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Guest Op-Ed: J-20 Shows Need for JSF

by Ward Carroll on January 24, 2011

Recently DefenseTech ran a piece about the Chinese J-20 “stealth” fighter that points out it may be less troublesome than the initial hype suggested. I put “stealth” in scare quotes for just that reason; we have no idea whether this is a legitimate stealth aircraft or just some fancy sheet metal and paint. We have no clue if they have managed to engineer the sensors and electronic systems needed to fly it or to allow it to go up against our frontline birds.

But that really shouldn’t be giving us a warm fuzzy. If they had actually fielded an aircraft capable of even competing with the F-22 or F-35 it would be keeping everyone responsible for our security up at night. This was still a pretty decent scare and it certainly should remind some folks that the Chinese believe they have surpassed us in the world. Their actions show the truth of that as they build a blue water navy and a blue sky air force and do not recognize any U.S. right to dominate either of those.

Rep. Cantor said this weekend that every government program is on the table for budget cuts and specifically included defense. That should surprise no one in the current environment; our budget and debt problems are now a national security issue. They stop us from acting with the strength we should when countries like China, who holds around a trillion dollars of our debt, start acting up. So cuts to defense will come and the question then becomes how to make sure we don’t lose our ability to control the sea lanes and the air above our forces.

The F-22 program has been cancelled and so we have already removed the only true air superiority fighter we designed from the equation. That leaves the F-35 as our frontline fighter and also our biggest weapons procurement program. We will win or lose based on the number and capability of these planes if we are tested. Of course we hope that doesn’t happen, but we have to build the tools we need to win especially to deter someone from trying us if we appear weak.

There are no other programs that can replace the F-35 any time in the next couple of decades. The problem starts when cuts to production start driving up the cost of each aircraft. This can cause a cascade as the thousands of suppliers have orders cut or delayed and they are much less able to absorb these than the large contractors. Some of these companies then have to lay off staff and may even go out of business. Then you have a smaller supply of suppliers so prices climb and this spiral is difficult to contain. In a time when our economy is stagnant it makes no sense to kill good-paying American jobs, and at the same time weaken our national security.

If the F-35 is our bird, then let’s get behind it; let’s get it finished, and then let’s get them in the air.

- John Wagner, co-founder of the first US airline to provide scheduled service into Baghdad after the U.S. invasion.

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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Schmoe January 25, 2011 at 12:12 am

" The problem starts when cuts to production start driving up the cost of each aircraft. This can cause a cascade as the thousands of suppliers have orders cut or delayed and they are much less able to absorb these than the large contractors. Some of these companies then have to lay off staff and may even go out of business. Then you have a smaller supply of suppliers so prices climb and this spiral is difficult to contain. In a time when our economy is stagnant it makes no sense to kill good-paying American jobs, and at the same time weaken our national security."

So you're basically saying is that we should support the F-35 since it works as a welfare program?

Your whole argument revolves around the idea that the F-35 is a good counter to whatever the Chinese cook-up in their region. However, the F-35 is supremely unsuited for any encounter with China. Which by itself is an insane thought, the U.S. has never attacked another nuclear power.

There is this famous Sun Tzu quote, "Never throw good men to prolong a losing battle, only use reinforcements to exploit a victory". I believe that applies here.

The F-35 has proven to be the most horribly mishandled weapons program of the last decade, if not of all time in the U.S. . We now have a plane that is nearly 3-4 times overbudget per plane, hell we can theoretically get F-22s for cheaper even with retooling. We have the F-35B that was the entire basis for the JSF (as in its compromised design) that is now on probation and may even be canceled.

I am sorry, but as a taxpayer I demand accountability. We have given Lockheed their chance, and they abused us.

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@Earlydawn January 25, 2011 at 12:58 am

War between two nuclear powers does not necessitate nuclear war. There are obvious political consequences. Besides, most "wars" nowadays are limited, objective-based conflicts, not total war.

Just saying. Nukes aren't a panacea to conflict. If I'm not mistaken, England had tridents in the submarines during the Falklands, and they actually fought tooth and nail during that campaign. It wasn't a sweep. Nothing was launched.. although England allegedly threatened France with a nuclear strike in exchange for Exocet destruction codes. Lesson: nuclear weapons are a more valuable political asset than military asset.

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Old_Bear January 25, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Actually we were using Polaris at the time and the Exocet was the primary anti-ship of the Royal Navy at the time, the 4 County class Destroyers, all of the 8 Type 21 & 4 Type 22 Frigates, along with some of Leanders class Frigates were armed with 4 Exocets each. So we didn't need to blackmail the French for the codes as we had them already. Myth busted.

