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.
If anything, the Daily Mail rather dramatically underestimates the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The true cost, if you add it all up, comes to over $1 trillion.

Think about that for a moment. The United States Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, along with a number of American allies, have sunk more than THE ENTIRE ANNUAL OUTPUT OF AUSTRALIA into a giant flying piano.

The F-35 looks impressive on paper. It stacks up well in a game of top trumps against third- and fourth-generation jet fighter aircraft. But once you begin looking more closely at its actual capabilities, you realise that in fact, the entire program is one of the biggest boondoggles in recorded human history:
“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.”
William S. Lind predicted virtually all of this back in 1994 when he wrote his novel Victoria under the pseudonym Thomas Hobbes. (Terrific book, by the way- read it now if you haven't already.) There is a great scene in it where the radical feminist nation of Azania (formerly the once-great state of California) sends up a large flight of F-35s against inferior numbers of F-16s. The women get their clocks cleaned, and not just because they're women flying in combat environments. They lose the furball because the F-35 is literally just a flying piano, while the older, non-stealthy F-16 is more manoeuverable, more nimble, and more reliable in combat.

Moreover, this silly mindset of "stealth uber alles" is actually a very dangerous one to have. Stealth technology, contrary to popular belief, does not make an aircraft or machine invisible. Stealth technology merely absorbs, refracts, and scatters electromagnetic radiation through the use of absorbent materials, oddly-sculpted shapes, and judicious usage of jamming technology.

However, stealth technology is only effective against the kinds of electromagnetic radiation that it is designed to beat. The moment you bring back older forms of radar that modern stealth coatings and designs are not designed to defeat, all of the stealth technology in the world won't save you.

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.
The problem of making an aircraft "not-too-invisible" has existed ever since the original F-117 was designed in the 1970s. When you combine this with the fact that modern stealth technology is designed to defeat high-frequency radar rather than older, UHF and VHF radar, you run into a real problem.

The F-35 is not particularly stealthy. It can be detected relatively easily by long-wave radar, which, when matched with modern noise-filtering algorithms, can warn higher-frequency intercept-and-destroy systems of incoming targets.

And that brings us to the really big problem with stealth fighters like the F-35- and, for that matter, with its big brother, the F-22.

If long-wave radar can tell your enemy where to look, and you can't really get out of the way, what is the fastest and cheapest and most economical way for your enemy to wipe you out? (Hint: the answer doesn't actually involve missiles.)

The simplest way is to point a very large number of very powerful lasers in the general direction of the attacking aircraft and blind the pilots.

This is not science fiction. This is happening today. In the first volume of the Riding the Red Horse anthology, one of the best non-fiction pieces within that collection concerns the way in which cheap commercial laser pointers can be used to "tag" low-flying aircraft and blind both onboard cameras and the pilots themselves.

And as that article pointed out so effectively, in war, the cheap and effective always wins out over the expensive and flashy.

The reality is that manned fighter aircraft are becoming hugely expensive and unnecessary luxuries. The Cold War is long done, yet the American defence establishment insists on building weapons for fighting 2nd-Generation wars while losing ever 4th-Generation war that comes its way. Hugely expensive boondoggles like the F-35 can be more effectively and cheaply replaced by UAVs and drones, and even those, too, will eventually be superceded as the legitimacy and power of the State continues to erode and degrade.

Remember: in war, cheap and effective always wins. And the day will come when squadrons of shiny beautiful new F-35s will be spanked so badly in combat that even the Pentaloons won't be able to cover it up. 


  1. You keep mentioning the F-22 in the same breath as the F-35. The F-22 has proven itself time and time again in air exercises with accomplishments and kill ratios that were previously unheard of. The only Raptor kills have come under restricted rules that eliminate most of the Raptor's advantages. (It's good to train this way so you're prepared if something goes wrong.) Even in those scenarios, the worse that can be said about the Raptor is that it's on equal footing with the best 4/4.5g fighters.

    When an exercise is fought with no limitations, as would be in war time? "The thing denies your ability to put a weapons system on it, even when I can see it through the canopy," said RAAF Squadron Leader Stephen Chappell, F-15 exchange pilot in the 65th AS. "It's the most frustrated I've ever been." "We [even] tried to overload them with numbers and failed," said Colonel Bruce. "It's humbling to fly against the F-22."

    Unlike the F-35 the Raptor is fast and is highly maneuverable. It has the energy advantage in nearly any scenario against other fighters. The F-22 is lethal even when they train as if stealth was defeated.

    As for the F-35...the entire program was a mistake. Trying to make one fighter to satisfy nearly all missions for three branches of the military is project suicide. As you point out the F-35 can't turn, climb, or run. It is completely reliant on stealth and long range engagement. It won't be the disaster that the F-4 was early in Vietnam because missiles really are much better, and the F-35 brings some interesting targeting technology to the table. But it's still not 100%, and it's insane to design a fighter assuming otherwise.

    Quite frankly we should have built a lot more Raptors and not even one F-35. Instead of the F-35 we should have just upgraded our existing F-15/16/18's and A-10's. Let the Raptor devastate enemy air defenses. Then you can drop bombs all day long from the other planes.

    1. You keep mentioning the F-22 in the same breath as the F-35.

      Actually, I only mentioned the F-22 once. And the point I made was about the way one can use long-wave radar to detect stealth fighters and provide a useful early warning their opponents.

      I do not dispute that the F-22 is a better aircraft, both in terms of technical capabilities and (simulated) combat record. My problem is more generally with the entire concept of high-tech "steel-on-target" warfare that this country's military establishment believes in so fervently.

      The Cold War is long done. The USSR is dead and gone. Wars between powerful states are becoming less likely every year- especially as those same states are losing power and legitimacy at an alarming rate. The wars of the future will not be huge multi-theatre campaigns involving thousands of men and billions of dollars of equipment; they will be low-intensity but extremely challenging wars between states and non-state actors.

      And those same non-state actors will, in 4th-Generation war scenarios, develop cheap and highly effective ways of counteracting the USA's high-tech killing machines. Because of this, they will win, and the US will lose, at a cost out of all proportion to the size and scale of the conflict.

      The USA is geared toward fighting Desert Storm all over again. It is NOT geared toward winning the long war against Islam, fought using 4th-Generation tactics. It is virtually guaranteed that America will LOSE these wars, unless massively expensive and wasteful programs like the USAF's F-35, the USN's Littoral Combat Ship, and the Army's Future Combat Systems. All of these are pointless wastes of money that the United States do not have, for wars that will not be fought.

  2. @DT
    I think you are swallowing the cool aid dispensed from USAF approved spigots regarding the capabilities of the F-22. In recent war games (2012 Red Flag) the F-22 was the 'salad' course in a dogfight with the Eurofighter Typhoons - (beaten handily) - and while the German pilots conceded the overwhelming nature of the F-22's hypothetical 'beyond visual range' missile armament - specialists crunched the numbers, including the fact that 90% of BVR engagements fail - plus the superior intermediate targeting range capabilities of the Eurofighter missle systems, + dogfighting capacity of the Eurofighter, concluded even greater discrepancies in the F-22's 'overwhelming dominance' promised by USAF generals and contractors.
    Information regarding wargames against the Russian Sukhoi-30 Flanker was heavily censored, however one Sukhoi pilot described the engagement as 'clubbing baby seals'.
    Despite this, USAF still continues to proclaim the absolute and inviolable 'Dominance' of the F-22, despite the fact reality suggests otherwise.


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