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Posts tagged ‘F-35’

Plan for What You’ll Get, Not What You Prefer

By Taylor Marvin

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

USAF photo by Capt. Edward Schmitt.

One of the main criticism of the Pentagon’s massive F-35 fighter acquisition effort is the aircraft’s limited agility. Detractors of the program claim this limitation is a fatal flaw, while supporters dismiss maneuverability as an antiquated consideration with little relevance to modern air warfare.

Limited maneuverability is a fundamental product of the F-35’s joint nature. The F-35 is a product of compromise; most obviously, the decision to benchmark the aircraft’s three variants around the F-35B’s STOVL airframe. The demands of STOVL design mandated that the F-35 feature a single engine, reducing its inherent survivability and contributing to the F-35’s alleged arial combat deficiencies against competing, twin-engined aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon. But supporters of the program argue that this isn’t a problem. In modern arial warfare — or at least the warfare they deem most likely, as no one really knows what “modern” air-to-air combat looks like in practice — maneuverability doesn’t matter. Instead, in future conflicts fighters will function primarily as networked sensor platforms and missile trucks, engaging each other at beyond visual range (BVR). If maneuverability contributes little to survivability, F-35 advocates argue, it isn’t worth pursuing at the cost of more practical traits like low observability or airframe jointness.

But there’s a key fault in this assumption: just because BVR combat is technically possibile doesn’t mean politically-mandated Rules of Engagement (ROEs) will allow it. At The Diplomat Robert Farley highlights this possibility:

“Perhaps more importantly, rules of engagement are inherently political.  Civilian leaders, and their politically attuned senior military counterparts, will draw up guidelines for combat in context of political, not military, necessity. If the F-35 can only operate successfully in BVR context (and to be sure the networking capability of the F-35 make ‘BVR’ a different proposition than with past aircraft), and if the civilians restrict the ability of the aircraft to operate under such conditions, then the utility of the fighter comes into grave question.  This question is hardly academic, as potential peer competitors of the U.S. (including Russia and China) will undoubtedly take political steps to limit the ability of the F-35 to fight at full capability.”

I’d take this farther. The most famous instance of restrictive rules of engagement limiting BVR air-to-air combat is the Vietnam War. These restrictions, combined with the early-sixties belief that BVR missiles would dominate future air-to-air combat (early versions of the legendary American F-4 featured no gun, only missiles), frustrated US airmen and empowered North Vietnamese pilots flying maneuverable, gun-armed fighters that excelled in visual range combat. But officials had good reason for requiring American pilots to visually identify their targets before firing. The overwhelming majority of aircraft over Vietnam were American. Restrictive ROEs aided the North Vietnamese, but letting American airmen fire visually confirming targets were actually hostile likely would have resulted in far more friendly fire incidents. Given the primitive identification friend of foe (IFF) technology of the era, it’s difficult to argue that these restrictions were unjustified.

Quickly achieving air superiority is a lynchpin of all American war planning. In any future conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, the US Air Force and Navy will seek deny the sky to opposing forces — resulting in an airspace that, while contested, is saturated with friendly aircraft. This means that the exact same conditions that justified restricting BVR combat over Vietnam are an inherent product of the total air dominance US forces take for granted. Yes, IFF technology has massively improved since Vietnam. But in a situation where the vast majority of aircraft in theater are friendly, it’s unreasonable to imagine that BVR engagement won’t be limited by self, as well as adversary, imposed political restrictions.

These two preferences — for air dominance and BVR air-to-air combat — are inherently conflicting. This makes benchmarking the F-35 around BVR combat problematic. Sure, US war planners would prefer to fight under BVR conditions, which favor highly networked American forces. But these same strategists should recognize that total air dominance — a fixture of US military planning since World War II — practically insures restrictive ROEs.

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Is China Copying American Aircraft?

By Taylor Marvin

Image by goneless, via The Aviationist.

