Will the F-35 ever shake off its reputation?

F-35 Lightning II 1

On the 26th of October 2001 it was announced that Lockheed Martin had beaten rival Boeing in the Joint Strike Fighter competition which was and still is the most important fighter project in the world. For me this came as no surprise. I knew the X-35 (as the F-35 was called back in those early days) would be the winner from the moment the two aircraft were unveiled for one very simple reason; the X-35 looked like an aeroplane. Boeing’s X-32 on the other hand looked more like a bloated fish and was distinctly unattractive. Given the astronomical amounts of money that was being poured in to the program and the sheer scale of what was at stake the supporters of the program (the countries that had invested in it and would eventually buy it) wanted as low risk an aircraft as possible and that was the X-35.

Now I am not saying that the X-32 lost just because it was ugly. The point I am trying to make is that from the very beginning image was important to the whole program and it is image that is proving the biggest problem with the F-35 Lightning II today. Since the program began the number of technology problems, political bickering and media scare mongering has cast a rather gloomy shadow over the whole affair. None of this should come as any surprise. The program is certainly the most ambitious in aviation history since the XB-70 Valkyrie program to develop a Mach 3 intercontinental bomber so technical problems were almost guaranteed. The sheer number of countries involved means that a consensus amongst them was always going to be an impossibility and given the stakes the media was always going to be there like a flock of vultures waiting to pick at any hint of failure.

Even Hollywood seems to be against the F-35 program with Bruce Willis’ John McClane destroying one with rubble from a falling bridge in Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard) and a whole squadron of them getting swotted like flies by General Xod in Man of Steel. In fact the aircraft was to have had a starring role in Top Gun 2 with Tom Cruise revisiting his character of the legendary “Maverick”. The US Navy, Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin were hoping that Top Gun 2 would do for the F-35 what the original movie did for the F-14 Tomcat – turn it in to a flying sex symbol. Tragically, director Tony Scott committed suicide while the project was in its earliest stages and this brought the whole thing to a crashing halt. Amazingly the F-35 has been blamed for this as well with some aviation enthusiasts claiming the aircraft is so cursed that anything associated with it is doomed to failure.

F-35 Lightning II 2Whether you believe in curses or not one thing is for sure; the F-35 is a troubled program. Every month brings more news of system failures, mechanical breakdowns or organizational problems that result in an aircraft that many feel will be the biggest flop in aviation history. Is this view justified however?

The general feeling among the nations invested in the aircraft is not if the problems will be solved but when and of course how much it will cost. Lockheed Martin and its partners are making every effort to rectify the aircraft’s problems but when they succeed it rarely makes the media whereas everytime they make a mistake it seems to get plastered across tabloid newspapers and made viral thanks to the internet. It seems at this point the public have become quite cynical about the project and are just waiting for the next breakdown. The public at large therefore feel that if their governments throw enough money at the project they will at least get it in to service.

What truly does worry a lot of countries who are committed to the project is just how much bang they are getting for their buck. Development problems are one thing but if when operational the aircraft proves inferior to what it can expect to face from Chinese and Russian manufacturers, what then? It would be economy crushing to abandon the aircraft for another type so the choice is either F-35 or F-35 working with upgraded older types. Russia has made quite a healthy business selling thoroughly upgraded types of their previous generation aircraft such as the Su-35BM “Flanker” and in 2010 Boeing even presented a stealthy version of the F-15 Eagle known as the F-15SE Silent Eagle. No government committed to the F-35 would ever edge towards such an acquisition for it would surely mean the end of their time in power. Australia has been forced to acquire the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet to plug the gap between the withdrawal of the older model F-18 Hornet and F-111 Aardvark and the arrival of the F-35. Now it seems that the F/A-18F will even supplant the F-35 which means that even though they lost to it Boeing are making money off the F-35.

So how will the F-35A (likely to be the most common model) fare against the Su-35BM or similar Chinese versions of the “Flanker” family? Much has been made of the stealth capabilities offered by the F-35 with claims that it is all but invisible to radar. This term was then reworded to low observability in the early 2000s because the public expectation was proving too high. In reality the stealth design of the aircraft results in it having a radar cross section approximately the size of a large bird and this can be further shrouded with electronic jamming equipment. This does indeed make it a very hard target to find on radar.

The problem is that nearly every country that develops combat aircraft are now moving closer towards detection techniques other than radar the main one being Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) systems. IRSTs are nothing new to aviation with the McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom II and the MiG-23M “Flogger” operating primitive versions as far back as the 1960s. In the last twenty years the technology has taken on a new importance as aircraft became stealthier and the systems are now quite advanced although like radar the infra-red emissions they give off reveal the search aircraft’s position. IRST technology has been prevalent on Russian designs since the break-up of the Soviet Union and even the US Navy have trialled a system fitted in to the nosecone of an external fuel tank for use on the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

Other more elaborate systems include modern ground based audio detectors that can “hear” aircraft at great distances (the British used early versions of this system in World War II) and perhaps the most fanciful of all, China is reported to have tested a system designed to detect disturbances in the air caused by the passing of a jet aircraft. China claims that it has tracked USAF B-2 Spirit stealth bombers in the Pacific using this system and in one radical claim published in Air Forces Monthy in 2000 the system was trialled by Chinese military personnel operating from the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO operations against Serbia and it was for this reason the embassy was bombed (the US claimed it was a mistake). Obviously we need to take such claims with a rather hefty pinch of salt but the fact of the matter is that the technology to detect “stealth” aircraft is maturing.

