Joint Strike Flopter: flying piano edition
It’s the most expensive weapon in history but America's F-35 stealth jet has been outperformed by a 40-year-old F-16 jet in a dogfight.
A mock air battle was held over the Pacific Ocean between the cutting-edge F-35 - meant to be the most sophisticated jet ever - and an F-16, which was designed in the 1970s.
But according to the test pilot, the F-35 is still too slow to hit an enemy plane or dodge gunfire. So far it has cost the US military more than $350billion.
The dogfight, which was staged in January near Edwards Air Force Base, California, was designed to test the F-35’s ability in close-range combat at 10,000 to 30,000 feet.
Both the F-35 pilot and the F-16 pilot were attempting to ‘shoot down’ the other.
But, according to the F-35 pilot’s report, which has only recently been made public, the jet performed so appallingly that he deemed it completely inappropriate for fighting other aircraft within visual range.
He reported that the F-35 – designed by Lockheed Martin – was at a ‘distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement’ despite the F-16 being weighed down by two drop tanks for extra fuel.
The F-35 pilot reported a number of aerodynamic problems, including ‘insufficient pitch rate’ for the jet’s nose while climbing - resulting in the plane being too cumbersome to dodge enemy fire.
He said that a half-million-dollar custom-made helmet that gives pilots a 360-degree view outside the plane meant he was unable to comfortably move his head inside the cramped cockpit. This meant the F-16 could approach from behind without him noticing.
‘The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft,’ he wrote in the five-page brief.
“Even without new problems, the F-35 is a ‘dog.’ If one accepts every performance promise the DoD currently makes for the aircraft, the F-35 will be: “Overweight and underpowered: at 49,500 lb (22,450kg) air-to-air take-off weight with an engine rated at 42,000 lb of thrust, it will be a significant step backward in thrust-to-weight ratio for a new fighter… [F-35A and F-35B variants] will have a ‘wing-loading’ of 108 lb per square foot… less manoeuvrable than the appallingly vulnerable F-105 ‘Lead Sled’ that got wiped out over North Vietnam… payload of only two 2,000 lb bombs in its bomb bay… With more bombs carried under its wings, the F-35 instantly becomes ‘non-stealthy’ and the DoD does not plan to seriously test it in this configuration for years. As a ‘close air support’… too fast to see the tactical targets it is shooting at; too delicate and flammable to withstand ground fire; and it lacks the payload and especially the endurance to loiter usefully over US forces for sustained periods… What the USAF will not tell you is that ‘stealthy’ aircraft are quite detectable by radar; it is simply a question of the type of radar and its angle relative to the aircraft… As for the highly complex electronics to attack targets in the air, the F-35, like the F-22 before it, has mortgaged its success on a hypothetical vision of ultra-long range, radar-based air-to-air combat that has fallen on its face many times in real air war. The F-35’s air-to-ground electronics promise little more than slicker command and control for the use of existing munitions.”
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the jet that the Pentagon is counting on to be the stealthy future of its tactical aircraft—is having all sorts of shortcomings. But the most serious may be that the JSF is not, in fact, stealthy in the eyes of a growing number of Russian and Chinese radars. Nor is it particularly good at jamming enemy radar. Which means the Defense Department is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to a fighter that will need the help of specialized jamming aircraft that protect non-stealthy—“radar-shiny,” as some insiders call them—aircraft today.
These problems are not secret at all. The F-35 is susceptible to detection by radars operating in the VHF bands of the spectrum. The fighter’s jamming is mostly confined to the X-band, in the sector covered by its APG-81 radar. These are not criticisms of the program but the result of choices by the customer, the Pentagon.
To suggest that the F-35 is VHF-stealthy is like arguing that the sky is not blue—literally, because both involve the same phenomenon. The late-Victorian physicist Lord Rayleigh gave his name to the way that electromagnetic radiation is scattered by objects that are smaller than its wavelength. This applies to the particles in the air that scatter sunlight, and aircraft stabilizers and wingtips that are about the same meter-class size as VHF waves.
The counter-stealth attributes of VHF have been public knowledge for decades. They were known at the dawn of stealth, in 1983, when the MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory ordered a 150-foot-wide radar to emulate Russia’s P-14 Oborona VHF early-warning system. Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth division—makers of the F-35—should know about that radar: they built it.
Making a plane VHF-stealthy starts with removing the target’s tails, as on the B-2 bombers. But we did not know how to do that on a supersonic, agile airplane (like the F-35 is supposed to be) when the JSF specifications were written.
Neither did the technology to add broadband-active jamming to a stealth aircraft exist in 1995. Not only did stealth advocates expect jamming to fade away, but there was an obvious and (at the time) insoluble problem: To use jamming you have to be certain that the radar has detected you. Otherwise, jamming is going to reveal your presence and identify you as a stealth aircraft, since the adversary can see a signal but not a reflection.
We can be sure that onboard jamming has not been added to the F-35 since. Had the JSF requirements been tightened by one iota since the program started, its advocates would be blaming that for the delays and overruns.