Last Thursday images and video surfaced online showing a test flight of China’s second stealth fighter aircraft, the Shenyang J-31. This is a significant achievement for Chinese military aviation, though it is unclear if the design will ever enter service or whether it is designed to complement or compete with China’s other stealthy design, the Chengdu J-20. Also unclear is how original the aircraft actually is: there has been widespread speculation that the J-31’s design — which is visually similar to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 aircraft — is partially a product of knowledge stolen

At The Diplomat, Trefor Moss speculates that the J-31 is a wholesale copy of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built from stolen Lockheed Martin blueprints. Moss goes so far as to term the J-31 as “essentially an American stealth fighter with Chinese paintwork”, and furiously argues that lax computer security has allowed the PRC to secure a stealth fighter for much less than America:

“Speculation aside, the reality is that the F-35 program is presently slated to cost $395.7 billion. China has probably spent less than 0.1% of that developing the Fake-35. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the biggest free ride in the history of national security.”

I don’t buy it. China certainly has taken advantage of lax US information security, but Moss underestimates just how difficult it is to simply copy an advanced aircraft design. While the J-31 is certainly visually similar to Lockheed Martin 5th generation fighters, consider the necessary differences between it and the F-22 and F-35: different engines, an entirely different structural layout from the single-engined, STOVL-benchmarked F-35 family, and differing internal systems. These changes are not trivial. Even if Shenyang engineers possessed detailed LockMart blueprints they wouldn’t be of much practical value when it comes to designing the J-31 — while a valuable benchmark, there are simply too many different major systems. As Feng recently wrote at Information Dissemination, “it’s very hard for me to believe that SAC can reproduce F-35 from stolen files without access to the same engines or the material or the complicated computer code that controls the whole aircraft.”

Convergent evolution often leads competing air forces towards visually similar aircraft created for the same mission. Take the F-111 and Su-24, for example. Both low-level strike aircraft, introduced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, respectively, look remarkably similar: both possess variable geometry (swing) wings, a tall single tailfin, and a side-by-side cockpit, rare for a tactical aircraft.

F-111. US Air Force photo, via Wikimedia.

Su-24M. Photo by Alexander Mishin, via Wikimedia.

The two aircrafts’ striking visual similarities led contemporary American observers to conclude that the Soviets had copied the F-111. Amusingly, as Greg Goebel notes in his excellent history of the Su-24, some Americans went so far as to be pleasantly surprised that the Soviets had tried to copy the then-notoriously troubled F-111 — if the US struggled to get the F-111 flying right, then surely the Soviets would as well. But while Soviet designers may have mined the F-111 for ideas, there’s little evidence any real copying was involved. Instead, given that both American and Soviet engineers were working with similar technologies towards the same goal, it isn’t surprising that they both landed on similar designs — just as American and Chinese engineers can be expected to do. Indeed, what was most surprising about the J-20 was how obviously different it is from anything in the American aircraft inventory.

However, there is reason to suggest that there’s more than simple convergent evolution behind the J-31’s external similarities to American 5th generation aircraft. An aircraft’s stealth is partially determined by the shape of the fuselage, was well as the surface coatings that absorb and diffuse radar waves. While China cannot know the details of American stealth coatings through anything but espionage, the low observability fuselage shapes of the F-22 and F-35 are obvious. Copying these elements — the F-22’s empennage, the F-35’s intakes — is an effective way to get some degree of stealth for less technically sophisticated developers. Given that the US has a two decades head start developing low observability aircraft, this is a smart trade for Shenyang engineers.

Does the J-31 owe aspects of its external fuselage to the F-22 and F-35: undoubtably. But this is far from saying that the J-31 is a naked copy of American aircraft. China still has a long way to go before a production aircraft derived from the J-31 enters service, if one does at all. That gives ample opportunity for delays and cost increases to pile up, degrading whatever lead the program has over the JSF, which it isn’t strictly comparable to anyway. The F-35’s STOVL benchmarked design makes it unique, and is reason enough to dismiss the idea that the J-31 is a cheap knockoff of the JSF. The J-31 will be a more affordable aircraft than the notoriously ill-conceived F-35, but that doesn’t automatically make it the deal Moss implies.

