Friday, March 13, 2015

The F-35 - Bait & Switch - the Verdict Is In

It's gradually becoming apparent why countries buying the F-35 don't get a chance to flight test it first, especially up against its competitors.  The "why" is because it's less of a multi-role jet fighter than we've been told, a lot less.

The United States Air Force wants the F-35 bad, real bad.  The generals in blue want it so bad that they're doing everything possible to get rid of their current, close support aircraft, the A-10.

Cheap, Effective, but Definitely Not Sexy
The troops on the ground love the A-10, especially when they're pinned down in firefights with insurgents.  The A-10 can go slow enough that the pilot can see what's going on below.  It can carry a seemingly limitless load of cannon rounds, rockets and bombs.  It can loiter overhead a good long time and it's heavily armoured with twin engine redundancy which means it won't be readily driven off or shot down by hostile ground fire.

Did I mention the A-10 is slow?  Yeah and that's quite a problem for the USAF brass.  They like fast and sexy and the A-10 is definitely neither.  The A-10 is also a small fraction of the cost of the F-35 both on purchase price and costs to operate.  The F-35 is really, really, really expensive and, unlike the venerable A-10, it will never do what was promised.

The Air Force types, however, insist the F-35 can perform the close support role and the A-10 should be retired.  Except they don't mean it.  They're lying. They're gaming the system.

What the USAF brass have in mind emerged over the past week.  They want to get the full load of F-35s, around 1,700 of them, and then - wait for it - they would like to look at another warplane, something a lot like a new A-10, for the close support role, the ground pounding stuff.

They're going to pitch the F-35 as the perfect jet for defending the troops but it's not and for a lot of reasons.  The F-35 can't loiter over friendly troops, it doesn't have the fuel.  It can't carry the weapon load of an A-10 that gives both pilots and ground troops the options they need to survive.  It isn't armoured.  A hostile machine gun, well aimed, could open the F-35 like a can of soup.  The hot section of the F-35, the exhaust, is ridiculously hot, the perfect target for a shoulder-launched infrared missile (of which the Russians and Chinese have scads).  And, did I mention the F-35 has just the one engine?  No dual engine survivability which is bad news if you've just been stitched up by ground fire. One hit and your day could be over.  Oh yeah, there's that other thing - cost.  The F-35 just costs too damned much to be sacrificing them in support of ground troops.

The United States Air Force doesn't have the F-35 in mind for close support or, for that matter, other traditional fighter missions.  That claim was put to the lie this week when the generals started talking about getting their F-35s and then looking at cheap alternatives to replace the A-10.  In other words they want the F-35s and then a new, far cheaper replacement for the A-10.  All this business about the F-35 doing the close support mission (or, for that matter, air superiority), they're just pulling your chain.

For smaller nations like Canada this is pretty important.  We probably won't want to buy another fleet of warplanes to do what the F-35 really shouldn't be doing or simply can't do. In fact, the F-35 only does a couple of things well.  One of them is opening an attack on a country with sophisticated air defences which really comes down to two countries, Russia and China.

So, if the ground support mission is out what about aerial combat, dogfighting? Well the head of USAF Air Combat Command, General Mike Hostage, has said that any F-35 pilot who finds himself in a dogfight either did something very wrong or is just plain unlucky.  How's that for a confidence builder?

There's a lot to what general Hostage said.  If the F-35 gets caught in a dogfight the pilot did something wrong or is plain unlucky.  In other words, the F-35 isn't a dogfighter.  It's not intended to become engaged in a maneuvering fight with enemy fighters.  Should that happen the pilot did something wrong, he failed to evade the enemy's fighters.

In other words, the F-35 isn't really supposed to operate defensively in circumstances where the other side has the initiative and exercises control of the fight.  When the prospective adversary (Russia or China, your pick) has a large supply of fast, long range fighters that can out run, out turn and out climb the F-35 then the general is right.  If you get caught, your luck has run out.  Sounds like a hell of a fighter, doesn't it?

So we're getting glimpses of problems suggesting the F-35 isn't a close support strike fighter and it's not an air defence fighter or an air superiority fighter and it isn't a long-range, high-speed anything.  It is what it is, a light attack bomber.

In other F-35 news, another report from the Secretary of Defense detailing more problems with the F-35 development.  To paraphrase, the F-35 project team are cooking the books and salting the mine.  A few gems.  So far, two flights a week - maximum. Testing is being put off, deficiencies left uncorrected.  The fuel tank system that fills the wings and surrounds the engine is at "significant risk of catastrophic fire and explosion in combat" (that sounds "unlucky" alright ). Doesn't sound like the F-35 will fare too well where it could be exposed to hostile ground fire. It go BOOM! Verdict - the close support mission is out, no way.

Then there's the wing drop problem.  Turning at higher speeds causes "uncommanded wing drop" meaning the pilot gets to experience uncontrolled flight.  The report finds that wing drop can result in crashes and an inability to outmaneuver attacking fighters or their missiles (more "unlucky").  The saving grace is that you only have to worry about becoming unlucky twice a week because the airplane won't fly more than that.  Verdict - it ain't no dogfighter.

One notation that should send defence planners hackles up accuses Air Force brass of hiding today's failures while building a huge future cost "bow wave." In other words, the soaking you get when you buy the F-35 is just for starters.

By continuing to defer critical testing, crucial fixes, and promised capabilities, the JSF Program Office achieves two purposes essential for continued congressional funding: 1) creating the appearance of an “on-track” program, and 2) transferring to the distant out-years the major cost overruns incurred by today’s test failures and their resultant redesign and fleetwide retrofit expenses.

