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).