B for the Win! Right?!?

By Taylor Marvin

Sorry that it’s all F-35 week, but in potentially very big news the Cameron government has decided that the Royal Navy will purchase F-35Bs, rather than the longer range, more capable catapult launched C variant. The justification for the reversal is short-term cost: refitting one on the two Queen Elizabeth carriers under construction with the catapult systems necessary to launch the F-35C and other large aircraft was judged to expensive, with the savings hoped to offset the higher price tag and greater uncertainty of the short takeoff vertical landing B variant.

Lewis Page makes the obvious criticism of the decision:

“In fact it’s a lot worse than it seems, as the contest in real life was not between the F-35B and the F-35C: it was between the F-35B and – for the immediate future – one or another cheap, powerful, modern carrier jet already in service. This would most most likely have been the F-18 Hornet as used by the US Navy and many other air forces around the globe, but possibly the French Rafale instead of or alongside Hornets.”

Is this good news for the troubled B variant? Unfortunately for Lockheed, probably not — while the Royal Navy buy will look good on press releases and avert the specter of Boeing jumping into the British market (gasp!) with their proven F/A-18 series, the UK was never buying enough F-35s to have any meaningful impact on the unit price. The F-35, B variant especially, will live or die in congress, not the international market.

At least the Cameron government isn’t the only one bullish on the F-35B. Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the USS Midway museum — it’s a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in downtown San Diego.

The museum has a small model of the US Navy’s upcoming Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier:

The X-47B-type drones on the deck are interesting, as is the mix of F-35s and Super Hornets. The model maker is clearly optimistic about the use of combat drones on future carriers.

More unexpected: the F-35 variants shown are the Marines’ F-35Bs (look at the lift fan doors behind the cockpit and the shape of the tailplanes), not the Navy’s F-35C. Since the STOVL variant will serve on amphibious assault ships like the Wasp and upcoming America class, depicting them on a CVN’s an odd choice.

Anyway, here’s a F/A-18A in Russian aggressor colors if you’re interested.

Continuing Adventures in the Military-Industrial Bureaucracy

By Taylor Marvin

The F/A-XX: Stir aluminum and composite, add powdered unicorn horn to taste. Boeing concept art.

The F/A-XX: Stir aluminum and composite, add powdered unicorn horn to taste. Boeing concept art.

At Flight Global, Dave Majumdar reports on the obstacles facing the Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program, intended to develop a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement by the mid-2030s. In short: there just isn’t the money in the Navy’s 2014 budget to support the development effort necessary for an optimistically-planned 2030 service introduction. With the massive F-35 program sucking up 38 percent of the current DoD-wide procurement budget, this isn’t surprising. The Navy’s tried to skirt this math by positioning the F/A-XX as a complement, rather than substitute for their F-35C, but this is more of an optimistic fiction than reality. Objectively, a twin-engined, long-range, optionally-low observability Super Hornet successor is a very different aircraft than the single engined, single seat F-35C that shares more design similarities with an F-16 than the F/A-18A though Ds it’s intended to replace. But planning on the budget for two different aircraft development programs in the 2014-2020 period is an extremely optimistic assumption on the Navy’s part, especially given the widespread resignation in the Pentagon to a falling future defense budget and the fact that the Navy — unlike the USAF — has plenty of things to buy besides aircraft. Is another Navy fighter program justified? Given the well-documented inherent problems with the common Joint Strike Fighter design philosophy, probably. Is it realistic? Probably not.

