The $300+ billion, multi-national F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest single military program in history. It’s also reaching a critical nexus. In order to keep costs under control and justify the industrial ramp up underway, participating countries need to sign order agreements soon. The problem is that the F-35 isn’t a proven fighter design, with a demonstrated baseline of performance in service. It’s a developmental aircraft in the early middle of its test program, which is now scheduled to continue until 2018 or even 2019.
As one might expect, this status makes the F-35 a controversial long-term bet in many of the program’s member countries. Costs aren’t certain, numbers ordered are slipping in many countries, and timelines aren’t certain after numerous schedule delays. With combat testing still a year or 2 away, even operational performance isn’t certain. That performance is a big deal to many air forces that expect to field the F-35 as their only fighter.
This article takes a much closer look at the F-35’s real air superiority potential and weaknesses, from the 2008 RAND Pacific Vision study that triggered so much controversy, to other analyses and subsequent developments. Understanding and their implications for partner nation participation has only grown in importance since 2008. Let us begin…
What the F-35 is trying to do
Kill chain background
The larger picture re: stealth
F-35: September 2008’s Australian Altercation
September 2008 featured a very public set of controversies around the F-35’s air combat performance. Many partner countries were beginning to make decisions about their long-term needs, so the altercation in Australia became a controversy with implications, and responses, that reached well beyond that continent’s shores. The RAND study that triggered it didn’t specifically address the F-35, but it does have implications for the F-35’s projected performance – and for the heart of the USAF’s current fighter force concept.
On Sept 11/08, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon had asked for a full report from Australia’s DoD, in response to public reports that a classified computer simulation of an attack by Russian-built SU-30 family aircraft on a mixed fleet of F-35As, Super Hornets and F-22s, had resulted in success for the Russian aircraft. Fitzgibbon, who questioned the strategic logic behind Australia’s plans for an F-35/ F-18F fighter fleet while in opposition, asked for an Australian Department of Defence review, and added that:
“I’m determined not to sign on the dotted line on the JSF until I am absolutely certain it’s capable of delivering the capability it promises and that capability can be delivered on time and on budget.”
On Sept 12/08, Australia’s opposition Liberal Party waded into the fray in support of its previous decision to buy the F-35A. It asked the new minister to release the results of the recent Air Combat Capability Review, and get on with his decision.
Even so, the timing of this contretemps could not have been worse from Lockheed Martin’s perspective. Just 3 days earlier, the left-wing American Center for Defense Information had released “Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot in the U.S. Defense Meltdown.” Its commentary echoed some items that were in the RAND study, though those items were not the study’s focus. Lockheed Martin and the USAF soon countered, and the controversy became an international issue.
In order to really understand that controversy, one must first look at what the RAND report did and did not say. Fortunately, that is now possible, thanks to a leaked and posted copy. The subsequent controversies involving CDI, Lockheed Martin, et. al. will make more sense in this context. Once the various claims and counter-claims are clear, it becomes possible to evaluate their strengths and gaps, then match that to potential impacts on the larger F-35 program, and its sales.
Australian Altercation: RAND’s Pacific Vision Study
“Recently, articles have appeared in the Australian press with assertions regarding a war game in which analysts from the RAND Corporation were involved. Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft”
That last assertion is true. On the other hand, DID managed to obtain a copy of the RAND Power Point briefing. When the full briefing is read, RAND’s study does have implications for the F-35. They are decidedly mixed.
RAND is correct that their study did not attempt any adjudication of air combat. Indeed, its assumptions of perfect missile attack by American F-22 fighters, and similarly perfect missile defense by F-22s, were designed to remove this very issue from the equation. When F-35s did participate in the analysis, the full range of “missile kill probability” figures from 1% to 100% were offered as “what if” tools, without making predictions or distinctions based on either side’s aircraft.
The core problem in Pacific Vision 2008 was that even an invulnerable American fighter force ran out of missiles before it ran out of targets, at any number below 50% of missile firings resulting in kills. Whereupon the remaining Chinese fighters would destroy the American tankers and AWACS aircraft, guaranteeing that the USAF’s F-22As would run out of fuel and crash before they could return to Guam.
To reiterate: RAND’s core conclusion is not about specific fighter performance. It’s about the theoretical limits of better performance under adverse basing and logistics conditions. RAND’s Project Air Force argues, persuasively, that based on history and current trends, numbers still matter – and so does the “Lanchester square.” That’s the theory under which the combat performance of an outnumbered combatant must be the square of the outnumbering ratio (outnumbered 3:1 must be 9x better, etc.) just to stay even.
