Saturday, February 7, 2015

F-35, Next Gen Fighter, and ISR

Setting aside the many problems the F-35 has encountered during its development and is still struggling to overcome, there remains a key, central fact:  the aircraft is not a fighter plane.  Its aerial prowess was always predicated on its stealth and superior situational awareness through the 360 degree sensor fusion and magic helmet.  As such, the aircraft is less a fighter and more of an aerial sniper.  There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the enabling characteristics of stealth and sensor fusion remain effective.  Absent those, the aircraft is a mediocre air-to-air performer and would match up poorly with the Chinese aircraft currently under development.

Unfortunately, time is slowly rendering the stealth aspect less powerful.  When it was conceived, two decades ago, the degree of stealth the aircraft possesses would have been quite effective.  Now, that moderate level of stealth is becoming less and less effective as advances in radars, data processing, multi-node sensing, and alternate detection methods (EO, IR, etc.) have occurred and continue to advance.

And, of course, the sensor fusion and magic helmet have, so far, failed utterly.  This technology may or may not ever come to fruition.

The Navy’s F-35, the F-35C, is slated to achieve initial operating capability in a few years.  What will the Navy have at that point?  Well, barring a major breakthrough with the sensor fusion issue, they won’t have a world beating, aerial supremacy fighter.  Instead, they’ll have a somewhat stealthier version of the Hornet – nice, to be sure, but limited compared to the enemy aircraft that will be appearing at the same time.

Side note:  Have you ever considered what would happen if two perfect stealth aircraft engaged?  Neither could see the other on radar and neither could lock its weapons on the other.  They’d be reduced to a WWI, eyeballs only dogfight!  Does that suggest anything to us about design characteristics?  But, I digress …

So, what can the Navy do with a mediocre strike fighter especially when it looks like the Navy won’t get anywhere near the numbers it needs.  Of course, the Navy gives every appearance of not even wanting the F-35 so the lack of numbers may not be viewed as a problem by the Navy!  So, again, what does the Navy do with a relative handful of mediocre F-35s?

Well, what capability of the F-35 is the Navy actually touting?  It’s the sensors, situational awareness, and communications.  It appears that the Navy may be planning on using the F-35 not for its combat capabilities but for its ISR and command/control (C2) capabilities.  Whether its collecting and relaying sensor images to other ships and aircraft, controlling UAVs, acting as a mini-AWACS, providing communications relays, or designating targets for other shooters, the F-35’s value to the Navy may be as a non-combatant.  In fact, given the Navy’s budget woes and inherent lack of interest, this may be the best use the Navy can make of the F-35. 

In order to continue the discussion, let’s assume that this premise is correct.

Now, what makes the F-35 successful in the ISR/C2 role?  Well, sensors, obviously.  The plane has to have the ability to “see” things.  Beyond that, though, the answer is stealth.  In the postulated role, the advantage of the F-35 is that it can penetrate deeply into enemy air space, clandestinely collect data that other sensors could not due to lack of proximity, and transmit the data to other platforms.  Simply put, stealth enables the ISR.

We just discussed the next generation fighter which seems to be emphasizing ISR (the full spectrum dominance, assuming I’m correct about what CNO meant by that).  However, while CNO seems to be emphasizing ISR he is simultaneously de-emphasizing stealth.  That being the case, how can the next generation fighter collect its data if it isn’t stealthy enough to penetrate enemy air space?

Remember, there are only two ways to collect data deep in enemy air space:  either utilize stealth to penetrate the space and clandestinely collect the data or vastly increase the individual sensor ranges and collect the data from long standoff distances.  Short of creating massively larger aircraft to mount massively larger sensors on, we can’t significantly increase current sensor ranges too much more and certainly not by many hundreds of miles.  That leaves stealthy penetration and clandestine data collection.  That being the case, it’s reasonable to ask why the next generation fighter will de-emphasize stealth if it’s intended to conduct deep penetration ISR.  Of course, one answer is that it is not intended to do that – that it is truly just an air superiority fighter with a secondary strike role.  I think that’s unlikely but it’s certainly possible.  The F-35 is envisioned as a deep penetration ISR asset so why wouldn’t the next generation fighter have at least the same capability?

We previously touched on the cost of the next generation fighter.  It won’t be cheap!  When it’s ready for production we may remember the F-35 fondly for its “low cost”!  This means that the next generation fighter won’t be acquired in great numbers.  Again, as with the F-35, this points to a specialized ISR role rather than combat.    – so what aircraft will perform our combat?  But, I digress …

There’s an inconsistency in the logic of this.  If the Navy sees the next generation fighter as a pure air superiority plane then the requirements they listed don’t seem to fit.  If the requirements are what they want then how do they plan to get the aircraft into a deep penetration position to conduct its ISR work without significant stealth?  This sounds like yet another Navy project that is going to be started without an underlying, thoroughly gamed out concept of operations (CONOPS).


  1. CNO said, " Now, that moderate level of stealth is becoming less and less effective as advances in radars, data processing, multi-node sensing, and alternate detection methods (EO, IR, etc.) have occurred and continue to advance."

    Stop the presses! I think I actually agree with you here! :)

    I've had a problem with the F-35's "budget" stealth from the beginning. And it's only gotten worse moving from the DEMVAL to production aircraft.

