The Times ran today with a story suggesting that the JSF is over budget, fails to work on a range of issues and that it is fundamentally not fit for its intended purpose. Is this fair, or is this the latest round of rumour mongering on a project that has long split opinions? More to the point, in an era of ‘fake news’, what version of the truth should we believe?
The problem with stories such as this is that they capture very specific snapshots of an issue, are roughly stapled together with some narrative to form a story, and in turn this can be spun as the author sees fit. It is clear that the Times has managed to unearth documents purporting to show big price rises, reduced capability and issues with testing, but does this mean the programme itself is at fault?
In truth the likelihood is that no one outside of a fairly tight circle really knows or understands. We have to be clear on what JSF is – it is by a significant margin probably the most complicated multi-national aviation project of all time, designed to deliver an aircraft that is as much an ISTAR platform as it is a strike and fighter aircraft, and to do so across three very different environments (carrier operations, STOVL operations and conventional). Designed in the mid 1990s it has been brought into service during an era of unprecedented technological change and capability growth.
The first thing we have to realise is that this makes for a very complicated project that in all likelihood will be in service for multiple decades to come. The pilot of the last F35 to be manufactured, let alone leave service, probably hasn’t been born yet. This in turn means there is a need for a complex testing programme to bring together the many capabilities it has to deliver.
Military aircraft testing to the uninitiated is a terrifying process – if you could see the faults encountered and experienced during the testing of a new aircraft then you’d probably never want to fly in one. But these tests exist to iron out bugs, to make sure aspiration links up to reality and more importantly fix them as they are encountered. It is by necessity a slow process, particularly when working with multiple variants of the same airframe.
If you look in isolation at documentation supporting the programme then of course it would be easy to look at tests and worry that it wasn’t working. But unless you sit inside the inner group, privy to all the data, all the tests and more importantly the planned solutions, it is difficult to make an objective assessment.
Similarly much of what F35 is capable of remains exceptionally highly classified – and rightly so. Therefore much of what goes on is known to few, and unlikely to ever be publicly discussed for fear of compromising capability. This creates a window of opportunity for naysayers without any real deep link to the project to say ‘X is broken because of Y and can’t do Z’, while those on the inside are frustratedly thinking ‘actually X isn’t broken, Y is just fine because of tweaks made to C,D and Q, and it can do Z and then some’ – but they can’t break this silence because of their obligations to various Secrecy laws across many countries.
What is clear from the twitter response today is that the article caused much frustration, and the responses boiled down to experienced operators who know the aircraft, know its capabilities (and limitations), and who know what is going on react with barely concealed frustration at the article. It was clear they felt it was not a 100% accurate interpretation of events, but their ability to comment knowledgeably was limited.
Humphrey has a couple of points that he’d apply to this and other stories that are worth considering when asking ‘who should I believe’? Firstly, always ask whether figures involving money are genuinely accurate – for instance the cost quoted purporting to show things doubling involved taking the headline purchase cost and comparing to its expected through life cost. This is akin to buying a car – if a car costs £10,000, then that’s a clear headline cost. But if you said ‘the car is lifed for five years, and will incur monthly running costs for insurance, parking permits, servicing, MOT, road tax of £100, and monthly petrol costs of £50, then suddenly that £10,000 car becomes a £19000 car once these additional costs are factored in. Always seek to question what sum of money is being quoted and why.
Secondly always ask who is providing the criticism and what is their viewpoint? The Times managed to dig out several critics of the F35 programme who attacked the information provided to them. What it didn’t do was note that these critics have been attacking just about every aircraft programme since the 1970s as being too expensive (just look at any book from the 1980s about aircraft, such as ‘New Maginot Line’ to prove this point) that some of them have personal agendas in wanting very specific types of aircraft built, and that none of them are privy to the actual full picture of what is going on. In other words, the critics are relying on their biases for ‘shock tactics’ when in fact they are hugely biased for their own views and have a clear agenda in play.
So, ask yourself – who is saying this, why are they saying this and what is their agenda? Humphrey makes a point of checking the public background information on people who claim to be ‘experts’ on issues, particularly when the media cite them as such. It helps distinguish from genuine experts who are worth listening to, to former junior RN officers who feel their knowledge of one minor part of the Service makes them an expert on all things maritime…
Finally ask yourself ‘who has leaked these documents and why’? In other words, when journalists start getting leaked documents to examine, there is usually an ulterior motive by the leaker – sometimes it is genuine concern, other times potentially hope of gain. Many whistle-blowers do so out of a deep sense of worry that something will go wrong – but often they are junior and don’t have access to the full picture. It is rare indeed for senior whistle-blowers to leak to the press on a project, perhaps because when you see the bigger picture, things become more complicated. So always ask why might specific documents have been leaked – for instance if a defence spending round is underway, the MOD is legendary for ‘cap badge politics’ of officers photocopying selectively to send to various defence journalists to advance their own Service cause – regardless of what is actually going on.
The longer term ramifications of this story though are depressing. It has undermined the Royal Navy and helps hurt morale of those serving. It feeds those on social media who genuinely now believe that the UK is buying a subspec aircraft. More depressingly it increases the clarion calls to ‘bring back harrier’ because apparently bringing a long dead aircraft without an extant supply chain, spare parts, flying training pipeline and up to date equipment is far more sensible than buying the best strike jet in the world which has massive operational and economic benefits for the UK. The damage to the RN reputation will continue for years to come with cheap jibes about ‘volvo frigates’ and ‘useless JSF’ by people who have no idea about the subject or issues at hand.
To sum up then, when you read stories like in the Times today, don’t write them off, don’t assume they are rubbish. But equally question more deeply and understand the motivations behind the story and question the story itself. If in doubt, question everything you see and read and ask yourself this simple question ‘why is it that this story is in the paper today, and why did someone see fit to leak it in order to be here’? This way you should help build your own version of the Truth.