Green Room

The F-35 is indeed our fighter of the future

posted at 12:04 pm on July 12, 2012 by

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Lockheen Martin Flight Demonstration Center in Crystal City near Washington DC and be updated on the progress of the Joint Strike Fighter.

The briefing was very well done and speared some of the criticisms that have been heard concerning the advanced 5th generation fighter.

Trillion dollar airplane.

It has almost become a cliche, with people who have no concept of what it means, throwing this around as a negative. Yes, a trillion plus dollars is a lot of money, make no mistake about it. But some of the facts behind its use, but routinely ignored, are pretty important.

1. The F-35 is going to replace every fighter aircraft in 3 services, an unprededented occurrance.

2. The “trillion dollar” figure covers every single possible cost for those aircraft over a 55 year span. That is also unprecedented. DoD has never done that for any other program in its history.

3. The cost figure is done in “then year” dollars. What that means is they are making assumptions about inflation, the cost of fuel, any number of vairables 55 years out. That’s most likely not a very accurate number.

4. Even if it is, when using the same assumptions with the same variables and applying it to the jet fighters we have now (with the assumption we’ll dump the F-35 and keep them) the cost is 4 times higher. Yes, that’s right, if we keep what we have and continue to upgrade and use them, the comparative cost would be 4 times higher using the same model.

Not something we need, because all our future wars will be like Afghanistan.

We seriously do a lousy job of figuring out what our next war will be like. For instance, if you look at global hot spots, you’d have to put Iran right up there at the top. We keep creeping military assets closer and closer to that country. But obviously, should we engage Iran, it would be nothing like Afghanistan.  For one thing, airspace would be hotly contested.  And an F-35 would be extremely useful in an Iranian scenario, much more so than our current fighters because of the F-35′s stealth capabilities which allow it to operate much more freely in heavily defended airspace.

Along with Iran, we know that China and Russia are pursuing 5th generation stealth fighters with a vengence. Russia has the T-50, China has shown the J-20 and it appears China may have another entry into the field, the F-60.

The point, of course, is we’ve grown accustomed to controling or dominating any airspace we fight in. That may or may not be a given in the future. And where airspace is contested, survivability is the key. Which brings us to another criticism

The F-35 isn’t as good as the competiton.

Well actually it is. In fact, it it likely much better. And it is far better than any of the current generation of fighters around the world.

The Pentagon estimates the J-20 will be operational by 2018, but Aboulafia isn’t impressed.

“It looked like a textbook example of how you shouldn’t design a stealth airplane,” he said.

He says the Dragon is “absurd” because it’s oversized and has large, obvious fins behind the cockpit.

But will either jet be comparable to the jack-of-all-trades F-35?

“I don’t think either aircraft can really compete with the F-35,” said Dr. Richard Bitzinger, defence specialist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

He says neither the Russian nor the Chinese stealth jet will have sensors as advanced as the F-35 or have the jet’s ability to collect and use tactical data from satellites or allied planes.

The point about the sensors is critical. The sensor array, networking capability and sensor fusion that takes place in the F-35 is second to none. It is even more powerful and effective than that found in the F-22.

All in all, what I saw yesterday at the Lockheed Martin demonstration center was the latest example of American ingenuity and cutting edge technology fused toward making one of the most powerful fighter aircraft in the world.  Flight testing is going very well and is ahead of schedule.

Will it cost us a good bit of money. Yes, but the alternative is worse and, by the way, don’t those we plan on putting in harm’s way both in the air and on the ground deserve the best?

If so, the F-35 is the answer and we owe it to our military to put them in the best possible equipment to ensure their survivability and those who they fly to support.

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Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 7:41 PM

The engine that is in the F-22 is the most powerful and most efficient engine that exists today.

Same with the F-35, it is almost the same as the F-22.

Unless it gets an engine twice as powerful, it ain’t catching the Raptor, no way no how.

It would take a major advancement in engine design beyond what these planes already possess, plus, as you say, an entirely new airframe.

I am very near convinced the Raptor is coming back, maybe designated F-22b or something. It has some issues, but they will get resolved and we will build more of them.