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Cranky Observer January 25, 2011 at 7:13 am

> The F-35 has proven to be the most horribly mishandled
> weapons program of the last decade, if not of all time in the U.S. .

Depends on your definition of "mishandled". If you start by assuming that the goal of all major weapons programs since 1970 (and perhaps 1945) has been to (1) transfer several billions/tens of billions/hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to well-connected defense contractors (2) provide welfare-type employment for thousands of defense contractor employees (3) if possible, without too much detriment to goals 1 and 2, produced a usable weapon, well, then the F-35 has been a roaring success. As was the Comanche, etc.

Cranky

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blight January 25, 2011 at 7:42 am

Pshaw, Comanche was pulled because Rummy needed money for Iraq and Afghanistan. Crusader was killed by his hand as well. I don't see how that makes JSF a "roaring success" if you simply avoid being killed off as a program.

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brian January 25, 2011 at 10:09 am

I agree the comanche was an awesome copter, but it wasn't the right system at the right time. If we get into a war in Korea or in Iran, but the crusader although being really cool, wasn't necessary as technology progressed beyond it. With GPS rounds, the added precision and volume needed to hit targets went down drastically. They have actually cut back on orders for new gps rounds because they have been so effective. That and it weighed way more than the system it was replacing. That said, it was still a great howitzer system

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blight January 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

It wasn't the "right program at right time" thinking; it was the "we're short on money" that killed both programs. Even the XM-8 met an untimely end, as did OICW (turning into the XM-25).

A program should be evaluated by its ability to /deliver/ something to the troops, not just to build a fancy product. In many ways our defense industry is in the concept car business of building fancy one-offs but not building cars. Not a recipe for success.

Jeff January 25, 2011 at 7:15 am

I think its more that he's saying that in the absence of viable alternative these are good enough reasons to get behind the F35.

Personally I think the F-35B is the only reason to keep this train going and I'll be honest its not a great reason.

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Joe Schmoe January 27, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Even better.

Lockheed Martin reports 4th quarter 18.9% jump in net earnings. Thank god we as a nation can be abused and overpay this much.

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Greekr January 25, 2011 at 12:31 am
@Earlydawn January 25, 2011 at 12:40 am

The F-35 is a decent fifth-gen aircraft. It could have been better had it not been saddled with such requirements creep. It can still shape up to be a good core to the U.S. air fleet, but the price has to be right. The die is cast, and time shall tell.

If the F-35 price explodes and the program goes belly-up, I certainly hope someone at the Pentagon has a plan to keep our forth-gen aircraft relevant and flying.

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Justin H January 25, 2011 at 2:03 am

If the price explodes?! Have you been living under a rock the past couple years?

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@Earlydawn January 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

The price we're paying is the LRIP. It can be an indicator of price expansion, but it doesn't make it inevitable.

The Pentagon has said that they will not buy F-35s at a near F-22 full rate price. Given our financial situation, I believe them.

I don't know why I typed this up. You probably just posted to be a smartalec.

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Justin H January 25, 2011 at 2:05 am

Its 50% over budget, delayed for years because of problem after problem, it isnt full aspect stealth, and it has a limited weapons payload… Lets get behind it! NOT

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Mufasa January 25, 2011 at 4:55 am

How does the Chinese belief that they don't have to respect some absurd American "right to dominate" and that maybe they should be able to mount a credible defense of their economic interests against a power that is host to a mentality that allows the straight-faced utterance of that phrase imply that they believe they have "surpassed us in the world"? It certainly shows that they believe they now have enough power to stake out their own sphere of influence. I have no basis to say that elements of the Chinese leadership don't believe that they have surpassed us, but the existence of that mentality doesn't follow from this action, unless it's supposed that no one would dare affront the US in this way unless they were ready for an full-scale struggle with the US in one sense or another, which would require an even more cynical view of the US than I have.
The author and many others seem to be alarmed not so much by any specific actions of China's, but the threat to US hegemony that its come to represent. Increasing military expenditures accomplishes what? We can "act with strength"? Whether we would steamroll China or fight it to a standstill, warfare is likely to stay off the table, it's too destructive and too unprofitable for both parties, even leaving out nukes. Between the US and China, there can't be a Falklands-type clash because if there were, and even if it didn't escalate, the loser of a narrow-scope conflict would be unlikely to have suffered a serious enough defeat (I'm assuming nuclear threats would forestall a truly disastrous campaign) that they'd be cowed, instead they'd start plotting round two and another Cold War would ensue. (Of course, its been alleged that Cheney, for one, wanted another Cold War of sorts, so it could happen. However, I'm focusing on rational policy suggestions.)
What constrains us is China's economic influence. If the US wants dominance, no number of fighters which everyone knows can hardly be used will secure it in the long term when its economic power, which is wielded all the time, is fading. China attracts resource rich nations to its orbit with engineering assistance and infrastructure investment. While the US does use soft power to secure resources (former SSRs), it has also employed hard power with fairly disastrous results and doesn't have a state oil company to use to help keep oil and gas flowing (a la sinopec and pdvsa) . While China aggressively intervenes to increase the scope and sophistication of its industrial base, the US protects finance capital and appeases neoliberals at the expense of engaging in productive activity or investing in infrastructure that could keep the US competitive, then attempts to smooth it over with unsustainable debt. China doesn't even have to do a good job, we'll allow finance to Latvianize us, and then when we're powerless and broke relative to China, militarists will be saying "if only the government would buy more F-46s we'd be able to act with strength". Either that or they seize power and actually spend all our money on arms.

