Thursday, July 7, 2016

Is the F-35 a lethal ‘Velociraptor’ or easy prey for Russia or China?

The United States Marine Corps’ top aviation officer offered an upbeat assessment of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to the House Armed Services Committee during his testimony on July 6. The stealthy new jump-jet is performing well during training exercises despite using an interim software configuration that affords the pricey aircraft only a fraction of the capabilities the Pentagon requires of it.

To illustrate his point, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the U.S. Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation, described a training evolution at the service’s elite Weapons and Tactics Instructor course—which is run by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One at Yuma, Arizona—where the F-35 was a participant. Where as normally half of a thirty aircraft strike package including Boeing AV-8B Harrier IIs, F/A-18Cs and EA-6B Prowlers would not make it through high-end air defenses, the new F-35s struck their targets with virtual impunity.

“The F-35’s—twenty-four to zero kill ratio—killed all the targets,” Davis said. “It was like Jurassic Park, watching a velociraptor—kills everything, does really well. We can’t get that airplane fast enough into the fleet.”

Davis did not elaborate on the details of what kind of high-end threats the F-35B flew against. But Davis did say that the Marines have performed operational readiness inspections with the F-35 and are standing up additional squadrons equipped with the new aircraft. However, the F-35B—as currently configured—has only an interim capability with a limited flight envelope and a limited ability to carry weapons. As the aircraft matures, the Air Force, Navy and Marines will need larger and more capable training ranges to cope with the demands of preparing for a high-end “near-peer” fight.

Indeed, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems—who was testifying alongside Davis—said that networked warfare essentially mandates that the Pentagon find new ways to train. The best way to replicate high-end Russian and Chinese weapons systems, Manazir suggested, would be to use computer simulations—or live virtual constructive training.  “The F-35 is different. I would offer to you our networked way of warfare—the way we’re going to do warfare with fifth-generation—would take up about three-quarters of the United States if we could have it,” Manazir said. “That goes to the value of what [Air Force Maj.] Gen. [Scott] West talked about. This live virtual constructive training.”

Even if the Pentagon can exercise the full capabilities of the new jet in simulations, there are questions as to how effective the F-35 will be against the latest Chinese and especially Russian integrated air defense systems in the real world. The Russians, especially, have been investing in long-wave networked radars operating in the UHF and VHF-bands for over two decades in their efforts to counter American stealth technology—particularly the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit strategic bomber. “The question is not who’s fighter is stealthier, the question is how stealthy are our aircraft relative to their long-wave UHF/VHF radars, designed more to return a holistic signature image of low observable aircraft,” Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the Center for Naval Analyses told The National Interest. “Maybe JSF can make it going in, but it is a rather expensive platform, and could get into big trouble trying to make it out.”

But the F-35 has one other serious liability, Kofman said—adding that U.S. Navy pilots are skeptical about single-engine designs. The F-35’s single Pratt & Whitey F135 engine—while immensely powerful, producing about 43,000lbs of thrust—also runs extremely hot. Unlike the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, where the exhaust its F119 engines are flattened to reduce their infrared signature, the F-35 does not have any substantive measures to reduce the visibility of its exhaust from the enemy. The Russians—who build excellent infrared sensors—could use the F-35’s thermal signature to develop a weapons quality track to engage the stealthy new jet. “It’s probably has the hottest engine on the face of the planet,” Kofman said.

Thus, the Pentagon’s fixation on a singular overly elaborate solution to a particular problem may yet come back to haunt it.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. This article first appeared in The National Interest

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