F-35 Lightning II 4So how will the F-35 fare without this advantage? If Australia’s Defence Industry Daily is to be believed then the F-35’s agility is so poor that it actually sits somewhere between the F-4 Phantom II (hardly a ballerina of the sky) and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Lockheed Martin aggressively denied this claim when it was made in 2013 but admit they can’t reveal much more about the aircraft’s performance for security reasons (something that some say is merely an excuse). But if the day of the dogfight is really over then what does it matter? It has been claimed many times that the dogfight is a relic and each time the claim has been proven false. Nevertheless the weaponry the F-35 will possess mean that traditional dogfight tactics at least will no longer be relevant in the coming years. Off-boresight missiles such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM mean that the F-35 will not ever have to get on the tail of an enemy to fire but can fire at any angle in relation to the target with a high degree of probability of hitting it. This means that the key to winning a dogfight in the future will be to spot the enemy first (and in doing so fire first) and to employ effective countermeasures to decoy an enemy’s weapon away. Agility therefore may not be as high a priority as it once was although admittedly a more agile aircraft would find it easier to evade an incoming missile than a less agile aircraft would.

Some of the biggest criticisms of the F-35 revolve around the aircraft’s weapon carrying capability. When in its maximum stealth configuration i.e. carrying internal weapons only it can only utilise six air to air missiles. It can carry more on its external pylons but this dramatically increases its radar cross section and thus makes it more visible. On the surface this appears to be quite the vulnerability with the Su-35 having up to 12 pylons for weapons but it might not be as much of a problem as one might think. If there is one thing that the F-35 will bring to the battlefield above all others it is true netcentricity. This is the ability to transmit tactical data to allied aircraft and ground stations via a complex and secure datalink system. This means that no one plane is ever alone in the grand scheme of things and that the F-35 pilot will be able to determine how best to prosecute a target with the assets presented to him/her on the datalink screen. The F-35s vast array of sensors could detect high priority enemy ground forces but the aircraft may be configured for an air to air mission and so he would be unable to attack. However he can transmit the target location to another aircraft or ground based asset (artillery, MLRS, special forces) for them to prosecute the target.

The ability to communicate in battle is key to success with many historical precedents supporting its value.  On August 8th 1940 a force of 16 Italian CR.42 biplanes operated by a supposedly elite Italian fighter unit were ambushed by 13 RAF Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters over North Africa. The Gladiator pilots almost annihilated the Italian force with 13 confirmed kills and the three survivors being so heavily damaged to the point where the RAF listed them as “probables”. The deciding factor was that the Gladiators had radios to communicate allowing them to properly organise themselves in combat whereas the CR.42 pilots were left to old-fashioned hand signals. If one Gladiator was about to be ambushed by a superior force then his compatriots could not only warn him but organize themselves properly to go to his aid. It would be easy to take this scenario and put it in to a 21st century context with the F-35s communicating with one another and even providing target data for each other’s weapons in order to defeat an enemy of superior numbers. In the 1980s the RAF claimed that their Tornado F.3 crews had the same level of situational awareness as Lord Trenchard did when he guided the RAF through the Battle of Britain thanks to JTIDS (the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System). By comparison the F-35 pilot would have a view of the immediate battlefield akin to all of his superior officers combined. Despite their advances in weapons and weapon systems neither the Russians nor the Chinese have been able to adequately master true netcentrictity with their forces and it remains an ace up the western sleeve.

F-35 Lightning II 3It is true that even with underwing pylons the F-35 will not be the bomb truck that the US Marine Corps or RAF wanted so it will have to be a part of a much bigger tactical plan but this is hardly different to the current situation these organizations find themselves in. Indeed how an aircraft is operated has always been the deciding factor in its success. On paper the small force of Royal Navy Sea Harriers should have been annihilated by the Argentinian air forces in the 1982 Falklands War but in fact the reverse happened. Also all the concerns over performance revolve around a worst case scenario involving a battle between modern superpowers, something seen as highly unlikely. If the F-35 does go in to combat against an airborne threat then it will probably be in the form of a so called rogue state whose weaponry and support infrastructure may not be as sophisticated as a superpower e.g. North Korea or Syria. It’s important to note that for all its reputation as the premier fighter of the world the F-15 Eagle has never faced a truly competent opponent with all but a handful of kills it has notched up being inferior MiG-21s and MiG-23s. Of the MiG-29s it has faced such as those over Serbia in 1999 none were armed with the R-73 “Archer” missile or had effective electronic support equipment and therefore this was hardly a fair fight. Can we assume the F-35 will ever face a different situation?

Ultimately only time will tell if the F-35 will pay off. Other programs in the past have had similar problems such as the C-17 Globemaster III project which actually saw a handful of USAF officers court martialled for incompetence. That particular aircraft has gone on to have a hugely successful career. The F-35 may never shake off its troubled development history but it may still prove its critics wrong. Personally, I believe the first step should be to redesignate the aircraft as the “F/A-35 Lightning II” to symbolise its multi-role mission. A new name might also let people start afresh with the aircraft and allow it to shed some of the negativity that surrounds the name “F-35 Lightning II”.


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