Thursday, March 03, 2011

I Would Be a Lot More Comfortable with the F35 - IF...

The F-35 wouldn't be nearly as bad a pick for the Canadian Forces if it's stealth advantage was real, if it actually worked as promised.

I don't mean real as in today.  I mean real during its operational lifetime, the 20-years or so Canadian pilots will be stuck with it.   For the sake of its stealth capability they'll be sacrificing a lot of safety, a lot of other advantages their potential adversaries will field.

The F-35 is a single engine aircraft.   When the engine goes, the pilot has to get out fast.   That's not so bad if you're over Texas where the climate is survivable and you're never very far from some form of help.   It is very bad if you're in the high Arctic in February and hundreds of miles from anyone.  Very bad.

The F-35 is a marginal performer.  It can't out-run, climb or turn fourth and fifth generation Russian fighters.  It has limited range and a limited weapons payload.  It gives up everything for the sake of supposed invisibility.  Overcome that stealth technology, however, and it seems to be something of a sitting duck.

The F-35 wouldn't be the first time the Americans have got it wrong.  It wouldn't be the first time the Americans have been burned by over-reliance on advanced technology of doubtful utility.

Back in the 60's, the US came out with the F-4 Phantom, long-range fighter/interceptor.  It was supposed to be the be-all and end-all in fighter technology.  It was such a breakthrough that, henceforth, enemy aircraft would be destroyed beyond visual range by advanced air to air missiles.   Unlike every fighter since the Great War, the Phantom would carry no gun because there'd be nothing left flying for it to shoot down in any case.  The dogfight was declared a thing of the past.

Then reality set in.  America went to war in Viet Nam.   The F-4's Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, its sole air to air weapons, proved horribly unreliable and, when the enemy got close in, the US Navy pilots had no gun to fight with.  Eventually the Americans overcame their problems but the object lesson is they went into a war with invalid assumptions and over-reliance on questionable technology that failed when it was needed.

It hasn't been a lack of high-tech advantage or enormously superior firepower that denied our side success in Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan.   In the more recent conflicts we even had our 'enemy' massively outnumbered.   Yet whether Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan, we've never managed to get them to surrender.  They just wait until we've had enough and go home.

Which brings me back to the F-35.  Is it today's F-4?  Are we betting the farm on a technological advantage that may not last beyond the first hostile engagement?  The Phantom of four decades ago was a fine aircraft that had some fixable problems.   All it needed was better missiles and the installation of a machine cannon.    It still had enormous speed and range.   How fixable is the F-35 if its stealth advantage is negated?   How do you make a plane that can't fly fast enough fly faster?   How do you make a plane that can't climb fast enough climb faster?   How do you make a plane that can't turn fast enough turn faster?  The simple answer - you can't.

So, since we're apparently committed to walking this tightrope of invisibility, is it unreasonable to make sure somebody has put up a safety net beneath us?  If the F-35 loses its cloak of invisibility, we're either going to have to put our pilots at unacceptable risks or else just buy something that does work.   Shouldn't we be getting somebody's guarantee that this stealth technology will work as promised for the useful lifetime of this aircraft?

With the number of fighter aircraft Canada can afford, we are of necessity putting all our eggs in just one basket.   When you're in that spot, you need to make sure you've got a sound basket.


Anonymous said...

It's too bad the Conservatives killed off Avro back in the day (to prevent this comment from being considered libelous (lol) I should add this is my summary of how I understand the matter.

opit said...

I'll second Anonymous' thought. The Arrow was deliberately what seems at first too much : two engines and two crew.
It was 'killed' because it outperformed U.S. designs. The 'fix' was simple - especially since the government kept performance reports either secret or falsely modest - kill any application for U.S. Airworthiness Certification even in advance of any application - forestalling pressure for U.S. sales.
Despite that, the engine program - the Iriquois - was killed too, despite preorders from France for their Mirage airframe..which Israel stole.