Richard Bong’s Ghost, I appear to have left out the F-35A from my procurement discussions. How could I have?
To be honest, I came into this not liking the Lightning II at all. It’s heavy, ugly, has relatively poor handling characteristics on paper, and is riding a massive hype machine. Oh, and it’s really, really expensive. It’s just not what I would have considered. But, I can’t have a discussion of modern fighter procurement without at least touching on it. And that means admitting that the F-35A is about as desirable as an independently-wealthy supermodel in a dating show. Which is to say, unfathomably desirable. I have great respect for the Israeli air force, and they’re on The List. I also respect the South Korean Air Force, which is also in a threatening location, and they cheated on the requirements (no really, they rewrote the requirements) just so they could get a piece of that Joint Strike Action. Neither of these air forces were part of the original partnership group, so they’re not trying to preserve local jobs. And despite the sticker price, Singapore calls it ‘economical.’ So, what am I missing? Well, a classified-level briefing and some fancy mathematical models of air combat, certainly. But beyond that, it’s probably important to figure out why the F-35A is so desirable to the world’s air forces. So let’s take a closer look at the Pride of Fair Columbia.
The F-35A is stealthy, and it’s in production now. Where else can you get both of those? Go ahead, look around, make a few calls. I’ll wait.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Right there is something that you can get nowhere else without violating our rules. Stealth is cool. Is it as stealthy as a B-2A Spirit? No, but the Lightning II isn’t a big heavy bomber either. Its stealth is X-band optimized, and with internal weapons carriage its radar signature can’t be beat in its class, unless you want to look at prototypes or things that the US Congress says You Can’t Have. And unlike some people, I’ll hold myself to those rules. If you want stealth this is the only game in town. And you know the stealth is going to work, because Lockheed Martin has plenty of experience with those materials and that design. Which reminds me, just in case you’re not sold on this whole ‘stealth’ thing, go blow the dust off your VCR and put in your CNN Archive tapes from Gulf War I. Pretty cool. Operating with impunity over the heart of one of the premier air defense systems at the time. Stealth is a massive gain for survivability in the face of modern, integrated air defense systems.
I know what you’re thinking though. First, you’re going to gripe about the F-117A shot down over Serbia. And yeah, okay, you got me. Stealth isn’t perfect, and I never claimed that it was. This is not a cloaking device. It just makes it a lot harder to detect on radar. And in Serbia we’re talking about a really clever piece of surface to air missile operation, plus somewhat sloppy route planning package on an aircraft that had no systems to warn it of an incoming missile. Credit where it’s due, that was a hell of a shot. But it’s not really an indictment of stealth technology as worthless. We still have a phenomenal sortie:loss ratio here. The next obvious gripe is that the F-35A can only carry two JDAMs internally (with two AMRAAMs, or six AMRAAMs without the bombs). And it’s true, that’s not the greatest loadout ever. But we need to be precise–that’s the sneaky loadout. Two 2,000-lbs-class precision guided munitions is exactly what the F-117A carried. It can carry more in low-threat environments, when we’re less worried about our radar signature. But, unlike an F-16 (say), the F-35 can also sneak in and blow stuff up like an F-117. Which was pretty freaking useful despite its smallish loadout. And the Lightning II has really good range performance with only internal stores too.
But there’s more to the F-35 than just the stealth option. Even if we load up all of the external stores, we still have all of the electrics. And the electrics and sensors on the F-35 are second to none. On the front aspect, the F-35’s IRST is basically a built-in Sniper XR targeting pod, and that model is top of the line. So it’s got all of those features without needing to blow a hardpoint on a TGP. That’s not all though. There are six IR sensors around the airframe, arranged for all-around, always-on coverage. You read that right. Always-on. The computers integrate all this for the pilot to identify and track things all around him. When he turns his head, he sees what the appropriate sensor sees, right in his helmet, but the rest of the sensors are still feeding the computer data. No sensor panning. With the computer’s sensor fusion, this gives him the best situational awareness anywhere. Infrared and radar data is combined for identification and tracking purposes. The distributed IR system gives not only awesome infrared searching and tracking, but also missile approach warning, all in one system. But that’s not all. The F-35A has one of the top radars in the world, the AN/APG-81. It may not have the raw power of the IRBIS-E, but it’s cleverer, with fancy LPI modes and built-in electronic warfare capabilities. It’s got everything you’d want for reconnaissance too, with multiple ground moving target detection and tracking, high resolution mapping, and combat identification modes. But wait, it gets better. The F-35A has an integrated electronic warfare suite. It can provide all the SAM radar ranging data and jamming support that it might need, no bulky pods or separate EW aircraft needed. The F-35A has a datalink as well. While it’s not the first fighter to have one (cf. Fishbreath’s post on the Gripen), it has a particularly good one with some compelling features. Specifically, it can datalink to things that aren’t aircraft, such as long range surface to air missiles in order to provide guidance data. It’s like having an extra wingman when you’re fighting near friendly ground forces. Call it a home-field advantage.
