Wednesday, August 15, 2012

JSF - As Good As A Hornet?

I was going through some older references and came upon this quote from a Defense Industry Daily report (1) that stunned me.

“The F-35’s explicit design goal has been stated as being the F-16’s equal in in air to air combat …”
What?!  We’re spending a gazillion dollars on a plane that’s only supposed to be as good as an F-16?

OK, I’m not an expert on the JSF program by any means so I’m not going to attempt any further analysis of that statement.  I’m simply going to leave it there for you to consider.

I will, however, give you a couple of related thoughts cited in another Defense Industry Daily report (2).

JSF - Equal to a Hornet or F-16?

- The F-35C, the carrier version, has no internal gun and will have to make use of a gun pod mounted externally in a stealth-ish container.  Didn’t the Navy learn its lesson about the lack of an internal gun with the F-4 Phantom in Viet Nam?  Apparently not!  External mounting, even in a stealth-ish pod, means easier detection (for an airframe that’s already considered to be only somewhat stealthy), more drag, less range, and greater fuel consumption.

- The F-35C will have a slightly lower maximum G-force maneuvering limit than the current Hornet.  Again, the suggestion is that our next generation fighter is going to be as good as our current Hornets.

I’ll be fair and say that the F-35 has some advanced technology built in that other aircraft don’t but whether those balance out the apparently mediocre air-to-air performance remains to be seen.  As I said, I can't fairly analyze this further but these kinds of snippets aren't exactly encouraging.  I've thought from the begining that the F-35 was just a stealthier version of the Hornet with no significant performance enhancements and these tidbits tend to confirm that impression.  Anyone have a different take on it?



  1. The F-35C has almost the same max take off weight of an F-14, weighs 7 tons less empty, has more dry thrust, and carries more internal fuel. While we don't have tested numbers I'd be shocked if it didn't have more range air to air than an F-14.

    I'm not an F-35 fan boy and have very critical of how the program has been run. Nor do I believe that the worlds best strike fighter is also going to be the worlds best air superiority fighter. That said the F-35 will be very very good air to air.

    Air combat is much more than comparing one aircraft vs another. Within the total construct of all systems (AEW, ESM, etc.) the F-35 is far better at utilizing all that data to generate significantly better situational awareness than other aircraft. It's a huge force multiplier than together with it's own systems means it's going to be maneuvering for a missile shot earlier than the enemy.

    Exactly how low observable it is and when the enemy can detect and get a missile locked on is an open question. To the degree this is a significant factor it directly how adds to F-35 lethality and survivability.

    The F-35 is far better air to air than an F-16. I believe the reference is that the F-35 will be as agile. From what I've read it's not. Which is fine given no other aircraft is. Some reports floating around indicate the F-35's performance falls in between the F/A-18 and F-16. The importance of pure performance while important is often discounted today in favor of other systems.
    It's not unreasonable to trade off the edge of performance for low observability and probably even more so in a strike fighter.

    It's not an F-22 and it was never designed to be one. For a true air superiority fighter the USN is developing the F/A-XX (NGAD). At least I hope that's still the main goal.

  2. Now that's some logical discussion. Outstanding!

    I'm aware that the JSF is supposed to be able to provide all-around, continuous tracking of targets which, if true, would greatly enhance its air-to-air capability even if its actual physical performance was no better than current aircraft.

    Now for the scary part. The JSF is "supposed" to fill-in-the-blank. Until it's proven we won't know, obviously. For example, my vague understanding is that much of the JSF performance is tightly tied into the helmet system which is, so far, failing miserably. As we're seeing with the LCS, promises of performance are easy - execution of cutting edge (or beyond) technology is not. So, the scary part is that if significant portions of the anticipated technological capabilities don't materialize, you're left with an F-16/Hornet type plane.

    The other aspect of all this that's troubling is the cost relative to the value even if the JSF does everything it's claimed to be able to do. Is it worth being far and away the most expensive program in the history of the universe (hey, what's the point of having a blog if you can't go over the top on occasion?)? Going further, if this kind of cost is only buying an aircraft that falls somewhere between a Hornet and a Raptor, what is the F/A-XX (NGAD) going to cost? Yikes!

    You reference the JSF as the world's best strike fighter and that is, of course, its role. However, that assessment has got to be tempered by the very limited weapons carrying capacity especially when compared to what previous Navy strike aircraft like the Intruder or even the Super Hornet can carry. What are your thoughts on that apparent limitation?

