Monday, January 19, 2015

More F-35 news... None of it good.

Oooh...  Fancy.
I always get suspicious when the the JSF program releases a fancy new picture and a bit of positive news.  While the photograph is always well done, the "good news" is usually rather anti-climatic.  Often, it merely boasts of meeting defined test points, stuff that should be deemed merely acceptable, not brag-worthy.  What would be news is if the JSF did not meet these test points.

This is exactly the case this past weekend, when the program office released the picture you see above, along with the press statement that the "F-35 CONTINUES ON PATH TOWARD FULL WEAPONS CERTIFICATION"

Good to know that the F-35 might actually have weapons when the USMC declares initial operating capability (IOC) in six months.

As impressive as that photo above looks, there are a few caveats:

First of all, ignore those 25mm cannon rounds in the foreground.  The gun that shoots them will not be ready until 2019.

Second, you will notice most of the weapons displayed are variations of ether the JDAM or the Paveway guided bombs.  Nothing to sneeze at, sure...  But nothing that is not already in use by most modern western fighters.  The only true air-to-ground missile on display is the AGM-88 HARM (the ones on the extreme left and right).  NOPE!  Sorry.  Those are AMRAAMs.

Third, look at what is NOT pictured.

  • No MBDA Meteor
  • No AGM-65 Maverick
  • No ASRAAM (although they are supposed to be working on it)
  • No external fuel tanks
  • No Brimstone missiles
  • No rocket pods
  • No ALCM "stand off" missiles (like the AGM-84 SLAAM-ER)
  • No anti-radiation missiles like the AGM-88 HARM
  • No air-to-ground missiles of any kind, actually...  Just freefall bombs.
Obviously, F-35 weapon testing still has quite a way to go to approach the capability level of other modern fighters, or even the legacy fighters it is intended to replace.  It will likely get there someday, but it will have to wait until the Block 3, possibly even Block 4 software update somewhere down the line.

For comparison...
So why this sudden announcement that the F-35 will be able to carry a handful of weapons?

Magicians often use a form of distraction, or misdirection, to distract the audience's attention away from what is really happening, helping create an elaborate illusion.  The reality is often far less spell binding.

So what is really happening?

Britain's first F-35's will cost almost $¼ billion each.

The UK will spend almost £2.1 billion for its first JSF squadron.  With 14 fighters, plus support equipment and spares, that comes out to £154.5 million per aircraft.  In today's currency market, that converts to $235 million US or (gulp) $280 million each in Canadian loonies.

Keep in mind that this cost is for the more costly F-35B STOVL variant, and that the UK are purchasing early production models.  Costs will undoubtedly be lower for the peak-production F-35A models that the RCAF has on its wish list.  In order to fit in Canada's intended $9 billion acquisition budget, that cost would have to come down to a mere $138 million each (including support equipment and spares).

[NOTE:  For the sake of simplicity, this site will ignore nebulous "unit costs" and "flyaway cost" numbers and concentrate strictly on what it costs to set up a desired number of aircraft.  More on this in a future post]

"Uh-oh."

Chinese hacking was worse than we thought.

German news outlet Der Spiegel has made public some of the classified documents infamous hacktivist Edward Snowden released unto the world.  Not only do these document show the extent of how extensive (and unprofessional) cyber-surveillance has come, but it also shows just how much of the JSF program's secrets have fallen into Chinese government hands.

The fact that China had access to classified F-35 data has been known for years.  What has not been known is the extent of that information.  

Some reports are coming in that the Chinese had access to 50 terabytes of data, including "detailed engine schematics and radar design."  If that was not enough, they also came buy 220 megabytes worth of F-22 information and 65 gigabytes on the C-17 cargo aircraft.  

For those of you who are less-than-computer savvy, please allow me to put those numbers into context:
  • 220 megabytes is roughly equivalent to 4 encyclopedia books.  
  • 65 gigabytes is more than an entire library floor.  (Mid range smartphones and tablets often have 64 gigs).
  • 50 terabytes is 5 times that of the printed information in the U.S. Library of Congress.  (Many high-end desktop computers come with one, maybe two terabyte-sized hard drives.)
That is a LOT of data.

They might want to change their password.


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