We just have to get rid of this President and restore prosperity to our nation first.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 7:48 PM

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 7:41 PM

There has been some interesting ideas about extending the B-1b platform forward as well. Complete avionics overhaul to have sensor fusion cockpits like the F-35, a new tail section with a split V-tail, advanced radar absorbing coatings, and re-engine with 4 Raptor engines. It could carry a huge amount of air to air missiles, hang back a few miles behind a Raptor formation, and when the enemy is detected could ripple fire dozens of long range AA missiles at a time before the enemy could react, then turn away before getting into range of a counterattack. Air launched cruise missiles could be carried in large numbers as well.

Interesting concept, much cheaper than an all new bomber sized aircraft. I think it’s called the B-1R.

Pretty cool idea.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 7:54 PM

By the way, there have been claims that the F-35 can cruise at Mach 1.25 — though it’s current intake is not designed to go up to as high speeds as the F-22.

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 7:41 PM

The F-35 can break the sound barrier, but it must use afterburner to get there and stay there, just like older airplanes. The Raptor doesn’t need afterburner to cruise supersonic, thereby enabling it to get in and out of the fight much faster. It greatly helps range, burning much less fuel at supersonic speeds. With afterburner, the F-22 can go Mach 2+.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 7:58 PM

The F-35 can break the sound barrier, but it must use afterburner to get there and stay there, just like older airplanes. The Raptor doesn’t need afterburner to cruise supersonic, thereby enabling it to get in and out of the fight much faster. It greatly helps range, burning much less fuel at supersonic speeds. With afterburner, the F-22 can go Mach 2+.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 7:58 PM

When I say the F-35 can “cruise” at Mach 1.25, that means without afterburner. Both aircraft typically use afterburner to get to their maximum cruise speed.
The F-35′s is a bit larger than the F-22′s — the same core, but a larger bypass. It has more raw thrust, but has lower exhaust speed, and thus gives the F-35 a lower top speed.
In the future, an even larger, lower bypass engine could be developed for the F-35 that gives it a higher cruise speed.

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 8:13 PM

There has been some interesting ideas about extending the B-1b platform forward as well. Complete avionics overhaul to have sensor fusion cockpits like the F-35, a new tail section with a split V-tail, advanced radar absorbing coatings, and re-engine with 4 Raptor engines. It could carry a huge amount of air to air missiles, hang back a few miles behind a Raptor formation, and when the enemy is detected could ripple fire dozens of long range AA missiles at a time before the enemy could react, then turn away before getting into range of a counterattack. Air launched cruise missiles could be carried in large numbers as well.

Interesting concept, much cheaper than an all new bomber sized aircraft. I think it’s called the B-1R.

Pretty cool idea.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 7:54 PM

I saw that video, too. I’m not sure how useful it would be fore air-to-air, but I could definitely see it doing long range air-to-ground with an F-35 as a spotter.
While the F-35 normally carried 2 AMRAAMs, it could carry up to 12 of them and still have a lower radar cross section than a B-1r.

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 8:22 PM

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 8:13 PM

Lockheed Martin lists the F-35A max speed as Mach 1.6, doesn’t say anything about supercruise.

This is from Lockheed Martin’s F-22 site:

Two F119 engines, the world’s most advanced combat aircraft engines, power the F-22. These engines, with their unique thrust-vectoring nozzle and integrated stealth characteristics, give the F-22 the capability to supercruise, or achieve Mach 1.5+ speeds, without the use of afterburners.

It also lists elsewhere that the max speed of the Raptor is “Mach 2 class”.

Seems to me they would be advertising the F-35 doing this, if it could. I don’t think it can. That max speed figure is full power, full afterburner.

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Brian1972 on July 12, 2012 at 8:24 PM

About all we know about the F-35′s top speed is that it exceeds the Mach 1.6 requirement. “Supercruise” was not a requirement for the F-35, and has actually been defined up to “Mach 1.5 without afterburner” — scuttlebutt is that this was done so that Lockheed wouldn’t be criticized for giving the F-35 the ability to cruise at Mach 1.25.

Count to 10 on July 12, 2012 at 8:28 PM

Brian-

First of all, thanks for being part of the conversation. It takes a good blogger to stand in and trade punches over points, and I appreciate you doing so.

I can’t link it from my phone, but my remark about the Brits comes from several publication (Air & Space, Aviation Week, et al.) saying that they were having second thoughts because of cost overruns and pressure from within- despite their involvement from the ground up- to go with a completely homegrown aircraft (the Typhoon is most often mentioned, but the subject changes when you bring up survivability in networked air defense).