  3. It is probably worth noting that long range air-to-air missiles have come a long, long way since the Vietnam War, and the nightmare that was the Sparrow. Yes, an internal gun would be nice, but it is hardly as necessary as it was in the past.

    1. I think you're overlooking the impact that Rules of Engagement have on tactics. Long range (BVR) missiles are only useful if you're willing to use them. Even in the Iraq invasion when we could see Iraqi planes fleeing to other countries we didn't allow our planes to launch BVR for fear that one might turn out to be a civilian plane. In Desert Storm back in the '90s we didn't allow Navy Tomcats to use their Phoenix missiles due to the need for positive ID of the target. In short, it's a very rare, almost non-existent, set of circumstances where we can effectively utilize BVR. That strongly suggests that we need guns. It's just inevitable that planes wind up in dogfights.

    2. Dogfights themselves have been pretty rare events.

      It's difficult to say that history will be a good indicator of things to come.

      I think that BVR engagement capability probably more important to the Navy than dogfighting - if only for need to defend the carrier.

      PS - Not defending the JSF. It might be an okay strike fighter, but it's fairly cost-ineffective given what we're spending.

  4. I was getting slammed for years on different boards pointing out problems in budget and schedule for the F-35. Yes it's too expensive and yes JPO was mismanaged till Adm Venlet took over. The entire structure of the program and amount of concurrency was a costly mistake according to both Dr Carter and Adm Venlet in repeated Congressional testimony.

    This doesn't mean the aircraft isn't going to perform extremely well and be a game changer. It's not a silver bullet low observable aircraft but a fleet of them. It's still got years of testing to iron out the bugs, such as the helmet, but it seems to be on track.

    The 360 degree electro optical sensor system is new for any aircraft and will offer unique capabilities that are fused with other on board systems together with external data. In other words it's going to have excellent sensors fused with external data and enjoy a unique situational awareness advantage. The X factor for me is how low observable the aircraft really is which of course is not public information.

    The aircraft doesn't have to carry all it's weapons internally and will do so when required. When not required, probably within a few days after any serious air campaign against anyone but another top tier nation (China), it can carry 18,000lbs. The Brits were always looking at normally carrying external AAM's as an example.

    I think the F-35 will prove the doubters very wrong in terms of performance but it's going to cost more to purchase and maintain then the fan boys want to believe. That leaked NAVAIR study from a few years back (overseen by Venlet) was telling. It'll still be an affordable stealth fighter. It really will be a game changer.

    For F/A-XX (NGAD) they need to keep the focus on affordability. We need to ask for the best aircraft we can afford vs the best aircraft.

    1. You are on the optimistic end of the spectrum as far as JSF performance goes. That's okay. You may well be right. We'll see!

      Everything I read says that the JSF is only moderately stealthy (front aspect, mainly - sides, rear, and IR are much less stealthy by design). How that impacts its ability to fight remains to be seen.

      Would you like to comment on the strike role in light of the very limited weapons capacity? For a strike fighter it seems compromised in the strike role. It sounds almost like the F-117 which also has a very small payload although the F-117 has self-designating laser capability. Does the JSF have that?

  5. Yes it has an internal laser designator. It doesn't have a small payload. It can carry up to 18,000lbs. While it can carry 2 2,000lb weapons (or 8 SDB's) internally with 2 AMRAAM and operate as low observable as possible it can also carry external weapons like any other fighter and will very often do so.

    Low observable is more than just RCS, as I'm sure you're aware, and includes emissions, IR, etc. I don't believe we can say with any certainty how low observable the aircraft is, it's just not public information. I've seen a wide range of RCS estimates on the web. It's supposed to be not as good as the F-22 in terms of RCS but a bit less than the B-2 and of course far better than the latest gen 4.

    If you can't lock on the F-35 when it's launching AMRAAM's at you it's RCS is plenty low enough. All the really telling details won't be in the public domain for a very long time.

    1. I've seen the same spec's you have. The JSF can carry two 2000 lb bombs. That's not much of a load for a strike aircraft. You point out that it can carry up to 18000 lbs if using external hard points. Correct, but by definition that means a non-threat environment where stealth doesn't matter. That's fine but that doesn't require an advanced, expensive aircraft. A Skyraider would work in that situation. The JSF is intended to be a day-one and high threat environment platform. That's what, presumably, justifies the cost. In that enviroment, with only two bombs, it seems like a compromised design.

