Behind That F-35 Air Combat Report

RSS

Last week's leak of a report by a test pilot on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) team would have raised much less of a ruckus had it not been for earlier statements from program people. Here's one from 2008, responding to another leak, this time of backup slides in a RAND study that compared the F-35 to the Sukhoi Su-35 and other potential adversary aircraft: 

Citing U.S. Air Force analyses, (Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, then JSF program director) said that the F-35 is at least 400% more effective in air-to-air combat capability than the best fighters available in the international market, including Sukhois. 

More recently:

Lockheed Martin is claiming that all three versions of the F-35 will have kinematic performance better than or equal to any combat-configured fourth-generation fighter. The comparison includes transonic acceleration performance versus an air-to-air configured Eurofighter Typhoon and high angle-of-attack flight performance vis-a-vis the Boeing Super Hornet. "The F-35 is comparable or better in every one of those metrics, sometimes by a significant margin, in air-to-air," says Billy Flynn, a Lockheed Martin test pilot. 

It is therefore understandable that people thought it was news when a report showed the F-35 as inferior in energy maneuverability to a Block 40 F-16 - which nobody would claim matches the Typhoon's speed, the Super Hornet's high-AoA performance or the Su-35's combination of the two. Some of the responses from Team F-35 were worth reporting too. 

First on the scene was Dan Goure of the Lockheed Martin-sponsored Lexington Institute. "You Say the F-35 Can't Dogfight? I Say Good", the piece was headed. Although Goure seems to equate all air combat maneuvering with dogfighting, and all dogfighting with gun kills (which was entirely true until 1956) he cites John Stillion's recent report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments as evidence that sensors, networks and weapons have made maneuvering irrelevant. "The important conclusion is not that the F-35 is a bad aircraft," Goure says, "but that the existing fleets of fourth-generation aircraft are increasingly obsolete." 

In the U.K., the Royal Air Force requirement calls for the F-35B to be capable of full-spectrum air combat missions as part of an aircraft carrier group - and the F-35B has an empty weight 3,200 lb. heavier than the F-35A, which is not good from the maneuverability viewpoint. Lockheed Martin executive and former RAF Tornado pilot Andrew Linstead talked to the Daily Telegraph, praising the F-35's situational awareness and saying that air combat had changed. "People are using metrics they know, understand and may have an emotional attachment to, but they have to think about it differently. The battlefield picture they have now means they can avoid their adversary or choose to fight in a way that will give them a better outcome." 

Goure, Linstead and Flynn seem to be on opposite sides of the same debate, one that started about 30 years ago as fighter traditionalists and stealth purists fought tooth and nail over the requirements for the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF). One group argued that stealth air combat was like submarine warfare - "the last thing you want to do is surface and use the deck gun" - while the others, with the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile still in development, maintained that there would always be leakers who survived the first beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile exchange and closed within visual range (WVR) where radar stealth would be irrelevant. 

The traditionalists won. The F-22 Raptor was designed to be highly agile with a large usable flight envelope (hence its monster tail surfaces) and it had a complex, space-consuming arrangement that allowed AIM-9 missiles to be fired in lock-on-before-launch mode almost anywhere in the forward hemisphere.

The JSF is not as agile, but program leaders say that it will prevail in BVR because of stealth and situational awareness, and in WVR it will use its 360-deg. target-tracking device- the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) - to cue high-off-boresight air-to-air missiles (AAM) on to its adversaries. 

What they don't say as loudly is that it can't do both, at least on the same mission. Unlike the F-22 (and the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi T-50) it doesn't have side bays and trapezes for rail-launched AAMs. If the F-35 carries AIM-9s it does so externally, and by Lockheed Martin's own definition it is not stealthy. 

This is not an accident, or even a matter of program execution. The F-35 was "70% air-to-ground and 30% air-to-air" at its inception - a direct quote from George Muellner, who was in charge of what was then the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program in 1995. The U.S. Air Force, as the biggest customer, called the shots on the requirement. The F-117 Nighthawk had been the hero of the first Gulf War but had three main limitations: it couldn't find targets in-weather, couldn't hit moving targets and had neither the situational awareness nor the armament to survive in daylight. JAST was designed to do all these things as well as having external weapon stations to act as an F-16 on "Day Two" when the defenses had been degraded.

