Jonathan Greenert says he supports the F-35 light strike bomber but the man does have reservations.
Admiral Greenert has whipped up a storm by saying that advantages from America’s prized stealth technology will be “difficult to maintain”. The other side’s sensors, he argues, may operate at lower electromagnetic frequencies than stealth technologies are designed to frustrate, and may use exponentially increasing processing power to work out where the stealth platform is from different angles or aspects. In other words, in the continuing struggle between hiders and finders, America will increasingly labour to keep the advantage it has enjoyed for two decades.
The admiral therefore calls for a shift from relying solely on stealth to using stand-off weapons, fired from such a distance that adversaries cannot shoot back, or by unmanned systems; or employing electronic-warfare devices to confuse or jam the other side’s sensors, rather than trying to hide from them. The unstated implication is that there are other ways of doing the same job as the stealthy F-35 more cheaply and more successfully.
...the admiral’s argument, outlined in Proceedings, published by the United States Naval Institute, also has a wider theme. Military procurement is too focused on building ever-costlier new ships and aircraft of complex design, with built-in capabilities to meet specific threats. Instead of procurement being “platform-centric”, he wants it to be “payload-centric”: highly adaptable platforms able to carry weapons and sensors that can be added or removed, depending on the mission or on technological progress.
The “luxury-car” platforms designed in the last days of the cold war (and which still dominate much military procurement) have not adapted well to changes in security and technology, he says. Such platforms must always carry the sophisticated equipment to defeat a sophisticated foe. Yet much of this may be irrelevant to the navy’s typical missions in the past 20 years: counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, mine-clearing, maritime patrolling and carrier operations in support of counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
...Peter Singer, an expert on future weapons at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, is more sceptical. He fears that advances in Chinese and Russian air-defence systems are eroding the advantages of stealth, and that the F-35 is further hobbled by its limited range. “It has very short legs,” he says, shorter than some planes from the second world war. It may be better “to play a different game”, relying more on precision strikes from afar, perhaps using hybrid transport-bombers carrying cruise missiles or swarms of drones. Because the F-35 has turned out to be so costly (after years of delays and cost overruns, the bill is now $396 billion), he fears it could blight the development of more capable systems. But whatever reservations the navy may have about the F-35, he notes that the Pentagon has deemed the programme “too big to fail”. Agreeing with Admiral Greenert’s analysis, Mr Singer asks: “Will it lead to any change in policy? That is the test.”
Greenert's arguments are sound. The F-35's advantage is high-tech. High-tech has a short shelf life before it's overtaken, superseded. It is important to evaluate the F-35 according to how it would perform if that one advantage was nullified. Without "stealth" what is it? Will it work? What will it do? And we have the answers to all those questions. Basically, without stealth the F-35 is aerial dead meat. As the RAND Corporation noted a few years ago, it can't outrun, out-climb, or out-turn even its existing adversaries. It has limited range and limited payload. Yet it's so costly, so over priced, that our aircrews are going to be saddled with it for 30-years minimum. The F-35, at year 10, could be an insurmountable obstacle to getting our aircrews something much better.
We've seen what "too big to fail" means and, even if that holds true for the F-35 and the Pentagon, there's no reason Canada needs to pile on. At best, the F-35 does one thing well but it doesn't and it won't do the very things that Canada needs and will increasingly need in the far north. On that score, the F-35 will be a net loss for Canada.
Update - I found this Aviation Week link over at Mark Collins' blog. It relates to discussions between Israeli and American planners that accept the reality of a short shelf-life for the F-35's stealth advantage.
Moreover, defense planners in both countries have accepted the fact that stealth is a perishable product with today's designs good for 5-10 years, while the airframes themselves will operate for 30-40 years; this will drive them to adopt advanced cyber and electronic warfare options to protect their aircraft as they mature.
Five to ten years, that's it. And when will Canada's F-35s become operational? Somewhere between five to ten years from now. These slow, unmaneuverable, short-range and small-payload light attack bombers will be largely obsolete by the time they reach Canadian air force hangars.