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Michael January 25, 2011 at 6:21 am

The F-35 just is not good enough to compete with other 5th generation fighters (PAF-FA, J-20, and others that will surely come), it's waaaaaay too expensive to compete with 4th generation fighters, and too complex and vulnerable for a ground support role. It's just not good for anything.

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anonimous January 25, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Are you a fighter pilot????

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Cranky Observer January 25, 2011 at 7:16 am

Test of seriousness: are you willing to support a return of the margin income tax rates – including the top marginal rates, to where they were at the end of the Reagan Administration, and a repeal of the hedge fund loophole and similar tax expenditures for the ultra-wealthy, to pay down our debt to the PRC, to make good on the trillions borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund (SocSec being in $1.5 trillion _surplus_ state at the moment), and actually paygo for all this vitally needed "defense" capability? If not, well…

Cranky

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blight January 25, 2011 at 7:41 am

That and severe cuts to SS and Medicare? Apparently China has a sort of public health care system with partial cost offset, but their costs are just lower than ours.

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Jerry January 25, 2011 at 9:13 am

Numerically it may be lower, but the pockets you have to stuff with bribes just to get service means that by percentile, medical cost is much harsher on its citizen than ours.

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blight January 25, 2011 at 9:27 am

Most likely. That or you get a prescription for traditional medicine remedies, and its left to the patient to spend their own money on that kind of thing, bringing costs down.

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brian January 25, 2011 at 10:15 am

The F-35 is not a front line fighter. It is a general purpose craft that has some capability to fight, but you would not put it out to dog fight. its just a replacement for the F16/18. If anything the Presence of the J20 makes the case for restarting the F22 line, junking the F35, and invest in upgrading our current generation of fighters, as if we have a robust 5th gen fighter leading the fight, we don't have much need to stealth for the task horses of the air force.

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blight January 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

F35 will be more numerous than Raptor, which makes it the fighter most likely to engage an enemy: the definition of front-line fighter.

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brian January 25, 2011 at 10:50 am

An A10 can be used as a front line fighter, it doesn't mean it should, since its designed to be used as something other than as a "front-line fighter" .

Nice play on english, but purpose and use are 2 different things.

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Oblat January 25, 2011 at 5:14 pm

As Joe notes the chance of a direct conflict between the US and China is zero. But the F35 hands China yet another huge diplomatic advantage: military alliances with US result in you getting access to only second rate aircraft that cant go head to head with equipment supplied by China.

Combine that with Chinese capital and access to the worlds biggest market and for many Asian countries alignment with China is a no-brainer. China is selling high speed rail and other infrastructure across Asia with low interest loans. America is selling an 'opportunity' to prop up it's failing defense industries by buying second rate equipment.

But of course Lockheed couldn't care less. The funny thing is that people praise the F22 but it was canceled because Lockheed was obviously screwing America. It just looks good now that Lockheed is screwing us even worse with the F35. No doubt if the F35 was canceled the replacement would be a Lockheed aircraft with even lower performance and costing even more.

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Justin H January 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm

I would say there is a slim chance (10%) that we will get into a skirmish with China. Always be prepared ,as the boy scouts say.

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Justin H January 26, 2011 at 12:30 am

I know who keeps voting down my posts. 2 or 3 people whose name I will hold off on publicly shaming.

