait for an MDL. And after we get the MDL installed:
Pilots are supposed to be able to program mission-specific planning data into an Offboard Mission Support workstation. These data files are then carried out to the flight line to be loaded onto the F-35 with a Portable Memory Device. Pilots have found that it is taking too long to input and transfer mission plans this way, so instead they are choosing to manually enter their plans while sitting in the cockpit.
“Manually enter their plans.” No possibility for errors here! Who designed this software? The same team that wrote the robot car software for Travis KalanicK
Here’s what I don’t understand; that is, the “mystery” of the post’s title. (I should have apologized in advance for meandering to a conclusion where I’m just spitballing, but there it is. Sometimes posts are journeys of discovery!)
“We’re an empire now,” as Karl Rove famously said, “and when we act, we create our own reality.” That doesn’t seem to be working out real well for the F-35 program. But the servants of empire need weapons that actually function; we can hardly send in the gunboats to collect rents for our coupon clippers if the hulls of our ships corrode, or if the guns all pull to the right, randomly, or if the gunnery officers have to calculate their trajectories manually, at speed. And the firms manufacturing those gunboats need to understand this, and construct the ships accordingly. And in the main, they did.
I don’t see, then, how the F-35 — assuming that all the Pentagon reports and the work of POGO aren’t a ginormous deception operation, and the plane is not in fact the greatest thing since sliced collateral damage — can function to carry out an imperial strategy, no matter how that mission is defined operationally. In the larger context: Do we even have a strategy into which its mission would fit? For example, in Syria: Do we have any concept what victory would look like? To put this another way, the Maginot Line was a bad idea; but it was at least rationally related to a bad strategy — one that at least had a concept of victory — and you can see how that bad strategy evolved from the history of the French military, and the lessons (and trauma) of World War I. And although the Maginot Line was a bad idea, at least the firms who constructed it did a good job; so far as I know, the French didn’t have to do the equivalent of cutting holes in an already constructed, stealthy airplane to solve problems; and when they fired the guns, they weren’t using displays that gave them, literally, no clarity about the target they were firing at.
All of which leads me to question Rove’s statement, that “we’re an empire now.” Perhaps — pace the 102-year-old classic on the topic — the imperial frame is not a useful way of looking at the United States, or at our current plight. From the conclusion of the 2017 article on Syria to which I linked this morning:
The suppression of war’s morality in American public discourse has not only occurred with respect to Syria — it is a general characteristic of foreign-policy discussion. The reason why is pretty simple: America is now involved in so many wars in so many different places, and there exists such an overwhelming bipartisan consensus that involvement in these wars is necessary and to the US advantage, that to confront the morality of our militarism honestly would require an almost total overhaul of America’s role in the world….
Opposing this kind of pervasive, amoral militarism in the US cannot just be a matter of demonizing the executive, however, no matter how repulsive this particular executive may be. American militarism was thriving well before Trump hatched his campaign plans, and will outlast his sad and flailing administration. Even if Trump were to adopt a stance of rigid isolationism, forgoing all direct American military involvement in the conflicts and wars of foreign nations, America would still be one of the single biggest engines of militarism by virtue of its arms trade.
The anti-imperialist analysis of global conflict, in which America is almost always seen as the primary bad actor, is useful and productive, but the Syrian war has exposed its limits. The political interests involved in the war are so complicated and numerous that even if the US government were persuaded to abandon the pursuit of any of its ambitions in the Middle East, the war would likely continue unabated. Only an international effort to set aside those interests, to remoralize the discussion around war and acknowledge that wars are atrocities by definition, will produce a solution. . Fortunately, antimilitarism is an authentically internationalist stance, for the simple reason that war is equally bad for everyone on the receiving end of it.
The F-35, considered from the standpoint of imperial dominance, doesn’t seem fit-for-purpose, because it’s such a bad aircraft. If the imperial frame, then, cannot give an account of the most expensive weapons system in world history, perhaps it’s not an especially useful analytical tool. Perhaps, then, militarism is a better one. I don’t see conceptual difficulties with glorifying the military while simultaneously producing fabulist weapons; war is a racket after all. And while imperialism is hard to translate into a domestic political context — certainly the anti-war movement has had great difficulty doing so — perhaps militarism will not be. “War, what is it good for?”
 Fascinatingly, the Defense Department has a Corrosion Policy and Oversight Office, and it issued a report on corrosion in both the F-22 and the F-35 way back in 2010:
The evaluation team found two fundamental causes of corrosion issues that are common to both the F-22 and F-35 aircraft, Dunmire said. First, on neither aircraft is “corrosion resistance” defined as a requirement for the user [hoo boy], in spite of
the fact that users operate and maintain both systems in severely corrosive desert and saltwater environments. Second, presently there are no tests for corrosion on either aircraft at the operational level [wowsers]. “Even though system specifications call for a design service life of 20 years for the F-22 and 30 years for the F-35, we have no method for verifying that tests on aircraft components will translate into these respective service lives,” he said. According to the GAO report [assessing te CPOO’s report], “No operational-level test for corrosion was conducted on the F-22 prior to initial operating capability, and none are currently planned for the F-35.”
So, no user requirements and no ability to test. It’s not surprising there are quality assurance problems. Now, it’s entirely possible that these systemic problems had been addressed today, eight years after the CPOO’s report, but by the time they were brought to light, development had been progessing for 2010 – 1992 = 18 years, and the aircraft had been flying for 2010 – 2000 = 10 years, and that’s a lot of backfilling to do, even with infinite amounts of money.
 I forgot the important part! Back to Reuters:
The F-35 business accounts for about a quarter of Lockheed’s total revenue. During the third quarter, sales at Lockheed’s aeronautics business increased 14 percent to $4.7 billion, led by higher sales of the F-35 and highlighting the program’s importance to Lockheed’s profitability.
 Certainly subject to correction by Maginot Line experts, of whom we have no doubt at least one, the NC commentariat being what it is.
 The F-35 has a Twitter account:
Unlimited innovation. Unmatched capability: Minds are like parachutes, they only function when open.
The #F35 test team completed in-air deployments of the Norwegian Drag Chute. The unique brake system will ensure that aircraft land safely during demanding weather conditions. pic.twitter.com/vVBlarUaNw
— F-35 Lightning II (@thef35) April 11, 2018
I’m not sure the F-35’s trope is correct; closed minds seem to function perfectly well, for some definition of function, as our political environment shows. Nevertheless, I don’t think “open mind” necessarily means what the F-35 thinks it means.