The F-35 and the Black Hole of Defense Spending
July 13, 2015
Matt McCaffrey / Mises Institute
Commentary: The F-35 Lightning II [demonstrates] . . . that the only thing defense spending actually defends are the profits of defense contractors. Yet no matter how egregious the waste of taxpayer money, people still seem to think that if the Pentagon isn't supplied with a steady stream of increasingly high-tech, expensive toys, any day now the communists will be parachuting into rural America.
The Black Hole of Defense Spending
Matt McCaffrey / Mises Institute
AUSTRALIA (July 6, 2015) -- The F-35 Lightning II [demonstrates] . . . that the only thing defense spending actually defends are the profits of defense contractors. Yet no matter how egregious the waste of taxpayer money, people still seem to think that if the Pentagon isn't supplied with a steady stream of increasingly high-tech, expensive toys, any day now the communists will be parachuting into rural America, Red Dawn-style.
The F-35 case in particular reminds me of a classic Bob Higgs article, "Airplanes the Pentagon Didn't Want, but Congress Did." In it, Higgs examines several pork-fueled spending binges that show the F-35 debacle is nothing new.
In fact, it's only the latest in a long series of fiascos that not only wasted public resources, but often failed even to produce hardware the military wanted. (Although given that the goal of defense spending is to create increasingly effective means of destroying human life, failure is a feature, not a bug).
With characteristic wit, Higgs takes the role of ornithologist to classify the inhabitants of the defense aviary: "hawks," "doves," "cheap hawks," and "pork-hawks."
The last two are especially important. The cheap hawk, for example, "wants a strong defense, may or may not want more spending for the military, but definitely wants more bang for the buck. He worries about weapons that don't work as they are supposed to and about spending for purposes that deliver less military punch than other programs that are sacrificed in the budget process."
Cheap hawks in Congress acknowledge the waste of military spending, but they think the answer is to make it more efficient by micromanaging the defense budget. This in turn creates a fertile breeding ground for "pork-hawks":
In Congress, the pork-hawk may appear to be a hawk, a dove, or a cheap hawk. You can't tell by the plumage or the call. You have to check its nesting habits. You can generally identify it by its tendency to lie down very close to constituents and political action committees and by its constant twittering about reelection.
If you observe its behavior in the defense field, you'll find it pecking away at the tiniest details. The pork-hawk thrives on micromanaging the defense program, stipulating not only how much will be spent for certain broad defense purposes, but also how much will be spent for each of the several thousand line items in the annual defense budget and exactly how the Pentagon must manage that spending.
By doing so, pork-hawks funnel resources to their own constituencies in exchange for votes. As Higgs puts it, "Doves and hawks will coo and shriek, while the pork-hawks bring home the bacon at taxpayer expense."
The bacon in question is enormous: in fact, as Higgs explains in a different article, defense contractors' profits are significantly higher than those of similar firms in the market, and are a result of their subsidized use of public capital.
Understandably, when it comes to defense spending, people believe the central problem is political corruption and the pervasive influence of "iron triangles." But while these factors are important, the underlying issue is that militaries and defense contractors suffer from a version of the socialist calculation problem.
As Mises famously observed, without private property to serve as the basis for a price system (for an "entrepreneurial division of labor"), socialist governments lack the ability to rationally allocate resources.
Likewise, because they lack genuine markets, public organizations like militaries and their monopolist contractors fall into the same trap. An unregulated, unsubsidized price system would reveal the lack of value in defense spending, which is, "in effect, welfare… not for inner-city dwellers, homeless people, or other unfortunates, but welfare nonetheless."
Although corruption and incompetence do help to determine how defense funds are spent, they are not the root cause of the kind of problems faced by the F-35 project; even if government and the military were run by the most incorruptible and well-intentioned human beings in the world, the calculation problem would still exist.
The terrible incentives of public finance and the bureaucratic mismanagement of defense are just symptoms of this larger problem.
No, the F-35 Can't Fight at Long Range, Either
Stealth Fighter Can't See, Shoot or Survive
Joseph Trevithick / War Is Boring
(July 10, 2015) -- The Pentagon's new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is dead meat in a close battle against even a dated two-seat F-16D fighter jet, according to a scathing test pilot report War Is Boring obtained.
Don't sweat it, JSF-maker Lockheed Martin responded. "The F-35's technology is designed to engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances," Lockheed's F-35 team wrote in a press release on July 1.
As a rebuttal to the test pilot report, Lockheed's claim is a cynically useful one -- it sidesteps the criticism without really confirming or denying it. But that doesn't mean the company's test-report rebuttal is actually true.
Can the F-35 really engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances? There are reasons to believe it can't. The stealth fighter lacks the sensors, weapons and speed that allow a warplane to reliably detect and shoot down other planes in combat. Especially when those planes are shooting back.
In short -- the F-35 isn't much of a dogfighter. And it's probably not very good at long-range aerial combat, either.
In any air-to-air duel, the pilot who spots his target first and shoots first is, nine times out of 10, the victor.
To this end, the F-35 does have a high-tech radar, high-fidelity cameras and other advanced gear that can detect airplanes. But foremost, Lockheed optimized these sensors for spotting targets on the ground -- and at relatively short distances.
The F-35 can see great. It just can't see all that great into the air. At least not compared to modern Chinese- and Russian-made jets -- the planes the F-35 is most likely to face in battle in some future war.
