Monday, December 20, 2010

F-35 Update - The Non-Stealthy Stealth Fighter

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has one, very costly advantage.   It is invisible to radar.  It's designed to have such a small radar cross-section that enemy aircraft won't be able to electronically detect it.  Of course that's a great thing to have but it's only relevant to actions against countries that field an air defence threat.  In Afghanistan, for example, it wouldn't make a hoot of difference.

The F-35 bomb truck, like its superlative fighter big brother, the F-22, uses a combination of shapes and materials to defeat X-band radars, until now the military standard around the world.   But the nations that produce the aircraft the F-35 would have to meet and defeat have come up with a work around, L-band radar.

What if a fighter aircraft was fitted with a sensor system, which operates outside the radar frequencies where X-band stealth is most effective?

Shaping is a critical aspect of stealth design, since the facets and aligned edges in stealth designs bounce hostile radar returns away from the radar producing them. A stealth design shaped to beat X-band radars will lose effectiveness in the lower S-band, and become even less effective in the L-band, performance becoming progressively worse as the operating band of the radar is moved away from the design target X-band.

If a fighter, which produces a tennis ball sized radar return in the X-band, produces a basketball or beachball sized radar return in a lower band, a sensor operating in that lower band nullifies the stealth capability. The fighter built with “narrowband” X-band stealth is no longer  difficult to detect and must fight it out using its aerodynamic capabilities alone.

If a sensor can bypass the stealth of the F-22A Raptor, this fighter still has sufficient aerodynamic performance to compete effectively in both Beyond Visual Range and close combat. The same is not true for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, since it is an overweight and underpowered design, incapable of competing aerodynamically against the newer Flanker variants, and completely outclassed by the latest supercruising Su-35S Flankers.

When you consider the realities of the F-35 in Canadian service, it's a grim picture.   The aircraft, if it is built at all, wouldn't enter Canadian service until about 2015.   Then we'd expect to rely on it for another 20-years, taking it up to 2035.  Meanwhile its potential adversaries will continue to field ever more sophisticated, more capable aircraft with much more effective radars and sensors.   For pilots having to take the F-35 into contested airspace under those conditions, life would be quite similar to those who flew Whitley and Hampdon bombers into the jaws of Messerschmidts in the opening days of WWII - exciting but brief.

Sometimes you can't wait until they're in combat to "support the troops."

1 comment:

Boris said...

There's that, and there's also the aircraft's thermal signature to worry about. They haven't quite managed to figure out how to cool jet exhaust either.