Is The F-35 Worth $115 Million?

this episode of real engineering is brought to you by curiosity stream watch thousands of documentaries for free for 31 days a curiosity stream calm Ford / real engineering this year at the f-35 is finally set to close its 27 year development phase and move towards high-volume manufacturing the culmination of 27 years of design and development from its manufacturer Lockheed Martin 27 years of development crossing the finish line in the midst of a political power struggle in America this is after all the most expensive weapon system in the history of humankind costs have inflated as a result of the American military-industrial complex where the intertwining of politics economy and the military industry encourages companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing to not vertically integrate their companies as a means of spreading jobs across America and thereby increased political support for these programs and the politicians that approved them in Congress to win contracts we could deep dive into these muddied waters of politics but this channel is about engineering and the development costs of the f-35 would be astronomical even without these issues so let’s explore the design of this plane and see whether its price tag is really worth it from the start the f-35 sought to be the jack-of-all-trades an air superiority machine to replace the air force’s f-16s and a TENS a stealth fighter taking the lessons learned from the b-2 program and improving upon Lockheed’s previous ventures into stealth technology with the f-22 Raptor and the f-117 Nighthawk a carrier capable fighter to replace the f-18 Hornets of the Navy and perhaps most audacious of all it would take on the challenge of vertical landings taking over from the British av-8b Harrier taking on all these advanced technologies and combining them into one plane was never going to be an easy or cheap task and the program was made even more expensive by what was initially intended to be a cost-saving measure this plane would be developed as a joint venture between three US military branches the Air Force Navy and Marines a single plane for each branch of the military the program was named the Joint Strike Fighter and its goal was to produce a next-generation plane that could replace fighter strike and ground attack aircraft of not just the United States but all of its allies unlike the f-22 Raptor which is a US Air Force exclusive plane the f-35 would be commercially available the Joint Strike Fighter program began life as a competition between McDonnell Douglas Northrop Gruman Lockheed Martin and Boeing with Lockheed and Boeing going on to develop prototype aircraft as finalists in the competition both eager to win what was sure to be one of the most lucrative contracts they would ever sign Boeing’s aircraft the x32 was an odd-looking aircraft featuring a massive single air intake that made it less VTOL and more veal all its looks alone may have stopped it from winning this valuable contract but what really held it back was Boeing’s decision to create two prototype planes one capable of supersonic flight and one capable of vertical takeoff using the same vector thrust as the Harrier which it was supposed to be replacing the engine used in the Harrier is similar to a traditional jet engine in that a consists of a low pressure compressor fan a high-pressure compressor a combustion chamber a high-pressure turbine and a low pressure turbine but it’s out less nozzle placement is anything but traditional two outlets are placed immediately after the low-pressure compressor with another two ducting air from the higher pressure turbines in vertical thrust mode the nozzles point downwards and allow the plane to balance precariously on these four columns of air the Harrier was not an easy plane to control in this flight mode and on more than one occasion turbulence from its own downwash caused the plane to flip over onto the cockpit during landings killing the pilot a large part of these control issues can be attributed to the proximity of the control nozzles to the center of gravity of the plane giving them less mechanical advantage to manipulate the plane’s attitude the Harrier did have small roll control nozzles on the tip of each wing but the trol for these were entirely manual placing the incredibly unstable control mechanism into the hands of a human that needed to focus on various other factors when landing the x32 used many of the same techniques to achieve vertical thrust but improved on many of the Harriers shortcomings instead of using the same nozzles for cruise and direct lift the x32 would close valves for each when needed in normal flight the cruise nozzles would open allowing the thrust of the

jet engine to be directed efficiently through the rear of the aircraft then during transition this nozzle would close and force air through the direct lift nozzles they placed a larger roll control nozzles further from the planes center of mass and also employed a cold air screen placed just forward of the lift nozzles this was intended to stop hot turbulent air from the direct lift nozzles from entering the front intake which was a massive issue for the harrier as it landed jet engines need cold and smooth air to operate at maximum thrust which was difficult to get when landing and directing the entirety of your thrust directly at the ground despite these improvements lockheed ultimately won the contract impressing the Joint Strike Fighter program with their left fan system the engine thrust here once again exits a single exhaust nozzle during