Or, as the oft-repeated Cold War era saying goes, “quantity has a quality all its own.”
F-35: Air to Air Analyses
The belief in quantity could be seen as a point in the F-35’s favor, when comparing it to its implicit F-22 as a rival for USAF dollars. Even so, it’s prudent to note that the RAND study revolved around total missiles carried, and the F-35’s internal capacity will be no larger than half of the F-22’s (no more than 4 missiles, vs. 8 in the F-22A). Equivalent air-air missile capacity at each aircraft’s maximum stealth configuration thus requires at least twice as many F-35s as F-22s. Plus the cost of the extra aerial tankers and other infrastructure required for long-range missions.
The RAND study also spends a great deal of time on the core American assumptions concerning “beyond visual range” air to air combat, and the current and future capabilities of SU-30 family aircraft. The implications of its examination do affect the F-35’s fighting qualities – and they will be significant to some of the plane’s potential customers.
RAND’s discussion begins by predicting poorer beyond visual range missile kill performance than current models suggest when facing capable enemy aircraft, observing that BVR missile kills since the 1990s generally involved poorly-equipped targets. It also notes the steep rise and then drop in modern infrared missile performance, as countermeasures improved.
Meanwhile, key radar advances are already deployed in the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile systems, and existing IRST (infra-red scan and track) systems deployed on advanced Russian and European fighters are extending enemy detection ranges against radar-stealthy aircraft. Fighter radar pick-up capability of up to 25 nautical miles by 2020 is proposed against even ultra-stealthy aircraft like the F-22, coupled with IRST ability to identify AMRAAM missile firings and less infrared-stealthy aircraft at 50 nautical miles or more.
The F-35’s lower infrared and radar stealth levels mean that these advances will affect it more than they’ll affect the F-22. Especially if one assumes a fighter aircraft whose prime in-service period stretches to 2050.
The clear implication of the RAND study is that the F-35 is very likely to wind up facing many more “up close and personal” opponents than its proponents suggest, while dealing with effective beyond-visual-range infrared-guided missiles as an added complication. Unlike the F-22, the F-35 is described as “double inferior” to modern SU-30 family fighters within visual range combat; thrust and wing loading issues are summed up in one RAND background slide as “can’t [out]turn, can’t [out]climb, can’t [out]run.”
America: The Argument Room
Some of these criticisms were echoed in the left-wing American Center for Defense Information’s Sept 8/08 briefing “Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot in the U.S. Defense Meltdown.” This analysis by Pierre M. Spey, a key member of the F-16 and A-10 design teams, cast sharp doubt on the F-35’s capabilities:
“Even without new problems, the F-35 is a ‘dog.’ If one accepts every performance promise the DoD currently makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be: “Overweight and underpowered: at 49,500 lb (22,450kg) air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 lb of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight ratio for a new fighter… [F-35A and F-35B variants] will have a ‘wing-loading’ of 108 lb per square foot… less manoeuvrable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 ‘Lead Sled’ that got wiped out over North Vietnam… payload of only two 2,000 lb bombs in its bomb bay… With more bombs carried under its wings, the F-35 instantly becomes ‘non-stealthy’ and the DoD does not plan to seriously test it in this configuration for years. As a ‘close air support’… too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces for sustained periods… What the USAF will not tell you is that ‘stealthy’ aircraft are quite detectable by radar; it is simply a question of the type of radar and its angle relative to the aircraft… As for the highly complex electronics to attack targets in the air, the F-35, like the F-22 before it, has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based air-to-air combat that has fallen on its face many times in real air war. The F-35’s air-to-ground electronics promise little more than slicker command and control for the use of existing munitions.”
On Sept 18/08, Lockheed Martin fired back in “F-35: Setting the Record Straight.” It takes direct aim at both the Australian press reports, and the CDI article, noting that external weapons clearance is indeed part of the F-35’s current test program. Lockheed Martin added that:
“…The Air Force’s standard air-to-air engagement analysis model, also used by allied air forces to assess air-combat performance, pitted the 5th generation F-35 against all advanced 4th generation fighters in a variety of simulated scenarios… In all F-35 Program Office and U.S. Air Force air-to-air combat effectiveness analysis to date, the F-35 enjoys a significant Combat Loss Exchange Ratio advantage over the current and future air-to-air threats, to include Sukhois… In stealth combat configuration, the F-35 aerodynamically outperforms all other combat-configured 4th generation aircraft in top-end speed, loiter, subsonic acceleration and combat radius. This allows unprecedented “see/shoot first” and combat radius advantages.
