The myth of the F-35 as an all purpose, multi-role fighter imploded this past week with the leak of a report on tests showing that it couldn't hold its own, much less defeat a decades old F-16 in air combat maneuvering. To put it bluntly, the old (and cheap) F-16 waxed the F-35's tail.
When the specs were written for the F-35 one of the requirements was that it had to maneuver at least better than the venerable F-16 it was intended to replace. It's not the first time the F-35 has come up short - or long in its case. It also failed to meet its landing and take off distance requirements. So the US Air Force rewrote the specs to reflect what the F-35 could do and changed its F to a C-plus with the stroke of a pen. It also has a pretty worrisome weight problem. Lockheed tried to trim the plane down by removing its onboard fire suppression system not the best solution for an airplane where the fuel tanks are wrapped around its oh so hot engine. One lucky hit by some illiterate farmboy with a Korean War vintage assault rifle and - kaboom
Caught with their pants down, Lockheed and the US Air Force, while admitting that the leaked report was genuine and the F-35 did indeed fail its air combat test, chimed in with a duet about how the dismal report wasn't the whole story. Truer words were never spoken just not quite in the same way that the manufacturer and the American air force types intended.
What the damning report shows and what Lockheed and the F-35 boosters are now going to have to admit is that their claim that the F-35 is a multi-role fighter is a ruse, seemingly intended to get foreign orders. The CF-18 that Trudeau bought for the air force is a genuine, multi-role fighter. It can do a respectable job at ground attack (bombing), close support (helping troops on the ground - bombing and strafing), air to air combat (dogfighting), patrol and interception (air defence).
The F-35 is no multi-role strike fighter. It's a somewhat stealthy, light attack bomber. It's designed to carry two bombs to a high-value target (worthy of the F-35's gold plated price tag) and then get out however it can.Close support
? Not a chance. That role requires loiter time. The supporting fighter has to arrive on station, communicate with the troops who need help, identify and try to take out the bad guys, and then hang around for a while in case there are more enemies lying in wait. It has to carry enough gear to make multiple runs on enemy positions. And - here's the big one - it has to be able to take a few hits and survive to make it home. The F-35 is fuel limited. Hanging around to help out would be a problem. Then there's the "Pinto" problem
of the fuel tanks wrapped around the engine that make ground fire a much more serious threat. The F-35 is one hot airplane. Its engine generates an enormous heat plume, ideal for a Russian or Chinese or ISIS soldier with a shoulder-launched, infrared missile just looking for something to shoot down. Oh yeah, that engine? There's just the one. When you lose one engine to ground fire and one is all you have you had better hope those friendly troops can get to you before the bad guys do. And if all that wasn't enough, there's the small matter of cost. This is one super expensive airplane to put at such significant risk.Patrol and interception
, the air defence mission? I think it was some air force that came up with the term MTBF which stands for mean time between failures. It's based on the idea that equipment eventually breaks down and the longer you run it, the more likely it is to fail. We used to require 4-engines on passenger jets crossing the Atlantic. Why? MTBF, that's why. Multiple engines provide redundancy which comes in really handy if one craps out. MTBF takes on a whole new dimension when it comes to a single engine warplane hundreds of miles from home up in the Arctic in February. Another problem is speed. Once a suspect aircraft is detected, you need to get an interceptor there as quickly as possible. Gives the target less chance to launch a salvo of long range cruise missiles and such. Even clean, with no long range fuel tanks or missiles to slow it down, the F-35 lacks "supercruise." That's the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without having to use the fuel-guzzling afterburner. It can't go supercruise fast because it's fat - really, really fat. It's fat because, when Lockheed was chosen to build it, they had to build three versions, one of which was the vertical lift model for the US Marines and the Royal Navy. It takes space to house that extra engine and that made the F-35 a very wide, high drag airplane (see the photo above). Put all of these shortcomings together and the F-35 would seem to be a very poor pick for the air defence mission.
Which brings us to the glamour stuff, the 'turn and burn' fighter role, dogfighting
. When it comes to the aerial furball, the US Air Force's own leaked tests show the F-35 simply cannot hold its own even against a vintage F-16. It seemed to take even the pilots by surprise at how easy it was for the F-16 to get on the F-35's tail and stay there.
The Air Force brass kind of gulped and then said that report doesn't tell the whole story. True enough. In reality, the F-35 won't have to contend with F-16s. The adversaries it will confront will be far deadlier than the F-16. It will have to deal with aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-35, Russia's stealth air superiority fighter, the PAK50, and China's Su-30s and its stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31.