The Air Force in 1995 expected to have 442 F-22s to deal with any fighter threat, and side AAM bays would not remotely fit into the size and weight constraints imposed by the short take-off, vertical landing requirement.  Stovl also limited the weight and size of the wing and the length of the body. 

But what if the ATF traditionalists were wrong - as Goure and Linstead seem to imply - and WVR combat can and should be avoided? There are two ironies in Goure's citation of Stillion's work. The first is that Stillion was a co-author of the RAND report that drew down Davis' ire in 2008. The second is that Stillion's new study for CSBA suggests that the way to win a future air battle is not to use F-35s or F-22s but to launch AAMs from highly stealthy unmanned air vehicles, controlled from an aircraft that looks like the Long Range Strike Bomber. The logic is powerful: high-performance fighters are almost by definition short-legged, and even if they are not vulnerable, their tankers are. (I'm not the only one to have concluded that the J-20 is aimed directly at tankers and other support assets.

That view of air combat is bolstered by Stillion's extensive study of air combat history, which shows a steady migration from guns to short-range AAMs to BVR AAMs. But there is an inkling of doubt here. Others have seen different trends - notably, the developers and customers in the MBDA Meteor program predict that BVR battles will involve more maneuvering, at high speeds. History is instructive, but not determinative. 

Notably, air-to-air conflicts in the past 30 years have been grossly unbalanced. The U.S. and its allies have had a major advantage in equipment - the West has never faced the Sukhoi family, and the most modern Russian fighter to have been encountered is the early-model MiG-29, which has pitiful range and is locked into the Soviet ground-controlled-intercept doctrine. Training and experience have been on the Western side by a huge margin. And generally, one side has had the support of airborne warning and control, signals intelligence and communications jamming assets and the other has had none of these. 

Not surprisingly, then, many engagements have been decided BVR; and adversaries have been given cause to believe that any attempt to get into a WVR engagement is likely to be fatal. But that kind of imbalance is not an eternal reality.  Dan Goure's reaction to the F-35's possible lack of agility may be "I say, good," but he's not flying it in combat, is he?

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 121

on Jul 7, 2015

In the Pacific theater, something like the LRS-B is needed, both for strike missions and filling a role as a large magazine missileer. And it's easy to see that a number of F-35A orders could and should be converted to LRS-B orders. It makes too much sense. Perhaps those F-35 non-traditionalists need to enlarge the box that they are thinking outside of...

on Jul 7, 2015

USA needs to develop better extra-long-range ASMs, SAMs & AAMs !!
We are seriously lacking in developing capability compared to our adversaries.

on Jul 7, 2015

Also not much discussed are the pilots recommendations for changes to control laws that might make the system somewhat more satisfactory. That won't fix wing loading or thrust to weight ratio issues, but it might make it easier for the pilot to use what is there.

on Feb 27, 2016

I think the test pilot's criticisms were about the computer control laws and not about the aerodynamic performance of AF-2. And wing loading is not that important since around 40% of the lift of the F-35 is provided by the body of the aircraft.

And the helmet problem? That was a 1st Gen helmet, which is necessary because of the older electronic equipment on AF-2. We're getting into the 3rd gen helmet, which is smaller and lighter. We forget that was one of the items in this report, that the F-35 hyper-critics jumped on, was that the helmet was too big for the cockpit.

on Jul 7, 2015

What's left out of the CSBA analysis & proposal (which is in fact a polished Douglas F6D "Missileer" concept from 1959) is the fact that these stealthy aircraft still emit to find and kill their targets.

There is nothing 'stealthy' about an aircraft that still uses the active radio spectrum to detect its targets, and active radar missiles to shoot them down.

