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The F35: Cause for Excitement or Concern?

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By Morgan Deane:

The Air Force recently declared it has the first operational squadron of the F 35 Joint Strike Fighter. Nearly 15 years in the making, 3 years late and 200 billion over its trillion-dollar budget. The planes cost almost twice the estimate. And there are still untested systems that may require massive amounts of future expenditures to fix and raise the cost even further.  But Lockheed Martin says the systems are coming into place. And they can soon lower costs by 85 million per plane. This typifies the development process of the F35, as every positive seemingly has a corresponding negative and vice versa.

Analysts also point out, for example, that every fighter includes development issues.  The F22 had significant problems with its oxygen system. The F16 failed its initial operation test and the F18s were actually grounded in the 80s due to its design flaws.  The Joint Strike Fighter is getting much closer to its mission of combining advanced stealth capabilities, radar-jamming abilities, supersonic speed, extreme agility and state-of-the-art sensor fusion technology. It can conduct air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

One of the early test pilots of the fighter, Lieutenant Colonel Matt Hayden, feels completely comfortable with the F35 in any tactical environment. He has not yet flown simulations against comparable advanced fighter such as the Russian T-50 PAK , Chinese J31, or the J20.  The exact specifications of the latter planes remain uncertain, and J20 is not ready until 2018 at the earliest. The J31 and J20 also ape some of the major features of the F35, such as long range interception of other aircraft.  Yet, pilots like Colonel Hayden remain confident. They believe the superior speed of the F35 enables an edge.  They have been conducting combat sorties against ISIS targets for years now while the Chinese pilots still suffer from peace disease and have not flown during war time conditions. The Russian T50, moreover, still uses a 4th generation engine and it shares many of its systems with its 4th generation counterpart.   So the confidence of the pilots is somewhat warranted.

But there is also some suspicion about its dogfighting performance. Pilots say the F35 is at a distinct disadvantage to the F16 in dogfighting. It has insufficient pitch and the canopy does not allow as much visibility. Both of these factors would result in horrible Angles of Attack (AoA) for the F35, to the point they could not even defeat an encumbered F16.  Supporters of the fighter point to other tests where the F35’s sensors are so good that they could launch missiles and destroy enemy fighters before they even entered dog fighting range. The F35 pilot also has a special helmet equipped with a Distributed Aperture System which brings data to the pilot, essentially, allowing him to see in every direction. Even though Chinese hacks lead analysts to believe the new J31 might share some features with the F35, the sensors of the latter are so advanced analysts don’t really know. The F35 takes a wide range of sensors ranging from ground targeting, radar, and every incoming threat, sends them to the computer for analysis, the hardware sifts through the data, and is then submits the most pertinent information in manageable chunks to the pilot in an easy to read screen. This far outclasses the F16 and has given it a decisive advantage against any other plane in the sky.

Moreover, this advanced sensor system is incredibly interoperable. The data can be shared with pilots one hundred miles away; ground based networks, leaders in command and control centers, as well as all of those items from coalition partners. The F35s are even designed to have midair refueling with allied aircraft. The British variants are designed to land on US Marine Corps amphibious ships. And the Australian forces have small numbers of higher quality units which makes the F35 an ideal fighter for them. This allows them to have planes that allied forces can service, supply, and even receive the same data that allied planes are seeing.  Though, as with most of the F35 systems, there are still significant glitches in the data sharing system and other interoperability factors.

Despite the various issues with the plane, the US has some of the best trained fighter pilots in the world. They regularly participate in sorties throughout the Middle East, and have experience flying advanced fighter jets like the F22.  Other nations are still grabbling with building advanced fighter jets, their pilots suffer from peace disease, and their training programs often lack effectiveness. Chinese pilots, for example, have a great deal of trouble improvising during unexpected encounters. The relative advantages or disadvantages of a weapon system are often less important than the humans that know how to use them in battle.

The F35 remains a fighter with a great deal of potential that is just as controversial. The F35 famously lost a mock dogfight to the much cheaper and older F16. And its cost and delays are legendary.   But defenders of the F35 claim that the newest software on the system and preliminary tests make dogfighting moot, and the extended sensors will allow F35s to engage and win long before the F35s enter the dogfight radius of lesser fighters like the F16. The F35s can be pared with the F22, the best dog fighting plane in the world, for maximum effect in gaining air superiority.  Though the US has been making high quality fighters for longer, and their pilots are the best trained in the world. While the problems are significant, the F35 has a significant claim to being a superior fighter.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman.  Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

 

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