F-35 Got Issues

I have a second Diplomat piece this week, this time on the ongoing troubles with the F-35:

Perhaps more importantly, rules of engagement are inherently political.  Civilian leaders, and their politically attuned senior military counterparts, will draw up guidelines for combat in context of political, not military, necessity. If the F-35 can only operate successfully in BVR (Beyond Visual Range) context (and to be sure the networking capability of the F-35 make “BVR” a different proposition than with past aircraft), and if the civilians restrict the ability of the aircraft to operate under such conditions, then the utility of the fighter comes into grave question.  This question is hardly academic, as potential peer competitors of the U.S.(including Russia and China) will undoubtedly take political steps to limit the ability of the F-35 to fight at full capability. Again, this may be even more true of the partner countries in the F-35 program, which often suffer from more rigorous political restrictions that U.S. forces.

The larger problem is that none of today’s major players have serious experience with fighting high end aerial combat against an advanced peer competitor.  Most sophisticated air forces have invested heavily inexperimental learning, in the form of Red Flag and its various clones around the world.  These efforts place air forces light years ahead of their 1960s counterparts, which found (in the case of the United States in Vietnam) that actual air combat bore little resemblance either to earlier wars or to extant theoretical studies. Nevertheless, even the best experimental learning settings cannot replace experiential learning; combat in real war conditions, beset by all of the political baggage that necessarily afflicts military operations. Investing in an aircraft that can only maximize its potential in a particular, unusual political environment carries serious risk, and at the very least operators need to work out the implications of operations across the spectrum of political commitments.

Best option at this point, I think, may be a relatively small F-35 buy combined with purchases of advanced models of legacy aircraft.

14 comments on this post.
  1. Cody:

    I think electronic warfare is going to be vital, even in small-scale engagements. Does the F-35 possess advanced jamming capabilities, or similar technological advances to allow electronic combat?

    Either way, it seems cheaper to just buy an AWACS or something more expensive that can stay out of harms way to do this job. BVR combat is no doubt what would happen in a full-on war, but those kinds of wars are (hopefully) sparse.

    I think, in conclusion, these things are a huge waste of money. I just have a difficult time imagining what advanced the F-35 brings that could not be supplanted with cheaper support vehicles. Perhaps I am missing a key missing function in the F-18′s electronic abilities.

  2. Tom:

    I think one need only look at the operational span of the F-14 to understand just how unlikely a BVR scenario is. Like the F-35, the Tomcat was originally sold as an over the horizon fighter that would engage and kill enemy fighters outside the envelope using the Phoenix missile. After 30 years both the F-14 and the Phoenix were put to rest with the F-14 having participated in multiple operations but never having fired a Phoenix in anger.

  3. jon:

    Volume often trumps capability in warfare. How many potential adversaries possess substantial, serviceable numbers of aircraft equal or superior to the F-16? How many can field air defenses that could attrit substantial numbers of attacking aircraft?

    You don’t want to send infantry against machine guns, when it can be avoided. But the US has many models of aircraft so advanced, so expensive and so rare, that the loss of a single one poses a serious calculation – to the point where the decision regarding military action revolves largely around the availability of specific aircraft, and the degree to which they can be protected from potential risks.

  4. rea:

    Volume often trumps capability in warfare. How many potential adversaries possess substantial, serviceable numbers of aircraft equal or superior to the F-16? How many can field air defenses that could attrit substantial numbers of attacking aircraft?

    The discussion of the Battle of Hoth yesterday is very much on point here . . .

  5. BigHank53:

    Let’s not forget support; I suspect the maintenance overhead will be what sinks the F-35. Sure, it’s absolutely state-of-the-art. But if it’s going to need twenty man-hours on the ground for every hour in the air, it’ll be an economic disaster.

    The Saab Gripen, for example, was designed to be re-fueled, re-armed, and turned around for another mission in ten minutes, using a team of one technician and five conscripts. That’s the sort of fighter you design when you can actually see Russia, instead of thinking that the opponent you need to defeat is an acquisitions committee.

  6. Matt_L:

    This – What will be the Sortie rate and how many F-35s can Lockheed/Boeing/Northrup-Grumman? BAe Systems turn out in a month.

