F-35 Obsolete On Arrival?

July 2nd, 2010 in Current Events by Frank Chadwick

It’s no secret I’ve thought the cancellation of the F-22 Raptor in favor of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter made pretty good sense. Now it begins to look as if the F-35 is facing some similar problems. Escalating program costs and delayed introduction to service are symptoms, but they are not the core issue. The core issue is value delivered.

The assumption of both the F-22 and F-35 designs was that their advanced electronics and stealth capabilities would give them a degree of survivability in the air which would make their investment worth while. They would cost a lot but they would deliver good value for that investment. The rate of development and adoption of advanced radar and surface-to-air systems by potential adversaries, notably China, changes the numbers in that calculation. F-35 costs more and more, and yet its value-delivered looks like less and less. Here is a link to a Defense News article covering this.

It seems to me that the heart of the problem is that F-22 and F-35 are, in an odd way, legacy designs. We have a tradition of pushing manned strike aircraft through enemy air defenses to deliver ordnance on target, and we’ve been able to accomplish that consistently by keeping a technological edge over the opponents. That may be an aircraft-dependent edge, in the case of the F-117 stealth fighter and its follow-on designs. It may be an electronics edge, as in the case of various “Wild Weasel” dedicated electronic warfare aircraft and a variety of EW jamming pods and radiation-homing missile carried by strike aircraft themselves. It may be a doctrinal edge, allowing all these other features to come together in enemy airspace.

Whatever the explanation, we have always been able to overcome ground-based air defenses and push through strike packets. The F-22 and F-35 price tags were a reflection of the escalating costs required to do exactly that – push through increasingly sophisticated and lethal ground-based air defense systems. The problem is those systems seem to be increasing their capabilities faster than we can design aircraft capable of surviving them.

What is the answer?

First, we have to have a clear idea of what the requirements of strike missions will be. The Air Force already has a study under way to assess that. A big part of that will have to be figuring out the environment in which we will have to deliver strike missions. There are two very distinct environments for strike missions.

One is against low-tech opponents, such as the Taliban and al Qaeda. Target identification is problematic but the ground threat is low. Missions like that really benefit from a human in the cockpit to make tactical decisions over the target. A high-tech solution is not always the best solution in this case. Aircraft with long loiter times, fairly slow speed over the target, and preferably two sets of eyes in the cockpit, are best for this.

The second environment is high-tech and high-intensity. Deploying enough manned aircraft to survive and penetrate this sort of air space may end up bankrupting us. I predict we will start hearing voices – faintly at first – questioning the high-tech manned-aircraft solution to this problem. It goes against a lot of Air Force tradition, but unmanned vehicles – either drone aircraft or cruise missiles — are almost certainly a more affordable and sustainable solution to this problem. So much of what we spend on F-22 and F-35 is spent to keep the pilot alive. If there is no human being in the vehicle, we can take a much more dispassionate view of cost versus return in saturating a system with low-cost low-profile vehicles.

If you want an idea of what such an aircraft might look like, here’s a link to the just-unveiled X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), designed for suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) and regular strike missions in a high-intensity environment. Why does this make sense, aside from eliminating the pilot as a potential casualty when the vehicle is lost? Modern combat aircraft are limited in their performance by the pilot, not the airframe or power plant. Unmanned aircraft can make turns which would leave a human pilot unconscious or dead.

Unmanned aircraft also have no life support systems, no canopy, no ejection seat, no cockpit armor – all things designed to let the human pilot do his or her job and survive the experience. As a result, a UCAV with payload equal and performance superior to existing fighters will come in at about 10,000 pounds – one third to one quarter the weight of a conventional plane.

This may take some getting used to, but it’s what’s coming.

About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.

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2 Comments »

2 Responses to “F-35 Obsolete On Arrival?”

  1. Alex said:

    It pains me to say it (i am just starting university after which i hope to join the airforce and fly) but unmanned aerial vehicles will become the future of such strike missions. Technology is moving so quickly that it cannot be long before fighter pilots are replaced by machines with unbelievable processing power.

    I forsee more than just removing pilots from SEAD missions but from CAPs of all types, OCA strikes ect. Maybe even in low intensity operations like in afghanistan after UAV popularity starts to snowball, which i expect it will when governments see the money saved and push harder for them. Despite, as you say, the tactical advantages of a human in a cockpit.

    The only area of military air power that i don’t see being touched by UAVs is transport, people aren’t going to trust a machine to land them safely. The old arguement of if it’s to dangerous for a pilot to fly why should i get on it?

  2. Alex, thanks for joining us and I believe you are correct. The X-45 is probably not the end of the road for unmanned high-performance combat aircraft, but rather the beginning.

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