It was always a matter of time before the sine qua non of the F-35, its vaunted stealth invisibility, was countered. Since man realized that rocks were much more effective when tied onto sticks, ever weapons breakthrough has been countered. Some times that happens when every adversary unlocks the magic of a new technology and deploys it. It also happens when the new technology is countered, effectively defeated.
A good example is the AIM 9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. The Sidewinder is a heat-seeking weapon. A sensor in its nose detects the heat of a target aircraft and steers the missile to it. The US developed and deployed it. The Soviets stole one from an airbase in Germany and copied it. The US improved theirs. The Soviets improved theirs. Meanwhile other nations fielded their own heat-seeking missiles. Along came counter-measures, primarily flares that generate massive heat plumes to decoy an incoming missile away from the target. Today, everybody's got them - heat-seekers and counter-measures - and they're all pretty good.
Now it's the F-35's turn. Once again, a lot of America's magic technology was stolen. Some of it (a lot, actually) was hacked right out of the computers of F-35 contractors. Then there was that unfortunate capture by the Iranians of a Lockheed RQ-170 stealth drone. That yielded no end of intelligence to Russian and Chinese engineers from shaping and materials such as radar absorbing coatings to the electronic wizardry inside. This enables both copying and the development of counter-measures to defeat the F-35's stealth cloaking.
The Americans and Lockheed have kept a straight face in claiming that the F-35 remains invincible. Of course the only way to prove that will be when it is unleashed on a "peer adversary" - i.e. Russia and China which is when we can expect to see what stealth-killing technologies they've developed. Of course a stealth, surprise attack by US forces into Russian or Chinese airspace could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange so that's not really likely to happen.
However Canada is about to buy a new fighter to replace the aging CF-18s bought by Trudeau (not Justin, Pierre). At first Justin Trudeau ruled out the F-35 but, hey, it's Justin. Let's put it this way, the F-35 is back in the running for the contract.
Which means we need to ask whether this hyper-costly, 20-year old airplane and its technological wizardry are still viable and worth the money. Is the F-35 still stealthy? A German radar company, Hensoldt, may be able to answer that. The company claims it has a passive radar system that easily detects the F-35.
Passive radar equipment computes an aerial picture by reading how civilian communications signals bounce off airborne objects. The technique works with any type of signal present in airspace, including radio or television broadcasts as well as emissions from mobile phone stations. The technology can be effective against stealthy aircraft designs, which are meant to break and absorb signals from traditional radar emitters so that nothing reflects back to ground-station sensors, effectively leaving defensive-radar operators in the dark.
Because there are no emitters, passive radar is covert, meaning pilots entering a monitored area are unaware they are being tracked.
There are limitations to the technology. For one, it depends on the existence of radio signals, which may not be a given in remote areas of the globe. In addition, the technology is not yet accurate enough to guide missiles, though it could be used to send infrared-homing weapons close to a target.Hensoldt showed up to a Berlin air show where the flight line was graced by two Lockheed F-35s. While other manufacturers put on impressive aerial demonstrations, the Lockheed fighters did not join in. Hensoldt engineers then left the airfield but, instead, set up their gear at a nearby horse farm and waited patiently for the F-35s to depart after the crowds were long gone. Apparently they got the data they were after.
Whatever Hensoldt's claims, the German military has embraced passive radar as an emerging technology key for future capabilities, including air defense. Earlier this year, the country's air force was in the process of creating a formal acquisition track for passive sensing, Defense News reported.
...Also noteworthy, in the year and a half that followed the air show, emphasis on stealth features for the Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System program, meant to be Europe's next-generation warplane, shifted.Canada's military brass are dead keen on the F-35 but their reliability hasn't been unblemished in recent decades. Maybe, when the RCAF stages a fly-off to test the Super Hornet F-18, Lockheed's F-35 and SAAB's Gripen, Team Hensoldt should be invited to Cold Lake - as a government consultant.
Officials from the industry teams involved in the program increasingly converged around the idea that stealth as we know it had lost its shine — this following rumors circling the German defense scene about how Hensoldt had apparently managed to light up the American aircraft on the radar screen.
The Europeans may be on to the limits and vulnerabilities of the F-35s supposed invisibility but, apparently, so is the Pentagon. As the F-35 is still a way from entering full production, reports are emerging that the US brass are in a hurry to move on to its replacement, hoping to have it operational within a decade, two at the outside.