Begging once again the question: Who the f#@* believes what is in the papers anymore?
I almost passed on dissecting and documenting the Edmonton Journal’s drivel.. except, well… it’s just such a perfect example of the kind of pap the media pushes out in the public eye on technology topics in general and defense topics in particular. Mea Culpa I guess – I’m compelled to mentally capture the moment whenever the press just ‘phones it in’. Add to the mix a rushing-in to do so for the promotion of an obvious agenda either expecting or hoping no one will notice before the news cycle turns over? Well that just begs a smackdown.
I’m tempted to ‘begin at the beginning’ and do a complete ‘Fisking’ through to the end while disassembling this execrable output from the ‘Anemic Anonymous Aesop(s) of Edmonton’, but that would require me to put FAR more work into the effort of shaming the perpetrator(s) than I’m willing to, or have time to, put into the effort – and obviously many times more effort than they put into the original fable to begin with. Instead I’ve organized this simple, but lengthy critique to eviscerate the editorial’s lynchpin assertions.
The Edmonton Journal Describes a “Spitfire That Never Was”
In an effort to frame his analogy between the Supermarine Spitfire and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the (understandably) unnamed ‘editorialist(s)’ asserts more than a few ‘facts’ concerning the Spitfire that aren’t facts at all. Begin with this paragraph (emphasis mine):
Consider the history of the Second World War's Spitfire. Design began in 1931, an initial contract for 310 was issued by the British government in 1936, the first prototype flew the same years, by 1940 they were rolling off the line at one factory at a rate of almost 60 planes a week, and in 1948 - slightly more than 20,000 aircraft of various version having been produced - the Spitfire went out of production. Price varied, of course, but in 1939 one contract put the sticker at £12,600, or roughly $850,000 in today's terms.
Think about that: in 17 years the Spitfire went from birth to out of production, for a total cost in the range of $17-$20 billion. And it helped win a world war in the meantime.
Compare that with the F-35. As it happens, 17 years has already passed since the first development contract was signed, the cost to the U.S. alone is already estimated at $325 billion,...We’ll take on the highlighted claims in order. Some of them are fabrications, some are worse: half-truths and over simplifications presented without sufficient information to attain a proper perspective. Collectively, the above passage highlights how the entire editorial is factually poor, analytically weak, and analogically inept.
Design of the Spitfire Began in 1933, NOT 1931
Design of a Supermarine aircraft first referred to (internally by Supermarine) as a ‘Spitfire’ began in 1931, but it wasn’t THE legendary Spitfire. It was the monoplane design Supermarine 224, designed to compete for fulfillment of Britain’s F.7/30 requirement. It looked like this:
|Supermarine Type 224|
|The First Spitfire: Type 300 (Prototype K5054)|
It was in 1933 that R.J. Mitchell, the Spitfire’s designer, began radically revising (to the point of being completely different) his earlier drawings. Engine/cooling ideas and metal structure design insights from the earlier effort were brought forward, but the wing, landing gear and fuselage were all different. Supermarine evolved this design on their own until in December 19
The use of 1931 is understandable only if the author had no knowledge of how the aircraft design came about and ignorance as to how Mitchell employed the ‘Type’ designation in the design documentation. It is NOT excusable to use 1931 to create a sham ‘parallel’ to a factoid concerning the F-35 in attempting to fabricate one-half of a faux cosmic ‘irony’ (the other half is the F-35 timeline addressed below). The Type 300 design was made real in what we know as the first Spitfire: the prototype ‘K5054’, built to meet special specification (F.37/34) and already incorporating aspects of an even more advanced specification being drafted at the time (F.10/35).
