Too Many Cooks Spoil The Fighter Jet: How Our Weapons Get Made

28 Mar

I’ve run across a lot of discussions lately about the problems plaguing some of our newest, and supposedly greatest weapons systems.  For those who have never served any great length of time in the military, or who have not worked for Uncle Sugar in the Department of Defense, it may seem baffling as to how you could fuck up something so simple as a plane, or a ship.  After all, we’ve had planes for over a hundred years, and ships for millenia, haven’t we?  Seems like it would be a relatively smooth curve to keep making better versions of them.   But it all depends on specialization – what you want to use them for

We have a lot of different type of planes in our military, all designed for specific missions.  We have F/A-18 Super Hornets for carrier-based fighter-bombers, F-15 Eagles for land-based air superiority fighters, AV-8B Harriers so our jarheads can launch them off of rough, short landing strips or helicopter carriers, and A-10 Thunderbolts, which are solely designed to carry 18 tons of bombs and cannon rounds for killing enemy tanks and troops in the open.  Needless to say, they are very specialized aircraft with mission specific designs.  An A-10 couldn’t be expected to intercept an enemy fighter, just like an F-15 couldn’t fly slow enough to provide Close Air Support, or soak up the damage from anti-aircraft fire that an A-10 can and continue to fly.

Until some fucking genius decided he was going to design a plane that would replace ALL those different aircraft.  With predictable results.

Meant to replace almost all of the military’s jet fighters at an initial cost of more than $400 billion, the F-35 has a clamshell-style windshield with a good view to the front and sides. But it’s got no line of sight to the rear, which is blocked by the pilot’s seat and the plane’s upper fuselage spine. Today’s A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s and F-22s, by contrast, have so-called “bubble canopies” with good all-round vision.

The limitations of the F-35′s canopy are “partially a result of designing a common pilot escape system [a.k.a. ejection seat] for all three variants to the requirements of the short-take-off and vertical landing environment.” In other words, the Joint Strike Fighter’s windshield is constrained by the need to fit a standard ejection seat and the downward-facing engine of the Marine Corps variant, which allows that model to take off and land vertically and is located directly behind the cockpit.

Did you get all that?  You can’t fucking see behind you.  Now, I’m no fighter pilot, but I have seen Top Gun and Iron Eagle 1 and 2*, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that fighter pilots try to shoot other fighter planes down FROM BEHIND.  And the reason they can’t see to the rear, is that because in one particular variant of this plane, there’s supposed to be an engine right behind the pilot.  Not this plane.  But another type that uses the same fuselage.   

*don’t even talk to me about Iron Eagle 3 – that was just ridiculous.

So what we’ve got is one plane that’s supposed to handle ALL types of combat aircraft, but can’t do ANY of their missions particularly well.  How the fuck does this happen? 

The short answer is:  Les Aspin.  Les Aspin was BJ Clinton’s Secretary of Defense for one year.  ONE.  YEAR.  When you need to turn the mightiest engine of war the planet has ever seen into a shambling, broken, underfunded mess by gutting funding and and you only have one year to do it, you call fucking Les Aspin.  Some of his greatest hits include:

  • “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  That worked out great.  Thanks, Les. 
  •  When then-General Colin Powell requested tanks, armored personnel carriers and AC-130 Spectre gunships to support our troops in Somalia, Les Aspin said NO.  Just      a  couple of weeks later, we got 18 killed and 75 wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu.  Bang up job, Les.
  • Looking at the programs for the next generation of strike aircraft and fighter aircraft and deciding, “Just use the same plane – what’s the difference?”  Great call, Les.

But it’s not just his fault.  Twisting something so intuitive and simple into a shambolic pile of ratmeat is always a team effort.  And don’t forget the fact that lots of generals were seeing funding for their pet programs cut, so if they wanted to remain relevant in a military that was beginning the biggest drawdown since World War II, they were going to have to figure out some way to stick their dicks in the mashed potatoes, too.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Pentagon Wars, which is about the early development and testing of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle – a beast that is near and dear to me, having spent six years driving one, serving as gunner on one, or jumping in and out of one as a crunchy.  The movie highlights everything I’ve been talking about with delightful absurdity.  I’m posting the relevant clip below – it’s about 10 minutes long, and it starts in 1968, as the first design for the Army’s newest Armored Personnel Carrier is presented.  Watch how they twist what was going to be a simple troop carrier into something… else.