    1. "Stop the presses! I think I actually agree with you here! :)"

      One of the signs of the Apocalypse, if I recall !

    2. The way I read the CNO's statement on stealth is that the optimal level is reached and any additional effort will just be diminishing returns. Having reached that point, the emphasis is then towards other attributes in development effort.

      I concur with your overall sentiment about the prospect of the F-35 operating in air dominance in its present form. I think this is one of the reason the Navy doesn't seem to be too enthuse over its introduction. The other being its limited range given the vast expanse of the ocean.

      Presumably, the military leadership will do something in the future to enhance the F-35 flight envelope performance. I am hopeful that the ADVENT program will provide the engine that will enhance the F-35 range and performance as a version 2.0 to the program. A $325 million award has just been made towards the program. Such an amount would seem to suggest the engine development is well progressed.

    3. To eek out that last 5-10% of performance costs you an intolerable percentage of your budget - way more than 5-10% - so be satisfied with good enough, and spend your money elsewhere. This is something the USAF does not get, and consequently their stealth aircraft programs go way, way over budget - wit the B-2, F22, and F-35. This is why I don't think the USN and the USAF should jointly develop the F/A-XX / F-X. They can share sensor and engine families, but as Rand found and the JSF program has proven, forcing one airframe to serve in three distinct operating environments costs more in terms of performance and money.

  2. I wonder whether air doctrine is going in the same direction as surface doctrine - the LCS doesn't need to fight and take hits, says the theory, because it can send drones into harm's way and stay back where it's safe. Does the Navy see the future of the F-35C and F-XX as a forward drone controller, that can look after itself but isn't used as a front-line combatant? (As a single-seater, clearly not with a human controller on board, but maybe as a relay point for the drone pilots back on the carrier.)

    1. Using a stealthy platform as a communications relay has this tendency to compromise stealth. Low probability of intercept comms are presumably possible in theory, but I have no idea how much development they'd require, or what their drawbacks may be.

  3. Even with all these fancy electronics and SA, I still think if you are serious about ISR and/or drones, you need a twin seater. It just seems to me that this smacks of overload/over tasking the pilot, it might work great in the sim or over some very permissive environment where no one is shooting back but transfer this over a harder environment, you are going to need another pair of eyeballs and brain.

    1. Yea, helmet fires are coming - and not because of a defective HMDS. And this forward sensor will still need tanker support because it has an ever so slight endurance advantage over the SH. Plus, you need to gather that data and send it back without being detected, so radar mapping and Link16 are out. MADL is limited to about 20km, and only other F-35s hear that link anyway. SATCOM doesn't get to the F-35 until Block 4/5, due sometime in the mid 2020's. Lots of issues with F-35 still need to be worked out....

  4. I like the article and the postulate. Based on the postulate the F-35 is an absolutely awful design if it's focused on C2/ISR. Short range, pilot & payload limited. This mission is clearly where the UAV shines and where other E & R-type aircraft have excelled for decades.

    The F-35 (and the F/A-18 before it) give credence to the phrase "master of none", but this has been the progression for the Navy ever since Dick Cheney got directly involved in NAVAIR acquisition and killed the primary mission focus of how we buy our air forces.

    Not sure why the Bush's felt compelled to keep him on the payroll for two separate administrations.

    It isn't that the A, B, C and F types of aircraft can do some of the others missions, it's just that they don't do the other missions well and by jamming more of the other letters capabilities in you make an excessively expensive aircraft in the process which limits your acquisition options and flexibility.

    The F-35 and with it the joint acquisition process are the antithesis of the flexibility the operators claim they want. It drives sole source providers (since allowing any more than one vender is "inefficient") and large acquisition contracts that move slowly through a checkers-checking-checkers process driven by the size and cost of the program.

    Surface Navy has got the same problem.

  5. Advances in signal processing for Radars now require that Sealth capability be looked at accross the entire radar spectrum. A design that is stealthy against higher frequency radars may not be stealthy against lower frequency radars. The later is the new capability that is coming on line and making it harder to be stealthy

    1. When the wavelength used is the same approximate size as major surfaces of tactical aircraft (wings, elevators, rudders, etc) as well as the aircraft itself, the stealth options in the RF range are extremely limited.

      Reducing the number of these surfaces has a significant impact on aircraft control and maneuverability.

      My assessment:

      - Stealth is (always was) dead for TACAIR. Invest in jammers and make the aircraft the most lethal we can in the ACM, sensors and weapons arena. It's the best bet we have to keep our pilots alive.

      - Keep stealth for the niche applications like UAV's and cruise missiles where persistence (which drives up the probability of detection based on exposure time) and sneak attacks respectively are the norm.

    2. Little simplistic. its dodgy as hell to start talking about Radar absorbing materials. but if your wing is made of a material that doesn't adsorb ( passive radar )or reflect radio waves at all, you will get no return.

      At any frequency.


    3. No such material exists. Every material absorbs, reflects and allows transmission through it at different frequencies. The guys who build radars and other types of sensors know this (as well as guys who build communications equipment, spy satellites, NASA space probes, etc). The methods and materials chosen for a certain performance a one frequency behave completely different at another. This is why stealth is a suboptimal's just a frequency adjustment away from being completely useless.