By Armando Heredia and Ian D’Costa for The Tactical Air Network
We won’t beat around the bush. Simply put — it’s now popular to “hate” the F-35 Lightning II, and if you don’t, you’re a shill for Lockheed Martin, you’re being paid off somehow, you’re a clueless idiot, etc. Anyone can virtually find fault with the aircraft, gathering supposed flaws from pictures or simply regurgitating sensationalist journalism prevalent in news media today. Take, for example, this picture shared to the official USAF Thunderbirds Facebook page, showing an F-35A flying in formation at low speed with an F-16 Fighting Falcon (Viper). The F-35 appears to be flying at a higher angle of attack to maintain pace with the Viper and the photo-ship (from which the picture was taken), while the Viper appears to be able to keep up a little better with a lower nose attitude. The comments threads beneath the picture, shared far and wide across Facebook, abounded with hypothesizing on the F-35’s maneuverability almost right away. Oh great, yet another flaw with the F-35. What a useless waste of money!
But, does this picture somehow prove that the F-35 is less maneuverable than the aircraft it’s supposed to replace (the F-16)? Not at all, according to aviation expert, David Cenciotti of The Aviationist. In fact, David comes to the same conclusion in his article as we do: “criticizing the F-35 has become somehow “fashionable.”” Interestingly enough, however, the biggest source of dissent against the mainstream line that the F-35 is a flying lemon comes from the pilots who’ve actually flown it. In sharp contrast to what everybody else seems to be saying, they don’t just like the F-35 but they love it!
Lightning II pilots have spoken up time and time again to discuss the advantages their new fighters afford them over the older aircraft they once piloted. But we’re sure the opinions of armchair spectators and commentators who’ve never seen an F-35 in person, much less so flown one (with test flight experience on their resume) carry far more weight than what the pilots have to say, right? More on this later.
In discussing the F-35/Joint Strike Fighter program, we can’t ignore the fact that there have been serious issues that need to be dealt with so that future aircraft acquisition programs don’t experience the same difficulties, wasting billions more of taxpayer dollars. Delays (some of which were deliberate so as to save money), cost overruns, software issues, budgetary squabbles, and politicking have bogged down the aircraft considerably. Regardless, is the product of the program really as bad as the process itself?
Let’s tackle this piece by piece.
It can’t dogfight!
Wrong, it totally can.
In 2015, the F-35’s most vocal critics gleefully danced around their cauldron of spite when a supposedly damning report that the F-35 couldn’t dogfight was leaked to the media. It proved their point that the F-35 was inadequate as a fighter aircraft and served no real function in the modern Air Force except as a money scoop to line the pockets of executives and politicians. Earlier this year, Major Morten Hanche of the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) took the time to debunk that particular report. In his article, he discussed distinct advantages granted to him by the F-35 which the F-16 did not, including a considerably higher angle of attack, the ability to regain energy thanks to the F-35’s powerful F135 engine, increased situational awareness, etc. In fact, he found it fairly easy to just develop new methods for overcoming flaws which directly impact the pilot during aerial combat. In every engagement since, he was able to defeat the Viper. Mind you, Hanche has over 2,200 hours and counting in the Viper, and is a graduate of the US Navy’s Test Pilot School in Virginia. That makes him more than qualified to speak at length on the subject of the F-35’s aerial combat capabilities.
You can read more about it here: F-35 CAN Dogfight Says Norwegian Test Pilot
It still can’t fly close air support…
The Air Force, in 2015, brought a pair of F-35As to the National Training Center in California to function as the primary on-call close air support (CAS) aircraft for thousands of US Army troops on the ground in mock combat. Participating in Green Flag 15-08, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), serving as the coordinators for air strikes and CAS, found the F-35 to be highly effective in the role that it played. Not once was either aircraft shot down… unlike the F-16 and A-10 Thunderbolt II, which have both been shot down during Green Flags. This means that the aircraft is already at or above the capability of the F-16 Viper, which has been the Air Force’s go-to strike aircraft for CAS missions overseas in the Middle East, even more so than the A-10.
