Behind That F-35 Air Combat Report

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. 

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Controversy Flares Over F-35 Air Combat Report

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?

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