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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.

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