The high thrust-to-weight ratios of the lightweight fighter program Wheeler/Sprey recall from 30 years ago did not take into consideration combat-range fuel, sensors or armament… We do consider all of this in today’s fighters…
…Simply put, advanced stealth and sensor fusion allow the F-35 pilot to see, target and destroy the adversary and strategic targets in a very high surface-to-air threat scenario, and deal with air threats intent on denying access — all before the F-35 is ever detected, then return safely to do it again.”
Note that Lockheed Martin’s release does not address infrared stealth against modern IRST (infra-red scan and track) air to air systems, which are present on advanced European and Russian fighters. The F-35 will use a clever system that circulates fuel near the aircraft skin to remove some frictional heat, but it still has a 40,000 pound thrust turbofan in the back, and Russian IRST designs already have ranges from 50 km (OLS35, head on) to 90 km (OLS35, rear). Nor does it make any claims concerning superior maneuverability against thrust-vectoring opponents like Russia’s MiG-29OVT and the most modern members of the SU-30 family, or canard-equipped “4.5 generation” aircraft like the Dassault Rafale, EADS Eurofighter, or Saab’s Gripen.
Can these statements be reconciled – and if not, which of them are incorrect? Some of the F-35 program’s success could hinge on the answers to those questions.
Part of the problem is that both the CDI’s analysis, and Lockheed Martin’s reply, are incomplete.
Spey has undertaken a similar analysis of the F-22A Raptor for CDI, but aircraft pilots have said that his analysis in key areas like maneuverability is poorly done, and does not match provable reality. Spey’s wing-loading model claimed superiority for the F-15, when the F-22 has significantly better instantaneous and sustained turning capabilities (28 degrees sustained, vs. 21/15-16 degrees per second instantaneous/ sustained). This justifies strong caution in accepting Spey’s F-35 analysis, and Lockheed Martin’s reply offers additional reasons for doubt. In fairness to Spey, it should also be said that combat experience with his A-10 aircraft in Afghanistan etc. does back up his contentions concerning the limitations of fast jets, and the capabilities required for close air support.
The F-35’s problem is that concrete reasons could be advanced to explain why Spey’s F-22 aerodynamic analysis parameters were wrong, such as the Raptor’s thrust vectoring and controllable tail surfaces to offset Spey’s unidimensional wing loading analysis, the tactical implications of having the ability to cruise above Mach 1 without afterburners, and stealth that has defeated AWACS aircraft and worked against international fighter pilots even at relatively short ranges. F-22 pilots have also racked up incredibly lopsided kill ratios in American and international exercises, far in excess of “normal” performance for new aircraft, that back up their pilots’ performance claims.
This is all much harder to do for the F-35, which remains a developmental aircraft and lacks key aerodynamic features like combat thrust vectoring (Harrier, SU-30 family, MiG-29OVT, F-22A), canards for fast “point and shoot” maneuvers with high off-boresight short-range missiles (some SU-30 family, Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen), or loaded supersonic cruise (F-22A). The F-35 has also been designed from the outset to feature less stealth than the F-22A, though it will be stealthier than contemporary 4.5 generation European and Russian aircraft.
The F-35’s explicit design goal has been stated as being the F-16’s equal in in air to air combat, at a time when the F-16’s future ability to survive in that arena is questioned. The question naturally arises: what special features give the F-35 a unique ability to prevail against the kind of advanced, upgraded 4.5 generation and better fighters that it can be expected to face between its induction, and a likely out of service date around 2050 or later?
Classified simulations whose assumptions are shielded from the public may indeed demonstrate the attested results, but their foundations are outside any public scrutiny, and amount to a claim that must be taken on faith. That may not be very convincing in the political sphere. Especially since models of this type have been very wrong before, due to the well-known phenomenon of incorrect or missing assumptions producing results that don’t match the test of battle. Meanwhile, aircraft intake size and hence volume are set unless the aircraft is redesigned. Wing size, angle and loading can all be observed, and conclusions drawn.
Hence Lockheed Martin’s limited success in the public relations sphere. Aviation Week’s veteran journalist Bill Sweetman, for instance, greeted Lockheed Martin’s September 2008 air superiority claims with a reaction best described as incredulity:
“Moreover, it’s made just as Graham Warwick reports (subscription) that Maj. Richard Koch, chief of USAF Air Combat Command’s advanced air dominance branch, stated last week: “I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of the F-35 going in with only two air-dominance weapons.” There is surely a universe where these two statements are compatible, but we don’t live there… If the F-35 can really do all that, why did the USAF spend billions on supercruise, rear-aspect stealth and supermaneuverability (the reason for 2D vectoring nozzles) for the F-22? And does this mean that the all-aspect/wideband LO tech on the B-2 and X-47B UCAS is superfluous?”
