Monday, July 13, 2015

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think the F-35 sucks, and those who don't

That might be simplifying things a bit, but it's close. There probably is a third kind of person in the world: those who say, what the fuck are you talking about?

Anyway, this will be kind of a military porn post, so many of you might not care. But given the decisions made by the national security establishment years ago that staked the fate of American air power to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Air Force likes to call the Lightning II (because the original Lightning was an excellent World War II fighter plane, the Air Force apparently hopes good vibes will rub off.), the question of whether the F-35 sucks is actually huge for national security. It is going to be pretty much our only fighter aircraft fielded in any kind of numbers once it replaces the F-16 and the F-15. And given that we have roughly half the number of fighter squadrons that we had 20 years ago, whatever fighter we put out there better be pretty fucking good.

A number of people contend that the F-35 is not that plane -- the F-22 was supposed to fill that role. When the F-15 retires for good, the F-22 will be the only real air superiority fighter the Air Force has. The problem with that? There are only 187 operational production F-22s in the Air Force inventory:
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a single-seat, twin-engine, all weather stealth tactical fighter aircraft developed for the United States Air Force (USAF). The result of the USAF's Advanced Tactical Fighter program, the aircraft was designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, but has additional capabilities including ground attack, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence roles.[6] Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor and was responsible for the majority of the airframe, weapon systems, and final assembly of the F-22, while program partner Boeing provided the wings, aft fuselage, avionics integration, and training systems.
The aircraft was variously designated F-22 and F/A-22 prior to formally entering service in December 2005 as the F-22A. Despite a protracted development as well as operational issues, the USAF considers the F-22 a critical component of its tactical air power, and states that the aircraft is unmatched by any known or projected fighter.[7] The Raptor's combination of stealth, aerodynamic performance, and situational awareness gives the aircraft unprecedented air combat capabilities.[8][9]
The high cost of the aircraft, a lack of clear air-to-air missions due to delays in Russian and Chinese fighter programs, a ban on exports, and development of the more versatile and lower cost F-35 led to the end of F-22 production.[N 1] A final procurement tally of 187 operational production aircraft was established in 2009 and the last F-22 was delivered to the USAF in 2012.
There are usually about 20 aircraft in a fighter squadron. Given that, we can't have more than about nine fully equipped F-22 squadrons -- maybe ten if we scimp on the number of aircraft per squadron. Given the need for spares and trainers, however, nine seems like the upper limit. At three squadrons per wing (the next largest organizational unit), and roughly three wings per group, we might be able to field two fighter groups of F-22s. I have not checked Air Force figures on what they claim to be fielding, but unless they plan to go significantly understrength on squadrons, wings and groups, that is what it is. And it ain't much. Apparently, we plan to wait until it is too late -- i.e., the Chinese J-20 and the Russian T-51 are operational and in the air -- before we decide how to counter that threat. Brilliant. In the meantime, almost all of the military's fighter-plane dollars are going to the F-35. So, does it suck?

Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. Back in April, Aviation Week reported that the F-35 engaged in a dogfight test against an F-16. The magazine reported no results, saying only:
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been flown in air-to-air combat maneuvers against F-16s for the first time and, based on the results of these and earlier flight-envelope evaluations, test pilots say the aircraft can be cleared for greater agility as a growth option.
You're right -- that doesn't tell you much. Nor does reading the rest of the article. Although it does tell you that "greater agility growth" is needed.  Last week, the flight report of the test pilot who flew the F-35 in that test got leaked. It wasn't good:
A test pilot has some very, very bad news about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The pricey new stealth jet can’t turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane during a dogfight or to dodge the enemy’s own gunfire, the pilot reported following a day of mock air battles back in January.
“The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” the unnamed pilot wrote in a scathing five-page brief that War Is Boring has obtained. The brief is unclassified but is labeled “for official use only.”
The test pilot’s report is the latest evidence of fundamental problems with the design of the F-35 — which, at a total program cost of more than a trillion dollars, is history’s most expensive weapon.
The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — not to mention the air forces and navies of more than a dozen U.S. allies — are counting on the Lockheed Martin-made JSF to replace many if not most of their current fighter jets.
And that means that, within a few decades, American and allied aviators will fly into battle in an inferior fighter — one that could get them killed … and cost the United States control of the air.
But was it really that bad? The fact that an F-35 couldn't out-dogfight an F-16 is not a tragedy. The F-22 is the only plane that can reliably defeat an F-16 in close-air combat -- in other words, relying on guns and maneuver -- and of the former Soviet inventory, only the Su-27 and the MiG-29 even come close. Both are just as old as the F-16, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Neither has the avionics upgrades and other improvements that the F-16 has enjoyed since its introduction. The F-16 remains the finest dog-fighting aircraft in anyone's inventory except ours -- and we don't have a buttload of F-22s, so having the F-16 is a good thing. Here are and F-35 (the lead plane) and an F-16 in flight:

As the F-15 has proven, though, astoundingly nimble is not the only feature that makes a good fighter aircraft. Speed kills, and the F-15 also remains a fine fighter craft in part because of its speed. It has many other capabilities and is a great airplane. Modern missile inventory, which allows fighter aircraft to score kills many miles before guns are in range, lessens the the value of in-close, guns-only dogfighting capability.  The fact that the F-15 cannot hang in a dogfight with the F-16 does not make it a bad airplane. If the F-15 fails to kill an opponent at distance with missiles, it has the speed to run away and fight another day,

The same is true of the F-35. A former F-16 pilot argues convincingly that it is far too early in the testing and development process to declare the F-35 a turd:
First, let’s talk about what really happened. According to the article, an F-35A and a two-bag Block 40 F-16D took off on Jan 14, 2015 to engage in Basic Fighter Maneuver setups to test “the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment…this consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive,defensive, and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”
English please?