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Tad January 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm

The underlying problem is that America has lost much of its industrial base and the manufacturing skills that go with it. Look at how many weapons programs fail in terms of the quality of the delivered product, never mind cost and schedule. With a great industrial base and plenty of manufacturing and high-tech know-how, the Chinese will dominate east-Asia / western-Pacific in the near future (say less than 10 years from now). The US cannot compete in the long-term unless it pursues policies aimed at encouraging manufacturing and industry like the Germans, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese.

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jessmo January 25, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Please explain to me exactly the F-35 does worse than a J-20?
Please explain just how the F-111 sized 60k lb + j-20 will turn and burn
with the 9g F-35A? You can put canards on a 747 but that wont make it 9g!
Are you really going to go out on a limb and claim the F-35 isn’t all aspect?

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Justin H January 26, 2011 at 12:28 am

Its a known fact that its not full aspect stealth.

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@E_L_P January 26, 2011 at 3:50 am

The next op-ed on the usefulness of the F-35 will be from Joe the plumber.

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Jacob January 26, 2011 at 5:36 am

"There are no other programs that can replace the F-35 any time in the next couple of decades."

I'm betting the Silent Eagle can take on this J-20. And why do I keep hearing about the F-22 program being "canceled"? Downsized, yes….but not canceled at all.

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Brad January 26, 2011 at 9:59 am

I am beginning to think that "Silent Eagle" upgrades are an attractive alternative. If the F-35 is not an all aspect stealth platform (neither is the F-22 technically all aspect) then the F-15 SE may just do the job far more effectively. Think about it. It is a very low risk investment on a proven platform that would extend the service life of a great plane and probably do as good a job as the F-35.

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@Earlydawn January 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm

The F-22 is all-aspect stealth.

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Brad January 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

Forgive me but the F-22 is most certainly not an all aspect stealth aircraft. In fact, the YF-23 was considered an all aspect stealth fighter and not the F-22.

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Jay January 26, 2011 at 10:56 am

"Guest Op-Ed: J-20 Shows Need for JSF"

We were going to buy plenty of JSF before the J-20. The need for the JSF is to have a platform with stealth to replace the F16 to use as a multi-role fighter and sell to our allies.
While is has (some aspect) stealth, the F-35 is a poor replacement for the F-16 in terms of agility, weapons load, and cost effectiveness. That's the problem with the program – it isn't nearly as cost effective as it needs to be to allow us to buy 1000 units.
That was true before the J-20.

The J-20 just makes Gates look stupid for cancelling the F-22 (which Japan and Australia wanted to buy as a deterrant to China).

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Donnell January 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm

"The J-20 just makes Gates look stupid for cancelling the F-22 (which Japan and Australia wanted to buy as a deterrant to China)." I agree with you Jay

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theman January 26, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I feel like a lot of people forget that any potential air-to-air engagement with the PLAAF will involve multiple types of aircraft: F-22s, F-35s, F-15s, F-18s, and F-16s.

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Donnell January 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm

TheMan you are correct, it will be the entire U.S. airpower inventory versus the Chinese and with that, I would bet on the U.S. defeating the Chinese PLAAF in detail.

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Infidel4LIFE January 26, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I read the comments and damn we are in some deep sh*t. End of story.

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nonito d. cabato January 26, 2011 at 8:27 pm

just buy 1,000 F-22A Block 35 with increment 3.3 software version, for every24 F-22 bought retire 50 legacy fighter. The air force should only buy the F-35B models 680 0f them for CAS . For serious bombing buy the long range bomber with a specification of 6,000 nautical unrefuel range with a bomb pay load of 14 tons with cruising speed of 650mph or more. The purpose of your armed force is to defend the mainland USA!

NAVY;
600 F-22N forward swing wing variant
another 45 DDG-51 flight III destroyer
16 DDG-1000

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Joe Schmoe January 26, 2011 at 8:53 pm

And I assume you will be paying for this nonsense?

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blight January 26, 2011 at 10:41 pm

1,000,000,000 soldiers and 10,000,000 tanks make war victory. [/sarcasm]

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jessmo January 27, 2011 at 4:09 am

1. The F-22 would cost a fortune to navalize. you don't just throw a tail hook on a plane and call it a navy fighter. It would need an entire redesign.

