Friday, July 10, 2015

Another Nail in the F-35's Coffin

Update: Pentagon now rethinking F-35 buy.  See below

Another damning report on the F-35 and, once again, it's from the website War is Boring that last week broke the leaked test pilot report showing that the Joint Strike Fighter was dead meat in dogfighting a 30-year old F-16.

Lockheed's fallback position, echoed by the US Air Force, is that the F-35 doesn't need to be a dogfighter because it will destroy any fighter foolish enough to come at it from long range.  The pitch goes that the attacker will be destroyed before he knows the F-35 is even there.  It's a pitch that has been met with plenty of skepticism.

As critics have been saying for years, the whole F-35 invisibility claim is based on a limited, frontal aspect only, stealth cloaking designed to defeat X-band radars.  There are other bands of radar, including L-band, against which it doesn't work very well at all.  Then there are other non-radar sensors - infrared, optical. Each has its strengths and its limitations. That's why the engineering wizards in Moscow and Beijing came up with "sensor fusion" which is basically combining two or more sensor modes in the defending aircraft and also in the missile seekers.

The idea is that the defending aircraft will use sensor fusion to detect the American stealth bomber at long to medium-range and then launch a missile toward the target.  The missile, as it gets close enough, will lock up the target with its onboard seekers and that should be it.

That puts the F-35 pilot in a dilemma.  The JSF warning systems will detect the launch of the defender's missiles.  The F-35 pilot has two choices - he can remain on course hoping that his frontal-aspect stealth will save the day or he can begin evasive maneuvering to try to defeat the missile but only at the cost of completely losing his stealth cloaking (it ain't invisible except from the front, remember?).

And now, when it comes to air to air combat, radar's day may be drawing to a close.

Here's the latest from War is Boring:

...the F-35 does have a high-tech radar, high-fidelity cameras and other advanced gear that can detect airplanes. But foremost, Lockheed optimized these sensors for spotting targets on the ground — and at relatively short distances.

The F-35 can see great. It just can’t see all that great into the air. At least not compared to modern Chinese- and Russian-made jets — the planes the F-35 is most likely to face in battle in some future war.

...The latest Russian radars, such as the one on the new Sukhoi Su-35, at least match the JSF’s APG-81, according to data compiled by Carlo Kopp at Air Power Australia.

While the specific details remain secret, Kopp estimates the APG-81 can detect an aircraft with a radar cross-section of three square meters—a MiG-29, for example—just over 100 miles away. Russian radar-maker Tikhomirov claims the Su-35’s Irbis-E can spot a similar-size target at greater than twicethat distance.

But it’s possible radar range is irrelevant. In an aerial battle between stealthy jets — with each side trying to stay undetected as long as possible — it’s likely that none of the opposing pilots would even want to activate their radars at all. That’s because most fighters carry gear that can sense radar waves and pinpoint their origins.

Instead, modern planes in a high-tech war would probably rely on their undetectable, “passive” infrared sensors to locate each other in the air. The F-35, Su-35, Russian T-50 and Chinese J-20 all possess IR sensors that look for heat.

Here's the thing.  Lockheed as much as admitted that aerial combat has moved into the infra-red era when it quietly retrofitted the F-35 with an IR system of its own. It's a pop-up unit.  It can't be out and on all the time or it would defeat the stealth cloaking.  So, like a submarine's periscope, the pilot has to raise the IR unit when he wants to use it. Worst of all, when it comes to infrared, the F-35 is a blazing torch in the sky.

True, Lockheed designed the JSF’s fuel tanks to help sop up some of the extra thermal energy the plane generates. But take a look at the F-35’s engine nozzle. It’s round. Highly stealthy planes such as America’s B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter both boast flat engine nozzles that spread out their exhaust plumes, cutting back on the telltale IR signature.

Even with its radar off, an F-35 could struggle to hide from enemy planes — to say nothing of enemy forces on the ground. Consider all those long-wavelength, low-band radars that Russia, China and Iran are building right next to potential hotspots in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East.

“You can’t stealthify against long-wavelength radars,” says Pierre Sprey, an experienced engineer who worked on both the F-16 and the A-10 ground attack plane.

