11 July 2015

The F-35 is Dysfunctional in Long Range Air to Air Combat as Well

In the recent discussions of the failings of the F-35 in close in combat, it ignored the other rather obvious bit which is that it is sub par in a longer range combat involving missiles as well:
The Pentagon’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is dead meat in a close battle against even a dated two-seat F-16D fighter jet, according to a scathing test pilot report War Is Boring obtained.

Don’t sweat it, JSF-maker Lockheed Martin responded. “The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances,” Lockheed’s F-35 team wrote in a press release on July 1

As a rebuttal to the test pilot report, Lockheed’s claim is a cynically useful one — it sidesteps the criticism without really confirming or denying it. But that doesn’t mean the company’s test-report rebuttal is actually true.

Can the F-35 really engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances? There are reasons to believe it can’t. The stealth fighter lacks the sensors, weapons and speed that allow a warplane to reliably detect and shoot down other planes in combat. Especially when those planes are shooting back.

In short—the F-35 isn’t much of a dogfighter. And it’s probably not very good at long-range aerial combat, either.


To this end, the F-35 does have a high-tech radar, high-fidelity cameras and other advanced gear that can detect airplanes. But foremost, Lockheed optimized these sensors for spotting targets on the ground — and at relatively short distances.

The F-35 can see great. It just can’t see all that great into the air. At least not compared to modern Chinese- and Russian-made jets — the planes the F-35 is most likely to face in battle in some future war.

First, we have to look at how the F-35’s sensors compare to its rivals. The latest Russian radars, such as the one on the new Sukhoi Su-35, at least match the JSF’s APG-81, according to data compiled by Carlo Kopp at Air Power Australia.

While the specific details remain secret, Kopp estimates the APG-81 can detect an aircraft with a radar cross-section of three square meters—a MiG-29, for example—just over 100 miles away. Russian radar-maker Tikhomirov claims the Su-35’s Irbis-E can spot a similar-size target at greater than twice that distance.


JSF pilots shouldn’t expect to automatically get the jump on their enemies. And once everyone has detected everyone else and the long-distance shooting starts, the F-35 is in even more trouble.

The American AIM-120, the Russian R-77 and the Chinese PL-12 are all comparable long-range missiles, each with a nominal range of around 60 miles. But the F-35 is slower than rival Russian or Chinese fighters, making it a less effective missile-shooter.

A fast-flying jet can impart extra energy to any weapon it fires. That means a “supercruising” fighter such as the Su-35 — that is, a fast-flying plane that exceeds the speed of sound without a fuel-guzzling afterburner — can potentially fling its missiles farther than a missile’s advertised range.

Unable to supercruise like its rivals, the JSF can’t launch its own weapons with nearly as much extra power.

More importantly, depending on the variant, the R-77 boasts radar guidance or can home in on heat signatures — a fighter pilot can also use his plane’s radar to point the weapon near its target, at which a passive sensor on the missile takes over.


Not that the F-35 has much room for different kinds of missiles. In stealth mode, with its weapons tucked into an internal bay, the F-35 can only carry four AIM-120s. And that’s only if it’s not also carrying its standard load of GPS-guided bombs.

The Chinese J-20 apparently has room for four missiles inside its main weapons bay, along with two more missiles in smaller bays on the sides of the fuselage. The more conventional Su-35 can carry a whopping 10 missiles under its wings and fuselage.


“You up your chances of success with a multiple-missile shot,” says Thomas Christie, an analyst who worked with legendary Air Force Col. John Boyd on his “energy-maneuverability” dogfighting concept. In the past, fighter pilots trained to fire two missiles at a time, Christie explains.

Using this method, a JSF flier might get just one shot or two before he’s out of missiles. Meanwhile, Russian or Chinese jets could easily manage twice as many individual engagements — or boost their chances of a kill by firing three or more missiles at a time

As I've noted before, this may not as big a deal as one would think, as achieving air superiority comes down to training and tactics, so even with an inferior platform, particularly when backed up by superior numbers and logistics.

With limited sensors, compromised stealth, not enough energy and too few weapons, the F-35 is probably already outclassed in a long-range fight. Never mind merely staying out of short-range dogfights. America’s new stealth fighter should probably avoid aerial duels at any distance.
The F-35 is going to be a major pig, and advances in sensor fusion and computing are are currently in the process of eviscerating what might be its sole advantage, stealth.

From a tactical perspective, as I've noted before, this may not as big a deal as one would think, as achieving air superiority comes down to training and tactics, so even with an inferior platform, particularly when backed up by superior numbers and logistics.

The consequences of flushing trillions of dollars down the toilet, particularly when bridges, roads and water mains are falling apart are a much bigger deal though.

White elephants do not come cheap.


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