Several Lockheed and DoD publications have proposed that the -35 replace the Warthog, which as you noted above, is unrealistic at the very least. If the USAF and Lockheed have backed off of that, so much the better.

I maintain great concern that if the -35 is going to be tasked with air defense suppression, the use of external stores defeats that purpose before the plane leaves the ground. Nobody’s confirmed the aircraft’s range to me, but it seems unlikely that if has enough range, given its size, to do deep-penetration defense suppression without carrying drop tanks.

On a larger plane, one of the things that Drew M. over at Ace’s points out is that our tactical aircraft are quickly pricing themselves into capital assets, making it too costly to lose them. This is something that will have to be addressed in short order, given the cost per unit increases in the -35 program.

I remain unconvinced that the -35 is the answer to our problems in the long run, specifically because of the genesis of the project (nominally, a superb Harrier replacement, from what designers have told me). In contrast to the -18, A-7, and F-4, where the missions were tacked on as the aircraft proved itself, I still have great concerns that this plane will ultimately go down like the F-111. There, however, I think you and I will likely not agree until it proves itself.

I hope and pray I eat a lot of crow over my pessimism.

tmi3rd on July 13, 2012 at 10:23 AM

55 years? With any luck they’ll be made obsolete by advancing weaponized LASER technologies in 15.

Browncoatone on July 13, 2012 at 10:40 AM

tmi3rd on July 13, 2012 at 10:23 AM

Thanks, I love this stuff. I’ve been interested in these issues since I was a kid, when I discovered a huge, brilliantly illustrated book in the school library Aircraft of WWII. I was about 7 or 8, and was taken by all the technical info and see through diagrams of each and every aircraft that served any nation in all theaters.

As far as the F-35 performing air defense suppression, external tanks could work as long as the fuel were used up and the tanks dropped before entering the radar zone. External weapon stores can be utilized after the “kick the door down” phase is over, when non-stealth platforms can join in the strike sorties too.

Seems to me that the F-22 is much better suited to that sort of mission, given the long range supersonic cruise ability and slightly larger internal store capacity.

Once the air defense has been sufficiently suppressed, then everyone can join the party and stealth isn’t so critical at that point.

From the reading I’ve done about this program, it seemed that most of the problems and delays were related to the F-35B STOVL variant. The F-35A CTOL was pretty well sorted out early on, and this is the majority of export interest since it is the most like the F-16, with advanced avionics and stealthy features.

I did read a while back there were some grumblings from the UK about the cost increases involved with the STOVL, but they haven’t pulled out and are now taking delivery of the first few F-35Bs for their training program to get ramped up.

There were some issues with the F-35C carrier variant for a while, but it seems that those have been sorted and that test program has been going well as of late.

I suppose I am inherently more optimistic than many here are, just because of the track record American military aviation has had. There have been problems and setbacks from time to time, but the US has always come through in the end with the best, most advanced and lethal in the world, time and time again.

I hope we haven’t lost that. I really do.

Brian1972 on July 13, 2012 at 2:44 PM

Brian1972 on July 13, 2012 at 2:44 PM

The F-22 doesn’t have the sensors to do that kind of search and destroy mission — the F-35 is built for it specifically.

Count to 10 on July 13, 2012 at 6:28 PM

tmi3rd on July 13, 2012 at 10:23 AM

You are exactly correct. Much of the problem with making aircraft capital assets is they get used less and less for the stuff an air force is needed on the battle field. The Army has long held they got screwed by independence, and the Air Force Generals often make it a point to twit the Army on the subject.

One of the best CAS aircraft ever fielded is the A-10. Ann assignment to an A-10 wing, however, has long been a dead end and the AF is now on the verge, again, of killing the A-10. It’s long past time to hand the CAS mission, and the aircraft for it, back to the Army and let the AF do the stuff it has always wanted to do.

The fighter mafia has supposedly taken over the Air Force, but the Bomber Generals that made the AF what it is still have their finger prints, and attitudes towards the Army, all over the AF. Many of us (Jerry Pournelle is one of the most prominent) are of the opinion that the AF has lost any right it might have had to an independent existence. I don’t quite agree with that, but would agree that the AF does not like, or want the CAS mission, and it should be given back to a reconstituted Army Air Corps along with the AC in the AF inventory that are supposed to be slated for such a mission.