normal flight but when the show begins the ex35 was capable of some incredible Transformer like changes hatch is opened on the top and bottom of the aircraft revealing two contra rotating fans another two little doors opened beneath the wings exposing two additional exhaust ports that controlled the plane’s roll finally as the plane begins to slow down the crews nozzle would begin to pivot downwards transitioning the remaining thrust of the jet engine from horizontal to vertical the lift fan solved many of the same issues that plagued the harrier the lift fan produced the majority of the vertical thrust and it did not heat up the air significantly in the process the roll control had significantly more mechanical advantage and divvied the majority of the control over to a computer perhaps most influential in their success to winning the contract this prototype was capable of both vertical landings and supersonic flights this was the kind of innovation the Joint Strike Fighter program was looking for the lift fan is essentially a turboprop engine like something you would find on an osprey the propellers are driven by a drive shaft connected to the jet engine turbines which can be disengaged during normal flies this means the lift fan is dead waste during cruise but what it adds and weighs it more than makes up for in lift combined these propulsion methods can produce 185 kilonewtons of lift the Harrier could only manage 106 this increase in direct lift capabilities was vital to making the f-35 a worthy successor to the Harrier as one of the Harriers greatest weaknesses was its limitations in maximum takeoff and landing weight the harrier like the f-35b mostly operated in short takeoff and vertical landing mode the Harrier would point all four of its nozzles at about a 45 degree angle allowing it to produce both horizontal and vertical thrust to take off from shorter runways this allowed it to take off with considerably more waste than it could land with in a vertical landing the empty weight of the f-35b may be thirteen thousand one hundred and fifty-four kilograms compared to the six thousand three hundred and forty kilograms of the Harrier but it more than makes up for that with a maximum takeoff weight of 31 thousand eight hundred kilograms compared to the Harriers fourteen thousand one hundred kilograms that’s an extra 11 tons of waste available to the f-35 for fuel and a munitions something the Harrier had little space for so the f-35 is more than a worthy successor to the Harrier a plane which fetched about 24 million dollars per unit in 1996 or about 39 million adjusted for inflation so incorporating VTOL to the f-35b was just one of many design challenges that pushed the price of the program off ironically despite Boeing’s joule prototype entry being a sticking point for the sf Program the f-35 now comes in three variants each tailored for different branches in the US military the f-35 a is customized for the US Air Force and as such has been designed to take off from conventional runways allowing it to scrap much of the heavy equipment needed for the f-35 be the Marines variant the Marines do not operate out of large aircraft carriers like the Navy and as such their ships like the wasp-class amphibious assault ship have often been referred to as helicopter carriers as no plane other than the Harrier or Osprey have been able to use them this is not the case for the Navy who have large aircraft carriers at their disposal the final variant is the f-35 C which has been designed to satisfy the Navy’s requirements having wings that are about 40% larger than either of its sister variants and its landing gear is much heavier and stronger both of these features were included to allow it to land and take off from aircraft carriers without the need for the vertical propulsion like the f-35b

the larger wings not only allow the f-35c to have the largest fuel capacity of the three but also give it much better lift at slower speeds making landings and takeoffs much easier on the deck of an aircraft carrier while the heavier landing gear allows the plane to survive the rough landings associated with the arresting wire landings on aircraft carriers the f-35 see also incorporates folding wingtips to allow for neat storage inside the ship this expansion into three variants has been a huge source of increased costs and the program likely could have dramatically reduced on spending had it just designed three different planes for three different branches trying to squeeze the needs of these three military branches into a single airframe was never going to be an easy task for the R&D division of Lockheed Martin and forced them to make some concessions in design that have limited them in other areas the brunt of criticism directed at the f-35 is its shortcomings in dog fighting capabilities headlines of the f-35 losing simulated dogfights to cold war-era f-15s and f-16s grabbed many people’s attention and were used to detract from the f-35s advancements we only knew about these issues as a result of a report that leaked to the press let’s take a look at that report to see what this test pilot thought about the f-35 a he flew the primary flaw of this pilot highlighted was the f-35 A’s poor energy maneuverability meaning the f-35 a struggled to maneuver without expending a significant amount of its kinetic energy which is a problem I discussed in more detail in my fighter jet instability video the primary design aspect the pilot pins this on is the smaller wing area and the weaker afterburner thrust of the f-35 in comparison to the f-15e he was accustomed