Particularly interesting is Majumdar’s focus on the USMC’s aversion to the F/A-XX program. “A bigger problem is that the USN is working on the F/A-XX effort by itself,” writes Majumdar. “Not even the US Marine Corps, with which the USN’s tactical fighter force is integrated, has had any input into the F/A-XX.” This actually isn’t surprising at all. The USMC is perpetually last in the budgetary line; ‘doing more with less’ is a part of their institutional mythos. Yet in an era where the US faces no near-peer enemies — yes, China doesn’t come close the threat posed by the USSR — the Marine Corps is on track to acquire a supersonic, low observability STOVL combat jet! It’s worth reflecting on just how incredible this is, and the Marine Corps understands that if the Navy cuts its F-35C buy, rising unit costs put the entire program in jeopardy. The Marine Corps’ enthusiasm for its beloved STOVL jet means it won’t accept any rival program that might dispace the USN buy laying down. When the retired USMC officer quoted argues that skipping the F-35C in favor of relying on legacy platforms until the F/A-XX materializes isn’t realistic, he has a point — but is also defending the Corps’ institutional interests. This logic also puts Flight Global’s more vitriolic quote from a former USMC deputy commandant for aviation in perspective:

“It sort of validates the naval aviators’ overall lack of commitment to the F-35,” he says. “It shows how much they’re in bed with Boeing to include a whole host of retired navy aviators who work for Boeing. And it shows, frankly, their lack of commitment to unmanned systems.”

Again, there’s truth here, and reasonable people can disagree about what systems are worth funding in the face of a future more uncertain than any the US defense establishment’s faced in recent history. But institutional loyalties are powerful, and it’s important to remember that the collective defense-industrial bureaucracy isn’t anything close to a rational decision maker.

Sympathy for the JSF

By Taylor Marvin

F-35B in testing. Lockheed Martin photo.

In Foreign Policy, Wilson Wheeler calls for the cancellation of the troubled F-35 program:

“If the F-35’s performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications — and it will not — it would be a huge disappointment. The reason it is such a mediocrity also explains why it is unaffordable and, for years to come, unobtainable.”

The F-35 program is a disaster, and one that will haunt the US defense-industrial complex for decades. Two decades into development, incredibly, there’s still a major chance the program won’t succeed: when naval analyst Raymond Pritchett recently called the program not too big to fail but “way too big to ever possibly succeed,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Maybe the F-35 program is on the cusp of finally coming together. But even if the JSF program does result in anywhere near the number of planes its architects intend, the opportunity costs are enormous. The F-35 program is currently 38 percent of all current DoD procurement (via Galrahn). That’s a mind-boggling chunk of the Pentagon’s budget, and one that would buy a lot of weapons systems nowhere near as risky as the JSF. The F-35 isn’t a good plane, and its bloat snuffed out a lot of potentially better, less comprehensive alternatives over the last two decades.

But calls to cancel the mammoth program aren’t ultimately going anywhere. “Too big to succeed” aside, the JSF really is to big to fail — no one in the tangled Pentagon bureaucracy is going to gut a program they’ve invested 20 years in, and Congress isn’t either. As the only manned US multirole fighter aircraft currently under development, the F-35 is the only game in town — optimistic talk of more capable drones aside, if the USAF wants to buy new non-legacy fighter airframes before the 2040s it has to be the F-35. The Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program and open Super Hornet production lines gives it greater flexibility, but a next generation Navy fighter that isn’t the F-35C won’t arrive until the 2030s, at the earliest.

Cutting the JSF program would force the US military to rely on F/A-18E/Fs and F-15 C/Es through the first half of the 20th century, at least. While these alternatives are capable aircraft, no amount of upgrades will change the fact that these non-stealthy fighters are based on airframes designed four decades ago. Modernization aside, the American defense community is right to be worried the mid-century competitiveness and deterrence value of aircraft with roots in the 1970s, especially when Russian and China are both embarking on ambitious fifth-generation development efforts. Similarly, while rapid advances in air defense radar means that the F-35s moderate level of stealthing will lose effectiveness through its delayed lifetime, it’s hard to argue that non-stealthy Super Hornets and Strike Eagles are a better strike option in a world where advanced air defense is rapidly proliferating.

