F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Skeptics
The controversy surrounding the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is still simmering. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's newest and most expensive warplane ever, has become a great disappointment for the United States Air Force and sparked fierce criticism from Western experts and lawmakers.
Famed US aerospace engineer Pierre Sprey, the co-designer of the F-16 Falcon jet and the A-10 Warthog tank buster, remarked that the infamous F-35 is so bad it is absolutely hopeless when pitted against modern aircraft. In fact, it would be ripped to shreds even by the antiquated MiG-21,” let alone a dogfight with Russia's fourth-generation Su-27 and MiG-29 jets.
“The Su-27 and even the MiG-29 have bigger wing space, more powerful engines and carry more air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons… That’s why the F-35 will be totally helpless against both because when you confront a plane, which is more maneuverable, accelerates faster and is better armed then you are in trouble,” he added.
"[H]ad the Pentagon foregone developing an entirely new fighter jet, the $100 billion it has spent to date on the F-35 project would have bought about 740 Eurofighter Typhoons. Euro-anything, of course, is hardly the USAF's style, and the War Department hasn't bought a French fighter since 1918," US expert James Hasík, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, noted.
A RAND Corporation brief on air combat issued in August 2008 generated debate about US air capabilities in difficult future combat scenarios. In particular, the F–35 came under scrutiny in much of the political and analytical coverage. The RAND brief and the reactions to it are a good starting point for discussion of the changing nature of air operations induced by the introduction of the new manned aircraft.
The RAND analysts focused on a core challenge facing the Air Force in the 21st century, namely, the evolving capabilities of competitors’ air systems and counterair capabilities. In particular, the RAND study focused on a 2020 scenario over the Taiwan Strait in which Chinese forces sought to deny air superiority to the United States. The study addressed three key elements of U.S. air superiority — the use of nearby bases or seas, exploitation of stealth advantages, and employment of beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles — applied against Chinese forces. The study argued that all three US advantages could be countered by a Chinese strategy that combined a significant numerical advantage, antiaccess denial strategies, counterstealth innovations, and countermeasures and operations to defeat BVR missiles. In the RAND scenario, the Chinese innovated, but the United States did not.
Carlo Kopp wrote [JFQ / issue 57, 2d quarter 2010] "Lacking the high altitude and supersonic cruise capabilities of the F–22A Raptor, the F–35 operates well inside the kinematic engagement envelopes of most modern medium- and long-range SAM systems. This aircraft is therefore wholly dependent on stealth and supporting electronic countermeasures to survive, in a more challenging portion of the flight envelope, where it is within reach of a much larger number of SAM types, and where SAM endgame maneuver performance is better due to higher air density. The F–35 will not deliver the agility required to effectively evade modern SAMs by maneuver.
"Proponents of the F–35 have argued that the aircraft’s stealth performance, and the intended capability of its Northrop Grumman APG–81 AESA radar to jam X-band and some S-band threat radars, will be sufficient to permit the F–35 to penetrate deep into air defense systems equipped with modern SAMs, with the superceded SA–20 often cited as an example. Unfortunately, such air defense systems will use passive angle tracking facilities on fire control radars, and emitter locating systems, to exploit any AESA jamming emissions to target and guide SAM shots. The use of the AESA as an electronic warfare self-protection device presents risks that may often exceed its utility in this role.
"The survivability of the F–35 thus depends wholly on its stealth performance. The stated X-band radar cross section of 0.001 square meters for this design15 in its forward sector is respectable but degrades with increasing threat radar wavelength. Some design choices in the shaping of the F–35, such as the sculpted lower fuselage and axi-symmetric exhaust nozzle, are simply not compatible with the deep penetration of advanced air defense systems where highpower threat radars in the L-band through to the X-band may illuminate the aircraft from any aspect, and some at steep elevation angles....
"The reasoning behind the compromises in the stealth design of the F–35 was that the threat systems that could put it at risk would be preemptively destroyed by the F–22A Raptor force in the opening phase of an air campaign... This was feasible for the type of air defense threats seen a decade ago, but is not true for the highly mobile, networked modern systems we now see, designed around a “hide, shoot, and scoot” doctrine. The defeat of such air defense systems will inevitably be a slow process of grinding attrition."
Konstantinos Zikidis et al note that "it is claimed that the F-35 fuselage design, as a result of a trade-off between cost and requirements, did not follow the “standard way”, as in F-117 or the B-2. For the F-35, the approach was the construction of a l.o. aircraft, taking seriously into account the cost parameter. Therefore, in the frame of cost reduction, some capabilities were “sacrificed”: RCS is really low in the X-band (8 –12 GHz) and in the Ku-band (12 –18 GHz), while it is not so low at lower frequency bands.The scope is the break of the killing chain: even if the F-35 is detected by surveillanceradar, it will not be easy to be engaged by a fire control radar, which usually operate in the X or Ku bands."
However, they also concluded that "the average RCS increases as the frequency gets lower. However, they also confirm that the F-35 RCS is really low, at least as far as the fuselage is concerned. Especially in the X-band, the calculated (average) RCS is even lower than the one revealed by USAF and the decrease in detection range with respect to the “standard target” is dramatic. For example, the APG68 of the F-16 is expected to “see” the F-35 at a distance of roughly 5 NM. The expected decrease of the detection range for the F-35 with respect to conventional aircraft ... indicates that the F-35 will be a real danger, and not only as a first strike weapon."
Another complaint is that the F-35 is less maneuverable than the F-22. In July, 2015 Australian Federal Parliament member Dr. Dennis Jensen emphasized in his Op-Ed "Time to Remember the Vietnam Air War Lesson" that the plane's manufacturer had obviously forgotten the bitter lessons of the Vietnam War.