(click to view video)
In a follow-on October 2008 article however, Sweetman described a possible air-to-air feature that may offer a partial explanation for Lockheed Martin’s claims. As RAND noted, improvements in countermeasures have affected infrared missile kill probabilities, and this system has yet to be tested in realistic combat scenarios involving multi-spectral flares, etc. With that said:
“[The F-35’s AN/AAQ-37 Electro-Optical Distributed Aperture System] comprises six fixed, wide-angle infrared cameras that constantly image the entire sphere around the F-35… and one of its functions is to provide imagery to the VSI helmet-mounted display… one of the DAS’ most interesting capabilities is that it can constantly track every aircraft in the sky, out to its maximum range… covers the within-visual-range envelope… it stares, never looking away from any target, and it has optical accuracy, with megapixel-class resolution… Moreover, DAS is expected to track with enough accuracy and tenacity to permit a safe high-off-boresight, lock-on-after-launch (LOAL) missile shot with any datalink-equipped missile. Indeed, Northrop Grumman’s DAS business development leader, Pete Bartos – who was part of the initial USAF JSF requirements team – says that this was basic to the F-35 design and the reason that it did not need maneuverability similar to the F-22. Rather than entering a turning fight at the merge, the F-35 barrels through and takes an over-the-shoulder defensive shot. As a Northrop Grumman video puts it, “maneuvering is irrelevant”.”
This feature would also explain the F-35’s 1960s-style cockpit with its limited rear visibility. Despite its stealth benefits, analysts like Pierre Spey have seen it as a retrograde step – one that disregards the air-to-air combat lessons that drove bubble cockpit designs on America’s “teen series” (F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18) fighters.
The HMDS helmet-mounted display is supposed to solve that problem electronically, by drawing on the plane’s sensors. Using HMDS and DAS, a pilot looking down can even “look right through” the floor!
Unfortunately, HMDS is one of the fighter’s most problematic components as of 2014, and the aircraft design’s single point of failure dependence turns any HMDS problems into aircraft-crippling faults.
F-35: Decisions, Decisions
All of which leaves many a defense ministry or and politician asking one key question, as they prepare to place a big bet on their future air force:
“Will all of this work?”
The truth is, they won’t know. Ultimately, solid proof comes from use in combat against peer opponents. Israel’s nuclear program removed that perennial testing ground, by ending the consistent string of conventional wars that were the globe’s top data source. Nor has any other source for that kind of peer conflict data emerged since the 1990s. If the F-35 lacks that kind of backing, well, so do all of its competitors.
These days, an imperfect but acceptable substitute may be available via performance in multinational exercises like Red Flag or Indra Dhanush, where some of the opponents will have less institutional incentive to soft-pedal comparative performance claims in the name of a united organizational front. That hasn’t happened for the F-35, and the state of its software programs ensures that it probably cannot happen before 2020.
Which brings us to the time factor.
Competitively tested performance, and firm costs, are both some years away. Yet many defense departments around the world will need to make decisions before that evidence becomes available. Hence the current political conundrums in country after country, and the tension that inevitably surrounds any program of this size before key commitments are made.
As Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman put it in an August 2008 article:
“If the JSF program succeeds in locking up its international partners, the project could be within reach of its goal of an F-16-like, mid-four-digit production run… But if JSF falls short of its goals – as almost every major military aircraft program has in the past 25 years – it will throw the re-equipment plans of a dozen air arms into disarray.”
As it happens, that air to air dimension will not be a priority for every customer.
Some customers may be quite satisfied with a manned fighter that offers good international/NATO commonality, the ability to perform basic airspace sovereignty duties, good survivability against medium to advanced air defenses if encountered, off the shelf surveillance and targeting capabilities that exceed all other contemporary fighters, and the ability to carry enough weapons to support international missions against opponents up to the level of Serbia or al-Qaeda and the Taliban. For those countries, even an F-35 that matched Spey’s characterization might well suffice.