The let the AF have as many Raptors and F-35s as it can buy. IT can then deal with the “strategic” mission it has wanted for so long without having to be bothered by those field rats that demand so much attention and keeps them away from the more important stuff.

Quartermaster on July 13, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Quartermaster on July 13, 2012 at 8:24 PM

I’ll bet that Army Aviation would love to take over the A-10 fleet. Like I said before, ain’t nothing on earth like that 30mm Gatling cannon.

Brian1972 on July 13, 2012 at 8:26 PM

Quartermaster on July 13, 2012 at 8:24 PM

I’ll bet that Army Aviation would love to take over the A-10 fleet. Like I said before, ain’t nothing on earth like that 30mm Gatling cannon.

Brian1972 on July 13, 2012 at 8:26 PM

I agree that the CAS aircraft should have been left to the Army. As it is, they are probably going to be doing for themselves in the future with portable drones (look up “Switchblade LMAMS”).
As for the cannon, in the first Iraq war, they had to stop the pilots from using them because they were exposing themselves to too much enemy fire to get a shot. It is apparently very useful in Afghanistan because of the combination of high altitude (too high for helos) and a lack of anti-air fire.

Count to 10 on July 13, 2012 at 9:20 PM

The thing that my Army friends tell me is that they’re reluctant to burn up their budget on fixed-wing aviation assets. There’s no doubt that the AF wants no part of CAS (despite all my Warthog jock friends who boast gleefully of bagging the wayward -15 or -16 in a turning duel down low), but even a smartly-designed bird like the A-10 costs a lot of money to maintain.

Brian makes a good point that once the air defenses are knocked back, the only thing you have left to deal with is the odd IR missile and the odd gomer with an AK… still a pain in the ass for any underarmored aircraft. That’s one of the things the Afghans HATED about the Mi-24- the sucker’s armored like a damn tank. Unfortunately, that part of the battle doesn’t seem to come into play for the remaining three defense contractors who make tactical aircraft.

The -35 just seems awfully delicate to me. I’ve sat in one (with most of the controls draped), and it’s a pilot’s aircraft from the moment your butt hits the seat. That said, it’s kind of like a Porsche 911… you touch the controls and it lacks that slightly beefier feel of the 15 or ‘Hog. When you run your hands along the intakes, it feels like a heavy credit card.

That said, I’ve never seen a Eurofighter or Su-27 variant up close, so I have no idea how they stack up. I suppose we’ll see what drone-based CAS works like, but I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I prefer manned aircraft in that mission.

tmi3rd on July 13, 2012 at 10:05 PM

55 years? With any luck they’ll be made obsolete by advancing weaponized LASER technologies in 15.

Browncoatone on July 13, 2012 at 10:40 AM

Meh. Maybe. There have been efforts to weaponize laser tech since the first Star Wars movie came out, and (last I heard) the best they can do is a big clumsy thing on a jumbo jet.

MelonCollie on July 14, 2012 at 12:28 AM

another 4 years of obama we will be lucky to have paper airplanes that shoot spitballs!

noVote4obama, never evah.

losarkos on July 14, 2012 at 6:24 AM

tmi3rd on July 13, 2012 at 10:05 PM

The F-35 is not meant to get down within small arms range, and that’s about all the armor on the A-10 protects it from.

Count to 10 on July 14, 2012 at 2:05 PM

I have nothing against the F-35, and for most situations it will hold its own. But its real enemy isn’t the enemy fighter, it’s the enemy air-defense missile system. The F-22 is indisputably more survivable versus the S-400, and we can’t afford not to take that into account. Do we have enough F-22s? I don’t think that question has a simple, cut-and-dried answer, but I lean toward the answer “no.”

That said, Americans have forgotten what it’s like to fight a war in which we lose a lot of men and equipment. I pray we don’t have a bloody wake-up call. One thing a relative insufficiency of our most survivable fighter-bombers will do is a particularly subtle thing: influence political decisions out of fear of the combat losses incident to, say, standing up to China, or taking on a well-defended Iran.

The point about uptooling is not to make intervention decisions easy — they can’t be — but to ensure we have credible options. The world isn’t standing still. We are not so far ahead of China — or Russia or their clients — with our limited supply of F-22s that we can make any old choice we want to now.

J.E. Dyer on July 15, 2012 at 8:45 PM

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