LPI radar modes are not 'undetectable' particularly against modern spread spectrum digital receivers with high processing gain. 1/R^2 vs. 1/R^4 in relative power transmission means that the detector typically has the range advantage. In general, the detector will 'see' the radar emission before the radar can see the detector. This is why the F-22 has the ALR-94.

The missile, not the aircraft, is the weak link in the kill chain. Modern DRFM jamming techniques are extremely deceptive because the jamming signal is coherent to the emitting target radar. Active missiles are limited in seeker head battery life, there most likely isn't enough power available to split between tracking/controlling and burning through DRFM jamming (if possible) to be practical.

Until quantum photon polarization filters are standard issue equipment the idea of "BVR Only" combat in the near future using active radar weapons (AIM-120) as Stillion suggests is hard to imagine with the proliferation of advanced jamming techniques like DRFM.

Since nearly every fighter aircraft today has an active radar as a primary sensor, a better idea would be to expand and combine the ALR-94/ASQ-239 concepts with a long range anti-radiation version of the AIM-120 (BRAZO or ERASE??) to target and kill emission sources BVR.

Emitting targets would have no chance of receiving a RWR warning of an enemy "Spike" or active missile "Pitbull" or mid-course update datalink transmission. Could even add in terminal IR homing for effect. Plus, passive anti-radiation missiles offer more range over active radar missiles due to less power consumption of the seeker head. They are also inherently harder to jam because you'd have to know they are coming first and any emitted jamming signal can be homed in on.

These concepts are nothing new, USAF Col. James G. Burton (Ret.) suggested as much in "Letting Combat Results Shape the Next Air-to-Air Missile."

The key to successful BVR combat is in the missile not the aircraft.

on Jul 7, 2015

And here I thought I was the only HARM capable AIM-120D fan!!!
As for the under-powered issue, GE ADVENT will fix that.

on Jul 8, 2015

Does ADVENT fit into F-35?

I had heard rumours it would not.

on Jul 8, 2015

The rumors were started by another company. Engines for the F-35 are contractually built to a form, fit and function factor. If Pratt & Whitney has done that (strayed from that requirement), then program management has failed the US Taxpayer, or PW is out of contractual compliance. The ADVENT engine will not only deliver more power, and reduce maintenance requirements, it will give the F-35 longer legs.

on Jul 8, 2015

"...then program management has failed the US Taxpayer".
That horse bolted long ago. Proper program management would have led to this dog being put down years ago and would have saved taxpayers countless billions.

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

The F-35 has a 43k lb 1-1 thrust to wt ratio . How much is too much?

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

What is the advent engine?

on Jul 8, 2015

ADVENT technology merely adds a third stream of air to enhance fuel economy at cruise. Any actual thrust increase will be minimal, certainly way less than the projected 20pct fuel burn reduction.

on Jul 8, 2015

You really need to study that just a bit more. The ADVENT provides in the F-35 engine form factor, an engine that can self configure to perform as a turbojet, then change to a low bypass turbo fan for better fuel economy. There are actually two extra flows of air that can support turbojet to turbofan activity. That third flow helps with cooling, and that is needed because the core has GEs new Rotating Ceramic Matrix Composite Material for Next-Gen Combat Engines. This engine actually set world records for core temperature for turbine engine tests.

No . . . I'll put my money on ADVENT.

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

Something like The A-12/SR-71 engines!

on Jul 8, 2015

Look at the implications made by mentioning GE ADVENT technology as a panacea for the F-35's EM deficit.

It's concedes that an aircraft that is touted as state-of-the-art and in development for 14 years lacks the amount of thrust required to provide comparable performance of legacy aircraft. The solution is to invest more money, more resources, more technology into it?

The best thing that could have happened to GE was losing the contract for the F136... Talk about dodging a bullet. They have retained their company name, technology, and reputation. Untarnished by the realities of the F-35 program.

The fact that people are looking towards their new technology(AETD, ADVENT, Additive, CMCs, etc.) for a near term solution to the F-35's engine problems instead of Pratt speaks volumes.

