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The F-35: Better Than You Think

Written by George Colclough

Eglin US Air Force Base, Eglin, Verenigde Staten. 25 november 2013..Foto: Test vlucht van Amerikaanse F-35A “Lightning”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F-35_on_runway.jpg

Pre-Reading Notes:

  • As usual, I have capitalised words like THIS to stress points of irony and sarcasm.

Introduction:

“An expensive jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none.”

“A “rathole” of taxpayer money.”

“An exceptionally dumb piece of Airforce PR.”

These are all quotes concerning the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, an aircraft which safe to say is the subject of SOME controversy both from enthusiasts, and the professional commentariat. Indeed, you only have to punch F-35 into the search engine of your choice and you will be met with a litany of articles from across the length and breadth of the internet all making the same critiques of the aircraft:

  • The F-35 is no good in a dog fight.
  • The F-35 is too lightly armed.
  • The F-35 is expensive.

Today however, we will be donning the mantle of David against the Goliath that is popular opinion, and trying to present a different perspective on this aircraft: the perspective that actually, it’s quite good all things considered.

Also note, this post is the first of a two part set in which we will present challenges and contrary opinions to popular narratives within the military aviation commentary community, with the other being on the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt, where will argue the case that the aircraft is in fact much worse than its popular legacy would imagine.

These posts should be contextualised as thought exercises, not bold declarations of objectivity. The idea of these posts is not to convince you of the opinion being proclaimed in the post per say, although should these posts set you on a path to those conclusions yourself that is of course great, rather these posts are intended to serve to demonstrate the exceptional subjectivity within the military commentary community, and to encourage you, the audience to be ever critical and take nothing you read at face value.

With that out of the way, let us don our treacle waders, and begin to take a sledgehammer to the tabloid headlines.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Testflyging_av_f%C3%B8rste_norske_F-35_-_22492943335_14.jpg

The F-35 can’t dogfight.

In this claim there is a kernel of truth, but one which has had all context and nuance stripped away from it by media vultures hungry for clicks and the revenue they bring, leaving the truth as naught but a stripped away skeleton to be callously discarded and forgotten. It is true, the F-35 can’t dogfight, or at least not as well as many of the aircraft it is intended to replace, but this is because it doesn’t need to; technological advances have made dogfighting obsolete and antiquated as tactics in aerial warfare, akin to complaining that a brand new iMac doesn’t have a floppy disc drive.

The claim that the F-35 can’t dogfight appears to have its origin in a 2015 test flight report entitled F-35A High Angle of Attack Operational Maneuvers 14 January 2015, which was leaked by David Axe of War is Boring. At face value this report, which concerns the evaluation of the F-35’s Air Combat Manoeuvring (dogfighting) capabilities appears most damning for the F-35, claiming that:

“The F-35 was at a distinct disadvantage in a turning fight and operators would quickly learn that it isn’t an ideal regime … it wasn’t effective for killing or surviving attacks primarily due to lack of energy maneuvability.”

And indeed, this report is most damning, but as pundits and commentators scrambled to pump out quick and easy articles on the report to harvest those sweet, juicy, delicious clicks they made a fatal mistake – they completely ignored the context of the report; that context being that this very specific set of tests was testing the F-35’s Air Combat Manoeuvring capabilities, an obsolete battlefield capability that no longer exists, and one that it would never find itself using in during real combat, unless something had gone very, very, VERY wrong.

Going back to David Axe’s original article to explain further, he discusses how during the simulated dogfights the report documented the F-35 struggled to orientate its nose towards a rear engaging F-16 to score a gun kill, completely overlooking the fact that in the real world the F-35, with its off-boresight capabilities which allow it to target and fire missiles from any angle, would likely have destroyed the intercepting aircraft without having to manoeuvre at all.