Okay, so the F-35 has a lot of really compelling features that you can’t get in any other fighter. Awesome. But what about handling? Well, it gets some help from the internal stores. Anything inside clearly creates no drag. According to many sources, the F-35A with internal stores handles about like an F-16 with a similar weapons load. Now, there are a whole bunch of caveats here, but since I’m not about to try to make a fancy 3D comparative graph of performance data on these two planes, so I’ll take them at their word of “Roughly F-16-grade handling”, and it ought to be good enough for the purposes of this argument. Is ‘Roughly F-16-grade handling” enough? While the F-16’s handling is pretty darn good, the Rafale’s is better, as is that of the Sukhoi Su-35S, the most likely near-term opponent (anything more advanced isn’t in production yet, so it’s a lot harder to predict what the production version will be capable of). So what does that better handling get you? To know this, it helps to know why we bothered going for handling in the first place. At the start of the “Fourth Generation” of jet fighter design, a missile could reliably engage a bogey regardless of its aspect. But the missile had a limited envelope, which is to say the zone in which it could see a target to engage it. Call this envelope a roughly 60-degree cone with the apex at the nose of the launching fighter. Better maneuverability meant that you could get your cone on the other guy first, and so you got first shot. Does this ensure a kill? No, because PK is never one. But it helps, because it usually gets the other guy to go defensive, which meant he had something better to do than try to kill you. Getting first shot is always better. Now, the F-35’s designers say that given the fancy sensor fusion and all-aspect sensors, as well as missiles that can engage a target on any relative bearing, we don’t really need all that agility. You’ve got first shot if you can see him and if he’s close enough. You also get the stealth on your side, to reduce your radar signature, and thus the range at which the other guy can lock you up and get his shot off. All points in the Lightning II’s favor. And there’s the aforementioned integrated electronic warfare, to make an opponent’s life worse.
But what if we’re wrong? What if the Pentagon and Lockheed got their vision of the future wrong? Well, we’d still have all the nifty strike and EW support aspects that I mentioned previously. As for the dogfights, let’s look at some history. The F-4 Phantom II is, on paper, rather a poor dogfighter. It’s big and doesn’t have the handling of it’s Russian contemporaries. In Viet Nam, we saw that it’s vaunted AIM-7 Sparrow missiles weren’t very good at their jobs. And, since the USAF and USN didn’t train pilots in dogfighting, they weren’t very good at it. So the Americans got their butts handed to them by the Vietnamese. But then, the Americans decided that something had to change. So the TOPGUN program and the Red Flag exercises were created, to train pilots in dogfighting. Even dogfighting with opponents who flew different planes, with different strengths and weaknesses than a pilot’s own. And the pilot training emphasis meant that afterwards the Americans gained a favorable kill ratio against their Vietnamese opponents. Similar results happened in the Arab-Israeli wars, where superior training on the part of the Israeli Air Force made up for any shortcomings in their fighters. Looking even further back, General Chennault’s Flying Tigers had an impressive kill:loss ratio against Japanese pilots in China, despite flying aircraft that looked terribly inferior on paper. So, if we do our part with a good training program, we can make up for any shortcomings that a fighter might have. But to be fair, we don’t know these shortcomings yet.
With all that said, the advantages of the Lightning II outweigh the disadvantages of lower payload and less agility when compared to the Rafale. We’ll suck up “good enough” 4th gen fighter handling (or better depending on which reports you read) for the avionics, situational awareness aids, and stealth features. Stealth provides an extra option for the Lightning II; if we choose not to use it on a given mission we get a F-16/F/A-18 with stupidly good avionics and integrated ECM. That’s a fine package. Also, being American, the F-35 is dominant in the 4th dimension of aircraft design (i.e. the political one) as well.
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