How F-35 is destroying USAF (and other air forces)

F-35 is the latest technological wonder-weapon of United States Air Force. It is advertised as a “do-it-all” LO fighter, which is supposed to carry out a list of diverse missions, such as interception of enemy aircraft, fleet defense, tactical bombing of static targets, close air support, ground interdiction, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, acting as a forward air controller, carrying out SEAD and low-altitude penetration. It is a replacement for Harrier II, F/A-18, AV-8B, Sea Harrier and A-6. It is also pushed as a replacement for F-16 and A-10, despite vastly different roles and requirements.

As with so many “omnipotent” weapons, instead of doing everything equally good, it ended up doing everything equally bad. To explain: every of listed missions has its own set of specific, and often contradictory, requirements.

While Lockheed Martin and USAF are spewing bullshit, F-35’s designation as a “JointStrike Fighter” says it all; it was intended as a bomber and low-altitude penetration and strike aircraft, not as an air superiority fighter. Proof of that can be easily acquired by simply taking a look at F-35 itself: small wing and high wing loading are ideal for low-level penetration, by making aircraft less susceptible to air fluctuations common near the ground. However, fighter aircraft rely on a lift from the wing to turn, using excess thrust to overcome the drag and keep the energy during the turn; thus, good fighter aircraft has to have low wing loading and high thrust-to-weight ratio; exact opposite of what F-35 has.

Close Air Support aircraft has to be heavily armored, slow and armed with cannon in 27-30 mm range, in order to be able to fly close to the ground, identify targets on its own and pull off a precise Close Air Support. While “smart” bombs and missiles are assumed to be perfectly precise, reality is often different – guidance systems are easily jammed, and all complex weapons malfunction often. Thus CAS aircraft has to be able to go low and slow and attack targets with minimum of sensors and communications required. It also has to be able to loiter for a long time, providing continuous support to troops on the ground; with F-35s high fuel consumption, any notion of F-35 doing such thing is a wishful thinking. F-35 also cannot identify targets on its own.

Tactical bomber has to be able to carry relatively large amount of ammunition and strike as many (static) targets as possible. With F-35 being able to carry only four bombs at most, plus two AA missiles, it means that far more F-35s will be required as opposed to F-16s.

Air controller has to have two crew members; F-35 only has one.

Moreover, any aircraft has to be affordable enough to be procured in quantities large enough to carry out missions, at an affordable cost. At procurement costs that might be as high as 352,8 million USD per aircraft (from 2011 cost of 305 million USD per aircraft), and per-aircraft weapons system flyaway cost ranging from 197 to 238 million USD (for comparasion, Eurofighter Typhoon costs 120 million USD w.s. flyaway, and 200 million USD unit procurement), F-35 is anything but affordable. F-35’s maintenance cost can be estimated at 48 800 USD per flying hour, going from F-22s maintenance cost of 61 000 USD per flying hour. In short, F-35 costs up to 4 times as much to buy, and over 10 times as much to maintain as F-16.

All of that means that small F-35 force will be completely unable to maintain sufficient presence in the air in face of cheaper, simpler 4th generation aircraft.

F-35 has to rely on unproven dream of BVR combat to shoot down the enemy. BVR missiles did have a Pk of 50 % against “soft” (non-maneuvering, not using ECM) targets in a war where BVR force outnumbered the enemy. However, even in such circumstances, majority of BVR missiles were themselves fired from within visual range. Moreover, emerging technologies, such as air-to-air anti-radiation missile, will make radiating in war even more impractical than it is today; and any aircraft that uses active sensors to find targets is very easy to spot far before it can spot the enemy. Meanwhile, HF and VHF radars – which have already been used to detect aircraft in war (UK’s Home Chain in World War II) can as easily detect stealth aircraft, as can increasingly common IRST. Unique radar signal can also be used to solve IFF problem, so important in BVR combat – and enemy using air-to-air anti-radiation missiles can easily force everyone to shut down radars.

In both BVR and WVR, only chance F-35 has is to “launch and run”. However, it’s maximum speed of Mach 1,6 means that enemy fighters can simply eject BVR missiles, catch up with it and shoot – or gun – it down.

F-35 has also been compromised by different service requirements – for example, Marine’s VTOL requirement meant that fighter had to be short and fat, increasing drag. In the end, despite all compromises and accomodating performance penalties, three F-35 variants share only 30% of all parts. And much like F-111, F-35 can only serve as a bombing truck, being too underperforming and too vulnerable in any other role. Both aircraft are extremely flammable and have heavy lack of maneuverability, making them vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery and SAMs. As a result, both can only fly bombing missions in low-threat areas.

F-35, like F-22, is limited to highly-visible, very vulnerable concrete air fields. Due to extremely hot and strong engine exhaust, STOVL/VTOL variant may never be able to fly from amphibious landing ships without destroying deck in the process.

It seems that realities outlined are being realized: UK may halve its F-35 buy, and other countries, such as Australia, Canada and Norway, are also looking for alternatives, despite all the PR, spin-doctoring, diplomatic threats and bribes Lockheed Martin has used to secure foreign sales. US Navy is also thinking about backing from the program.

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17 replies

  1. 1. Your lift calculations do not take into account body lift.
    2. Only traditional CAS needs to be low & slow due to lack of sensors and lack of PGM. Both of which the F-35 has in spades. Btw, PGMs are a lot more accurate than the 30mm cannon of the A-10 and LGBs cannot be jammed (yet). Also, it’s not an all or nothing deal, we will have F-35s, A-10s, and lots of UCAVs depending on the situation.
    3. The F-35 can carry up to 18k of stuff including 6 x 2k JDAM (including LJDAM), 10 x 1k JDAMS (or JSOW/LGB), 32 x SDB in addition to 4 AAMs (2 AMRAAM & 2 9x).