to essentially their issue with the f-35 was that it depleted its kinetic energy stored quicker than its competition we have no reason to believe this pilot was wrong in his findings so what does this mean for the f-35 it is important to note that this was not a fully functional version missing software enabling the plane to detect its foes before they can detect it and was missing radar absorbing paint on top of this the f-35 is not short of trained military aviators who praised the f-35 like US Marine corpse major dan Flatley who helped design the combat training program for f-35 pilots and he has chopped up these issues to old habits of pilots who have spent significant portions of their lives dedicated to older generation planes which were designed with a different philosophy in mind since then the f-35 has performed phenomenally in simulations with the reports up to 22 1 K TRS other pilots who have had more time to become accustomed to the f-35 had more positive things to say like John Beasley the chief test pilot of the f-35 with 22 years of experience as a test pilot at Lockheed Martin and was involved in the development of the f-117 Nighthawk and the f-22 Raptor he claims the f-35 can outmaneuver any US fighter except for the f-22 which was designed specifically as an air superiority machine and is not available for purchase outside of America and actually has a higher unit cost than the f-35 at about a hundred and fifty million dollars it’s hard for me to make a judgment call on this because I have as little information as any other civilian but honestly outside of this one report most pilots who have flown with the f-35 sing its praises John Beasley also makes an important note air combat has always relied on stealth whether it was World War one pilots diving from the Sun at their backs or modern fighters using advanced radar masks in design because in the grand scheme of things in a dogfight the real star that matters is who sees and shoots first and the biggest factor that contributes to that are the onboard sensors and stealth the thing that really sets the f-35 apart is its suite of sensors and computer guidance systems which have been integrated with the user interface of the aircraft unlike any other plane in the history of mankind while sharing that information with the entire force this is what truly makes this plane something to be feared and it all starts with this a little transparent faceted sensor suite containing the infrared imaging and tracking equipment of the aircraft but those are not your typical windows those are made of sapphire and notoriously expensive gemstone one of the few materials that is both hard and durable but also transparent to a broad range of wavelets the imaging data from these sensors can even be fed into the pilots helmet visor which has been enhanced with augmented reality technology this helmet alone costs $400,000 and enables the pilot to look straight through the aircraft and see at night without having

to wear clumsy night-vision goggles the helmet also feeds in data from the multitude of other sensors like the advanced high-frequency radar in the nose of the plane along with data received from sensors from other aircraft and ground-based units the data does not feed into the pilots AR helmet unfiltered though it passes through the on-board computer which performs all the necessary filtering and data analysis and only presents the pilot with the information he really needs this technology is so powerful that even an unarmed f-35 would greatly boost the combat effectiveness of its allies but detection is just one step of that goal of shooting first not being detected is just as important incorporating stealth was just another design challenge and is likely the source of much of the unexpected cost let’s first clear something up despite what you may have otherwise heard stealth does not render a plane undetectable short of not physically existing everything is detectable if we can find and analyze planets billions of light-years away we can detect a plane flying directly overhead stealth purpose is not to make the plane invisible it serves to complicate and delay the enemy’s detection of an aircraft stealth has proven itself invaluable over the past two decades prior to the f-35s inception the f-117 nighthawk flew over 1,300 missions over Iraq during the Gulf War scouring direct hits on over 1600 high-value targets without losing a single aircraft but it was far from perfect Lockheed knew this all too well as the manufacturer of the f-117 in 1999 a Nighthawk was infamously spotted by a radar and subsequently shot down over Serbia the pilot survived but the plane crashed and remained mostly intact handing over a valuable technology to the Russians to reverse-engineer Celt serves a single purpose to avoid detection and the f-117 failed here but it was developed using 1970s era computing technology it’s panels were flat and faceted simply because we did not have the computers capable of analyzing more complicated shapes to optimize stealth early attempts at stealth worked under a fairly simple theory radar works by sending out pulses of electromagnetic waves and waits and listens for reflections the idea behind stealth technology is to not reflect those waves back at the emitter and thus avoiding detection this is why the f-117 is shaped like this each panel has been angled and placed in a way to minimize how much of this energy it will reflect back to the sender it was also coated in a paint that would help absorb some of that electromagnetic radiation a opponents of stealth