These giant arrays can detect tiny objects at great distances. Tehran insists its Ghadir radar can spot jets more than 300 miles away. Russian arms-dealer Rosoboronexport claims the Rezonans-NE can detect stealth planes nearly 750 miles distant.

The Russians and Chinese were probably worried when the F-22 Raptor emerged followed by its "mini-me" the F-35 light bomber. They figured out the Lockheed stealth technology was intended to defeat X-band radars. Instead of trying to develop a better radar in the X-band, they realized there were all sorts of other ways to skin this cat and why not grab as many of those as you can.  And so they did. Their development effort has been enormously helped by the years of delays in F-35 development and testing.

Years ago on this blog I wrote that Canada shouldn't even consider buying the F-35 without, at a minimum, Lockheed's money back guarantee that the F-35's stealth would be effective for at least 10-years.  That only made sense given what F-35 operators have to give up in exchange for this vaunted stealth cloaking - range, payload, agility, speed; everything you need in a modern warplane.  To give up all those qualities so that you can buy a handful of airplanes on the gimmicky stealth cloaking pitch without that sort of guarantee would be irresponsible, reckless, borderline insane.


The web site Defence One reports that the Pentagon may be having second thoughts about its long-standing plan to buy more than 2,400 F-35s.

On Thursday morning, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Marine Corps commandant nominated to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the F-35 buying plan is under review.

“Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number,” Dunford wrote in response to questions asked by the committee in advance of his hearing Thursday. “Until the analysis is complete, we need to pursue the current scheduled quantity buy to preclude creating an overall near-term tactical fighter shortfall.”

Dunford’s comments come one week after Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing JCSchairman, warned in a new National Military Strategy that the military might need to rethink and reorganize for the hybrid wars of the future.

...Many experts believed the Pentagon’s vision of a fleet of 2,443 Lockheed Martin F-35s was a pipe dream — but also that the program was likely stable for at least 15 to 20 years of its planned three-decade procurement period.

“I don’t think anybody on Wall Street would be surprised if [the Defense Department] starts to back away from that number just because I don’t think anybody really gave Lockheed Martin or the subcontractors on the program full credit for the total buy,” Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Capital Alpha Partners said.

“That said, we’re still probably going to get to a build rate of 150 [aircraft] per year total, at least for the early part of the decade,” he said. “Then the real question is what happens beyond that.

Here's the thing.  Lockheed absolutely needs that full American order plus its still soft international orders in order to get the F-35 cost out of the stratosphere. Recently Lockheed has been pressing America's allies to finalize contracts for the F-35.  

There's a term for what threatens the entire F-35 programme.  It's called the "death spiral." It describes a scenario in which costs continually go up as orders are cancelled or reduced.  Higher costs result in fewer orders causing higher costs resulting in fewer orders, on and on and on until no one can afford Lockheed's light bomber.  Even the US Air Force general in charge of the F-35 project uses the term death spiral and admits its a real concern. General Chris Bogdan (who I think of as "skippy") has long warned that a death spiral could be the fate that awaits the F-35 if Lockheed and the engine maker, Pratt & Whitney, don't get quality up and price down.

The US Navy has shown a remarkable lack of enthusiasm for the F-35 and some US Air Force brass already have been clamouring for a new airplane to replace the JSF.

What this means for Canada.

We're in a position unique to smaller air forces.  It's an "all the eggs in one basket" scenario.  If the F-35 project goes down, our air force could be left in a very bad way.  If a successor is rushed into development that answers all the F-35's shortcomings and vulnerabilities, our budget will already be blown on the JSF.

Because of Canada's unique circumstances we really have to start over - from scratch, square one.  Other nations' requirements, including America's, have never been less relevant.  Putin is militarizing the Arctic.  We face a potentially hostile presence to the north such as we've never known.  At the very least that has to factor into our defence policy, including the warplane we need for our territorial defence.  The F-35 never has been that airplane.