Money couldn't buy a better advertisement campaign...

on Feb 7, 2016

You are so right. The thing is so sick and it is barely born.

on Jul 9, 2015

It's one of those longstanding axioms of aviation that you should never put a brand-new engine in a brand-new airframe.

By the time a powerful-enough engine is ready for the F-35, it will be a brand-new engine in a decades-old airframe design. I wonder if they'll try concurrency the second time around with a replacement engine programme.

on Jul 7, 2015

You nailed it Bill.

History keeps repeating itself. In the 50's and 60's missiles were supposed to be the end of the "gun", and as some claimed the manned fighter.

Vietnam proved that relying just on missiles was wrong, but it looks like a gun on the F-35 is an optional afterthought, and it doesn't pack enough missiles to make much of a A2A difference.

The Chinese and Russians will not mind making swarm attacks and absorbing losses to close to visual range to defeat an aircraft with a small quiver of arrows and limited ability to maneuver in offense or defense.

While modern AAMs are far superior than the early AIM-7 and AIM-9s those that still think that missiles alone are a panacea will likely be proven wrong again. Looks like all those dinosaurs didn't go extinct.

With a declining number of Gen4 fighters such as the F-15 and F-16, and limited numbers of F-22s the USAF will have an enormous fighter gap for decades.

The fatal flaws in the "Gouré" report are that IDF is not getting the F-35 for its air combat ability its getting them as a strategic "silver bullet" asset to strike high-value (and well-defended static targets). They're sink a lot of resources in to keeping their F-15's as their first-line A2A asset.

And Dr. Gouré narrowly focuses on US experiences since Vietnam. He should consider how many dogfighting battles the IDF experienced over the last 50 years, resulting many gun kills and the development of generations of Python dogfighting AAMs. Lastly if visual range A2A battles are pase' why has the US invested so much in the AIM-9 family?

Lastly his back-handed comment on the A-10 is childish. Using his logic we'd have to eliminate the entire bomber, AWACS and tanker force since all three would be directly or indirectly involved in a non-permissive environment, as you have pointed out regarding the use of the J-20. Also the Soviets had a big cross hair on the AWACS in a potential Cold War conflict.

Is Dr. Gouré a Brontosaurus or a Daspletosaurus?

on Jul 8, 2015

>And Dr. Gouré narrowly focuses on US experiences since Vietnam. He should consider how many dogfighting battles the IDF experienced over the last 50 years,..<

For Israel's IAF, dogfighting capabilities is absolutely critical and non-negotiable, because enemy drones and fighters can be within its tiny air space in a matter of moments if not seconds. Fortunately, at the moment the surrounding enemy air forces are virtually non-existent or dysfunctional giving Israel a break and some breathing room. But dogfigting planes or dogfighting UAVs are definitely a must for Israel in the future, and not just a "nice to have" option. Dogfighting will always be critical for Israel.

Rob
on Jul 10, 2015

I think that finally times may have changed though regarding the Vietnam "no guns" theory. It has been decades since an American air to air gun kill in actual combat, even the F15, F16 aircraft have been exclusively missile for a while now - in actual combat. The gun has become a bit of a spare wheel that is never actually required but occupies precious weight. The govt has obviously decided to follow the Clauswitz model about power projection rather than let the military run things themselves, which is probably how it should be.

on Jul 7, 2015

Replacing F-15Cs with F-15Ss makes a lot of sense.

on Jul 8, 2015

It certainly does make sense; and that's why it won't happen.

on Jul 8, 2015

Under performing, over priced politically motivated aircraft. Pretty much like the Tornado, a "Jack of all trades, master of none."
I am sure that the US will find a use for it and it will succeed in the role assigned to it due to the huge resources at the US's disposal. As for the UK using it, it will be an unmitigated disaster of use, like the Harrier, only at airshows.
What a shame that a really great aircraft has not been built.

on Jul 8, 2015

Please do not offend the Tornado with such comparison ;-)

on Jul 8, 2015

Harrier only of use at airshows? You are obviously not an Argentinian.

on Jul 8, 2015

... or a Naval Aviator of the Marine persuasion!

