Simanaitis Says

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MY INTERESTS in aviation are few beyond its Golden Age of the 1930s. However, I’m fascinated by the overwhelming technicalities of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. This and following images from

The Internet doesn’t lack for public information on this not uncontroversial aircraft. As examples, see The National Interest, Business Insider and Sofrep News for analyses of the F-35 compared with other U.S. and Russian military aircraft. Also, in VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing), I included the capabilities of the F-35B, a variation dedicated to marine operations.

A video of the Lockheed Martin F-35B shows its VTOL capabilities.

Today’s tidbits are gleaned from the London Review of Books article, March 30, 2017, by Daniel Soar, LRB senior editor.

Soar’s title, “The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built,” tells only part of the tale. Indeed, Soar also suggests that the F-35 series may well be the last of its kind, the last piloted fighter aircraft.

Soar notes that the technicalities of F-35 structure, armament and avionics “have been under development for the last twenty years at a cost of many billions of dollars.” This investment stretches from Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility to its counterparts around the world.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 embodies global sourcing.

Typical of today’s aircraft, the F-35’s design and manufacture are global activities. For example, Britain’s BAE Systems fabricates sections of the aft fuselage, including the tail, in its Lancashire workshop. Soar cites other contributions: “There are aluminum sheets from Milton Keynes, electronic modules from Billingstad, circuit boards from Ankara, hydraulics from Melbourne, wiring systems from Rotterdam, manifolds from Adelaide, wing parts from Turin and actuators from New York.”

In one sense, the billions of dollars are world investments in global security. In another sense, no surprise, costs also make for political fodder. Soar cites a pre-inaugural Trump tweet: “ ‘The F-35 program and cost is [sic] out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.’ ”

Soar continues, “On 30 January, ten days after taking office, Trump announced that he had negotiated $600 million off the price tag of the next batch of F-35s. Lockheed’s CEO chose not to shatter his illusion, but it turned out that the next ninety planes were always going to be cheaper anyway—by between 6 and 7 percent, or $550 and $650 million. The more you build, the cheaper they get, thanks to economies of scale.”

This F-35 livery shows its Joint Strike Fighter identities.

F-35 customers include Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and Turkey. Their pilots receive training in the U.S., on simulators and in real aircraft, at locations such as California’s Edwards Air Force Base. The F-35, according to Soar, “is likely to be around for a very long time—for the next forty years at least.”

Soars observes, “It seems odd, in the age of smartwatches and rapid technological obsolescence, that big lumps of metal can be so very enduring, but that’s the way heavy engineering works…. Machines, once built, are here to stay, and fighter planes are no different.”

Each F-35 pilot has a $400,000 (gulp) custom-fitted carbon-fiber helmet that’s replete with technicalities. Soar describes it: “As well as the usual flight stats that a pilot would see in a traditional heads-up display—airspeed, heading, altitude—the F-35 helmet beams in the pictures gathered by six infrared cameras mounted on the outside of the airframe. This means that just by turning his head, the wearer can see what’s above him, behind him and even below the aircraft’s floor. From his point of view, he’s effectively flying an invisible plane.”

Each AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) costs $400,000, the same as an F-35 pilot’s special-function helmet.

On targeting: “The active radar array will scan a high-resolution image of the area of interest. Then all the pilot needs to do is touch a point on the map and the selected weapon will take it out in seconds. Click. Another hangar gone.”

Soar cites technical superiority of U.S. fighter aircraft in aerial warfare: “The last American fighter jet to be recorded lost to any enemy aircraft was an F/A-18, shot down by an Iraqi MiG in 1991.”

Aerial warfare has progressed to the point that, as Soar observes, “it isn’t clear how much future there is in piloted warplanes. The combined marketing muscle of all the Lockheeds, Boeings, and Raytheons in the world has failed to come up with any definition of what a ‘sixth generation’ fighter would be. This, it appears, is the end of the line.”

Which reminds me of a sci-fi tale I read years before the advent of drones: In the far-off future, an arms race of super-sophisticated robo-fighting machines has escalated beyond any economic sense. Until a clever militarist suggests something revolutionary—and apparently more expendable: human pilots. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Philippe de Lespinay
    April 6, 2017

    And the Trumpster is right, a $400K helmet is a bit stupid when the best helmets in the world are FIA certified auto racing lids and they RETAIL for around $5K. They can be fitted with all the electronics on the planet for another $10K at most.
    So whoever is making those expensive hats need to justify their cost to the taxpayer without the wink-wink to their senators.

    The basic cost of the aircraft is also LUDICROUS, and should be less than 1/4 of what the manufacturing companies have represented. R&D is one thing, a sheet of aluminum of a piece of carbon fiber or any Inconel turbine blade is not solid gold, and should no longer be represented as such.
    The American taxpayer is and has been ripped for too long, and I applaud the very idea of telling the profiteers in the weaponry business, that if they want to stay in that business, maybe they should begin to dine at the same restaurants and stay at the same hotels as “We the People” do.

    Funny that I had the same conversation 50 years ago with a certain J.L. Lagardere, formerly of MATRA, later of EADS ( a neat way to get around national and international laws) and who died in certainly mysterious circumstances at a time when the French, well, EADS, were illicitly selling missiles to Iraq.

  2. Michael Rubin
    April 6, 2017

    Ahem. Trumpeter was bloviting, as is his want. You can read anything you want — unattributed or maliformed supposition is abundant. These planes do cost too much but part of the problem is too many customers, each with their own set of options that wind up on the finished product. Also, chat with yr congresspersons who each make demands on where and how such craft are developed and continue to fund projects the military has repeatedly said it doesn’t want.

    As for helmets, I’ll guess the helmet worn by Lewis Hamilton lacks most of complex electronic/avionics and weapon control elements worn by pilots of these warplanes.

    Sigh. I originally started to just note that lovely Milton Keynes, home of Red Bull F1 and multiple classic car restoration shops, produced part of the plane and wonder if they chatted with the racing folk in the area about carbon composites.

    • simanaitissays
      April 6, 2017

      Philippe, Michael,
      I thank you both for amplifying on my choice of words “not uncontroversial.”

  3. Mike B
    April 6, 2017

    I forget the name of it, but there was another scifi story I saw that had a time warp where a VTOL supersonic fighter somehow ended up in WW1, and tried to operate against the things in use then (Spads, Fokkers, etc.) using kerosene for fuel. Not possible. Too fast, can’t turn quickly enough, the little wood & fabric things didn’t show up on radar, missiles just went through them without exploding, etc. And the best one: almost totally useless, because no guns. The only useful weapon was the sonic boom. Don’t remember the ending, whether another time warp was found or if the whole mess got cut up for soda cans (or whatever else aluminum and titanium might have been used for at the time). The story was quite a few years ago, I think around early Harrier days. But it sure sounds like a preview of the F35!

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