By NICK SCHWELLENBACH
Last week, Heritage Foundation defense analyst MacKenzie Eaglen published a post on the American Enterprise Institute's blog decrying the Pentagon's plan to slow down its purchases of the Joint Strike Fighter--something a high-level group of Pentagon officials recommended in a report POGO made public last month. She reveals perhaps her top motivation early on in her short post, warning against "delays [to] the Joint Strike Fighter, by far the most important program to the health of the American defense industrial base."
She adds in her next sentence that “it is truly schizophrenic for the President to be jeopardizing the health of America’s defense industrial base.” I suppose she believes the Pentagon should continue to hand out blank checks to its defense contractors. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the JSF, is a funder of Heritage, according to a Counterpunch article by four veteran defense experts.
But later in her brief post she attempts to scare the reader:
Cutting edge programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter… are all critical programs for a Pacific oriented Pentagon. … Most reckless of all is the Secretary’s decision to cut six tactical aircraft squadrons. A 2009 RAND study has the United States losing an air war over the Taiwan Straits due to an overwhelming Chinese advantage in numbers of aircraft. As our aircraft inventory goes down, this bleak future will only become more likely.
She is right. A smaller force structure would make it more difficult for the U.S. to fight China in a war over Taiwan, especially given their numerical and geographic advantage (the shorter distance they have to fly means more sorties can be generated over the contested area). The problem for the U.S. is a large force is unaffordable given the inordinate per unit expense of weapons like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed claims that they will get the price down eventually, and the Pentagon assumes somewhat similarly, but some experts are skeptical the price will come down radically.
But the qualitative “advantage” of the F-35 isn’t what Eaglen might assume either given her support for the plane and her mention of the RAND study. What she may not know is, in 2008, briefing slides examining a potential U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan in light of lessons learned in air combat in the past by RAND analyst John Stillion leaked out. What was perhaps most explosive about his analysis was his criticism of the F-35, which would likely be the U.S. tactical aircraft workhorse in the scenario he analyzed.
Stillion wrote that the “F-35A is ‘Double Inferior’ relative to modern Russian/Chinese fighter designs in visual range combat.”
Furthermore, it has “Inferior acceleration, inferior climb, inferior sustained turn capability” and it “Also has lower top speed.” Given all this, it “Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”
It doesn’t do well compared to some of the legacy aircraft it is replacing either, according to his presentation slides. The F-35 is optimized for a strike mission, “not air-to-air maneuvering combat.” Its “Thrust loading is significantly inferior to F-15, F-16 and F-22,” which means it has “Slower acceleration, slower climb, more energy bleed in tight turns.” Plus, according to Stillion, its “Wing loading is high –comparable to F-105” (this is a not a complement) so it is “Less agile and requires higher thrust to maintain a given turn radius and speed.”
Think stealth and beyond visual range combat (i.e. the use of sensors and long-range missiles versus close-in visual range combat) will change the equation in the U.S.’s favor? Perhaps somewhat, but not anywhere close to as much as the rosy estimates presume, according to Stillion. Despite the technology fixation by many within the U.S. defense establishment, pilot training, initiative, aircraft maneuverability, and other factors often can be more important in an actual war. On a few of his slides regarding U.S. bombing planning in World War II versus reality, Stillion notes, “It is easy for even large groups of smart people to get important assumptions wrong.”
After these briefing slides leaked out, although they were noted by a few U.S. defense journalists, they created a furor in Australia’s Parliament, which was assessing Australia’s participation in the JSF program. Stillion was let go at RAND. A member of Australia’s Parliament said in a press release, “There are suggestions in some quarters that he was dismissed over the document and that his removal was ordered by the US military.”
RAND distanced itself from Stillion’s briefing, releasing a statement:
Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from the RAND Corporation were involved. Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft.
Even if Stillion’s assessment of the JSF was not an official RAND analysis, it’s hard to dismiss his judgments out of hand.
But the most important point is that the uncritical defense of the JSF is not helpful. Is it too expensive and a dog of a plane in certain key situations? We need to know, but it seems some don’t want to even ask the question.
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO’s Director of Investigations.