Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Pentagon Re-Thinks the F-35

A report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments seems to toss a wet blanket over the controversial and troubled F-35.

It's been known for some time that some top people in the US Air Force and US Navy have been having second thoughts about the overpriced, overdue and under-performing F-35.

The head of USAF Air Combat Command, General Michael Hostage, doesn't care for the limited weapons load of the F-35.  He's calling for early action on a 6th Generation fighter before the miraculous 5th Gen, F-35 even goes operational.  The US Navy is also beginning to question whether the F-35's frontal-aspect-only stealth cloaking is a fatal vulnerability and whether the viability of America's carrier fleet requires an all-aspect stealth alternative.

The F-35 has scored some impressive orders from American allies lately who also seem the only air forces that still call the F-35 a fighter instead of what it really is, a light strike bomber.

All of America's F-35 "partners" are counting on a big order from the US forces - air force,  navy and marines - to keep the unit costs of these warplanes, already high, from going ballistic.  They won't be happy with the latest news.  From Aviation Week:

Today’s U.S. power-projection forces, and those currently planned for the future, will not be able to operate effectively or efficiently against anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) weapons and doctrine being developed by China and other adversaries, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) that details a new approach to defense strategy known as Third Offset.
Instead, the Pentagon should immediately refocus its development efforts on a global surveillance and strike (GSS) system based on long-range, very stealthy aircraft—including the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) and a new family of unmanned combat air systems (UCAS)—and submarines. Tactical fighter, surface combatant and heavy land-force programs should be cut back, the report suggests, to pay the bills and rebalance the force.
Okay, did you get that?  US "power projection forces" - the F-35 - "will not" (as in 'won't') be able to operate effectively or efficiently against new weapons and doctrine being developed by China and "other adversaries" which would be Russia.  The guys this warplane was specifically designed to attack have worked out how to detect it, how to attack it and how to shoot it down.  
  A "new family" of unmanned combat air systems, similar to the one shown above, is needed and the "tactical fighter" (i.e. F-35) should be cut back to scavenge money needed to "rebalance the force."  
Persistence is a key advantage of UAVs, the report notes. A primary mission for the new UCAS in Third Offset is a “mobile and relocatable target killer,” using a combination of unrefueled range and tanker support to fly 48-hr.-plus missions and remain on-station beyond the limits of human endurance. The UAVs would be nodes in an aerial communications network that would hedge against an adversary’s counter-space activities—and thereby render anti-satellite operations less valuable. The report also cites an unpublished Northrop Grumman study showing that an unmanned replacement for the F/A-18E/F could save $56 billion over a 25-year service life, compared to a piloted aircraft.
Funding the new N-UCAS and MQ-X could call for “reduction in manned tactical aviation force structure” across all services and “scaled-back procurement of all F-35 variants—including possible cancellation of the F-35C, replaced with advanced Super Hornets and eventually N-UCAS.” In July 2011, during Work’s tenure as deputy Navy secretary, he directed the service to study alternatives to the F-35B/C.
The limits on the effectiveness of fighters—including the “semi-stealthy” F-35, so described to discriminate it from the wide-band, all-aspect stealth technology of the UAVs and LRS-B—include survivability and their dependence on tankers, which are vulnerable and difficult to protect. Martinage concurs with Aviation Week’s assessment of the Chengdu J-20 as an offensive counter-air fighter aimed at tankers and other air assets. “With an extended-range air-to-air missile the J-20 can push the tanker 800-900 mi. back. [U.S.] fighters can’t even make it to the beach.”
The report bears out what many F-35 critics have been saying all along. The damned thing is deficient in range, fuel, weapons load, speed, supercruise, turn and climb rate but has a surplus of vulnerabilities.

While the report and the mountain of criticisms make a lot of sense, buying the F-35 is a political, not a military, decision.   You buy it to curry favour with Washington.  It's the litmus test of loyalty.

And, because the F-35 is a political call, this report probably won't get much traction.  Lockheed pretty much has Congress in the bag.  If US orders were cut back, unit prices would soar and Lockheed could see foreign orders collapse.  Can't be having that.

Canada, however, is in a position to rethink the F-35 and, as the report suggests, instead go with an advanced version of the F-18F Super Hornet with an eye to possibly moving to unmanned aircraft after the F-18's useful lifespan.

The cards are on the table for everyone to see.


Toby said...

The F35 is essentially a first strike weapon. So, who does Harper want to first strike against?

What Canada's military needs is useful planes, helicopters and boats capable of patrolling and defending our coasts and borders. A couple of years ago a suspect airliner approached our west coast and the Americans had to scramble a couple of Tomcats to escort the airliner into Vancouver because Canada does not have the ability. Recently a Russian freighter had to be rescued and towed to safety by an American tug because Canada can't do it.

The Mound of Sound said...

As I mentioned, Toby, the F-35 is a political decision. It's seen as a gesture of loyalty to Washington and our admission ticket to America's Aerial Foreign Legion.

The latest report merely underlines the flawed nature of the F-35 and that it's time to look for alternatives.

As for securing the West Coast, our fighter assets are too minimal to maintain a ready force on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts. The only credible threat we face would be to the north. That's also were the weaknesses of the F-35 are greatest.

Toby said...

Mound, the reason I come across so negatively may have something to do with living in a Conservative riding. Over coffee this morning an old friend repeated an old statement I've been hearing for years. He doesn't like Harper or the crap coming from the Conservative Party and agrees that the local MP is as dumb as road dirt, "but there's nobody else to vote for." The Liberals and NDP have failed to capture the public imagination.

The Mound of Sound said...

As a former, life long Liberal I fully understand, Toby. I don't know what either opposition party really stands for these days and I trust neither.

Purple library guy said...

It seems an interesting report, and I'd certainly agree with its criticism of the F-35. But I have my doubts that the report itself is devoid of political spin. It just seems to be working for the drone lobby rather than the expensive-crap-fighter-plane lobby.

I mean, would it really be wise to plan on fighting, offensively yet, sophisticated opponents like Russia and China using platforms that are dependent on constant radio contact? I mean, for one thing I doubt there's any way to make the things completely un-hackable. And for another even if they're not hackable, if you're attacking the other guy's turf they're probably jammable. And for a third even if they're very stealthy in themselves, their inability to maintain radio silence is surely a giveaway, no?
Not that I mind if the Americans pay top dollar for something that doesn't work, again, as long as we don't have to buy it too. All to the good, really.