Going further still, it’s likely that in a shooting war where F-35 were operating within their doctrine, rather than in a very narrow and specifically limiting test, intercepting fourth generation fighters would likely never even get to Within Visual Range Combat distances before they were shot out of the sky by the F-35; Fifth Generation fighters, the likes of the F-35, F-22, J-20, and SU-57 have made speed and manoeuvrability all but irrelevant on the modern battlefield, as their advanced capabilities end an engagement long before the enemy can get into detection range – sadly it can only be concluded that much to the disappointment of nostalgic and romantic commentators, dogfighting is dead.

Modern aerial warfare is decided by who has the longest range weapons and detection equipment, and who can remain the most hidden while using them, and in this regard the F-35 is a most terrifying prospect: the AN/AAQ-37 Electro-optical Distributed Aperture System stuffed into the F-35s nose has a detection range of at least 800 miles, and this range is upped to essentially unlimited when the F-35 is networked to supporting aircraft beyond this range. What’s more when this is paired with a cache of weapons that includes the AGM-158 JASSM with its up to 1,200 mile range, it is easy to see how in the face of such advanced capabilities the claim that the F-35 can’t dogfight is a completely moot point.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lockheed_Martin_F-35_%22Lightning_II%22.jpg

The F-35 is too expensive.

Anyone who has spent any time browsing headlines regarding the F-35 has no doubt come across this claim, the media loves its click inducing and context free headlines about the TRILLION DOLLAR AIRCRAFT, but is this claim true? Is the F-35 really too expensive?

Before we can answer that question first we must settle on a figure for our titular aircraft, the F-35. Then we will have a benchmark with which to compare other aircraft. For simplicity, and to prevent this post from devolving into a VERY INTERESTING thesis on the economics of aircraft procurement, we will keep this simple and focus purely on the per unit cost of the F-35 and its comparable aircraft.

In this regard, it is actually quite a hard thing to put a figure on. Even with us ignoring the sunk costs of development, the per unit cost reduces with every additional F-35 made, as greater efficiencies from the ever expanding knowledge and expertise of the Lockheed’s factory floor staff are yielded, and with 11-13 jets typically being made per month, odds are that any up to date figure penned in this script would be incorrect by the time by the time the post has been edited and published, if it is even possible to really even arrive at a truely correct figure for such a complicated thing in the first place, so please take this with a contextual grain of salt as we do our best to settle on some solid figures.

Mercifully, we at least have some figures to begin working with, as the US government very kindly tells us some in its budget reports! Looking at these figures there is no doubt that the F-35 WAS a monumentally expensive aircraft during the early stage of its production, with the first F-35A to come off the production line in 2007 costing an eye watering $221 million. Since then however increases in production quantities, as well as the aforementioned increasing familiarity and efficiency of Lockheed Martin’s factory floor workers have seen this plummet to as little as $77 million for F-35A models in the 14th production batch, a cost decrease of 65.16% per unit, with F-35B models dropping to $101 million per unit, and F-35C models dropping to $94 million per unit. This decrease in cost has also taken place throughout the entire production run of the F-35, with the F-35s of the 14th production batch being reduced from anywhere from 12.3%-13.2% compared to F-35s of the previous production batch, this decrease is also generally typical of the reductions between most production batches. All of this finally gives us a current production cost we can use going forward: $77.9 million for an F-35A, $101.3 million for an F-35B, and $94.4 million for an F-35C.

With figures for the F-35 settled, we then need aircraft to compare it against, and to that end let us start with fellow fifth generation aircraft.

Comparing production costs from different countries and economies is always difficult, but for the purposes of this post we are able to put a reasonably accurate figure on each of them; there are currently four fifth generation fighters in service; the Chengdu J20, the Lockheed Martin F-22, the Sukhoi Su-57, and finally the subject of today’s post, the Lockheed Martin F-35. The first of those, the J-20 costs roughly $120 million per unit, and bare in mind that Chinese labour costs are lower than American labour costs, and FOR SOME REASON research and development costs were also lower, the second of those, the F-22 cost over $230 million per unit (adjusted for inflation), and according the Kremlin, the SU-57 cost $40 million per unit, this is of course nonsense, and in reality it costs somewhere in the region of $100-120 million. Suddenly the F-35 isn’t looking so expensive…

