Friday, January 30, 2015
Could "Rapidly Proliferating Threats" Derail the F-35?
(Remember, this is the plane that the Harper government wants to saddle our aircrews with for half-a-century, fifty years. But, I digress.)
Trying to keep tabs on the development of Lockheed's F=35 requires no end of reading between the lines.
One thing that comes through, admittedly in snippets and from different angles, is that the Americans are starting to conclude that their wunder-plane is less wunderful than they had hoped.
Months ago the journal of the US Naval Institute fretted that the F-35 was operationally flawed because it lacked "all-aspect stealth." Its stealth cloaking is mainly frontal aspect which means the F-35 remains detectable from the sides, above, below and behind.
The head of the US Air Force air combat command, General Hostage, has said the F-35 isn't a stand alone warplane but requires fighter cover, that is to say the F-22 Raptor, to survive.
Word has leaked out that the F-35 has to steer clear of thunder storms and night flying is out, for now. More recently it got out that the F-35 has a "heat management" problem that prevents it from flying fast at low altitude, the very place an airplane like this has to operate. The proposed solution is to re-engine the already over-priced warplane in a few years as a new, adaptive engine is developed. Keep those cheque books open, fellas.
One thing that has emerged in snippets is that both the US Air Force and US Navy are pressing hard for a new warplane to replace the F-35 ASAP. They're not sure that its limited stealth cloaking can stand up to rapidly proliferating threats.
There is a saying in Washington defense circles: The threat always gets a vote. It means that a valid strategic threat can influence decision-makers to derail or accelerate a weapons program. In the case of the most expensive aircraft program in history, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), senior Pentagon officials have begun considering what might happen if the still-developmental F-35 were compromised by the proliferation of ever-more-capable air defenses.
...There is a “growing concern” among senior officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense about the proliferation of advanced air defense radars and anti-aircraft weapons, says an industry official familiar with these discussions. “We took a long time on this. The threat is taking some turns on us.” Senior officials are loath to cause alarm and jeopardize the coalition behind the F-35 and are thus tight-lipped about it.
The situation is not at a crisis point yet, one industry source says. Obsolescence is inevitable for any weapon system; the discussion now is about when that could happen for the F-35 and how to address it if it is sooner than hoped. “We are starting to see the emergence of some stressing capabilities to our conventional forces,” Al Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told Aviation Week during an interview last March. He was referring to the emergence of radars operating in very-high-frequency bands that can detect stealthy aircraft at long range. The concern is that these VHF radars could eventually pass targeting data to fire control elements for air defense systems.
Bear in mind that killing off the F-35 would be about as simple as dismembering Goldman Sachs. It's the biggest military aquisition programme in American history and there is a consensus in military, industrial and political circles that it's simply too big to kill. There are too many people with too much at stake to shut it down as Obama did when he killed off F-22 production. This isn't a 'white elephant.' It's a diamond-encrusted elephant and, right now, everybody's still prepared to double down.
My guess is that the military types see the way out from under the F-35 is to move on to a newer-technology plane, manned or unmanned, that, put up against the F-35, will be irresistible. Keep the F-35 as a bomb truck while deploying a "6th generation" successor to the F-22 that will have full-aspect state of the art stealth and a genuine multi-role capability. This is the scenario predicted by Pierre Sprey, one of America's "fighter mafia" types responsible for the highly successful F-16 and A-10, who expects the US to wind up cutting the build of F-35s from the roughly 2,500 figure common today to around 500, no more.
"I do predict that they will have that much trouble within the next few years, and that we will never see them build more than 500 of these airplanes. That the airplane will become technically such an embarrassment that they'll pretend they did not really need it anyhow, and that 'it’s alright we have a better idea, we are working on a new airplane and forget about the F-35.'"
Foreign customers will have to realize their "F-150" is the Ford pickup variety, not the Ferrari of the same designation. But, so? The only Ferrari part will be the price tag.