Questions of industrial benefits and costs, rather than air to air capabilities, will dominate fighter replacement discussions in those countries. The F-35 program has already seen a 54.4% increase in overall program costs per aircraft delivered from 2001 to the present day, and the US GAO believes that another 14.5% rise to about $327 billion for 2,456 American fighters could still lie ahead. If the GAO is correct, it would place the fully-loaded program cost of each F-35 at $137 million. That price is not at all the same as the “flyway cost” of buying an individual aircraft, but it does affect program partners if the USA isn’t prepared to bear those additional program costs alone. Or if rising costs force the USA to slash its own procurement numbers yet again, a move that would affect the aircraft’s production economies of scale and learning curves.
Budgetary and industrial concerns will always be part of the debate, but some customers may also have stricter performance requirements to deal with.
If a country needs aircraft to operate from small aircraft carriers or amphibious assault LHDs, the AV-8 Harrier’s age and projected phase-out plans will make the F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off, Vertical Landing) their only non-Russian option. Customers in this category already include the US Marine Corps, Italy, Spain, and Thailand. Australia and South Korea are both fielding ships that could be used to host STOVL fighter jets if they wished, and the number of countries in that category seems set to grow as LHD amphibious assault ships and small carriers become more popular. Unless they’re prepared to buy Russian, add ski-jumps, and install arresting gear, as India is doing to fly MiG-29Ks, the choice boils down to having fighter jet launch capability from those platforms – or not.
On the flip side, if maintaining regional or local air superiority is a priority mission for any replacement fighter, then aerial performance against enemy aircraft becomes extremely important.
This is certainly true for the US Navy’s carrier fleet, for Australia’s RAAF, for Israel’s IAF, and to a lesser extent for the future British Navy. When addressing these customers, Lockheed Martin must either depend on political inertia or limited export choices – or advance plausible, non-classified rationales that explain why its F-35s will perform as an air superiority fighter.
Australia may have been the first potential customer to raise the issue this openly in the political sphere. It is unlikely to be the last.
Postscripts and Updates
click for video
Feb 3/14: F-22s needed. USAF Air Combat Command’s veteran leader, Gen. Michael Hostage, offers an interview answer that ignites much more controversy than he expected. After firmly stating that he intends to defend every single one of the 1,763 F-35As in the program, and adding that “adversaries are building fleets that will overmatch our legacy fleet, no matter what I do, by the middle of the next decade”, he’s asked about expensive upgrades to the F-22:
“A. The F-22, when it was produced, was flying with computers that were already so out of date you would not find them in a kid’s game console…. I have to… try to get modern technology into my legacy fleet. That is why the current upgrade programs to the F-22 I put easily as critical as my F-35 fleet. If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22. Because I got such a pitifully tiny fleet [of under 200 F-22As], I’ve got to ensure I will have every single one of those F-22s as capable as it possibly can be.”
Gen. Hostage’s views are more complex than this, and his ideas concerning “the combat cloud” with F-35s as its backbone are especially interesting. His position is also operationally prudent. The problem is that Lockheed Martin and the USAF have been selling the F-35 as an air superiority aircraft. Meanwhile, outside commenters have been skeptical based on design tradeoffs and test data, and pointed to fighter design advances outside the program. Now, the head of USAF ACC has just confirmed their skepticism. Can a political military and industry handle that? Sources: Defense News, “Interview: Gen. Michael Hostage, Commander, US Air Force’s Air Combat Command” | The Aviationist, “”If we don’t keep F-22 Raptor viable, the F-35 fleet will be irrelevant” Air Combat Command says” | Canada’s National Post, “Canada’s multi-billion dollar F-35s ‘irrelevant’ without U.S.-only F-22 as support, American general says” || Breaking Defense (2013), “Why Air Force Needs Lots Of F-35s: Gen. Hostage On The ‘Combat Cloud’”.
May 16/13: Australia. During Parliamentary hearings [PDF] of Australia’s Joint Committee On Foreign Affairs, Defence And Trade, RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown discusses some aspects of the F-35’s air-to-air performance. MP Dr. Dennis Jensen [Lib – Tangey] began the exchange by asking him about Air Power Australia’s correct predictions of aerodynamic performance ratings like sustained turn rate, which have been downgraded below the fighter’s original specifications. Air Marshal Brown’s reply includes a valid point about turning engagements:
“In any practice engagement I have had in the last 20 years where I have turned with another aeroplane in a bigger picture environment – rather than the static one by ones, two by twos or four by fours – every time I have tried to do that I have ended up being shot by somebody else who actually is not in the fight. As soon as you enter a turning fight, your situational awareness actually shrinks down because the only thing you can be operating with is the aeroplane you are turning with. The person who has the advantage is the person who can stand off, watch the engagement and just pick you off at the time. So you got to be really careful about how you use those KPIs.”
