Friday, January 04, 2013

Fifth Generation, Maybe, But It's Still Gen 5.0

Harper DefMin, Peter MacKay, like a trained seal smacking its flippers, constantly barks about the Lockheed F-35 being a "Fifth Generation" fighter and, hence, oh so much superior to all the Gen 4.5-fighters on today's market.

As The Fifth Estate noted in its expose on the stealth light bomber, the "Fifth Generation" business was a term coined by Lockheed's marketing/PR branch.

But if the F-35 is a 5th Gen warplane, it's very much a Beta issue.  It's prototypical, a complicated, hyper-expensive, gremlin-riddled, aerial experiment that is still years away from its testing completion target.

Even when Lockheed finally completes testing, years of trial and error lie ahead for the F-35 as participating air forces (and their potential adversaries) explore its true strengths, its limitations and even its emerging flaws.   You won't know what you've got until you have a few airframes with a thousand or two thousand hours service on them.

And then?  By then Gen 5.2 or 5.3 will be out.   It will embody the learning curve that resulted from all the F-35's delays, testing, cost overruns, glitches and fixes.   And that Gen 5.2 or 5.3 will be where buyers begin to see value for their money.   They won't have to buy all the prototypical mistakes and glitches and fixes.   They'll have a far better idea what they're buying, what it will do and won't and what it's really worth, especially the supposed stealth advantage.

It's not like we haven't experienced this generational troubleshooting/learning curve thing before.  We have.   It's happened in the transition from open-cockpit wood and fabric biplanes to all metal, closed-cockpit, high-performance monoplanes.  It happened again from that era in the transition to early jet powered planes and, again, from rudimentary jet power to bigger, more powerful jets with radar and missiles and, again, with the introduction of really powerful (excess thrust to weight ratio), highly maneuverable and electronically sophisticated multi-role warplanes that we're currently operating.

Each of those previous generational shifts tended to bring advancements albeit usually with cost impacts.   More speed, greater maneuverability, more and better weaponry and systems.

This time, however, we're being asked to take several steps backward in order to get the shiny, new (and unproven) thing - stealth.   Less speed, lower agility, less range and payload, less reliability and very limited redundancy.   Those Gen 4.5 warplanes that we're turning our noses up at will do most things better than the F-35 can except they're not as stealthy.  Typhoon, Rafale and the others are true air combat warplanes that can dogfight, intercept, patrol and take care of ground support missions also.   We won't be getting much of that in the F-35 but that's par for the course for prototypical technology.

A big sacrifice the F-35 imposes in exchange for questionable, frontal-aspect stealth, is the "supercruise" capability of Gen 4.5 fighters.   This is the ability to fly supersonic without use of fuel-guzzling afterburner power.  The F-35 doesn't have it.  Seen from head-on, the F-35 is as wide as a barn door, something apparently necessary for stealth masking.  Because it's wide it suffers from high drag that makes going fast possible only on afterburner.  That's a problem when it comes to a limited fuel load in a warplane designed to operate behind enemy lines.  You could add external tanks but there goes your stealth and, presumably, the aircraft's already mediocre agility.  Is giving up supercruise for limited one-directional radar concealment a viable trade-off?  In other words, the F-35 might force users to give up more than they're getting, potentially a lot more.

The F-35's shortcomings, or at least many of them, don't exist in its F-22 Big Brother and they probably won't be shared with the opposition's stealth warplanes either, Russia's PAK 50 or China's J-20 and J-31.   Nobody wants to talk about it but the F-22 Raptor's maker, Lockheed, designed the F-35 to be inferior to the F-22, including far less stealthy.   The F-22 is Lockheed's Chrysler Imperial.   The F-35 is Lockheed's basic Plymouth even if it is being flogged at F-22 prices.

So, if Peter MacKay and the rest of the Harper Cons are going to insist on branding the F-35 a 5th Generation warplane, maybe they should be honest and call it Gen 5 Beta.


Troy Thomas said...

A beta in alpha stage of development, still?

The Mound of Sound said...

I think you've accurately summed it up, Troy.