Rob
on Jul 10, 2015

I think you will find that what Benjamin Franklin actually said was "jack of all trades master of one."

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

Unless you've seen a harrier in action !! Stick to airline's no wonder why you people rip the public off with baggage charges & no leg room!

on Jul 8, 2015

F/A 35 would be a better name, with a small f.

Seems like the RAF having a mixed F35B/Typhoon force is a good way to go. F35s would probably run away after firing their BVRs and leave the Typhoons to finish the fight.

Nations with a pure F35 fleet have cause to be worried if ever faced with a serious A2A fight.

on Jul 8, 2015

The F/A-35, F/A-111 and F/A-105 would have been better names. Even better would be A-35, etc. The F-15E could have been renamed the F/A or A.

The USN used to have separate fighter and attack communities. There are advantages to having squadrons which emphasize attack in their training. The A-7 did very well at Red Flag.

on Jul 8, 2015

One of the better intercepts I ever saw was an A-7 Corsair II crawling up an RAF RF-4s port wing . . . and he never saw us coming. Can't do that to an F-35.

on Jul 9, 2015

Can't rely on situationally-unaware pilots in the bad guys' jets all the time in future, either. It would be nice if they made it so easy that an A-7 could do that to an RF-4, but it would be risky to base "tactics, techniques, and procedures" for employing the F-35 on such a requirement.

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

Yes and loved by the Greeks up until last yr as parts logistics ran out forcing them to pirate parts from mothballed birds! But as a weapons platform very out dated! It's too bad vought is no longer, it would of been nice to see what they could of produced!

on Jul 8, 2015

Bill,
As usual a good write-up. What I found interesting was the statement that developers and customers of MBDA Meteor believe that BVR battles will involve more maneuvering, at high speeds. Is their a public study out there on this aspect?

on Jul 8, 2015

F35, or another example of how a great empire got so corrupt, its armed forces became ineffective.

on Jul 8, 2015

"...its armed forces became ineffective."

It's hilarious how none of the rest of the world agrees with you.

on Jul 8, 2015

Ineffective, yes to a degree. It is not getting in the right direction regarding weapon procurement.

Note that its size mean it still can hurt someone by brute force, even being not very effective doing it.

RSF
on Jul 9, 2015

It's hilarious how much of the world thinks the F-35 is an overpriced semi-functional piece of junk.

on Apr 25, 2016

The F-35 has shown some potential in a recent Red Flag event. I would like to see a new build of the YF-12A & B, with new engines, avionics/electronics. The initial design was a bomber & the fighter was set to carry the nuke missile. I have found the F-22 engines would work in it.

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

A woman's opinion that's why!

on Jul 8, 2015

I would love to see the F-35 go up against the Northrop F-20.

on Jul 8, 2015

the F-20 dies before the merge plot. The only reason one would go nose to nose is if ROE DICTATED!

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

As usual warrant9 you have stupid opinions

on Jul 8, 2015

We have not learned from past. Th old F111 was built for all duties. Of course combat has changed with the stealth A/C. But like the F111 you cannot have your cake and eat it too. F35 is basic attack and the F22 is an air combat.

on Jul 8, 2015

Super Hornet, F15E and even F-16's to a degree all have their cake and eat it too.

RK
on Jul 19, 2015

Thank you !

RK
on Jul 22, 2015

The F-111 was never built for all duties!! Especially a Fighter!

on Sep 15, 2015

The program was originally intended to provide a fleet fighter for the USN. It failed and the F-14 was developed. Search Wiki For F-111B.

on Jul 8, 2015

State Department needs to start negotiations with all potential adversaries to make sure they will agree to fight in a manner that fits the performance capabilities of the F-35!

on Jul 8, 2015

I think you have that backwards. Potential adversaries will want the F-35 to throw away all it's advantages and kindly wait for them to get close enough for a dogfight.

Please or Register to post comments.

What's Ares?

Aviation Week's defense blog

A Century of Aviation Week

Aviation Week & Space Technology is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

 

Blog Archive
Penton Corporate

Sponsored Introduction Continue on to (or wait seconds) ×