There are plenty of recorded instances where turning fights don’t get people shot down, but they are inherently dangerous – and modern short-range missiles make them more dangerous. If one takes Brown’s point as a given, F-22s are ideally suited to using his approach. The F-35’s lower level of side and rear stealth, and lower aerodynamic performance, make his recommended engage-at-will approach problematic. The Air Marshal also made a point about sensor fusion, however, which the F-35 has. But is the differentiator here really sensor fusion – or just an all-angles stealth level that rendered the F-15D’s radar useless?
“…the ability to actually have that data fusion that the aeroplane has makes an incredible difference to how you perform in combat. I saw it first hand on a Red Flag mission in an F15D against a series of fifth-generation F22s. We were actually in the red air. In five engagements we never knew who had hit us and we never even saw the other aeroplane…. After that particular mission I went back and had a look at the tapes on the F22, and the difference in the situational awareness in our two cockpits was just so fundamentally different. That is the key to fifth-generation. That is where I have trouble with the APA analysis…. To me that is key: it is not only stealth; it is the combination of the EOS and the radar to be able to build a comprehensive picture. In that engagement I talked about at Nellis, in Red Flag, the ability to be in a cockpit with a God’s-eye view of what is going on in the world was such an advantage over a fourth-generation fighter – and arguably one of the best fourth-generation fighters in existence, the F15. But even with a DRFM jamming pipe, we still had no chance in those particular engagements. And at no time did any of the performance characteristics that you are talking about have any relevance to those five engagements.”
Feb 11/13: Eurofighter. A veteran Eurofighter test pilot doesn’t see the logic behind Lockheed Martin test pilot Bill Flynn’s claim (q.v. Feb 7/13) that an F-35 will beat any 4+ generation aircraft, including the Eurofighter Typhoon:
“The F-35 thrust to weight ratio is way lower [than Eurofighter] and its energy-manoeuvrability diagrams match those of the F/A-18…. starting from medium altitude and above, there is no story with a similarly loaded Typhoon…. [F-35] Transonic acceleration is… better than in an F/A-18 or F-16, but mainly due to its low drag characteristics than to its powerplant. That means that immediately after the transonic regime, the F-35 would stop accelerating and struggle forever to reach a non operationally suitable Mach 1.6…. The Typhoon will continue to accelerate supersonic with an impressive steady pull, giving more range to its BVR (Beyond Visual Range) armament….
Angle-of-attack is remarkably high in the F-35, as it is for all the twin tailed aircraft, but of course it can not be exploited in the supersonic regime, where the limiting load factor is achieved at low values…. Excessive energy bleeding rates would operationally limit the F-35 well before its ultimate AoA is reached.”
Both Britain and Italy will eventually find out for sure, as they will soon have both types in service. Italy will be the best test, as its F-35As are more capable dogfighters than Britain’s F-35Bs. Sources: The Aviationist, “No way an F-35 will ever match a Typhoon fighter jet in aerial combat” Eurofighter test pilot says”.
Feb 7/13: Claims & Controversy. Flight International is still doing test pilot interviews, and also talking to Lockheed Martin. The resulting collision of views is interesting. Lockheed test pilot Billy Flynn is writing the book on F-35 flight envelope expansion, and has flown Eurofighters, F-16s, and NASA’s thrust-vectoring F-16s and F/A-18s. He opens the debate with the provocative view that the F-35 is superior to existing 4+ generation fighters like Eurofighter’s Typhoon etc. on just about every metric – but some of his fellows in the test pilots fraternity are a bit dubious. To help readers keep score, here are the key contentions and responses:
Jan 30/13: Pilot Views. Flight International interviews both experienced pilots and Lockheed Martin personnel, in the wake of the performance downgrades announced by DOT&E’s 2012 report. Those downgrades affect survivability against incoming air defense missiles, where maneuvering performance is critical when attempting to break their guidance lock. Nor are they especially helpful in combat against aircraft whose maximum and sustained turn performance heavily outclass it.
On the “bright” side, the F-35 is said to have good instantaneous turn performance and good high (50 degree limit) angle of attack performance, comparable to a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet. Lockheed Martin business director and former combat pilot Steve O’Bryan also cites the F-35’s performance at high altitude, claiming that it can outclass other Gen 4/4+ fighters “that [he’s] familiar with” when operating “clean” and relying on its weapon bays.
That may be true, but many air combat engagements quickly descend from high altitude and into lower altitudes and speeds, as participants bleed energy in turns and maneuvers. Energy is life, and acceleration matters. As for the F/A-18A-D Hornet, it’s a good but not great dogfighter by 1990s standards, whose defining strength is its performance at slow speeds and “nose authority” to point and take a shot.