But all of aforementioned aircraft are top of the line fifth generation fighters, surely even the cheapest amongst them must be monumentally expensive, right? Akin to choosing a Maserati over a Ferrari as the “budget” option. And in the same way that some would say you don’t need a Ferrari when a Kia drives you to the shops in the exact same way, there are some in the military commentary community, such as Pierre Sprey who would make this same argument for military aircraft: You don’t need a hyper advanced F-35, when for the price of one F-35 you could put multiple upgraded, or newly produced legacy aircraft – but is this claim true?

To answer this question we need to figure out how the cost of an F-35 stacks up against fourth generation legacy fighters, and with the bold declarations already heard they must be fractions of the cost, it’d be absurd to imagine they could cost the same, if not even more than the F-35… right?

Well actually, not necessarily, let us look at a few examples to explain further.

Let’s start with the Eurofighter Typhoon. This makes a good comparison as like the F-35 it was an aircraft plagued with highly publicised cost overruns, like the F-35 it is a high volume production fighter with 571 aircraft having been produced for 9 different air forces, but unlike the F-35 it is a firmly fourth generation fighter; with no stealth capabilities, and being built for hyper manoeuvrability dogfighting rather than destroying its enemies from far over the horizon. So when in many regards the only difference between these two planes is their generation, and the corresponding technologies and design philosophies, one would expect the Eurofighter to be significantly cheaper?

Alas, it is not. Prices of course vary customer to customer depending upon quantity ordered and other factors, but most credible estimates for an average price of the Eurofighter place it at around $120 million, nearly $20 million more than the shiniest and sexiest F-35B.

Make no mistake too, as much as we can point to individual, highly specific, and largely unrepresentative of reality studies to argue the case that fourth generation fighters are better than they actually are, and that correspondingly fifth generation fighters are worse than they actually are: in a real shooting war with all aircraft operating as envisaged, an F-35 would come out the victor over a fourth generation fighter any day of the week.

Just to prove we haven’t hand selected a uniquely expensive fourth generation fighter, let us look at another: the Dassault Rafale. Like the Eurofighter it is peak fourth generation fighter technology, and like the Eurofighter it costs more than an F-35, with the final unit cost being anywhere from $120-$160 million depending upon who you ask.

Particularly astute members of the audience will have noticed that both of the previously cited fourth generation fighters are modern and advanced fighters, really being more 4.5 generation fighters; better than true fourth generation fighters, but not quite advanced enough to be considered fifth generation. This is the point that the Pierre Sprays of the world would kick in the door to the studio, and start screaming hysterically about LEGACY AIRCRAFT, as the persistent belief remains in certain circles that modern air forces are best  served sticking with tried and true legacy aircraft, and simply continually upgrading them to save money… but is this belief true?

To answer this question let’s have a look at one such aircraft, the F-15EX. This is the latest version of the venerable F-15, originally introduced all the way back in 1976. It is a hell of an upgrade for sure, and most certainly brings the F-15 into the 21st century with fly-by-wire controls, digital cockpit displays, advanced avionics and new electronic warfare technologies. The cost of all of this modernisation, $110 million, or $136 million if you want the simulators, electronic warfare systems, and targeting pods to make the thing actually usable – once again significantly more than the cost of a new F-35, and all for an aircraft, which is no longer top dog of the battlefield, and would find itself radically outmatched if it ever went toe-to-toe with fifth generation fighters.

The F-35 isn’t starting to look so bad is it all of a sudden? With that in mind, let us jump to our next rebuttable.

https://flic.kr/p/21oAYbQ

The F-35 is too lightly armed:

Critics of the F-35 will often claim that the F-35 is too lightly armed, having only one 25mm GAU-22/A cannon, and either two AIM-120 air to missiles with two GBU-31 bombs, or four AIM-120 air to air missiles.. But while this isn’t exactly untrue, the claim misses out vital context and supplementary information that show that in fact, the F-35 isn’t too lightly armed at all.

