Leaders of smaller air forces are worried that they could be priced out of flying fighter aircraft by rising acquisition and operational costs, and countries that once fielded large forces are recognizing that they cannot cover all their historic missions as they switch to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

That program's leaders admit that the F-35's projected operational costs are not affordable—while promising to bring them down—but one major U.S. contractor has broken ranks and challenged the value of the Pentagon's huge investment in radar cross-section (RCS) reduction, the JSF's dominant technology.

Much of the U.S. defense community “has lost sight of reality” as to what stealth means, a Raytheon executive told the Defense IQ International Fighter Conference here this month. Michael Garcia, the company's senior business development manager for active, electronically scanned (AESA) radars, suggested that longer-range sensors and weapons and electronic attack should be considered part of stealth, rather than placing complete reliance on RCS.

Comparing detection and weapon ranges, as well as RCS, Garcia argued that the “essence of stealth is that the Blue circles [for detection and weapon range] impact Red before Red can detect,” and that jamming, sensors and weapons affect that calculation.

“The level of RCS has not been improving,” Garcia said, and it cannot be greatly improved through an aircraft's life. “It is time-stamped with whatever date it came out of the factory. There has been a revolution in detection” of low-RCS targets, meanwhile, he added, citing the Russian development of an operational, mobile VHF AESA radar (AW&ST Sept. 2, p. 28) and resurgent interest in infrared search-and-track systems. “Conventional stealth is vulnerable to low-band detection,” Garcia said. “And the 'fifth-generation' scenario has become outdated over the past five years.” He mentioned contrails and visible vortices as signatures that are not affected by RCS reduction. Other analysts have noted the dense wingtip vortex trails visible in many inflight photos of F-35s.

Raytheon is a major supplier to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program and has a small stake in the F-35. However, this is the first time that any U.S. contractor has gone on the record with a direct critique of the JSF's prime rationale.

The fact that Raytheon's fighter customer is the U.S. Navy may also be important. At the conference, executives close to the Navy's procurement process said the service had not made a bureaucratic error when it issued a solicitation in October calling for more F/A-18s in fiscal 2015. “The error was that it became public,” one official said, adding that the solicitation was rescinded under pressure from the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. The same executives confirmed that the Navy's alternate program objective memorandum process, which is looking at spending if the Budget Control Act's cuts remain in force, includes options to defer the F-35 by two or three years.

However, a senior JSF program manager told the conference that he is “cautiously optimistic” that the project will get better grades in the next report from Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, due early next year. Gilmore warned in June that software was behind schedule and that most of the schedule margin for weapons integration had been consumed (AW&ST July 1, p. 23).

Capt. Paul Overstreet, JSF weapon systems program manager, acknowledges some risk in on-time delivery of Block 3F software that meets the initial specifications for the aircraft. The program office is confident that the interim 2B and 3I software will arrive in time for the Marine Corps and Air Force to declare initial operational capability, but the 3F package remains “highly dependent” on performance in the interim packages. At the same time, the program is still “playing catch-up” on its vital Autonomous Logistics Information System, offboard mission-planning system and the aircraft's health management system. Overstreet concedes that operating cost estimates are “not affordable,” but he adds that a high-level effort to reduce costs is underway.

JSF schedule performance is important to the Royal Air Force, which is approaching a 2015 decision date on the retirement of its final three squadrons of Tornado GR4s, according to Air Commo. Dave Waddington, Tornado force commander. Two out of five 12-aircraft GR4 squadrons retire next year, and “there is a plan for Tornado out of service date” as the RAF adds numbers and capability to its Typhoon force, but that plan will be “validated or adjusted” in the next U.K. strategic defense review, due in 2015.

The RAF's migration from a Tornado/Typhoon force to a Typhoon/JSF force will be managed “to retain sufficient quantity while retaining key [Tornado] capabilities until they exist on other platforms,” Waddington says. While there is “more we can do” with the Typhoon, he stresses that it is “a superb air-to-air platform,” while the JSF will be “our top-end capability in transforming the RAF, able to access and serve the full range of targets.” This suggests that the service may shift Tornado missions to the JSF rather than expanding the Typhoon's air-to-surface capability.

The challenge, Waddington adds, “is that we are not buying very many F-35s, at least for a while.” The U.K. is acquiring an initial batch of 48 aircraft, equipping an operational conversion unit and two squadrons that will have “the same training and embark [on the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth] for the same amount of time,” he says. With one operational squadron embarked, this would leave one land-based squadron for deployment.

The complementary nature of the Typhoon and JSF is also the key to Italy's plans, according to Col. Vito Cracas, commander of the air force's 36th Fighter Wing. “The JSF does not have a high-end air-to-air capability,” he told the conference. We need to have both aircraft.”

Smaller air forces do not have that option. The Netherlands' Court of Audit noted in a recent report that the nation's planned force of 37 JSFs will, according to the defense ministry, permit the sustained deployment of only four aircraft to support coalition operations while defending domestic and allied airspace. This, the court adds, assumes that the Netherlands shares responsibility for air defense and policing with Belgium, subject to current negotiations.

Belgium itself plans to issue a request for information for a new fighter in early 2014, with the aim of retiring its F-16s starting in 2023, according to Col. Fred Vansina, chief of staff of the Belgian air component. The service has 54 active F-16s and five aircraft in reserve. The minimum number of aircraft “depends on which aircraft we choose,” Vansina says, and the ability to share operations, as with the Netherlands, “could and should impact the numbers.”

Delegates from smaller air forces—including Colombia and Ukraine—were even less sure how they would replace their aircraft. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the USAF 3rd Air Force and U.S. air forces in Europe, suggested a harsher solution: Under a “smart defense” concept, “not every nation needs a fighter force,” he said.