|Lockheed F-22 Raptor|
It's telling that the Conservatives seem to have stopped the clock at the day they took over. We're debating the F-35 as though we were still in 2006. The world has changed.
I just got around to going through Aviation Week's "2013 Aerospace, Intelligence for an Essential Industry" issue that came out in early January. Yes, I'm falling seriously behind on my reading. If you want a "shit, oh really?" moment get your hands on a copy of 2013 Aerospace. It's an eye-opener that casts into even greater doubt most of the assumptions we've relied on in assessing the F-35 and the future of aerial warfare for that matter.
The Reds, Russia and China, (in war games we're still Blue and they're still Red) have been doing a lot of catching up since 2006. The adversary airplanes we envisioned the F-35 dominating are either being upgraded or replaced with the other side's own stealth designs. The F-35 wasn't designed to fight the Sukhoi T-50 or China's J-20 or J-31. They didn't exist when the F-22 and F-35 were designed. Yet, according to AW, Russia is expected to go operational with the T-50 stealth fighter somewhere between 2014 and 2017. No word yet on how far behind China's J-20 and J-31 might be.
While the Russian and Chinese stealth designs seem to be forging ahead, the F-35's fate is still undecided. America's military is bracing for spending cuts and the F-35 remains in the budget crosshairs. Curiously enough, AW reports one project that remains safe is the ongoing F/A-18 programme. That's right, the Super Hornet lives on as does the F-15 Eagle and, yes, they're both advanced versions of 4th Gen warplanes. Australia's buying them. So is the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments last November released a report based on a budget wargame conducted by seven teams drawn from government and industry. All teams worked separately but they all had bad news for the F-35. "All the teams truncated JSF (the F-35) to some extent and one recommended terminating it."
The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, has committed to keeping most of its F-15s and about 350 F-16s in service until 2030 which signals a slowing of orders for the F-35 which will probably mean even higher prices for partner countries like Canada.
The British and French, having logged their first century without a war between them since the Norman conquest are collaborating on designs for an unmanned aerial combat vehicle based on Britain's stealth Taranis UAV and the French Neuron stealth UAV. Wait, did I just say "stealth" "Britain" "France"? Well, yes I did but only because AW has a write up on the subject.
Russia is back. Its budget for military hardware this year is just shy of $70-billion, almost double Britain's entire defence budget. The Russkies are planning on spending ever more in coming years. That includes both stealth warplanes and anti-stealth technologies designed specifically to defeat the F-35 stealth technology.
|South Korea KFX|
South Korea is said to be moving along with plans to develop its own stealth fighter, the KF-X. Indonesia has taken a 20% stake in the programme. This may be stealth overload but Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is collaborating with Sweden's SAAB on the development of their own stealth air superiority fighter, the TFX.
Ay-yi-yi suddenly we're in a world awash in stealth warplanes. The U.S. has got'em. Russia and China have got'em. India too. Britain and France have got'em. South Korea, Turkey and presumably Sweden too. Who's next? Who knows?
Last summer Aviation Week reported American and Israeli defence planners recognize that America's stealth advantage is a "perishable technology" with a lifespan of about five years. By all signs, in another three or four years, stealth technology will be pretty pedestrian and anti-stealth technologies will be pretty widely deployed.
It's not 2006 any more and the same assumptions we used back then to assess the F-35, or at least many of them, are outdated and no longer valid. It's time to go back to square one and come up with a realistic assessment of what we need and how best to get it.