Referring to the US military doctrine of the 1950s, Jensen noted that it claimed the era of "dogfighting" was over. As a result, America's F-4 Phantom planes had advanced air search and targeting radars, eight air-to-air missiles, and other sophisticated equipment. However, since the days of "dogfighting" were purportedly over, the F-4 Phantom was designed without a gun, Jensen pointed out.
"Then came the moment of truth. The might of the United States, with the highly sophisticated F-4 Phantom, was supposed to easily destroy opposing enemy fighters like the MiG-17. The obsolescent MiG-17 had no air combat radar or long-range missiles, but the aircraft had guns. In combat, the missiles did not work as advertised, and the agile MiG-17 caused the F-4 all sorts of problem," the Australian MP underscored.
And here we go again, he noted. The F-35 is equipped with state-of-art radars and sensors but what has recently surfaced is that "the JSF was comprehensively outperformed by a 40-year-old design F-16.... [I]t is clear the JSF will be dead meat if it ever comes to close range combat with decades-old fighters."
A 2008 computer simulation conducted by two analysts at the RAND think tank unveiled the F-35's inferiority. It was one of the first wake-up calls the Defense Department should have listened to but preferred to ignore. The RAND analysis showed that the F-35 is doomed when it comes to actual fighting when avoiding detection is no longer an option. Regardless of whether the simulation was 100-percent accurate or not, it exposed a serious flaw which had to be taken seriously.
The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis institution, stated that although the Pentagon had pursued numerous joint aircraft programs, including the recent F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project in order to reduce Life Cycle Cost (LCC), it had failed to accomplish this mission. "Unless the participating services have identical, stable requirements, the US Department of Defense should avoid future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft development programs," RAND's analysts recommended, bemoaning the fact that the presence of fewer prime contractors in the US market undermines the potential for future competition and "makes costs more difficult to control."
In a report titled “Thunder Without Lightning: High Cost and Limited Benefit Development Program of F-35” and released by US non-profit organization National Security Network, analyst Bill French wrote that, according to the technical parameters, the F-35 is “losing to the fourth-generation fighter MiG-29 and Su-27, developed by the Russian Air Force and used around the world.”
“The F-35 is significantly inferior to the Russian Su-27 and MiG-29 in regard to wing loading (exception — F35C), acceleration and thrust-weight ratio (the ratio of thrust to weight of the aircraft),” said the analyst. Besides, all of the F-35s have significantly lower maximum speed as compared to the Soviet aircraft. Mr. French also wrote that in a simulated air combat, the results drew an even “grimmer picture.”
According to him, despite the superiority of the F-35 with regard to stealth technology and avionics, if compared to the Su-27 and MiG-29 the loss ratio is to be expected at 3:1. That is, for each destroyed Su-27 or MiG-29 there would be three F-35 destroyed. The report said that the F-35 was only slightly better than the veteran F-16 and F-18 jets.
"Where once mighty American warplanes soared over all others, giving Washington a distinct strategic advantage against any foe, in coming decades the US air arsenal will likely be totally outclassed on a plane-by-plane basis by any country possessing the latest Russian and Chinese models – one of which, ironically, appears to be an improved copy of the JSF … minus all its worst design elements," defense analyst David Axe stated.
"The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a do-it-all strike jet being designed by Lockheed Martin to evade enemy radars, bomb ground targets and shoot down rival fighters – is as troubled as ever. Any recent tidbits of apparent good news can't alter a fundamental flaw in the plane's design with roots going back decades," the expert asserted.
The main issue with this particular piece of military hardware is that it "is a second-rate fighter where it actually matters – in the air, in life-or-death combat against a determined foe."
The F-35 has seen its share of problems, despite being one of the most expensive pieces of military hardware ever created. In addition to concerns that the jet’s software was vulnerable to cyberattack, the F-35’s fundamental performance capabilities have also been called into question. "The jet fighter lacks the sensors weapons and speed that allow a warplane to reliably detect and shoot down other planes in combat," a report from War is Boring reads. "At least not compared to modern Chinese- and Russian-made jets – the planes the F035 is most likely to face in battle in some future war."
But Tony Capaccio writing for Bloomberg reported that Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of Pentagon’s F-35 program office, told a House Armed Services Committee panel 21 October 2015 that the F-35 program was “growing and accelerating and making progress on many fronts, including flight test, production, maintenance, fielding” He said the F-35 program was “fundamentally on track”.
An August 2015 report by the US-based National Security Network (NSN) indicated the Su-35 could club the F-35 to death in a one-on-one dogfight. In ‘Thunder without Lightning: The High Costs and Limited Benefits of the F-35 Program’, the think tank’s policy analyst Bill French and researcher Daniel Edgren say the F-35 is likely to be “outmaneuvered” and “outgunned” by its “near peers” such as the Su-35. “Perhaps more significant than counter-stealth radar is the F-35’s vulnerability to detection by infrared sensors. Infrared search-and-track (IRST) systems, which are widely deployed on foreign fighter aircraft, can detect aircraft otherwise invisible to radar at significant distances without emitting any signal of their own.”
Nodding to IRST technology’s implications in bypassing radar stealth, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert told NSN: “Let's face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat—I don't care how cool the engine can be, it's going to be detectable.” “The F-35 will be particularly vulnerable to IRST detection given its enormous engine that puts out 40,000 lbs of thrust with no infrared shielding or suppression. Already, the OLS-35 IRST featured on the Su-35 can detect aircraft from the frontal aspect at nearly 30 nautical miles, from the rear at 50 nautical miles, and missile launches at similar distances.”
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