What should also perk your ears up is the fact that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has repeatedly expressed interest in picking up a large number of F-35As, now called F-35I Adirs in IAF parlance, to supplant their aging F-16s. Hezbollah, Israel’s primary antagonist, has been known to wield a massive arsenal of surface-to-air missile systems, designed to bring down fighters in one fell swoop. The F-35 adds to the IAF’s advantage by making it nearly immune to the problems posed by such air defense systems with its sensor fusion and stealth, seeking out targets, targeting them and and hitting them before the attacking aircraft will even be detected. Given Israel’s decades-long experiences with prosecuting the air-to-ground mission, their endorsement of the F-35 speaks volumes of the aircraft’s capabilities in such a role.
You can read more about it here: F-35s Played the US Army’s Primary CAS Providers During Green Flag and Were Not Shot Down in the Process.
Every pilot I’ve spoken to hates it.
Sorry to be so blunt, but you’ve probably never spoken to a fighter pilot, let alone an F-35 pilot. Here’s a roundtable discussion from the WEST 2014 conference in San Diego, co-sponsored by the US Naval Institute and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. You’ll hear some incredibly insightful commentary from program test pilots who’ve had experience in other fighters and types before transferring to the F-35A/B/C. It’s worth the watch.
You can read more about the F-35 from a pilot’s point of view here: Flying the F-35: A Pilot’s Perspective
You’re just sticking up for the F-35 because you’re a shill for Lockheed Martin, or you’re being paid to! Any pilot who says anything positive about the aircraft is just padding their career!
Oh boy, we’ve heard this one quite often. Here’s a brief disclaimer: The Tactical Air Network is not affiliated with any defense contractors, especially ones involved in the aviation industry. No members of the TACAIRNET team have ever worked for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or any of the other subcontractors involved in the program. We get paid nada, zip and zilch to bring you the content we post on here, but we still do our best to make sure it’s factual, interesting, and well-researched. Now, disagreeing with what we post is absolutely cool. We encourage it. The more people discuss, the more visible topics become, enhancing the scope of discussion while generating increased interest. But childish dissent is really uncool. We live in a world where facts are readily accessible by a quick Google search, requiring minimal effort and mild usage of our noggins. The facts are out there, it’s up to you to be well-informed before you argue, lest you have to resort to spouting the headline of this subsection.
But we do take pictures of the F-35 from time to time.
But we’re paying over $1.5 trillion USD for it!
Historically speaking, fiscal conservatism and warfighting have never mixed. What price would have been paid in prolonged combat and uncertainty both World Wars had the winners decided to bid out each and every screw, every bullet? Efficiency and proper handling of taxpayer monies aside –Stealth gives you the advantages over other nation states capabilities – Russia and China aren’t spending millions of their own reverse-engineering, stealing or otherwise building Stealth in parallel just because they want to keep up with the Joneses. In light of the current geopolitical landscape, can we really say there is a limit to keeping that kind of National Defense advantage?
Secondly, the “noise” around the program’s expenditures must be viewed from a historical lens. Of all the defense programs over $1.5 Billion USD, fifteen (15) out of the seventeen (17) involved already matured or known technologies/platforms. The two that did not are the Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship. Notably, both programs incurred overrun costs primarily associated with the infamous concurrency (creating a platform mostly based on untested/undeveloped technologies). However, the general complaints around cost in general aren’t new. The short-term public memory is driven mostly by the Internet’s ability to retain Google-based searches, which really only dates back to about 2004. Let’s jump into the Way, Way Back Time Machine (no hot tub stops on this tour though), to May 1973 – and the outrage around the per unit cost of the cutting edge F-14 (Wut???) versus the very matured (and ironically the *previous* joint fighter of the US Services) F-4 Phantom II. Quoting directly from an Office of Naval Research sponsored paper –
“The $16.8 million program unit cost of the F-14 – although not out of line with the historical costs of fighter aircraft – makes it the most expensive general purpose fighter airplane in the world…”
Here’s another –
“The public and Congress have been sensitized by far more dubious weapon programs such as the C-5 and the F-111, and are overreacting to the F-14 problems.”