    • 1. I am aware of that, but body lift is not as effective as wing lift, plus mostly all modern fighter have at least some amount of body lift.
      2. F-35 requires ground troops to designate target; an option which may not be always avaliable. And bullets are lot more cost-effective than missiles.
      3. Correct, but in order to carry maximum payload, it has to drop all pretenses at stealth. In LO configuration, it can only carry 2 AMRAAM + 2 JDAM for example.

    • 1. Body lift comes into play the more the you turn & AOA increases and the F-35’s wide body helps a lot in this regard.
      2. The F-35 is capable of designating its own targets via EOTS (FLIR), EODAS, ESM, or SAR AESA radar maps.
      3. The F-35 has the “option” of going in VLO (and still caring up to 8 SDB/SDB2/SPEAR munitions & multiple JAGM/Brimstone in addition to the AMRAAMs). 4th gen assets will NEVER have that option.

      • 1. It helps, but F-35 is still heavy.
        2. Correct, but it does not mean it can carry out CAS competently; while I dont doubt it can help sometimes, many times visual ID is required.
        3. F-35’s rating was reduced to LO I believe, and it is still very visible on passive sensors and against VHF radars.

    • 1. Heavy yes but it still meets the requirements that make it on-par with the F-16/18 in turning performance.
      2. How does a VID beat a FLIR ID considering a FLIR ID can be done at higher altitudes adn therby have a higher dwell time.
      3. The F-35’s VLO Signature has only been reduced in the minds of a few Australian members of the Peanut Gallery. On several occasions the DoD/JPO/LM have reports that the F-35 has met or exceeded it’s VLO specs.

      • 1. With F-16C Blk 70 you mean, and its turning performance is not exactly stellar due to high wing loading.
        2. F-35 may be able to identify vehicles with FLIR, but that’s about it. If it has to support infantry against another infantry, it still has to come very low and very slow.
        3. Even if F-35 is VLO in radar spectrum, it is extremely visible in IR spectrum.

    • 1. No, I mean F-16 Blk30/40/50 and F-18C (as the spec says) since the 60/70 were nowhere in sight when the JSF spec was being drawn up.
      2. Have you ever seen FLIR data? You can ID specific weapons, people, etc depending on altitude. Mid level gives you better SA & more time to make a precise attack while low & slow gives you less time to assess the situation and exposes you to more groundfire & manpads.
      3. So is every other fighter in existence, no more and a little less than average due to active cooling of some of it’s structures. There is a reason that the primary detection and tracking method for fighters is radar and not IR, it’s better and had a longer range.

      • 1. F-35s specs may have been drawn up with that goal in sight, but wanting aircraft to have certain performance is not same as making it have wanted performance.
        2. I know what FLIR can do; it can ID aircraft at certain distance, but most modern jets are too fast and too fragile to actually ID people. Missiles also aren’t always an option.
        3. F-35 is more visible than many due to its large, high-thrust engine and relatively large airframe.

    • 1. The F-35 has not failed any KPP, so it is meeting specs.
      2 You don’t have to know the target’s name, just that he is a bad guy. This can be determined by weapons carried, location on the battlefield, etc. Fast movers have been doing CAS for years without an issue. Besides, EODAS will always have an eye on the target no matter what maneuvers are being done (the same cannot be said for any other plane). The F-35 carries a 25mm gun that works just fine when “missiles” are not an option.
      3. Due to it’s large engine and high-non-AB thrust, it can perform many of it’s duties without using AB where other planes require AB. You also seem to forget that the F-35 is scheduled to get a DIRCM which no other fast mover has. The F-35 is smaller than a F-15E and has better SA than anything in the air.

      • On the issue ability and fragility, F-15Es, F-16s, and specifically AV-8Bs are used extensively for CAS to great success.

      • 1. F-35 is far more sluggish than even late block F-16s due to higher wing loading and lower thrust to weight ratio.
        2. F-35 is too fast to actually ID such targets, and both too fast and too fragile to engage them with cannon.
        3. Incorrect. As far as performance is concerned, it is not thrust, but thrust-to-weight ratio that matters. In that area, F-35 is disadvantaged compared to F-16 and Eurocanards – unlike them, it has TWR that is below 1 when in AtA loadout with 100% fuel. Eurofighter Typhoon can achieve Mach 1,21 with AtA loadout at dry thrust, and Mach 1,5 clean. Both Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen can supercruise as well. F-35 requires afterburner to get past Mach 1. With afterburner and standard AtA loadout, Typhoon can achieve Mach 1,6. Only thing F-35 has over Typhoon – and even then, not all F-35 versions have it – is higher fuel fraction, but Rafale has fuel fraction comparable to best F-35 versions.

    • As you seem determined to only parrot ELP/APA data and ignore all the published data (and common sense) available on the systems involved, I will leave you to your sandbox .

  2. I guess a better analysis of the JSF would be somewhere between these two guys. Funny how when tempers flair and egos get wounded people start making mistakes. Both debaters seem to have started out strong and then made a few. While is seriously doubt the JSF is as useless as Picard says, I don’t see how it can avoid either becoming a waste of money, OR a waste of capability. If countries get the most for the dollar value it becomes like a very good F4 replacement, if they try to exploit it’s full capabilities then it’s a waste of $$$. Either way is sub optimal and that cannot be disputed. It will be interesting to see what different countries try to do to get the most out of this airplane.

  3. Well it looks like Australia will buy this again, with the election of the new right wing Abbott government:

    https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-04-23/f-35-joint-strike-fighters-transform-australias-air-combat-capability

    … at least until the next round of infighting.

  4. Heeya just wanted to give yyou a quick heads up and let you know a
    few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking
    issue. I’ve tried it in two different briwsers and both show the same outcome.

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