All fighters have limitations, and fighting to your plane’s strengths is a big component of good airmanship. What’s concerning is the apparent number and extent of the F-35’s kinetic weaknesses, and the structural difficulty of fixing them. The net tactical effect is that pilots will be forced to depend even more heavily on electronics like the EO DAS and APG-81 radars, and on a stealth profile that’s less effective and more variable than the F-22A’s. Flight International.
Jan 13/13: Testing. The Pentagon’s Department of Operational Test & Evaluation submits its 2012 report, which includes 18 pages covering the F-35. The fleet continues to work through significant technical challenges, which isn’t unusual. What is unusual is the steady stream of deliveries that will have to be fixed later, in order to address mechanical and structural problems found during testing. From an air-to-air point of view, 2 issues deserve special mention.
One issue is weight. The F-35 was designed with little margin for weight growth, but new capabilities and fixes for testing issues often add weight. Weight growth above designated limits directly affects aerial performance, and at some point, weight dilemmas can become a lose/lose proposition. One frequent consequence is higher costs, for example, as very expensive but lightweight materials are used to save an extra pound here and there. Another consequence is reduced performance, as seen in the F-35B’s drop to 7.0 maximum Gs after its aggressive weight reduction effort. A third consequence involves ruggedness and survivability, as seen by the fleet-wide problem created by saving just 11 pounds in all variants. Without fuelstatic flow fuses and Polyalphaolefin (PAO) coolant shutoff valves, DOT&E estimates that these flammable substances make the F-35 25% less likely to survive enemy fire.
The second issue that deserves especial mention is that key aerial combat standards have been lowered, following initial tests. All F-35s will sit at 5.0g or less sustained turn performance – a figure that places them in a class with 1960s era planes like the F-5 or F-4 Phantom, instead of modern designs like the F-16. Acceleration is also poorer, compared to a reference F-16C Block 50 with AMRAAM missiles on its wingtips zooming from Mach 0.8 to Mach 1.2.
The USAF’s F-35A dropped the most, from an expected 5.3g – 4.6g in sustained turns. Acceleration will take 8 seconds longer than the F-16.
The STOVL F-35B dropped from 5.0g to just 4.5g sustained turns, and more thrust during vertical landings comes at the expense of straight flight performance. Its acceleration takes 16 seconds longer than the F-16.
The Navy’s large-winged F-35C did best in turning, with a slight drop from 5.1g – 5.0g, but trans-sonic acceleration was abysmal at 43 seconds longer. DOT&E report [PDF] | Lockheed Martin re: 2012 testing | Reuters | TIME magazine. | Washington Post.
March 20/12: Australia. Former Australian research scientist and defense analyst Dr. Dennis Jensen, MP [Liberal – Tangney, near Perth] makes a point of addressing the F-35’s air superiority capabilities:
“ADF [Australian Defence Forces] still contend that the overall capability of the JSF is superior and that it will defeat all discernible threats…. To get a handle on the assertions made by Defence, I worked through a step by step process of an 8 versus 8 combat. It was evident that this process was not going to end well for the JSF, so the “we are getting into classified areas” get out of jail free card was pulled. I can confirm that we were not even close to classified data.
….JSF and USAF analysts stated that against Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters the Raptor had a kill ration of 30 to 1 and the JSF 3 to 1…. Against aircraft 30 years newer, such as Su-35S, PAK-FA and the Chinese J-20, and you can imagine the results are likely to be very different…. AVM [Air Vice-Marshal] Osley advised that the JSF has some 650 ways to detect and avoid such threats…. if a JSF has to leave airspace because it detects the presence of Su-35Ss, PAK-FAs or J-20s that it cannot defeat, then the enemy wins airspace-dominance without firing a shot.”
Oct 28/08: Former Australian research scientist and defense analyst Dr. Dennis Jensen, MP [Liberal – Tangney], reveals that respected senior analyst and Pacific Vision 2008 lead John Stillion has left RAND. In a speech to Parliament, he says the departure raises “deeply disturbing” questions, adding that:
“There are suggestions in some quarters that he was dismissed over the document and that his removal was ordered by the US military.”
The F-35 Family
* DID – Lightning Rod: F-35 Fighter Family Capabilities and Controversies. Free base article, with core information about the planes and program, and links to related coverage at DID and beyond.