This one’s a beaut–
“In contrast with the highly successful F-4, it has been suggested that this history of the F-14 presents a microcosm of the problems confronting the development of modern highly complex weapon systems. Troubled weapon systems such as the C-5A, or the Main Battle Tank [Editor’s note –that’s the M1 Abrams], or the TFX/F-111 fighter aircraft have exhibited three common problems: repeated major technical failures; prolonged schedule slippage; and extravagant cost growth.”
Coup d’grace –
“It’s problem is its unit cost: the F-14 is the most expensive general-purpose fighter ever built….Critics led by Senator (William) Proxmire assert that the F-14 program cost of $16.8 million per plane is grossly excessive and that the program should therefore be cancelled.”
Sound familiar? Read further into that analysis – you’ll find EXACT parallels of what we the general public today are whinging about, new technology costs more, uncertainty around the program’s management, funding, and progress/milestones – but that was FORTY THREE YEARS and roughly TWO MONTHS ago as of today. The old adage “what’s old is new again” is truly a gem of wisdom.
EVERY WEAPONS PROGRAM HAS GONE THROUGH THIS PHASE.
Imagine that – and yet, we consider the F-14 (and other programs mentioned in the study) to be nothing more than a RESOUNDING SUCCESS, and most of them are battle-tested.
Notably, this report PRECEDES the most quoted and least understood portion of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1982, the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment (1983), which stipulates notification to the US Congress if a Major Defense Acquisition Project (MDAP) exceeds 25 % of projected per unit cost by original estimate.
In other words, outrage and noise around defense program costs is NOTHING NEW. Legislation put in place to monitor cost, and the Internet’s ability to access (and conversely, the manufacturer’s transparency to post– take that for what you will) is what enables the peanut gallery to make such Monday Night Quarterbacking possible. Everyone’s an expert in the Age of the Search Engine. But like many amateurs, such analysis is bereft of two pieces – insider access, and historical context.
This is not a J.K. Rowling novel – Stealth is not an Invisibility Cloak
The Harry Potter reference is not accidental – readers of the series know that while the eponymous character is the main protagonist, he is by no means a super-powered individual driving the narrative. He collaborates with his friends and allies to defeat the threat. In much the same way, Stealth has never been a solo diva player in the Final Four. Even in Desert Storm, many of the opening moves to take apart Saddam’s IADS (Integrated Air Defense System) involved team players. Before the Bandits (F-117 Nighthawks) even went downtown, Army AH-64 Apaches brought a rain of Hellfires onto early warning networks just across the border – that disrupted Saddam’s decision cycle and made eyes turn West, while the F-117s came in from other directions. While the popular media narrative is that Stealth is an invisibility cloak and lets one dance between the raindrops, that is and always will be a load of Hollywood rubbish. Stealth has ALWAYS operated cooperatively, as part of a LARGER effort to dismantle an opponent’s military capability. What Stealth brings to the table is uncertainty and disruption.
Knowing something is there isn’t good enough to kill it. Stealth was NEVER about invisibility – it was about making the aircraft more difficult to find. Here’s your first cocktail party phrase – Kill Chain. Destroying something in military terms means being able to find it in a way that you can put ordnance on it – we call that a “Weapons Quality Track.” You’re not going to fire a hundred thousand (insert your currency here) weapon on a whim. This isn’t WWII where we have thousands of these things bunkered away. People will be surprised, modern war will eat up ordnance (and people) like candy at Halloween. Suffice it to say, knowing someone just penetrated your airspace isn’t the same as being able to track it, put fighters on it’s tail or fire ground based missiles at it. Low Observable/LO technology gets you that uncertainty. It lets the Stealth driver get CLOSER to the target, SURVIVE to complete the mission, and DEPART intact.