technology despite its proven track record are quick to point out that long wavelength radar is capable of detecting stealth aircraft the same kind of radar that detected the f-117 over Serbia and the same kind of radar used in the Battle of Britain while this is true these stealth aircraft are optimized to avoid detection of higher frequency radar those opponents rarely mentioned that low frequency long wavelength radar do not provide high fidelity measurements and struggle to pinpoint their location of the aircraft this makes them effective early warning systems but entirely useless for directing missiles while this is certainly not useless it’s not particularly useful in air-to-air combat had the f-117 nighthawk on that night been escorted by its usual squadron of electronic jamming Prowler aircraft the missiles may well have never got a lock this was made worse by the fact the aircraft was flying a regular flight path and so the Serbians knew where to look topping this off the f-117 was designed in an era before sophisticated computational analysis was available and so it took this relatively simplistic flat faceted form the b2 and f-22 however greatly improved on the technology utilizing complex curved shapes which no human could hope to calculate the radar signature of and they have never been shut down the curves diffused those radio waves in many directions rather than reflecting it all in one direction which makes it easier to detect by receivers listening in locations separate to the emitter a fairly standard practice today the f-35 uses the same complex curves to avoid detection by these high-frequency radars and this is likely one of the things driving its development costs up the most stealth technology requires precision beyond any other type of manufacturing this is manageable at small-scale production like that of the b2 and f-22 which had very small production runs the f-35 however is expected to be a mass manufactured aircraft that foreign allies with shallower pockets than the US military will be willing to pay for creating a manufacturing line that requires this level of precision was never going to be panels cannot have gaps between them that cannot be malformed a single

scratch on the radar-absorbing coating will require an entire repaint of the parrot small manufacturing defects have caused recalls on multiple occasions Lockheed is only now starting to comfortably roll the plane off the assembly lines and that is reflected in the lowering price of the aircraft the latest batch of orders have reduced and cost by 5.4 percent for the f-35 a 5.7 for the B variant an 11.1% for the f-35 see leaving us with a unit cost of 89 point two million for an f-35 a a hundred and fifteen point five million for an f-35 B and one hundred and seven point seven million for an f-35 see with the f-35 a expected to drop by a further four point seven percent to 85 million by the end of 2019 this sounds like a shitload of money to the average person like me but we get a clearer picture of these costs when comparing to other fifth-generation fighters like the f-22 Raptor which cost a hundred and fifty million dollars per unit or even looking at the other aircraft it’s going to be replacing I think it’s fair to say that we’ve established that the f-35 is a worthy successor to all of these planes which individually come with their own hefty price tags but the f-35 manages to combine the capabilities of all these aircraft into a single plane yes the development cost of this plane have been astronomical that cannot be denied but much of that money has gone directly back into the American economy then when you consider that the plane is expected to sell up to 4600 units by the end of its lifetime nearly identical to the total f-16 sales figures this will inject more money into the American economy considering a large sum of these orders will be from international exports so is the f-35 worth it’s 115 point five million price tag as an Irish citizen that’s not for me to decide but I can’t say one thing this is a fascinating plane with astounding capabilities this may have been a heavy price to pay but what isn’t is a subscription to curiosity stream at a price of just $2.99 a month with that price you will get access to thousands of documentaries and nonfiction titles like this fantastic history of weapons series not only that you will also get free access to nebula the streaming video platform built by and for independent creators like tear Zoo Lindsay Alice minutephysics Wendover productions and my new channel real science which just launched last week where curiosity stream is all about big-budget non-fiction videos we’re building nebula because we want a place for educational creators to try out new content ideas that might not work on YouTube I’m currently working on a logistics of d-day series and the next episode of real science is already available on there but won’t be on YouTube for another month curiosity stream loves independent creators and wants to help us grow our platform so they’re offering real engineering viewers free access to nebula when you sign up to curiosity stream comm Ford slash real engineering by signing up to curiosity stream you will be helping not just me but the entire educational community as we work together to build a place where we can create content like my logistics of d-day series that would just be too risky to rely on YouTube as always thanks for watching and thank you to all my patreon supporters if you’d like to see more from me the links to my Instagram Twitter subreddit and discord server are below you