It’s pretty funny how as the vehicle gets bigger and bigger, the poor Colonel in charge has less and less hair.


Now, I know what you’re thinking – “That’s fucking retarded!”  Yes.  Yes it is.  Large bureaucracies are jam-packed with selfish, short-sighted careerist assholes that are all too willing to sacrifice quality, safety or effectiveness to satisfy their immediate apple-polishing needs, while leaving the rest of us to live with the consequences of what they’ve set in montion twenty years down the road.  The only solace I can give you is that as stupid as our defense procurement and management is –

Everywhere else, it’s worse.



BONUS INCOMPETENCE:  That’s right.  I’m looking at you, Littoral Combat Ship.

These words have haunted the Navy ever since Gilmore’s office uttered them in December 2011: “LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment.” At a Navy expo in April 2012, Secretary Ray Mabus insisted that LCS is “a warship and it is fully capable of going into combat situations,” while heralding the LCS’ 2013 deployment to Singapore.

Gilmore’s new report stands by the 2011 assessment, though it sands down the rough edges. “LCS is not expected to be survivable,” it finds, “in that it is not expected to maintain mission capability after taking a significant hit in a hostile combat environment.” Additionally, Gilmore discloses that the Navy has “knowledge gaps related to the vulnerability of an aluminum ship structure to weapon-induced blast and fire damage,” but that it won’t conduct tests for those vulnerabilities until later this year or next year.


7 Responses to “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Fighter Jet: How Our Weapons Get Made”

  1. butch March 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    Aah, the Little Crappy SHip.

    So much for going in harm’s way.

    I weep for my Navy and the sailors sentenced to serve in that deathtrap.

    Fucking Mullins and Roughead.

  2. lpcard March 30, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    Ah yes, the military procurement system, where the Congress tells the military what it really really wants…like a shitload more C130’s cause they’re built in a certain congressional district…

    We had a Littoral Combat Ship once. We called it a f’n battleship, cause when you can put a VW sized fuck you into someone’s living room window from 24 miles out littoral means whateverthefuck you want it to mean. Nowadays we just use Thomas-hawks or F/A-18’s, but they just don’t have the same panache.

    As a side note, it’s funny how the MH-60 is “underpowered” all of a sudden when it’s been doing the minesweeping job for a couple of decades now. I guess it’s just the LCS versions that are the underpowered ones.

    The LCS is a solution looking for a problem.

  3. butch March 30, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    More on LCS at CDR Salamander’s place:

    They’ve been crapping on it for years.

  4. EC April 1, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    I knew one of the Deltas that died in Mogadishu. He was married to a cadet in my ROTC battalion.

  5. armsmerchant April 5, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Interesting link to the battle-damaged A-10. That broad did a great job. The Dash-1 says you’re not even supposed to try landing that thing in Manual Reversion without perfect conditions and a shitload of practice. I would’ve bailed out over the base, but she brought it down to fly again.

  6. simpleton May 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Boyd the fighter pilot who changed warfare. Robt Coram

    John Boyd was the greatest fighter pilot in American history. He defeated every pilot who challenged him in less than 40 seconds. But what made Boyd a man for the ages was what happened after he left the cockpit. Boyd made a career of challenging the intractable Pentagon bureaucracy, making enemies and a few devoted disciples who would become known as “The Acolytes.” Boyd transformed the way military aircraft – in particular the F-15 and F-16 – were designed with his revolutionary “Energy-Maneuverability Theory,” fighting the Air Force’s entrenched ideas every step of the way. He then dedicated lonely years to a radical theory of conflict that at the time was mostly ignored, but now is acclaimed as the most influential thinking about conflict since Sun-Tzu.


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