Friday, January 30, 2015

Could "Rapidly Proliferating Threats" Derail the F-35?

(Remember, this is the plane that the Harper government wants to saddle our aircrews with for half-a-century, fifty years.  But, I digress.)

Trying to keep tabs on the development of Lockheed's F=35 requires no end of reading between the lines.

One thing that comes through, admittedly in snippets and from different angles, is that the Americans are starting to conclude that their wunder-plane is less wunderful than they had hoped.

Months ago the journal of the US Naval Institute fretted that the F-35 was operationally flawed because it lacked "all-aspect stealth."  Its stealth cloaking is mainly frontal aspect which means the F-35 remains detectable from the sides, above, below and behind.

The head of the US Air Force air combat command, General Hostage, has said the F-35 isn't a stand alone warplane but requires fighter cover, that is to say the F-22 Raptor, to survive.

Word has leaked out that the F-35 has to steer clear of thunder storms and night flying is out, for now.  More recently it got out that the F-35 has a "heat management" problem that prevents it from flying fast at low altitude, the very place an airplane like this has to operate.  The proposed solution is to re-engine the already over-priced warplane in a few years as a new, adaptive engine is developed.  Keep those cheque books open, fellas.

One thing that has emerged in snippets is that both the US Air Force and US Navy are pressing hard for a new warplane to replace the F-35 ASAP.  They're not sure that its limited stealth cloaking can stand up to rapidly proliferating threats.

There is a saying in Washington defense circles: The threat always gets a vote. It means that a valid strategic threat can influence decision-makers to derail or accelerate a weapons program. In the case of the most expensive aircraft program in history, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), senior Pentagon officials have begun considering what might happen if the still-developmental F-35 were compromised by the proliferation of ever-more-capable air defenses.

...There is a “growing concern” among senior officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense about the proliferation of advanced air defense radars and anti-aircraft weapons, says an industry official familiar with these discussions. “We took a long time on this. The threat is taking some turns on us.” Senior officials are loath to cause alarm and jeopardize the coalition behind the F-35 and are thus tight-lipped about it.

The situation is not at a crisis point yet, one industry source says. Obsolescence is inevitable for any weapon system; the discussion now is about when that could happen for the F-35 and how to address it if it is sooner than hoped. “We are starting to see the emergence of some stressing capabilities to our conventional forces,” Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told Aviation Week during an interview last March. He was referring to the emergence of radars operating in very-high-frequency bands that can detect stealthy aircraft at long range. The concern is that these VHF radars could eventually pass targeting data to fire control elements for air defense systems.

Bear in mind that killing off the F-35 would be about as simple as dismembering Goldman Sachs. It's the biggest military aquisition programme in American history and there is a consensus in military, industrial and political circles that it's simply too big to kill.  There are too many people with too much at stake to shut it down as Obama did when he killed off F-22 production.  This isn't a 'white elephant.'  It's a diamond-encrusted elephant and, right now, everybody's still prepared to double down.

My guess is that the military types see the way out from under the F-35 is to move on to a newer-technology plane, manned or unmanned, that, put up against the F-35, will be irresistible.  Keep the F-35 as a bomb truck while deploying a "6th generation" successor to the F-22 that will have full-aspect state of the art stealth and a genuine multi-role capability.  This is the scenario predicted by Pierre Sprey, one of America's "fighter mafia" types responsible for the highly successful F-16 and A-10, who expects the US to wind up cutting the build of F-35s from the roughly 2,500 figure common today to around 500, no more.

"I do predict that they will have that much trouble within the next few years, and that we will never see them build more than 500 of these airplanes. That the airplane will become technically such an embarrassment that they'll pretend they did not really need it anyhow, and that 'it’s alright we have a better idea, we are working on a new airplane and forget about the F-35.'"

Foreign customers will have to realize their "F-150" is the Ford pickup variety, not the Ferrari of the same designation.  But, so?  The only Ferrari part will be the price tag.


Hugh said...

Oh, but it does actually fly, though? That's something.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Hugh, it does fly albeit not in all conditions nor uniformly well. The US Navy has come up with a creative use for it - missile guidance. The idea is that, while ships stand off at a safe distance, the F-35 will go ahead to provide mid-course guidance or targeting instructions to long-range cruise missiles. If you've got to do something with it, that does sort of make sense.

Anonymous said...

Ya know I don´t believe for one minute the Americans didn´t know this was a not so good design from the get go. And, that includes ALL the defects. Anyong

The Mound of Sound said...

You have to recall how the F-35 project was rushed into development, Anyong. The Americans were after world-beating technology. They wanted to leap two stages to be insurmountably ahead of any adversary. Instead of waiting for the plane to be developed and tested they went ahead and ordered it into production. The Pentagon's subsequent head of these things called it "acquisition malpractice."

From the outset I argued that, while it might be a "fifth generation" warplane as its backers boasted, it was a Gen. 5.0 Beta airplane.

In the history of development of really "leading edge" combat aircraft no one ever gets it right the first time. The great ones all had less than great predecessors out of which they evolved.

Also, the really successful combat aircraft evolve with time. They grow in capability and usually in weight, etc. The F-35, however, depends on its already overstuffed airframe. You can't bolt new stuff onto it without nullifying its limited stealth cloaking. There's no room left inside either. To try to pare weight they even removed (temporarily) its fire-suppression system. That's why the US types have had to repeatedly downgrade the minimum performance requirements. They keep lowering the bar and there's no indication that won't continue.

Ray Blessin said...

Weapons of mass destruction . . . .
or, weapons of self destruction?

The Mound of Sound said...

Well, Ray, it looks like an awesome treasury wrecker.

Edstock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edstock said...

It's the Brewster Buffalo for the 21st century.

Give the Ford F-150 a break, lol — the new aluminum F-150 Raptor is a great way to get about the landscape at really high velocity.

SOUTH KOREA (yes, South) is buying the Sukhoi 50!

The Mound of Sound said...

Ed, I think the business about South Korea is wrong. There seems to be confusion about the Russian Pak-50 and South Korea's indigenous trainer, designated the T-50.

Jay Farquharson said...

The new Gen6 fighter is almost ready to go into production,

Anonymous said...

The F35 is so far behind in being operational the competition has already designed & built ways to combat it or are operating enough aircraft as to overwhelm it & the F22.
History does not favour technical superiority over numerical superiority.
In WW2 the technically superior ME262 was made redundant by piston engine aircraft of another generation .
FWIW; the generation 3-4-5 or 'next' generation is a marketing tool that only the msm believes in.