A couple of weeks ago there was a leaked report on the inability of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to defeat an F-16 in a set of Basic Fighter Maneuver engagements (read it here). This set off a firestorm of discussion on the web, amongst those who want to kill the project and those who said the report, and its interpretation, were flawed. There were complaints from the fighter pilot community that anyone with a blog had now become an air to air combat expert.
F-35 and F-16 strike a pose for the photographers
Well, IANAFP, but I think there are some aspects of the discussion that have been missed. Let me map the discussion to Linstone’s Multiple Perspectives approach. This will hopefully shed a different light on the arguments, as well as providing a good example of how the Multiple Perspectives approach works.
Hal Linstone, who I had the pleasure to know when I was a grad student in the Portland State Systems Science Program, is a former RAND Corporation associate, and one of the developers of the Delphi methodology. Not Delphi the Object Oriented Pascal product, but a technique for getting agreement amongst experts. He is also famous for the approach to framing a problem that he calls Multiple Perspectives.
Basically, MP says that every business problem can be considered along three dimensions: Technical, Organizational, and Personal.
Technical, as you might expect, holds that a given problem is one of inadequate technology, and that it can be solved by throwing more engineers at it. This viewpoint informed most of the systems development projects at the end of the last century, and its proponents were always surprised when their approach didn’t work out.
Organizational says that many problems occur because of how the organization is structured and what its rules are. Very often something cannot be done because there is no box on the form that can be checked. When same-sex marriage was finally allowed, many counties had problems, because their software wasn’t set up to hand anything other than one male and one female. You might think this is a technical issue, but the root is the failure of the organization to consider the possibility when they wrote the requirements. Counties that still relied on paper forms had the same problem, but at least there they could make a pen and ink correction.
The Personal dimension says that very often the root of a problem is people, sometimes a specific individual in an organization. People interpret the rules, and one individual’s interpretation can differ from another’s. If that person is in a position of power, then their interpretation rules. In an extreme case, an individual might block a technical improvement because they fear that the new technology will harm their job.
Deming’s parable of the red and white beads can be used as an example of MP. Is the problem a Technical one, of not giving the worker the tools to reject wrong-colored beads? Is it Personal, in that the worker needs better training and motivation? Or is it Organizational, because the worker should never be required to separate out the beads in the first place?
So, how does all this apply to the F-35 in general, and to the air combat discussion in particular? Before we begin, let me say that a number of the arguments presented are spread over different articles, and so you are going to get multiple links to the same article. Now let’s see.
Personal: The argument here is that the flight was a test flight, and that the pilots were looking to accomplish test objectives, not win a bar bet. More to the point, the F-35 hasn’t been around enough for anyone to become an expert in it, and so we haven’t developed tactics for it. This is true as far as it goes, but the main article makes it sound like the pilot was a n00b. He may only have had 100+ hours in the F-35, but I’m pretty sure he’s a multi-thousand hour test pilot.
Technical: Two points stand out. First, not all the F-35 technology was available, off-boresight aiming being the most important example. Second, as with your car, changing the performance of a modern fighter is mainly a matter of changing the software. You don’t optimize your carburettor any more, you reburn the EPROMS. So too with today’s computers-with-wings. Indeed, one of the reasons for the test flight was to define areas where the software needed tweaking.
Organizational: The current employment concept says the F-35 should never have to dogfight, just as a combat Marine should never have to engage in hand to hand combat, except as a last resort. The idea is to use it as a networked sensor platform and employ the full range of US weapons, including long range AAMs and SAMs, while using the stealth to keep from being detected. This approach was demonstrated using a commercial air combat game.
My Two Cents
Personal: I have nothing much to add here. Our pilots and aviators are the best in the world, with more flying time than the pilots of any other country. We may have cut back training hours due to sequestration funding, but the worldwide operations tempo continues unabated. The Russians, and the Chinese have, historically, gotten what one of my commanders used to call “just enough flying hours to kill you.”
One of the articles notes that the only people who are really competent to comment on the J-35 capabilities are the program managers with the appropriate clearances, and the rest of us are, essentially, sitting with our backs to the fire, trying to interpret the shadows. This is certainly true. On the other hand, I can tell you from my years at the Pentagon that it’s also true that program managers will lie, and will leak classified information to support their programs while suppressing unfavorable evidence via overclassification. On the other other hand, “any stick will do to beat a dog”, and much of the furor over the test report is being raised by people who are against the F-35 for other reasons, such as cost, or “not produced in my district”.
Technical: My issue here is what might be called the historical component of the technical perspective. The F-35 supporters pooh-pooh the comparisons with the F-4 and F-105 in VietNam, pointing out the tremendous differences in weapons capabilities since then. This is correct, but misses the point. At a more abstract level, in the early 1960’s we had a concept of what an air war would look like, given the new weapons systems, and we designed our force structure around that concept. When the war actually started, it turned out our weapons didn’t perform the way we thought they would, and the hostile environment was different from what we thought it was going to be, and we ended up with deficiencies that took a couple of years of combat to overcome. Years.
Organizational: From the discussions, the employment concept for the F-35 is much like our ideas of how the early hours of WWIII in Europe would roll out — clouds of their fighters meeting clouds of our fighters, and stay inside your root cellar lest you be hit by falling debris. Or set piece engagements in narrowly defined regions, like the Gulf, or the Baltic. All of them seem to be based on a networked and ‘weapons free‘ scenario where, on a good day, you shoot all your missiles Beyond Visual Range, and head home in time for Happy Hour.
The problem is, IMHO the most likely future conflicts will be narrowly constrained affairs, where third-party neutrals will be going about their business while you fight. Think of Pratchett’s “melee coming through“. During the Tanker War in the Gulf, everyone continued to operate commercial shipping and airlines, with sometimes disastrous results. If my quick check on Orbitz is correct, there’s something like sixteen flights from Tokyo to Singapore per day, all of them flying in the vicinity of Taiwan. It’s entirely likely that the F-35 will have to operate in an environment where the Rules of Engagement require visual ID before weapons launch.
UPDATE: Here is a much more detailed discussion of flaws in the F-35.
The bottom line is that these issues are much more complex and nuanced than a simple blog post on turn rates and energy levels would have you believe. The proof of the pudding won’t be found for another five years or so, when all the teething troubles and upgrades and tactics have been worked out. Most of the current discussions are about “did we build the system right?” A much longer blog post is needed to discuss the key question, “did we build the right system”?