For starters the F-35 only carries the aforementioned loadout while operating in its stealth configuration, for operations such as initial SEAD operations when an enemy’s air defence network is still very much alive and kicking. This would be highly dangerous for traditional non-stealth aircraft, and losses would likely be incredibly high, if they were able to operate at all. So therefore the F-35 is only “lightly armed” whilst operating in environments traditional aircraft are highly unsuited for and would likely suffer high losses in any way, and indeed it is this very light armament that provides the edge needed in such environments, as it maintains the smooth silhouette needed to maximise stealth capabilities. Sure it would be nice to have more, as always in war you can never have too much ammunition, but in light of this full context the point seems rather moot.

Furthermore, this humble loadout is not the F-35’s only loadout, as when battlefield conditions are more secure; air defence networks have been neutralised, and air supremacy has been achieved the F-35 can be outfitted with a significantly expanded array of weapons in its so-called “beast mode”. This mode comprises of an air to air configuration of 14 AIM-120 air to air missiles supplemented by two A/M-9X Sidewinder missiles, or an air to ground configuration of two AIM-120 air to air missiles, six 2,000lb GBU-31 bombs, and two A/M-9X Sidewinder missiles. Even the fiercest of F-35 critics would struggle to call this loadout lacking.

Detractors of the F-35 specifically, and fifth generation aircraft more generally will often cite this compromise between stealth and firepower proves the unviability of such aircraft, and will generally point to the 1997 downing of an F-117, the F-35’s forerunner by the Serbian military as proof of this. This moves out of the scope of the post somewhat, but as it is a critic levelled against all fifth generation aircraft, it is still worth clearing up as part of the defence of the F-35. The claim usually goes that the F-117s stealth characteristics were totally compromised when it opened its bomb bay door, which ruined its stealthy radar profile and led to it being shot down.

But while this is part of the story, it is not THE story and misses out crucial context. For starters the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft that normally accompanied the F-117s to further protect against ground radar lock ons were grounded due to bad weather, which left the F-117 uniquely vulnerable, as they flew with radar antennas retracted during strike missions, and unaccompanied were essentially flying blind. This operational failure was further compounded by the predictability of US flight paths, so when Serbia’s surprisingly good overseas intelligence reported that F117s were taking off unaccompanied, Serbian air defence knew exactly where to point their missile in ambush. THEN after all those other factors had compounded to create a uniquely disfavourable situation to the F-117; opening its bomb bay to fire helped created a bigger radar picture that helped to bring the aircraft down. 

Consequently it can be seen that any attempt to use the 1997 F-117 shootdown as claims that the limited stealth weapons load of fifth generation aircraft generally, and the F-35 specifically make them useless, if not dangerous in the real world as a moot point, as that incident was caused by operational failure and over confidence in design, not any fundamental flaws with the technology of stealth aircraft.

From this analysis we can begin to see that criticisms that the F-35 is too lightly armed don’t hold much water. They are arguments predicated upon taking the F-35 out of the context in which it was developed to operate, and putting it in hypothetical situations in which it would never find itself on the battlefield, and then pivoting towards criticising it in roles that alternative aircraft simply wouldn’t be able to carry out at all.

https://flic.kr/p/f7vuLi

Closing Remarks:

Having addressed the major criticisms of the F-35, namely that it is no good in a dog fight, it is too lightly armed, and that it is too expensive, hopefully now it is apparent (even if you completely disagree with the conclusions of this post) that assessing military procurement is no black and white matter. It is a highly complex thing which requires the full and true consideration of many differing facets in their correct context. In light of that, what we would really like you to take away from this post is not necessarily a conviction that the F-35 is the best thing since sliced bread, but instead simply a conviction to appreciate that complex matters such as this rarely have their full nuance explained in a clickbait tabloid headline.

With that in mind, join us for part two in this series, where we will be taking a sledgehammer to that most cherished and lauded aircraft: the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II.

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