* RAND Pacific View 2008 briefing – Air Combat Past, Present and Future. See also Flight International’s DEW Line blog: Download infamous RAND air power briefing. You have to scroll all the way down, past the comments, for the Scribd insert with the Power Point.
* LiveScience.com (Nov 27/08) – New Fighter Jet: Controversial Future of the U.S. Fleet. Generally positive article, goes into technical detail regarding a number of F-35 capabilities, including DAS, datalinks, and trans-sonic performance – which is contrasted favorably with the F-15’s. Turning performance is described as equivalent to an F-16 Block 50 in clean configuration.
* Aviation Week Ares (Oct 2/08) – JSF – Maneuvering Is Irrelevant. Describes a possible air combat edge for the F-35.
Argument Room, Redux
Some articles in this genre that justify extended excerpts are included up above in “Postscripts and Updates”, instead.
* Breaking Defense (Jan 10/13) – Why Air Force Needs Lots Of F-35s: Gen. Hostage On The ‘Combat Cloud’.
* ELP (July 19/13) – UPDATE – F-35 Gun Concerns. Links back to USAF Col. Charles Moore’s 2007 essay “The Need for a Permanent Gun System On the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter” [PDF], which includes analysis of actual front-line fighter gun use. An email from POGO’s Winslow Wheeler reiterates that the F-35A’s 25mm cannon has just 180 rounds, compared to the F-16’s 510 x 20mm or the A-10’s 1,174 x 30mm rounds, and references inherent gun pod accuracy issues from in Vietnam and Desert Storm.
* Air Power Australia (2010) – How? The Deadly Question for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. By RAAF WGCDR Chris Mills (ret.), AM, BSc, MSc(AFIT). Includes a tabular comparison of the F-35A vs. the Su-35S, using key effectiveness factors within the kill chain and assuming a 4v4 scenario.
* DID Spotlight (Last updated 2010) – The Australian Debate: Abandon F-35, Buy F-22s?
* CDI (Oct 29/09) – Combat Aviation’s Gloomy Future. The left-wing think tank argues that the F-35’s costs are headed sharply up, buys are headed sharply down, and aerodynamic performance will be closer to the F-105 than the F-16. Spey’s models have been wrong before, when applied to the F-22A. On the other hand, 2012 testing data is lending weight to his arguments here.
* Air Power Australia (Nov 10/08) – Assessing Joint Strike Fighter Air Combat Capabilities. Interesting comment about AMRAAM maneuverability.
* Dennis Jensen, MP (Oct 23/08) – JSF Analyst Leaves Think Tank Amid Row.
“Federal Member for Tangney Dennis Jensen revealed John Stillion, a respected senior analyst with RAND’s Project Air Force, had abruptly left the organisation and that there were suggestions he had been dismissed over the [Pacific Vision 2008] report.”
* Aviation Week Ares (Sept 22/08) – JSF Leaders Back In The Fight. To say that Bill Sweetman is unimpressed would be a vast understatement.
* Aviation Week Ares (Sept 22/08) – More on “Setting the Record Straight” on F-35. Lockheed Martin’s original response is no longer accessible, but this conveys some of it.
* Lockheed Martin (Sept 18/08) – F-35: Setting the Record Straight
* CDI (Sept 8/08) – Joint Strike Fighter: The Latest Hotspot in the U.S. Defense Meltdown.
* Aviation Week (Aug 1/08) – JSF Office Makes Buyers an Offer They Cannot Refuse. The rumored plan involves sharply lower prices for initial production aircraft, which are usually much more expensive, in exchange for very firm order commitments with large penalties if governments wish to cancel or reduce their total orders.
Other Planes & Perspectives
* DID FOCUS – F-22 Raptor: Procurement & Events
* The DEW Line (November 2008) – USAF pilot describes IAF Su-30MKI performance at Red Flag-08. Video Briefing – really enlightening re: tactics, and aircraft performance of a very relevant peer competitor (SU-30-MKI, 22-23 degrees per second sustained turn) as well as the F-22 (28 degrees/sec).
* Air Power Australia (2007) – Sukhoi Flankers: The Shifting Balance of Regional Air Power. Complements the 2008 RAND Power Point and its “This is Not Your Father’s Flanker” section. Includes program history, details, regional procurement notes, and analysis of the SU-30 family’s current capabilities and likely future upgrades. Unlike RAND’s study, it concludes with a speculative look at how the F-35 will stack up.
* DID (Sept 26/06) – The Major’s Email: British Harrier Support in Afghanistan, Revisited. Offers an in-depth look at close air support requirements, and some of the limitations of traditional fast jets in this role.