It could be in our best interests to step back and go for an updated version of a proven fighter to get us through the next twenty years and wait while the wizardry the F-35 promised but failed to deliver matures into something real and usable.  Boeing has new, stealthier and more capable versions of the F-18 and F-15 just waiting in the wings.  Both are very multi-role capable and suitable to our needs in our vast and sparsely populated far north.  There's also Russia's Su-35 but I'm not sure Vlad would be happy seeing Canada deploy them along our contested frontier.  Washington might not be too keen on that either.

What's wrong with the United States being the "stealth partner" in the allied air armada?  The stealth capability is primarily intended for the first few days of a major air war when it will be needed to enter heavily defended airspace and take down an adversaries air defences.  That's a fine role for the United States Air Force.  With a more dependable, more conventional and genuinely multi-role force, we can help with the heavy lifting after the brief, stealth campaign.

The way we're going, with the Conservatives just waiting to buy the F-35, just doesn't make any sense.  None at all.


Purple library guy said...

In a certain sense, it doesn't matter if Putin is militarizing the Arctic. It's not like Canada can actually fight Russia. The point of Canadian military presence in the Arctic is just that--presence. Representing sovereignty. We need some actual people up there, and we need some boats and aircraft which can stick around for as long as possible, patrol as widely as possible. Which certainly lets out the F-35. (And we need stuff that can supply them)

If we did for some reason have to fight Russia, it would presumably be a defensive fight. Here comes another of my ridiculous ideas: Our best bet for that might be a fairly stealthy prop plane with decent range that could land on a lake. Something that could fly low and slow with a very small IR signature to an objective like some invading troops, drop a couple bombs or let off a missile, and then piss off to a nearby lake, land and get under some cover. Wouldn't have to rely on a few easily bombed airfields; in the Canadian north, that flexibility would be worth a lot. Sort of guerilla warfare by air--it's not like we could face the Russian air force in a stand up fight no matter what we did.

The Mound of Sound said...

Norway and Sweden couldn't fight Russia and win either, PLG, but they aren't letting that stop them from developing a viable defence of their northern frontiers. In Canada we always look south for our military alignment, not north. We wind up with some curious military policy that way.

Toby said...

The F35 isn't necessary to Canada's military. It is only necessary to Harper. Why? I haven't the slightest idea.

Purple library guy said...

And does this viable defence of their northern frontiers involve a bunch of fighter planes which can busily face off against the Russian air force and get wiped from the face of the earth in half an hour? What would be viable about that, exactly?

No, their air force, like ours, is there to project sovereignty, to play the game that says you have enough awareness and power of violence to properly maintain the monopoly of violence within your borders (during peacetime). It has little to do with defence as such, in the sense of stopping an enemy in the course of a defensive war.

(Well, ours is also to help NATO bomb people without air defences)

Anonymous said...

Forget the politics.
Look at the science.
This aircraft is driven and promoted because of it's sophisticated electronics.
As we are or should be, all aware consumer ,driven, electronics are in advance of their military counterparts.
As such; the road to military superiority will be decided by basement hackers working for minimum wage and ego rather than the political military complex who strive for profit before accomplishment.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 5:48. Not many people realize that off the shelf electronics are often far more advanced than the military stuff. The military fell behind years ago and has now accepted they'll never catch up again. A year or two ago I read a report, I believe it was in Aviation Week, that it took the components found in either 23 or 27 iPhones to fashion a system that could detect stealth aircraft. I don't know how that specific number was calculated but it simply emphasized the fact that the tech genie is out of the bottle and there's no way the military can change that.

Anonymous said...

Popular Science reported that cellphone technology could detect 'stealth' aircraft over ten years ago.
I say again; the whole stealth programme is a myth.
If it moves at speed it creates heat.
If it creates heat it can be detected.
Just as there are those basement computer buffs that can hack the USA and UK military etc they can also hack F35's F22's and their successors.
Militarily we are back to basics; he with the most( not necessarily the best) weapons wins.
In WWII the P51 and Spitfire XIV were equal but no better than the ME109 K6 or FW 190 D9 there were just more of them with better trained pilots.
The F35 is a make work project and a make profit project it has little to do with defence ( or even attack).
Lockheed and others try and draw us in with ego maniacal advertising and nationalistic bullshit.