Disruption is the key.
As a cooperative player, Stealth lets you do several things, but the most important function in this day and age is NOT KINETIC. It does not involve delivering a bomb, missile or cannon shell on target. It will however lead to that and much more. The most important function to succeeding on the modern battlefield are three un-sexy words – Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). As a combat commander, you’ll never have enough of the following – people, platforms, weapons and time. But ISR lets you resolve three out of the four – if you know WHERE the critical targets are and HOW they’re defended, you can use your limited resources to kill things that pave the way for less capable systems to continue the fight. What are those? Things that are well-hidden – Command and Control centers, communications facilities, and infrastructure that support the enemy’s war machine. Defensive capabilities like his air defense coordination centers, or radars and other sensors that let him see you coming. If you can destroy or disrupt those lynchpins, your non-stealth platforms will likely be more survivable to complete their missions.
To repeat: Stealth is NOT a Magic Bullet. It is a trade-off that lets you get closer to the enemy to observe or destroy his abilities. And it NEVER. EVER. OPERATES. ALONE.
The F-35 is Actually Transforming the Way Air Combat is Fought
As stated by people close to and within the Low-Observable Community (i.e., Stealth pilots and crew – there’s your second cocktail-party phrase) often note “Stealth is the price of admission for 21st Century Combat.” That shouldn’t be a surprise to any students of modern conflicts – Operation Desert Storm proved that an LO-capable aircraft could penetrate what was considered a poster child of Soviet Integrated Air Defense Systems, hit targets hard and return virtually unmolested. In much the same way the Nighthawk made nation-states aware of their vulnerability to Stealth in the 90s, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II *have changed* the way air combat is conducted today.
The F-35 is not just a Day One deep strike platform; its sensor fusion – the capability to integrate multiple on-board sensors as well as sensors on other planes, stealthed or not – to deliver a massive series of fires on airborne and ground targets, is unparalleled in military history. A single F-35 can call upon any other platform to enhance its own firepower. It may have used up all it’s missiles on it’s primary target, but it can command other planes further away to fire their ordnance, and direct that payload onto a designated target. The US Navy calls this NIFC-CA and the Joint Strike Fighter plays a major role in delivering the so-called cooperative targeting by operating deep inside contested airspace, delivering targeting information to other “shooters” further away – such as F/A-18 Super Hornets loaded up with precision bombs and air-to-air missiles. While the Super Hornets would have a difficult time surviving deep inside enemy airspace, they don’t have to – the F-35 will deliver the necessary targeting so all they have to do is point in the right direction and pull the trigger.
Yeah, it’s that simple.
Secondly, the fight is no longer about just trading missiles and bombs. The Wizard War started in the 1940s when boffins on both sides started playing with primitive radars. Today, that electromagnetic conflict expands into the consciousness of everyday life – cyber warfare is here, and it’s not just about being unable to check your balances or re-order your yoga mat on Amazon. Modern militaries have relied on communications to coordinate, inform and otherwise maneuver hundreds of disparate units to the single goal of closing with and destroying the enemy. An enemy that can’t see, talk or coordinate on the modern battlefield is dead – they just don’t know it until it’s too late. Now give one side the ability to penetrate DEEP into hostile territory to disrupt that communications and control capability.
That is just one example of what Stealth today can do.
At the end of the day, the F-35 needs to be given a fair shake, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t be critical of the program when criticism is warranted. Delays and the aforementioned cost overruns, along with the general air of confusion over the aircraft’s purpose and mission should definitely be brought forward and the contractors involved held accountable. It is, after all, taxpayer money that’s being spent in massive amounts on such programs, and given the constant mismanagement that has manifested itself throughout the past 16 years, sweeping such issues under the rug just won’t do. But “hurr durr durr F-35 sucks!” isn’t a valid argument anymore, nor is “but can it BRRRRRT!!?”. Far more intelligent arguments on the aircraft can be made, going one way or the other.