First, we have to look at how the F-35's sensors compare to its rivals. The latest Russian radars, such as the one on the new Sukhoi Su-35, at least match the JSF's APG-81, according to data compiled by Carlo Kopp at Air Power Australia.
While the specific details remain secret, Kopp estimates the APG-81 can detect an aircraft with a radar cross-section of three square meters -- a MiG-29, for example -- just over 100 miles away. Russian radar-maker Tikhomirov claims the Su-35's Irbis-E can spot a similar-size target at greater than twice that distance.
But it's possible radar range is irrelevant. In an aerial battle between stealthy jets -- with each side trying to stay undetected as long as possible -- it's likely that none of the opposing pilots would even want to activate their radars at all. That's because most fighters carry gear that can sense radar waves and pinpoint their origins.
Instead, modern planes in a high-tech war would probably rely on their undetectable, "passive" infrared sensors to locate each other in the air. The F-35, Su-35, Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20 all possess IR sensors that look for heat.
But that doesn't mean these aircraft are equals when it comes to emitting and detecting that heat. Remember, the F-35 has one huge and very hot engine.
True, Lockheed designed the JSF's fuel tanks to help sop up some of the extra thermal energy the plane generates. But take a look at the F-35's engine nozzle. It's round. Highly stealthy planes such as America's B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter both boast flat engine nozzles that spread out their exhaust plumes, cutting back on the telltale IR signature.
Even with its radar off, an F-35 could struggle to hide from enemy planes -- to say nothing of enemy forces on the ground. Consider all those long-wavelength, low-band radars that Russia, China and Iran are building right next to potential hotspots in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.
"You can't stealthify against long-wavelength radars," says Pierre Sprey, an experienced engineer who worked on both the F-16 and the A-10 ground attack plane.
These giant arrays can detect tiny objects at great distances. Tehran insists its Ghadir radar can spot jets more than 300 miles away. Russian arms-dealer Rosoboronexport claims the Rezonans-NE can detect stealth planes nearly 750 miles distant.
Using these radars, earthbound spotters could point warplanes toward incoming F-35s, even if the planes' pilots can't find the JSFs with their own radars or heat sensors. "You're not invisible," Sprey says of anyone flying the F-35.
JSF pilots shouldn't expect to automatically get the jump on their enemies. And once everyone has detected everyone else and the long-distance shooting starts, the F-35 is in even more trouble.
The American AIM-120, the Russian R-77 and the Chinese PL-12 are all comparable long-range missiles, each with a nominal range of around 60 miles. But the F-35 is slower than rival Russian or Chinese fighters, making it a less effective missile-shooter.
A fast-flying jet can impart extra energy to any weapon it fires. That means a "supercruising" fighter such as the Su-35 -- that is, a fast-flying plane that exceeds the speed of sound without a fuel-guzzling afterburner -- can potentially fling its missiles farther than a missile's advertised range.
Unable to supercruise like its rivals, the JSF can't launch its own weapons with nearly as much extra power.
More importantly, depending on the variant, the R-77 boasts radar guidance or can home in on heat signatures -- a fighter pilot can also use his plane's radar to point the weapon near its target, at which a passive sensor on the missile takes over.
By contrast, the AIM-120 only comes in one flavor -- on-board active radar guidance.
This gives Russian or Chinese pilots more ways to kill their opponents. Radar jammed? Fire a heat-seeker. IR sensor on the fritz? Let your next missile try to follow your opponent's own electronic signals.
Not that the F-35 has much room for different kinds of missiles. In stealth mode, with its weapons tucked into an internal bay, the F-35 can only carry four AIM-120s. And that's only if it's not also carrying its standard load of GPS-guided bombs.
The Chinese J-20 apparently has room for four missiles inside its main weapons bay, along with two more missiles in smaller bays on the sides of the fuselage. The more conventional Su-35 can carry a whopping 10 missiles under its wings and fuselage.
There's a good reason to carry lots of missiles. A single AIM-120 or R-77 or PL-12 doesn't translate into an automatic kill. Far from it. The missile could malfunction or miss.
"You up your chances of success with a multiple-missile shot," says Thomas Christie, an analyst who worked with legendary Air Force Col. John Boyd on his "energy-maneuverability" dogfighting concept. In the past, fighter pilots trained to fire two missiles at a time, Christie explains.
Using this method, a JSF flier might get just one shot or two before he's out of missiles. Meanwhile, Russian or Chinese jets could easily manage twice as many individual engagements -- or boost their chances of a kill by firing three or more missiles at a time.
By now the Pentagon should be well aware of the JSF's shortcomings. The F-35's limited weaponry was one of the major problems that a controversial simulation highlighted back in 2008.
In the Pacific Vision war game, which the California think-tank RAND conducted on behalf of the Air Force, F-22s and F-35s lost a simulated aerial battle over the Taiwan Strait.
Two dozen Chinese J-11 fighters brought nearly 250 long-range missiles to the mock fight. The same number of F-35s carried fewer than 100 AIM-120s. Beijing's jets easily overwhelmed the Americans. And the J-11 isn't even China's best fighter.
With limited sensors, compromised stealth, not enough energy and too few weapons, the F-35 is probably already outclassed in a long-range fight. Never mind merely staying out of short-range dogfights. America's new stealth fighter should probably avoid aerial duels at any distance.
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