  7. Lurker:

    I’d like to note that these “conscripts” are not just any grunts the draftsman’s net has caught. Such conscript was (in Sweden) and still is (in the Finnish Air Force) also:
    * a high school graduate with a high GPA
    * a volunteer for the training
    * a person who had passed a competitive selection process
    * trained for about half a year specially for his duties before actually serving as an assistant mechanician.

    So, the main difference is that with such training, if you have usually in a fighter wing, say, a mechanician force of thirty career mechanicians and thirty conscript assistants, you can, in a crisis, call up the reservists from the last ten years and get thirty career mechanicians and some 200 reservist mechanicians, allowing for attrition.

    With such force, you can increase the number of your air bases at least five-fold in a few days, which increases the survivability of your fighters quite a bit.

  8. NBarnes:

    My understanding is that the F-35′s original procurment intention was precisely to avoid this sort of disaster. To produce something that could fill multiple roles, but did not represent the absolute pinnacle of US fight technology and didn’t have the price tag associated with that. WTF happened?

    Farley, I’d love to see a piece from you looking back at the development of different fighter systems and trying to make an assessment of what programs worked and what didn’t and why. I think the US military procurement system needs to have a good long think about how they’re going about things. The last two fighter development programs we ran resulted in the F-22 and F-35. That’s a really really really bad track record and one that needs to be examined rather than shrugged at.

  9. BigHank53:

    That’s an examination I’d also love to read.

  10. BigHank53:

    Thanks for the clarification. These would be the equivalent of US Air Force mechanics: basic military training followed by specialty school.

    The Saab turnaround time still boggles me; I remember talking with an F-16 flight line mechanic about twenty years ago: the first task once an F-16 rolled to a stop was to check the brake temperature. If the pilot had gotten on the brakes too hard during the landing and overheated them, the aircraft had to be parked for half an hour to let them cool. Carbon fiber brakes don’t weigh much but they don’t cool off like metal ones do, either.

  11. Tyto:

    Point taken, but a slight quibble: the Phoenix was really designed as a BVR bomber killer, not a fighter killer. It generally lacked the manuverability for the latter.

  12. abject funk:

    Given the currrent models of the f-16 and f-18 being produced and the advent of designs such as the F-15SE (silent eagle, sort of stealthy, carries weapons in its conformal pods instead of fuel but still retains the rather large payload abilities using external stores of the F-15E), I wonder if there are many pilots out there who would actually want to be in an F-35 as opposed to these other updated legacy aircraft. The F-35 from a pure performance and ordinance delivery perspective looks like a complete dog. All the electronics in the world won’t change that. (Per the comment above, the current man hours to flying hours for the f-22 is around 34, I imagine the f-35 will be in the same range or even worsee, although its stealth technology is supposedly easier to maintain than the f-22). For an interesting (and most likely biased) comparo, check this out: http://www.afa.org/professionaldevelopment/issuebriefs/F-22_v_F-35_Comparison.pdf

  13. tomsk:

    I doubt it performs like a complete dog. A lot of the reason for this widespread sentiment seems to be that the figures generally quoted for the F35 are fully laden; these then get compared unfavourably with unladen airshow performance for the F16, F18 et al – without weapons and external fuel tanks. From what I’ve seen the F35 seems likely to be perfectly competitive with realistically-configured 4th generation fighters in kinematic terms. Obviously it’s unlikely to have anything on the F22 or PAK-FA in a dogfight, but it’s never been intended as an air-superiority fighter in that sense, and will rely heavily on its stealth, very advanced sensors, electronic warfare capabilities and networking. Whether it’s anything like worth the money it’s ended up costing is obviously a much more doubtful question, but personally I’d expect it to deal with F18s etc fairly efficiently even if it gets forced into a WVR dogfight.

  14. Anonymous:

    I’d love to see the Air Force taken down a notch over the decision not to re-engine the B-52 fleet in the late 1990s.

    Not enough work for Boeing/GE, or a gambit to retire heavy bombers for once and for all?

    We’ve spent lots of money on fuel we didn’t have to over the past fifteen years.

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