Just like a normal 1v1 proficiency sortie, the two fighters did canned setups to practice basicdogfighting. In the offensive setups, the F-35 would start off behind the F-16. At the specified range, the F-35 pilot would call “Fight’s On” and maneuver to the F-16’s control zone to employ weapons. In the defensive setups, the F-35 would start off in front while the Viper maneuvered to the F-35’s control zone. And finally, in the neutral (high-aspect) setup, the two aircraft would start completely neutral and fight until whatever DLOs (Designated Learning Objectives) they had were met, be they valid gunshots, valid missile shots, or whatever.
So while this particular article may lead you to believe the two aircraft went out there mano y mano and duked it out, the reality is that we don’t know where each deficiency was found. My guess is the critiques on the pitch rates for gunning and abilities to jink happened in the canned offensive and defensive setups. But one has to remember this is a test platform and they were out to get test data, not find out who the king of the mountain is.
Much of the criticism of the F-35 -- and the F-15, for that matter, which might be the finest fighter plane ever designed -- comes from Pierre Sprey, one of the designers of the F-16 and a driving force behind the philosophy in favor of light, agile fighter aircraft at the heart of the Air Force air superiority mission. Sprey's roots are in the Vietnam era. To reverse a trend where U.S. fighter aircraft had a shocking kill ratio of only 2:1, specialized pilot training programs were initiated by the Air Force and Navy to improve pilot dogfighting skills. The increased emphasis on dogfighting led to a return to internal guns on fighter craft -- previously, the emphasis had been on air-to-air missiles, and most fighter designs in the U.S. inventory did not have built-in guns. Sprey came out of this environment with an attitude that all U.S. fighters should be uber-nimble, lightweight dogfighting machines.

The F-16, which Sprey helped design, is the embodiment of that vision. Sprey hates the F-15 because it large and not particularly nimble (at least compared to the F-16), even though it has never been defeated in air-to-air combat. He hates the F-15 and the F-35 because they are multi-role fighters that can be configured for ground attack, as well, even though the F-16 has evolved into a multi-role fighter quite successfully. Sprey is unable to get beyond his biases, and Tyler Rogoway, a defense writer at Foxtrot Alpha, takes Sprey's diatribe apart piece by piece, revealing along the way that Sprey is criticizing the F-35 from a 1970s mindset.

The important thing to remember about the F-35 is that it is the Joint Strike Fighter. The emphasis is on "strike" here, although the F-35 is more than capable as a fighter. Further, as Rogoway points out, modern missile technology virtually guarantees the F-35 will rarely have to engage in the kind of aerial knife fight that Sprey apparently still lives out every night when his head hits the pillow. Further, as test restrictions are removed, the F-35 is quite likely to prove extremely adept even at that role.

The Pentagon, naturally, is standing by the F-35. Arguably, at this point in the development of the plane, they don't have much choice. Reacting to the leaked release of the test pilot's report that started the whole kerfuffle, the Pentagon makes some convincing points that echo some of the things Rogoway said:
The Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office, however, while praising and welcoming the test pilot assessments, says the "War is Boring" story leaves out key factors and critical context to the issue.
"The media report on the F-35 and F-16 flight does not tell the entire story. The F-35 involved was AF-2, which is an F-35 designed for flight sciences testing, or flying qualities, of the aircraft. It is not equipped with a number of items that make today's production F-35s 5th Generation fighters," a JPO office written statement said.
In particular, the JPO statement explained that the AF-2 test aircraft did not have the mission systems software designed to utilize the aircraft's next-generation sensors.
In short, the F-35 is engineered with a suite of next-generation sensors designed to help the aircraft recognize, detect and destroy enemy targets at longer distances -- long before it can be identified by an enemy aircraft.
"While the dogfighting scenario was successful in showing the ability of the F-35 to maneuver to the edge of its limits without exceeding them, and handle in a positive and predictable manner, the interpretation of the scenario results could be misleading. The F-35's technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual 'dogfighting' situations," the JPO said.
I'm not a fan of one-size-fits-all aircraft -- or anything, for that matter. Most of the problems in developing versions of the F-35 for all three flying services have arisen from the fact that the airframe design had to be able to accomodate VSTOL capabilities -- vertical and short take off and land -- to meet the Marine Corps' operational needs. The Marines are the service most desperately in need of a new aircraft, as their VSTOL fighter, the AV-8B Harrier, is 1960s technology and is getting pretty damn old. The Marines have nearly 80 F-35s in service already and plan to move some of them to operational status, possibly this summer. The Navy and Air Force versions still have more further testing to go than do the Marines, but as Forbes notes, there are a growing number of signs the F-35 is proving to be a success.

Forbes might be a little rosy, but I think it is clear that it is easy to criticize the F-35 at this point, in no small measure because of the program's cost. I think it might be wise to give a little more deference to a plane that has survived three administrations, has the backing of many of our allies, financially and through commitments to buy, and continues to pass its testing benchmarks. Problems that have arisen have been solved or solutions are in the works, and the program history indicates further problems will be solved. We can't really assess the performance of the plane until if flies with all testing restrictions off. Given the growing aggressiveness of China and Russia, it better be good.

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