Blog, Product Management

F-35 fails part 2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!

F-35 on ground

The F-35 Fighter fails saga

  1. The F-35 Fighter is a huge Product Management mistake
  2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!
  3. How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
  4. Chinese do it better


Lesson number 1 in Product Management: prioritize the most important features for the customer. Leave out all the unnecessary parts and focus on dominating the core designs.

What happens when you break the 1th rule? The F-35 happens.

Like many dramatic stories, it all started with an innocent subterfuge. When the project was still in the initial requirements-collection phase, the Marines insisted that they needed a jet capable of taking off from a short runway and landing vertically (a.k.a STOVL). Their goal was to replace the old Harriers models with the new F-35 Fighter.

The STOVL capability had never been used in any combat scenario because it was useless. Experience showed that helicopters are much more flexible than jets in these situations.

Any wise Product Manager would have taken down a requirement like this for being a) too complex and b) too expensive for the little advantages it introduces.

Instead of doing so, one of the two participants to the public competition for the F-35 manufacture, Lockheed Martin, pushed a strong influence campaign in favor of the STOVL. Why would they do something so dumb? Because they have been investing in vertical landing during the last 20 years (with secret public funds), acquiring a technology advancement that would let them win the competition.

This is how the project started to fall into pieces.


It seems that no one wrote down the user-stories about this revolutionary warplane. They simply started enumerating important things that the plane should have, instead of a smart list of what the plane should do.

The result is a common platform for the three different military corps, despite their very different peculiarities.

The F-35 Lightning II comes in three models, all of them sharing the same fuselage, engine, radar and weapons. The wings and vertical-takeoff gear vary between models. Nevertheless, even though the US Navy’s (F-35 C) and Air Forces’ (F35 A) versions come with traditional takeoff and landing capability, they share the same design problems of the STOVL model.

The top three features are so incompatible that cancel any benefit they introduce.

  • Stealth technology. In order to make the F-35 Fighter invisible to radars, all of its surfaces must be as smooth as possible. The side effect is a plane that cannot carry any additional ordnance nor fuel, becoming less useful in combat.
  • Supersonic. The F-35 can fly faster than sound. Cool. The problem is that supersonic speed heats up the stealth cover, forming bubbles and pebbles. Therefore, every time the plane accelerates a bit, it drastically jeopardizes the stealth capability.
  • STOVL. It is so wrong that the list of negative outcomes is nearly endless. The only technical solution for a supersonic-stealth-STOVL airplane is introducing a massive fan just behind the pilot. Its size obliged the engineering team to increase the total bottom surface of the plane. This solution violates an important aerospace design principle called the area rule, causing a drag increase and consequently decreasing acceleration, fuel efficiency and flying range. The fan space also takes away space from the fuselage (less space for combustible) and bombs. Furthermore, in order to make it lighter, they had to remove the auxiliary security engine. Should I say that it also obstructs the pilot back visibility?

The result of a poor features prioritization is usually a Frankenstein. Or as my football coach used to call our team, a berlina. But after watching the video above, I would conclude that the perfect word is Transformer. Sadly, the F-35 doesn’t come with the cool dinosaur-to-robot conversion capabilities.

The biggest engineering team ever hired for a military project designed this jet. Still, it seems that changing the project leader twice per year in a 10-year project lifespan wasn’t such a good idea…


Keep reading the F-35 Fighter fails saga: the best is yet to come.

  1. The F-35 Fighter is a huge Product Management mistake
  2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize!
  3. How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
  4. Chinese do it better

Photo by Stephen Wilkes.

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