When Lockheed began beating down doors to flog the F-35 it was selling the sizzle as much as the steak. Tactical invisibility. The invincible warplane. Muddled military minds were sold on the pitch that, however expensive the F-35 might be, no matter its many obvious limitations, this was the warplane they needed in their hangars.
No one paid much heed to the airplane's incredibly fragile technological edge. It was an absolute world-beater 20 years ago when it was ordered into development and production. It was designed to dominate a turn-of-the-century airspace against relatively primitive radar and aerial defences.
Unfortunately for the Pentagon and Lockheed, the F-35's intended adversaries, Russia and China, realized they had to up their game. They developed multiple-band radars and multiple-sensor fusion allowing income stealth aircraft to be located, identified, tracked and targeted at extended range. They also stole/hacked a lot of American and British contractor data - oodles of it - and began fielding their own stealth fighters. Then they began deploying a new generation of A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) missiles to target hostile forward airbases and naval units. It reached a point where no one could predict how the F-35 would fare in heavily defended hostile airspace, at least not until it sparked WWIII.
Over the summer the Pentagon's research agency, DARPA, started questioning the military's "reliance on increasingly complex, monolithic platforms" - i.e. the F-35 and its stealth big brother, the B-2 bomber.
Did the Pentagon just admit that stealth technology may not work anymore? Or that America must be ready to face a future where its airpower doesn't control the skies?
DARPA, the Pentagon's cutting-edge research agency, has quietly raised these possibilities as it searches for future technology to fight the next war. And stealth technology may not be the answer.
“Platform stealth may be approaching physical limits,” says DARPA.
The agency also admits that “our acquisition system is finding it difficult to respond on relevant timescales to adversary progress, which has made the search for next-generation capabilities at once more urgent and more futile.”
If that’s the case, then the next generation of aircraft—the designs that will eventually replace the F-22, F-35 and B-2 stealth aircraft—may not be any stealthier than their predecessors. Or, in the endless race between stealth technology and the sensors that seek to penetrate its veil, stealth may have hit a brick wall.But DARPA warns against throwing out the baby with the bath water. The F-35's stealth may be wonky and its airframe horribly compromised but its electronics are truly amazing - still. Most of that stuff can be mounted in a more capable (speed, range, turn rate, climb rate, payload etc.), less costly warplane better suited to just about everything except a "first strike/end of the world" mission.
The DARPA report suggests it may be time to revisit the all-American notion of absolute air superiority everywhere and anywhere.
DARPA is looking for other ways that U.S airpower can accomplish its objectives even without air superiority, such as “lethality through a combination of overwhelming performance (e.g. hypersonics) and overwhelming numbers (e.g. swarming low-cost weapons).”The message for Canada is obvious. If America is showing the first signs of buyer's remorse over the F-35, this is no time for Canada to jump in head first. We have our own muddled military minds to contend with, some of them recent retirees who have jumped aboard the Lockheed bandwagon to massively pump up their already hefty pensions.