      I also see the JSF as being ill-suited to the Chinese A2/AD scenario. It has limited range relative to the A2/AD distances and it can't carry a cruise missile, as far as I know. Any thoughts on this?

    2. What short range? F-35Cs can fly from carriers, Bs from Tiawan/LHDs, and As from Japan. Sprinkle in IFR where needed.

      As to the no cruise missile issue, JASSM/-ER now and JSOW-ER, JSM, Spear3, LRS, etc later. When you are talking Cruise missile ranges, RCS is not needed much.

  6. Actually the concept of operations is not a day one aircraft but rather an aircraft that can do day one operations as well as the full spectrum.

    Using external carriage does not, in any way, indicate a non threat environment. Every strike fighter today already carriers all it's weapons externally as well as normally carrying additional fuel and often sensor pods. The F-35 already has it's optical and laser pod built in and doesn't require external fuel tanks. So if you wanted to carry 4 or 6 2,000lb weapons you'd carry 2 or 4 of those externally without adding external fuel tanks and targeting pods.

    Adding those 2 or 4 weapons externally certainly increases RCS but it doesn't mean all the other low observable advantages go away. Moreover, there are stealthy cruise missiles and even external pods. The F-35 will certainly have, as an option, the ability to carry some weapons that do not significantly increase RCS when carried externally.

    Other customers seem to want to normally operate with some external ordinance such as the UK. Just because the F-35 can carry 2 2,000lb and 2 AMRAAM internally doesn't mean that's going to be it's normal mission load. Turn that around and think of that as the exception with external loads the norm.

  7. C'mon, now Lane. Other planes operate with external ordnance because they don't have any other option. If a JSF is being used with external ordnance it's because someone has assessed the threat and decided that it's not severe enough to warrant the JSF's full capabilities. If that's the case, then the JSF is not, strictly, required. Any old Hornet could do the job.

    Certainly, for much of its life the JSF will be used in relatively low threat scenarios just like today's aircraft are. What's going to justify the cost of the JSF is the max threat operations where the Hornet can't survive. Whether the cost will be justified remains to be seen.

    Let's be straightforward, here. We're talking about the China scenario (or, to a limited extent, Iran or NK). We certainly don't need a JSF to deal with a Libya, Somalia, or some other third world minor conflict. What we have now is way more than sufficient for those scenarios. China is where the JSF will earn its price tag, if it can.

    I invite you, again, to address the China A2/AD scenario. How do you see the JSF being used?

  8. The JSF has a lot to offer besides a VLO airframe.
    1. EOTS, EODAS & ESM as a means of gathering ISR info
    2. Superb datalinks
    3. Superb datafusion
    4. Can carry it's full load without loss of range (dud to not needing tanks)

  9. The issue is that it can operate day 1 and then transition to carrying more ordinance externally. The F-117 was limited to internal loads only and thus after the air defense were rolled back it was less useful than an F-35. So the example really is the F-35's fly day one to the last day and change profile to match conditions.

    While I'd the first to point the F-35 is an expensive aircraft it's not exactly more expensive than late 4th gen aircraft such as the Typhoon or Rafale. The A is currently projected in USAF docs to cost $112 million unit flyaway. The C's at $139 million and B's at $144 are more of an issue.

    While I'd be happy to discuss a Chinese/Taiwan scenario it needs a baseline. Frex, does the battalion of PAC-3, any THAAD and SM-3/6 Aegis ships (our or Japan's), interfere enough with Chinese ballistic missile strikes that Kadena remains operational? Does China striking US bases and Japanese territory mean the gloves are off and we're hitting Chinese air bases hard with Tomahawks and other assets?

    Personally if I was supreme ChiCom dictator I'd go for a bolt from the blue Taiwan invasion and avoid striking US bases or foreign countries. If that's not viable I'd hit Kadena and other bases very hard from the start attempting to buy enough time to overwhelm Taiwan before significant US military assets could intervene. That's also a surprise attack WWIII scenario that has a range of extremely bad outcomes for China.

    All this aside I'd prefer more F-22's and carriers and fewer USAF F-35A's as I don't see any scenario around the world where the USAF has the bases to bring even half into theater. That's not a knock on the F-35 as much as it is against present and planned USAF force structure. In a China using ballistic missiles hitting our airbases hard scenario the F-35B could operate where the A's can't.


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