Aug 8, 2017Aviation Week & Space Technology
F-35, in Black and White
It is hard to find a more divisive topic in the aerospace world than the Lockheed Martin F-35. Aviation Week Pentagon Editor Lara Seligman sat down with two industry veterans who hold opposite views on the fighter: Marine Corps Lt. Col. (ret.) Dave Berke, a former Top Gun instructor, has flown the F-35, F-22, F-16 and F-18; and Pierre Sprey, of “Fighter Mafia” fame, helped conceptualize designs for the A-10 and F-16. Excerpts follow. Listen to their debate in full at AviationWeek.com/check6
Seligman: Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force pilots contend that the maneuvers we saw at the Paris Air Show laid to rest the rumors that the F-35 can’t dogfight. Pierre, do you think that’s true?
Sprey: That was nonsense, just marketing hype. The demo was as phony as all the other [air show] demos are. They had a super-light F-35, and the performance wasn’t all that impressive. I talked to a guy who prepped an A-10 for the air show, and they did the same thing—they [made] it so light it actually looked super maneuverable, which it’s not, except at low speed. The F-35’s turn rate was not impressive. It was [much] slower than a 30-year-old F-16. An engineer friend of mine clocked it at 17 deg. per second. Any old F-16 can do 22 [deg. per second].
KEY QUESTIONS ABOUT THE JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER
Can the F-35 dogfight?
How does the F-35’s ability to communicate in flight change warfare
What are the difficulties of producing F-35—a program that remains in development?
What are the impacts of the F-35’s $406 billion price tag?
Berke: I would not disagree. Air show demos are exactly that, a demonstration. I think part of the reason this demo got so much publicity is there has been a long-held misunderstanding of what the airplane can do in the visual arena. People have made claims that it’s incapable of dogfighting and things like that. It is a highly capable, highly maneuverable airplane, like everybody who has ever flown it understands.
Sprey: The airplane that flew at Paris was totally incapable of combat. And that’s not just me talking; that’s the operational testers of the Air Force, Navy and the Marines. In their assessment, the configuration that was flying in Paris, to go to war, would need an escort to protect it against enemy fighters. It would need extra help to find targets, particularly air-to-ground threats.
How does the F-35’s networking capability change the game for warfare?
Berke: I can’t think of any airplane that we’re flying today that would want to get into a dogfight. I would avoid that in any platform. F-22 pilots don’t fly around looking for dogfights. Part of the reason why the F-35 and the F-22 have such a massive advantage over legacy platforms is their ability to make really intelligent decisions. You’re getting information presented to you on a much larger scale, and it’s fused more intelligently.
All my career, I’ve flown fighters, and flown them in combat, and I was a forward air controller. It’s all about making an intelligent decision as soon as you can. It is really difficult for me to overstate what a massive advantage you have in decision-making in the F-35. I don’t know a single pilot—and I know a lot of F-35 pilots—that would even consider taking a legacy platform into combat. The F-35 advantage over these platforms is infinitely greater.
Sprey: The original marketing hype, both out of the services and Lockheed Martin, was always “It’s a great dogfighter; it’s a great close-support platform.” In truth it can’t do any of those missions very well because, like all multimission airplanes it’s highly flawed, and the technical execution of this airplane is unusually bad by historical standards. I agree with [Lt.] Col. Berke that no airplane looks for a dogfight. On the other hand, in serious wars sometimes you can’t avoid it. The F-35 is a horrible target if it has to get into a dogfight. It’s got an enormously high wing load. It’s almost as unmaneuverable as the infamous F-104.
All that networking stuff, if it worked, would make the pilot smarter and more situationally aware. But right now it is an impediment, and it might be a permanent impediment given the cyber [threat], which is horrible for this airplane. All that reliance on networking is giving inferior, less well-funded, less equipped enemies a tremendous opportunity, because the airplane is so vulnerable to all kinds of cybermeddling. The people we might face—Chinese, Russians, Yugoslavs, whomever—are all pretty clever with computers. We’ve given them a tremendous opportunity to wreck our airpower for almost no money.
Berke: I would disagree with virtually all of that. The idea that there are things wrong with the airplane is 100% true, but the idea [that] does not work is 100% not true. To fuse broadband multispectral information, [radio frequency], electro-optical infrared, laser infrared and laser energies among several cockpits, ground users and sea-based platforms is really complicated stuff. And so there are things wrong with the airplane. I don’t know a single [F-35] pilot that would deny that. But the idea that you would read some sort of report on the airplane’s performance and then draw the conclusion that it is broken forever is a leap. We inside the community haven’t done a good job of explaining how amazing the airplane is.
You could bring 100 people into this room and ask what warfare is going to look like in 30 years, and you’re going to get 100 different answers. If I hear somebody talking about dogfighting, that person is not thinking about the future. And if I hear somebody say “wing loading,” that’s a red flag that you are thinking about the wrong things. Among every Marine, Air Force and Navy [F-35] pilot I know who came from a legacy aircraft—Hornets, F-15s, F-16s—there is no debate about what is the most capable aircraft they’ve ever flown and what they would take into combat tomorrow.
