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F-35 Stealthier Than F-22?


I figured that there would be some kind of PR offensive out of the Joint Strike Fighter program in preparation for the floating of the UK carrier and the international debut of the F-35, and here it is, in the form of a two-part piece in Breaking Defense, here and here.

The first observation to be made is that the Air Force might be able to use an Eng Lit 101 course.

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Hostage, according to reporter Colin Clark, "labels as 'old think' those critics who point to the F-117 shoot-down and the presumed supremacy of high-powered electronic-magnetic warfare."

“Oldthink”, of course, is a word straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Oldthinkers unbellyfeel FifthGenerationTM, indeed.

That aside, we should remember that Hostage ruffled a few feathers with a quote earlier this year:

If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22.

That was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the F-35, particularly for customers who had been assured that F-35 was, no kidding, a dominant air-superiority platform (as the Australians were, in sworn testimony to Parliament). So, particularly with Canada's government ready to announce another sole-source decision to buy JSF without a competition that would provide a full view of alternative fighters, it is good news for the program if Hostage talks over his previous statement.

In the new interview, Hostage talks up the F-35’s stealth and expressly takes issue with the Boeing/Navy picture of the F-35 requiring first-day support from the EA-18G Growler or other electronic warfare assets.

“In the first moments of a conflict I’m not sending Growlers or F-16s or F-15Es anywhere close to that environment, so now I’m going to have to put my fifth gen in there and that’s where that radar cross-section and the exchange of the kill chain is so critical. You’re not going to get a Growler close up to help in the first hours and days of the conflict, so I’m going to be relying on that stealth to open the door.”

However, note that Hostage is not saying that F-35s will go in unsupported: they will use numbers for mutual support:

“I’m going to have some F-35s doing air superiority, some doing those early phases of persistent attack, opening the holes, and again, the F-35 is not compelling unless it’s there in numbers,” the general says. “Because it can’t turn and run away, it’s got to have support from other F-35s. So I’m going to need eight F-35s to go after a target that I might only need two (F-22) Raptors to go after. But the F-35s can be equally or more effective against that site than the Raptor can because of the synergistic effects of the platform.”

The words “that site” imply that Hostage is talking about destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) rather than air superiority alone – where the F-22’s speed and larger missile load could be expected to yield an advantage over the F-35. But a four-to-one advantage for the F-22 in DEAD, which is one of the JSF’s prime design missions, is unfavourable in terms of cost-effectiveness: according to a 2008 RAND study of continuing production of the F-22 (at 30 or fewer per year) and the most optimistic F-35 numbers from Lockheed Martin (at 150-plus per year), the F-22 at worst costs twice as much as the F-35.

Hostage makes another, very interesting comparison between the F-22 and the F-35.

The F-35′s cross section is much smaller than the F-22′s. “The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth.”

Now, we all know that a lot of things can go happen between the interviewee’s brain and the interviewer’s keyboard, but the idea that the F-35 is stealthier than the F-22 contradicts pretty much everything that has been said about the program for the past 20 years, including the reporting of my former colleague, the usually well-informed Dave Fulghum.

The statement is curious for other reasons. Nobody ever suggested in the program’s formative years that the goal was to beat the F-22's stealth - and indeed that would be extremely unlikely since the JSF was designed for export. Stealth, along with other requirements, was also subject to trades in the development of the final JSF requirement, and less important than life-cycle cost.

The geometrical basics of stealth -- sweep and cant angles, minimized small-radius curves and nozzle design -- favor the F-22, and everything anyone has said about radar absorbent materials for years has been about life-cycle cost rather than performance.

Hostage is effusive about the value of the F-35’s sensor fusion and datalinks, too:

“Fusion says here’s what’s out there. You told me, this one right here’s a threat. Here’s what it’s doing right now. Here’s what your wingman (knows): he sees he’s got a missile on the right, so I’m not going to waste a missile because I already see that my wingman’s taking care of it.”

With all due respect, what is Swedish for “Hold the front page”? The datalink and tactical display system on the JAS 39A Gripen did exactly that, 15 years ago.

Finally, the second half of the Breaking Defense story talks a lot about cyber (very little of it from Hostage or any named source) and says that export buyers “went in to discussions with the Pentagon with a great deal of skepticism. But once country representatives received the most highly classified briefing — which I hear deals mostly with the plane’s cyber, electronic warfare and stealth capabilities — they all decided to buy.”

Three questions that all those export customers should answer to their voters:  In what Block will those magic cyber capabilities appear? What guarantees have been provided that F-35 cyber weapons developed by the U.S. will be shared with non-U.S. operators? And, failing that, will international partners be enabled to program their own cyber-operations tools into the F-35? 

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