The expense of the deferred test flight hours is only the tip of the iceberg. Far more expensive are the redesign and fleetwide retrofit costs resulting from the shortcomings that inevitably emerge during those deferred flight tests. The longer those tests are deferred and the more we ramp up production now, the more expensive retrofits will be necessary for the larger fleet of flawed F-35s.

Verdict - what we know of the F-35's bloated price tag is just for starters and the actual costs are just going to keep going up while the actual performance goes steadily down.  If you can bear to read even more about the F-35's deficiencies and failures and how the US Air Force and Congress are greasing the wheels to keep this aircraft alive, here's a useful summary of the Defense Department report.

But what about the "fifth generation" F-35's vaunted stealth cloaking?  Over to Aviation Week's Bill Sweetman who points out that the effectiveness of stealth systems is being rapidly compromised.

Counterstealth technologies, intended to reduce the effectiveness of radar cross-section (RCS) reduction measures, are proliferating worldwide. Since 2013, multiple new programs have been revealed, producers of radar and infrared search and track (IRST) systems have been more ready to claim counterstealth capability, and some operators—notably the U.S. Navy—have openly conceded that stealth technology is being challenged.

These new systems are designed from the outset for sensor fusion—when different sensors detect and track the same target, the track and identification data are merged automatically. This is intended to overcome a critical problem in engaging stealth targets: Even if the target is detected, the “kill chain” by which a target is tracked, identified and engaged by a weapon can still be broken if any sensor in the chain cannot pick the target up.

It's a lengthy and technical article but the gist is that counter-stealth technology has made considerable advances undermining the effectiveness of the supposed stealth invincibility.

A final observation.  The F-35 is being sold as a breakthrough, a new warfare weapon system.  It doesn't need to be a dogfighter or a ground pounder or an interceptor.  It brings a new paradigm to aerial warfare.  To me it sounds like the sort of delusional thinking you can get sometimes from the military types.  I recall when the now-legendary F-4 Phantom entered service.  It came armed with radar and heat-seeking missiles but no gun.  The navy proclaimed that no gun was needed, the era of dogfighting was over.  Missiles would do that job now. They were wrong and American pilots found themselves in combat against Russian built Migs over North Vietnam, dogfighting with no gun.  Oopsie!  That changed quickly enough.  They hastily fitted a gun to the F-4, established the Naval Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and started running navy pilots through air combat (dogfighting) training.


John-Albert said...

Yeah. It's the F-35 is a money sink for fighting American wars when there is not much opposition. Almost good for ground support. Almost. I suggest we need a flag-waving aircraft and not one that sneaks up on victims and shoots them from far away. What Canada needs is an updated version, homemade (why not?) of the CF-100 with two engines and two pilots that can do long range reconnaissance (sp?) with survivability as well as the ability to punish some. Not more.

Anonymous said...

The F-35 is faster than the counter parts it is replacing when loaded for combat. It turns better than it's counter parts when combat loaded. It may even be stealthier than the F-22. It's subsonic acceleration is better than the counter parts it replaces. Yes the data it uses to detect threats is not yet complete, however it was not scheduled to be so by this time. There is indication that they will meet the deadline as reported by Gen Bogden.

The Mound of Sound said...

Even on his best day Bogdan isn't making those claims, Anon.

Faster? Not hardly. Due to the high-drag, squat frontal aspect of the 35, it is incapable of the sort of speed that matters, supercruise. Go fast means afterburner and with a fuel load limited plane like this that means very limited range. Do you have any information on the speed limitations currently imposed on the 35?

Have you read the RAND Corporation report on the F-35's handling (speed, climb, agility)? Apparently not.

It turns better, really? Got anything to back that up? The latest report from the Secretary of Defense notes it can't turn fast at speed without incurring wing drop and crashing.

Stealthier than the F-22? You do realize that the 35 is frontal aspect only stealth, the very reason the US Navy doesn't find it particularly survivable.

Do you recall how Lockheed execs countered this criticism. They said frontal aspect only stealth was enough for a plane intended to go straight into its target and straight back out again. That's not a fighter, it's the profile of a light attack bomber, a modern-day A-6 only without the payload.

As for deadlines, Bogdan has been fudging them and the testing program pretty relentlessly.

Every airplane is a flying compromise but this one was mortally compromised from the instant the designer's pen hit paper.

However, I'm willing to be corrected. Please send me links to the data showing that the Secretary of Defense's report is blatantly false. It sounds like he must be in league with the Commies.

Anonymous said...

Here is one link with actual pilots covering some of the information I just gave.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon, I realize you're quite serious. That said, if these guys are correct then the Secretary of Defense is a liar. So too is the published test data. Hmm - do you think this is a Lockheed PR stunt?

Just asking, have you read any of the test results or analyses? I have to be honest. When this project began I was all for it. I've flown Lockheed fighters.

There has never been a new "generation" fighter that didn't go through a few "beta" products before that technological paradigm was refined into something quite good. This airplane is a beta, nothing more. Its deficiencies weren't even recognized while it was being designed but, then again, that too is normal, almost inevitable.

Lockheed got screwed. It thought it had a deal to build at least 800 F-22s and, instead, it got cut off at the 180 mark. That's a huge hit. Suddenly the F-35 morphed into what it was never intended to be, a multi-role fighter.

Ask yourself what qualities are needed in a real, multi-role fighter? Look at the great, earlier model fighters. The 35 doesn't add up.

Oh well, believe what you like.