What are the difficulties posed by what is known as concurrency—the process of producing F-35s and testing them before system development is complete?
Sprey: The testing that has taken place so far is very benign. It’s engineering testing—there has not been any rough testing yet—and the airplane has performed very badly on a whole score of issues. They’re not flying against any stressful scenarios for the simple reason that the Joint Program Office is sabotaging the operational tests, and this is very deliberate. Because if you fail, the [program] might be canceled.
I have mixed feelings about pilots being so enthusiastic about their airplanes. It is very common now, because the services are so wound up with procurement, and people critical of their equipment tend to have shorter careers. I think you want to be skeptical about everything you work with. You don’t want to be a true believer going into combat and wind up hanging from a parachute, or dead.
Berke: The idea that any professional uniformed officer, let alone a fighter pilot, would somehow find themselves unprepared for the horrors of combat because they were illusively in love with their equipment is preposterous. I’ve [been] a Top Gun instructor, and we would spend 8 hr. debriefing a flight. All you do is talk about things you did wrong, your strengths, your weaknesses, how to mitigate one and play to the others. If you are going to ask a fighter pilot who has done operational testing what their opinion is, the idea that even one shred of what they say is a party-line answer would be offensive. I’ve spent 23 years as a U.S. Marine, and never once did I get the implication that I shouldn’t be completely honest with my evaluation.
The F-35 has good and bad things about it. In the operational test world, we are focused on making the airplanes better. We spend our time on a laundry list of things that need to be improved. When every single pilot that has taken the airplanes into highly complex [exercises] at Red Flag and at places like Nellis [AFB, Nevada,] comes back with overwhelming dominance, it’s difficult not to be really supportive. So if you hear pilots saying the F-35 is awesome, it’s not a sales pitch. It’s steeped in a long history of flying several different airplanes in different environments.
F-35 procurement costs have come down in the last couple of years, but this year they ticked up slightly to $406 billion from about $380 billion.
Sprey: Cost is part of what force you can bring to bear. To create airpower, you have to be able to put a bunch of airplanes in the sky over the enemy. You can’t do it with a tiny handful, even if they are unbelievably good. You send six airplanes to China, they could care less about what they are. F-22 deployments are now six airplanes, and that’s because of the cost. Force is a function of cost and how reliable the airplane is, how often it flies per day.
If you bought F-16s at the same budget, $400 billion, instead of F-35s, you’d be able to buy five times more airplanes. It is five times as expensive and flies at best half as often. My feeling is it will fly less often than an F-22—it is a good deal more complicated than an F-22, and it’s showing that right now. If that’s the case, it may fly once every five days, in which case if will fly one-fifth as often as the F-16.
Berke: I don’t care how cheap the airplane is; if you can’t fly it in combat, it is useless. We are inventing technology that didn’t exist before, and it’s all driven toward the idea of being relevant in a highly complex, 3D battlespace that we have a hard time predicting even for the next 15 years. I don’t want to buy a car that’s cheaper and then have that car not be drivable in three years. The fact is the Chinese [are developing] fifth-generation airplanes. They are building and buying [them] right now, and that’s going to make air warfare complicated. [The F-35 is] too expensive? That’s easy to say. Compared to what? Losing a war in 15 years? Or compared to an F-16 in 1977? Make sure you get that frame of reference right, because it is really important.
NOTES: F-35 is unmaneuverable POS, and it is true that often, you simply cannot avoid a dogfight. It is also true that air show demos are done with only light fuel load. As for F-35s vaunted networking abilities, it is a complex system, and complex systems in a war are prone to failure. You simply have to have a backup, which means dogfighting capability. Even F-22 was designed to be able to dogfight. F-35 was not designed for dogfight because it is a ground attack platform, it was only pushed into air-to-air role after F-22 couldn’t be procured in large enough numbers. And networking is a danger as much as an opportunity.
Berke is talking about the future, but how can you know the future if you don’t know the past? That future they are talking about is based on the performance of BVR missiles against Iraqis and Yugoslavs, first of whom were incompetent fools all across the board, and latter who were also undertrained and flying literal flying bricks (aircraft had no radar, no MAWS, no RWR, no ECM… real representative of peer threats). Sensor fusion is important, but wing loading is also important… even in BVR combat, you need to be able to maneuver. Wing loading matters for turn rate, for climb rate, and both are still quite important. And F-35 may be more capable than “teens”, but those are not its competitors.
Equipment is important, and equipment that doesn’t work is useless. And in war, you have to have reliable equipment. What is more important is that complex equipment often leaves more avenues open for it to be countered. Berke talks about F-35s performance in air combat, but does not mention its survivability on the ground. And that is possibly F-35s biggest Achilles heel.