Whether the F-35 will be competitive with its bigger, and likely significantly more affordable, Russian and Chinese rivals is another, and contentious, question. But if the F-35 is canceled the only real option is to rely on legacy platforms until advanced, air-to-air capable drones come online. Whether that’s a less risky option than sticking with the F-35 is debatable, but it is difficult to imagine the Pentagon or congress taking such a drastic change of course.

Anyway, normative discussions of the F-35 family’s strategic utility are useless at this point. Rumors of large cuts aside, the Pentagon has invested to much into the JSF to seriously consider major downsizes to the program, and the massive opportunity costs of a decade of serious F-35 development have eaten up funds that conceivably would have otherwise gone to other, less ambitious manned fighter projects. At least in the medium-term, US tactical airpower lives and dies on the success of the F-35. Even the controversial F-35B — the Marine Corp’s short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant — isn’t likely to be cut. Major defense procurement initiatives get canceled after spending billions in development costs all the time, but the JSF program’s multi-service nature will likely insulate the Marine’s specific variant from elimination.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

The Marines’ F-35B is the most troubled, and vulnerable, variant. How useful is it? Looking strictly at it’s abilities, it’s difficult to justify its 300 million per aircraft flyaway cost. But there’s reason to suspect that the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities are important.

Last year I defended the F-35B as an important component of future American airpower:

“However, the F-35B is a valuable program and shouldn’t  be cut. It’s certainly true that cutting military spending that’s far, far beyond what is needed to defend the country and dangerously swells that national debt for no benefit is an issue of pressing importance. Also, all the criticisms of the F-35B are true — it will be more expensive and less capable than its sister variants. However, advocates of the F-35B are stressing the wrong attributes of the aircraft because it hints at an uncomfortable truth: the value of STOVL is that it decentralizes US military assets that probably aren’t survivable in a major conflict.”

Nuclear aircraft carriers are a remarkably versatile platform for projecting power, and will remain so through this century (the fact that the Chinese Navy is investing considerable effort in acquiring their own flattops is a sign that they don’t see big carriers becoming obsolete any time soon). But there’s increasing skepticism about large carriers survivability in a major war. Rapidly improving Chinese anti-access/area-denial weapons like the DF-21 D anti-ship ballistic missile stand a reasonable chance of successfully destroying any US carrier that strays within range. Carrier battle groups field impressive defenses, but it’s unlikely that they would be able to successfully counter large numbers of ballistic anti-ship missiles — it will always be easier to saturate an existing missile defense system than build one capable of countering advanced threats. Chinese A2/AD capabilities will make the US hesitant to commit a vulnerable carrier to a crisis in the South China Sea, or at least force the US Navy to remain 3,000 km offshore, outside the range of Chinese ASBMs. Of course, amphibious assault ships aren’t anywhere near expendable. But if the United States deems it prudent to possess the ability to operate in a contested Western Pacific, naval fighters able to operate off smaller ships are valuable. It’s unlikely that US threats to operate CVNs within the range of ASBMs will ever be credible. The F-35B isn’t a magic bullet, but its STOVL capability is valuable. Whether that’s worth the cost is another discussion.

The real takeaway from the JSF fiasco is that advances in anti-air defenses and AA/AD strategies and exponentially increasing complexity is making all ambitious aircraft development programs more expensive. Baselining a multirole aircraft built for three services around a supersonic STOVL variant was an unfortunate idea, and the F-35 is a uniquely bad program. But the root causes of the slowly ongoing F-35 disaster aren’t unique, and the hour’s too late for regrets.

Update 9/15/2015: I added a link to an October 2011 post by Raymond Pritchett, who earlier argued that an independent Marine STOVL fighter likely would have been cut. I should cited him in the original post; my apologies.