By Ryan Faith
The F-35 Lighting II is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the human race, and production is now being kicked into high gear. The main Lockheed Martin factory for the F-35, located in Fort Worth, Texas, is beginning the long ramp-up to get to full-scale production, which is expected by 2019. The F-35 is supposed to replace in whole or in part a large number of different aircraft types and is intended to operate for at least 50 years.
So, naturally, one of the very first things people want to know is whether or not the plane is any damned good. The US taxpayer is footing a bill that, over the next several decades, will run several hundred billion dollars and involve buying a couple thousand aircraft, and critics have complained that the jack-of-all-trades F-35 is a master of none.
In a bid to get a handle on that, VICE News went to Naval Air Station Patuxent River (a.k.a. Pax River) in Maryland to talk to some F-35 test pilots and get a fundamental grip on why and how the plane will be used. The Navy is the second-biggest customer of the plane, after the US Air Force and before the Marines and several allied nations. It plans to replace most of its F-18 Hornets with it.
US Navy Commander Christian “Wilson” Sewell, a top Navy F-35 test pilot at Pax River, is happy with his new ride. “I love the F-18, I grew up with the F-18, I’m a Hornet baby, but bottom line is that I’d take the F-35 into combat,” said Sewell, who until a few weeks ago also ran a lot of the F-35 testing program.
But taking a machine into combat means many things. As you might expect, there are a ton of contentious (but not always well-informed) arguments about whether the F-35 is good, bad, or indifferent. But often those arguments miss the most basic question: What is the plane actually supposed to do?
To suss that out, it’s best to start with the late Colonel John Boyd of the US Air Force, and his OODA Loop. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, and it’s a pretty decent model of how people or organizations make decisions (in war, business, and everything else).
There is a lot of nuance baked into the model, but a super simplified version of the OODA Loop is that first, some event occurs and someone notices it (Observe). That person then gets busy positioning herself mentally and physically to figure out why she gives a damn and what the hell she’s supposed to think about all this (Orient). Now that she’s facing the event, she chooses some course of action (Decide) and then actually does whatever it is she’s going to do (Act). This action creates some sort of effect out there in the world. Whatever happens next is the new event that kicks off the cycle again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Picture: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julianne Showalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons