Military history going back to the very beginnings of civilization has been an endless succession of technological advancement as each side tries to get ahead and remain ahead of its perceived adversaries. "Measure and Countermeasure" would be an apt name for this time honoured game.
Rock. Rock tied to stick, club. Sharpened rock tied to stick, spear. Miniaturized sharpened rock tied to stick, arrow. Shield. Armour. Fortifications. Seige weapons. Cannon. It never ends.
So now we've taken yet another leap into the future of warfare with what's heralded as a Fifth Generation light bomber, the F-35. What makes this airplane so special, and so insanely costly, is its ultra high-technology. It is supposedly stealthy, virtually invisible to detection by an adversary's radars and air defences. Invincible. That's what you pay the big bucks for.
Except it seems we didn't really think much about what our potential adversaries might have to say and might do about our Fifth Generation threat (and, be assured, they see it as a threat). And, according to reports, they didn't miss a beat.
The first thing they figured out was that, when it comes to radar, you can't be all things to all men. The Second Generation stealth technology fielded by the US, like the First Generation stealth, is designed to defeat X-band radars. But there's another, older radar technology, L-band radar that works far better and makes the F-35 visible again. It's said they stumbled upon that trick when the Serbs used antiquated L-band radar to detect and shoot down an American FB-111 stealth fighter.
But why settle for just one trick when there are more and potentially better options at your fingertips?
Today's Western air armada consists of a gaggle of aerial super computers all linked together. If the computers go down, they're blind, toothless, potentially even uncontrollable.
The F-35, for example, doesn't go to war using its own radars. Their emissions would give away the aircraft's presence, its course, altitude and speed. Not much point in having stealth if you're not going to be stealthy. The F-35, however, does scan its surroundings using onboard sensors that detect enemy radars and other signal emissions. It also will have a Big Brother, an Airborne Warning and Command jetliner, patrolling behind it with a really big radar array and even more powerful sensors that will be its eyes and will transmit what it sees to the F-35.
So what the guys who the F-35 is intended to fight, countries with sophisticated air defence systems like Russia and China, have done is to look for weaknesses, vulnerabilities, in this high-tech computer-based web and they found what they were looking for years before the threat, the F-35, even becomes operational.
The F-35 is amazingly complicated. It uses 25-million lines of computer code to operate its systems. There's never been anything remotely like it. Now that code, obviously, is supposed to be super secret only it's not, not any more, not entirely. Hackers, believed to be Chinese (I mean, come on, they're so good at math), have already filched "several terabytes" of F-35 data from military and contractors' computers. And those are the hacking attacks that we know of.
So they steal a few terabytes of stealth data here and a few terabytes there, so what? Before we get there, consider this. Before Christmas the Iranians did something that no one on our side wants to talk about any more. They got their hands on a relatively intact, state-of-the-art, US/Lockheed stealth drone, the RQ-170. To do that they got into the drone's systems, electronically overrode its supposedly secure communications link, and brought it in to a safe landing like a radio-controlled toy. To prove it, they even put it on display the next day.
Okay, so what? So they got a drone. Well the reason the US risked a high-tech, super secret stealth drone over Iran is because they assumed it would work as advertised. It was supposed to be stealthy after all. It was supposed to be invincible. It was built with a radar-deflecting stealth design. It had the latest radar-defeating stealth materials. It operated up to date radar-defeating stealth electronics. It was flown via top secret, super secure communication links. It was untouchable - supposedly. At least it was until some clever Iranian (and who knows who else) commandeered it and landed it inside Iran.
This time our potential adversaries aren't left puzzling out a few terabytes of stolen data. They got the whole enchilada - structural, materials, electronics - free of charge. Hey, how come the adversaries get this stuff free but we have to pay such an enormous price for it? Not fair!
At first I thought the disaster was the loss of the drone, all that secret stealth stuff laid bare to our adversaries. Now, however, the capture itself adds a huge dimension to this unfortunate incident. Somebody in Iran was able to get inside this drone and knew enough of its sophisticated systems to be able to transmit signals into it to commandeer it. Here's a hint - they've got something vaguely similar in mind for the F-35 and its essential support planes, the AWACS.
Okay. We seem to have underestimated our potential adversaries, again, just as we always do. Why do we keep doing this? But I digress.
The generally authoritative and reliable AviationWeek has just published an article that should send a chill through military procurement chiefs negotiating an F-35 buy. Our potential adversaries are developing cyber-weapons that can be beamed into the sensors we absolutely rely on in order to infect our systems with malware. These cyber-weapons are aimed at the F-35 and also at its support aircraft the E-3 AWACS and the E-6 Joint Stars air to ground command aircraft. Why shoot missiles when you can get even better results by crashing onboard computers?
Readers have questioned why I call the F-35 stealth a "brittle technology". That's because it's not fully developed and vulnerable to the very sort of things our potential adversaries are already working on. Lockheed and its boosters like Harper/MacKay get all triumphalist about the F-35 and gushingly proclaim it a "Fifth Generation" warplane. It's not.
The F-35 is not a Fifth Generation warplane. It's the Beta version of what might someday emerge as a true Fifth Generation warplane. Caveat Emptor.