1940 Spitfire delivery rates 60 per week ….NOT!
The editorialist(s) obviously either don’t understand the difference between being contracted to deliver and actually delivering. Or maybe they didn’t even bother to read Wikipedia -- or if they did, they missed the important bits:
By May 1940, Castle Bromwich had not yet built its first Spitfire, in spite of promises that the factory would be producing 60 per week starting in April. On 17 May Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, telephoned Lord Nuffield and manoeuvered him into handing over control of the Castle Bromwich plant to Beaverbook's Ministry. Beaverbrook immediately sent in experienced management staff and experienced workers from Supermarine and gave over control of the factory to Vickers-Armstrong. Although it would take some time to resolve the problems, in June 1940, 10 Mk IIs were built; 23 rolled out in July, 37 in August, and 56 in September.Castle Bromwich eventually would produce the overwhelming majority of Spitfires compared to any other site, but in 1940 it was still getting up to speed. Including production at the original facilities, the highest average weekly production rate of production seen in 1940 came in November:
I’m in the (very large) camp that believes that in general the delays happened for a combination of reasons, most fell under the responsibility of the contractor, some not. The project was enormous in scale and the contractor relatively small. Production demands required a large outsourcing of work that involved (for that time) advanced complex, and specialized skills, processes and materials. One source notes that expeditiously redrawn engineering source drawings for subcontractors at first induced and then promoted the proliferation of errors. Coordination of the logistics to ensure materials were where they were needed and when they were needed was a task beyond the original contractor management team’s ability. In any case, it took the earnest efforts of both industry and government to get the initial order of 310 Spitfires fulfilled in time to make them available for the looming war.
Spitfire Schedule Slippage and Overruns
The contract for the first 310 aircraft would in the end deliver a few numbers shy of that figure about 8 ½ months (~30%) behind schedule and at higher unit cost (~18-19%). Given the scale of the project and then-advanced construction and metal-working methods involved, this was still a remarkable achievement. As noted above, the ‘shadow factory’ at Bromwich was also late coming on line producing (at first) the evolved Spitfire Mark IIs. Do we need to wonder why the Aesop of Edmonton didn’t mention the cost overrun-late schedule part of the early Spitfire history? There are only two reasons possible, ignorance (by far the most likely) and convenience: either one is pathetically unprofessional in its own way. By ‘unprofessional’ however, I do not mean at all ‘unexpected’.
The F-35’s production rate increases have been delayed by ‘customer’ decisions based upon a variety of reasons asserted (valid or not). The F-35’s contractors have consistently sought to ramp up production as rapidly as possible. Contrast the F-35 situation with that of the Spitfire’s, where the production ramp up was highly ‘encouraged’--without early success-- by the customer.
Spitfire Production Ends in 1948?
We’ll allow the claim that the Spitfire was in production through 1948, but qualification and clarification is required concerning the ‘relevance’ of production after 1945.
The editorialist is apparently omitting the Seafire variant of the theme based upon the use of the ‘slightly more than 20000’ production claim (Seafire production ended in early 1949). If so, then the last of the Mk22/24 Spitfires rolled off the assembly line ‘barely’ in 1948 - on February 24th. However, production between 1945 and 1948 served to keep the industrial base intact more than anything else until Supermarine’s (1944) jet project could get going.
A Spitfire ‘Costs’ WHAT in today's terms?
Try about $ 4.5 Million US…EACH
The assertion that £12,600 in 1939 is “roughly $850,000 in today's terms” is a curious one, as I can find no reliable inflation adjustment/currency conversion combination (US or CDN) and proper approach that comes any closer to than those figures shown in the table that follows, but simply the order of magnitude of the claim indicates the editorialist(s) committed a classic mistake made by non-professionals: They used the wrong calculation (probably CPI/ ‘Basket of Goods’).
|1939-Present CPI Value Adjustment|
In the past less material and labor existed that could be applied to all projects. So to measure the importance of this project (compares to other projects) use the share of GDP indicator.Measuring Worth follows up with a good example of the point made:
In 1931, the Empire State building, a giant of a structure in its day, was built at a cost of $41 million. This may seem inexpensive in today's terms when we compare its cost using the GDP deflator and determine a contemporary cost of $491 million. As a share of the economy, however, an amount of $7.6 billion in 2009 dollars would be the number to use, showing how important this building was in its day.If we’re trying to understand how economically important the Spitfire was in the economy of 1939 and compare that to the same for the F-35 today, and using the VERY** conservative figure of £12,600 (in 1939) the Spitfire would cost £3,110,000.00 in 2010 (latest year data available at Measuring Worth).
**The engine and airframe costs alone for the last Spitfires were ~30% higher than the earliest models. Add to that the increased complexity of the control systems as higher speed models required power boosting and there was a lot more ‘content’ and cost in the last Spitfires.
|Last of the Spitfires: The Mk24|
|1939-Present GDP Share Value Adjustment|
Now, about that ‘total cost’ for the Spitfire... “$17-$20 billion”?