2. The F-35 does not cost 200 million each. Canada will buy 65 for 9 billion that comes out to 138 million each. and no telling what spares and setup was added to contract. http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/QPeriod/20110114/fighte

3. The wiki article on the F-35 said nothign about the plane having no rear aspect stealth this is pure speculation.
In spite of being smaller than the F-22, the F-35 has a larger radar cross section. It is said to be roughly equal to a metal golf ball rather than the F-22's metal marble.[100] The F-22 was designed to be difficult to detect by all types of radars and from all directions.[101] The F-35 on the other hand manifests its lowest radar signature from the frontal aspect because of compromises in design. Its surfaces are shaped to best defeat radars operating in the X and upper S band, which are typically found in fighters, surface-to-air missiles and their tracking radars, although the aircraft would be easier to detect using other radar frequencies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_Martin_F-35

It says the frontal aspect is the best. Not " the F-35 has 0 rear aspect stealth" sweet Lord!!

4. The F-35 can carry 2000 pound class weapons. the F-22 cannot. http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/planes/f35/e

I'm sorry but the amount of disinformation on this blog is mind blowing

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Joe Schmoe January 27, 2011 at 5:47 am

1)- We know, we are talking about buying the Super Hornet in larger numbers instead.

2)- "The United States Air Force (USAF) budget data in 2010, along with other sources, projects the F-35 to have a flyaway cost that ranges between US$89 million and US$200 million over the planned production of F-35s"

3)- This has been argued to death a thousand times already, just look for the previous arguments.

4)- Way to skew the equation. The F-35A/C can carry 2X AAM + 2X 2000LB. F-22 can carry 4XAAM and 4X 1000lb. Now which one is better again?

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jessmo January 27, 2011 at 8:38 pm

The F-22 can only carry 2 1000lb jadams please pick up a book or use google before you type. If you want to add facilities training engine spares to the F-35 then fine the plane will cost millions to set up. But that still doesn’t represent unit cost.
I’d also like to openly mock the post advocating that we cancel the F-35 becausethey Fear it cant beat a J-20. Then in the same breath calling for a hornet buy.

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Joe Schmoe January 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm

I stand corrected about the bomb load, was reading an older document which I guess was still speculative at the time. Still, the F-22 does carry 4X AAM and 2X 1000lb at the same time. A great advantage when roughly 1/2 missiles will be (statistically) useless.

Super Hornet might not stand up to a future stealth fighter either, but it is the best value for the navy to buy at the moment.

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Trex January 27, 2011 at 10:06 am

Remember when that US came up with "starwars tech" and the ruskies went bankrupt trying to field enough technology to keep up. Will the chicoms use the same tactic on us????
But then again we are technically bankrupt from the reckless spending of the regime of comrade 0buma anyways. So does it really mean a thing anyways. We are a commie nation.

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blight January 27, 2011 at 9:55 pm

That's a myth. The Soviets simply countered by increasing throw weights. If you read up on economic treatises it was really a foreign exchange issue compounded by OPEC bottoming out oil prices. However if you disregard economics…

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Donnell January 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm

"I'm sure the program could be revived quickly and production ramped up again". Wrong! once a aircraft production line is closed its newly impossible to re-open it again, because all or most of the tooling is gone, the workers who assembled it have moved on and the knowledge with them. It would be a very slow and costly thing to do.Bout time the U.S. could get everything in place to re-start production the conflict or war would be over with.

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Joe Schmoe January 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm

1) – Reflective areas are reflective areas.

2)- F-22 can carry a greater internal strike package than the F-35. In fact, the first marketing materials called the F/A-22.

3)- No, there are advanced UCAVs in the works as we speak. You are kidding yourself if you think we aren't developing supersonic UCAVs.

4)- Money would have been better spent developing greater jamming assets than the F-35. Once their radar is blind, all your planes are now stealth.

5)- F-35 costs over $200 million these days, not including the alternative engine. F15SE can come in under 100 million. F-35 is not survivable either against a S300/400.

6)- F-35B is rated at 7Gs, F-35C is rated at 7.5Gs.

7)- F18 Super Hornet variants were produced under-time and under-budget by Boeing.

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Justin H January 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm
@Earlydawn January 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm

2 – The "F/A-22" designation was largely drafted to justify a $150 million-dollar fighter in an era where we were fighting fireteam-sized groups of central Asian militiamen. You are also generally engaging a limited number of aimpoints in a LO configuration, where load weight is not as critically important. The F-35 can still fly conventionally with a similar stores configuration to an F-16, and dump external stores to regain a LO profile if necessary.

4 – This logic falls flat. Why, then, don't we invest more heavily in SEAD and jamming aircraft? Because SEAD is the hammer option. Often, you need a scalpel. Without stealth aircraft, you are either committing to a large, expensive SEAD strike package in ANY area you need to conduct operations in, or you are accepting much higher attrition rates.

5 – Nobody knows what an F-35 is going to cost beyond the LRIP aircraft that the U.S. has already taken delivery of. Give it up.

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