Since the F-35 is plainly not an air defence fighter, or a close support fighter, or an air superiority fighter, there's just one mission left - light attack bomber. The reason the F-35 design sacrifices speed, range, payload and agility typical of genuine fighters is because it is intended to bomb high-value targets in heavily defended enemy territory. That's what the stealth cloaking is all about.
The F-35 is intended to defeat conventional x-band radars found on older fighters. It's frontal-aspect cloaking. Scanned from other aspects - the sides, above, below - the F-35 is not very stealthy at all. The F-35 is designed to go straight to its target, drop its bombs, and go straight back out again via the shortest route possible before hostile fighters can engage it. Okay, what's wrong with this picture?
For starters, F-35 operators will announce their presence well in advance. Because of the range limitations, the F-35 will require its support aircraft, especially its air refueling tankers to come far forward where they'll be readily detected. They'll need to top up on the way in and once they get out. You see those tankers at the edge of your airspace, you've got time to get your defending fighters in the air to meet the attackers. You can also assign fighters to destroy the vulnerable tankers ensuring those F-35s, even if they do reach their target, will never get back to their base. There's the first Achilles' Heel.
The obvious intended adversaries, Russia and China, have made good use of the inordinate delays in the F-35 development to do plenty of developing of their own. As Edward Snowden revealed, the Chinese managed to hack a lot of the secrets of the F-35 design right out of the contractors' computers. Additional secrets were obtained from the Lockheed RQ-170 stealth drone that was brought down, seemingly intact, by Iran. That included the onboard stealth cloaking electronics and the stealth coatings from the skin of the drone.
Their time and effort seems to have paid off. They developed work-arounds. They focused on the limitations of the American stealth technology and its weaknesses. This resulted in what's called "sensor fusion" - the combination of sensor technologies such as L-band radar together with long-range infrared and optical sensors. Slaved together with computers what was invisible is now detectable sufficiently well to permit not just detection but tracking and targeting. Fighter interception is again viable and when fighters can find the F-35, the US Air Force's playbook goes out the window.
Under attack the F-35 will have little choice but to maneuver - to turn and climb and dive - and once it has to turn its stealth cloaking is simply gone. It can try to use its onboard missiles (both of them) to bring down its attackers but it probably won't be able to get enough of them for it to avoid the very dogfight it lost to the F-16. It has a gun but, as the test showed, it can't move its nose fast enough to get on target. Dogfighting also consumes a crazy amount of what the F-35 has in such limited supply - fuel. Because of its high drag it's going to be dependent on its afterburner and when the guy sitting behind you has infrared missiles your day is pretty much over.
As for the Russians, they have what's considered to be the world's best surface to air missile systems - the S-300 and the even newer S-400 which the Russkies claim is "stealth ready."
The sad truth is that the F-35 was designed for conditions as they were when the order was placed. You might remember that time as pre-9/11. One thing those brilliant designers never factored in was that its secrets might be hacked or turned over to the bad guys when that super secret drone was force landed. They never factored in 'sensor fusion' or that the F-35 might have to go up against an adversary with its own stealth warplanes. The F-35 was supposed to have a world-beating technological edge far into the future. There was simply no other way to justify the cost or its operational shortcomings. All of those assumptions now stand unraveled.
Defrocked, the F-35 appears awfully prototypical. It's like a technology demonstrator where combat essential qualities such as range, payload, speed (remember, no supercruise) and agility have been sacrificed for the sake of supposed stealth cloaking that is frontal-aspect only. It's sort of a "look what I can do, dad" airplane that's hard to take seriously.
Lockheed and the US Air Force continue to dismiss the F-35s critics even as those critics' claims keep getting proven right. Let's summarize what we now know about this would-be multi-role fighter.
Close support: too costly to be worth the risk, insufficient loiter time, too vulnerable to ground fire and shoulder-launched IR missiles.
Air defence: too slow (no supercruise), inadequate range, single engine vulnerability.
Air combat: a dead duck - underpowered, lack of fuel, inadequate turn and climb rate, terrible rear visibility, a heat-seeking missile's dream date.
It's not a fighter. It just can't do fighter things. It's a light attack bomber purpose built to attack countries with relatively sophisticated air defences which would be China, Russia, Iran, Britain, France, maybe Israel - as they were back in the Year of Our Lord, 2000.
This is a warplane that makes absolutely zero sense for Canada. Even the US Navy isn't keen on buying it and the US Air Force is clamoring for quick development of a "sixth generation" fighter to replace the F-35. The goddamned thing is years away from entering service and they're already yelling "next." I think we should take that as a clear warning. Maybe the Americans can afford to move on but if we buy it we can't. It will drain our defence budget even if it does spend most of its time idle undergoing maintenance in our hangars.