They obviously got the lower number by simply multiplying the 20,000 Spitfires times their incorrectly applied inflation adjusted number of $850,000 (20,000 x $850,000 = $17B) . The correct low number of the range in today’s dollars using the appropriate calculations is ~$90.54B! Would it be putting too fine a point on things for me to note that the Edmonton’s estimate is only about*** ‘82% off’ on the LOW side?
***I’m using the ‘about’ and approximate numbers because it is not at all clear whether the Journal is speaking of Canadian or US dollars but either one would yield roughly the same magnitude.
Edmonton Journal: Spitfire Apples < F-35 Oranges
The second Cardinal Sin in the Edmonton Journal’s cost accounting has to be what occurs when they then compare the under-estimated Spitfire ‘costs’ with the improper AND inflated (not to mention estimated and not yet ‘true’)“$325B” figure claimed as being the F-35 ‘cost’. The $325B number that is bandied about comes from the Air Force (see here) and Navy (pgs 129 & 143) Feb 2012 budget books (see USAF and USN ‘P-40’ Exhibits). Phrasing the assertion “cost to the U.S. alone is already estimated at $325 billion” carries the implication that there is some consensus on the basis for the ‘estimate’--there isn’t—but also leads one to believe the same accounting basis applies to the F-35 numbers as to the Spitfire’s when it doesn’t. The $325B ‘estimate’ includes ALL F-35 costs. The Spitfire’s numbers do not, and there is no way I am aware of to recreate what the missing Spitfire costs actually were. But we can get an idea from observing that the Castle Bromwich factory cost the British government £7M to put in place (BTW: Interesting article used as the source of the £7M figure) . Converting that number from 1939 currency to 2010 and we find it was the equivalent to £1.7B, or (using the June 2010 exchange rate as above) about $2.5B US just to build the factory that built just over half of all Spitfires. What other ‘Billions’ in Spitfire costs are unaccounted for?
The Edmonton Journal’s ‘17 Year’ Straw man Fails in the F-35’s Case As Well
As we have shown that the Spitfire went fewer than 17 years between fielding and production end/obsolescence, so too it can be shown that the F-35 has not been in development for ‘17 years’. No doubt the Journal used the start date of the award to Boeing and Lockheed to build the X-32 and X-35 Technology Demonstrators in late 1996. Unlike the generation-earlier Lightweight Fighter Competition that produced the YF-16 and YF-17, prototypes for what would become the F-16A/B and F/A-18A/B, the X-32 and X-35 were pursued to ensure the critical technologies were sufficiently matured prior to the pursuit of the actual combat aircraft program. That the X-35 demonstrated greater technical maturity was the key to Lockheed Martin being selected to build the F-35. That the X-32’s technology was NOT as mature, to the point that Boeing discovered in the building and flying of the X-32 that their fundamental manufacturing processes and aircraft design would have to be radically changed if their technology was to be subsequently fielded in a combat aircraft, illustrates the reasons for the X-plane designations for both aircraft far better than the X-35 basic design that did not need such radical changes.
The award of the contract to design and build the F-35 in SDD marks the proper start date to use in defining the F-35 timeline for comparison to the Spitfire. That start date was October 26, 2001, when the SDD contracts were awarded to Lockheed and Pratt and Whitney. For the mathematically challenged in journalism, that was about 10.5 years and not 17 years ago.
Additional Data: Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the F-35 program was in April of 2003, and the Critical Design Reviews (CDRs) were held for the F-35A and F-35B were in February 2006. Given the configuration changes between the first aircraft assembled and the post-weight reduction aircraft and the timing of the design reviews, this makes AA-1 (the first F-35A to fly in December of 2006) a de facto ‘prototype’.
“And it helped win a world war in the meantime”…
That snarky little throwaway line is precious. As noted above, the editorialist(s) selectively sidestepped the reasons the Spitfire was in the position it was to be developed and produced for a very long time (in the WW2 sense). It’s longevity, and rightful place in history is owed to the twin facts of:
- The design was most suitable for adaptation to the changing battlespace (higher and faster as the war progressed)
- The urgency for planes was seen before the actual need materialized.
Now I ask the reader: If there was a global conflagration expected in the next 24 months, would there be any doubt that we would be pushing the F-35s into the hands of the aircrews in a manner similar to Britain in the run up to WWII?