A Jack of all trades but a master of none
These words precisely suit the 5th generation gamble made by the USA and its allies.The multi-billion $ F-35 program has been the target of critics worldwide ever since it got delayed and shot past its budget. Reports claim that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as the F-35 program is known, to be a massive failure and waste of money. People blindly agree with the critics and join the F-35 bashing bandwagon, unaware of the actual potentials and the shortcomings of the aircraft. I say that for an aircraft like this, I will have its share of Pros and Cons no matter what. I will highlight both of them for you and you can decide for yourselves whether to criticize it or support it. But whatever you do, it will be the backbone of the USAF in the future.
The one thing I am sure of is that the commanders and planners in charge of the most powerful air force in the world are not dumb enough to place the future of their country in the hands of an aircraft which cannot stand up to its opposition. Since WW2, USA is known to produce top of the line aircraft which match or are more than a match for the other top aircraft from around the world. I have enough belief in these people to know that the F-35 won’t be a flying piece of junk as everybody have started to chant blindly. The display technology used in its cockpit, its user interface and controls are all top class. It is said to be a “low observable” aircraft, meaning conventional radar systems can’t detect it and unless advanced AESA radars are used, the F-35 will be pretty much off radar screens.
It’s integrated with world-class weapons. Its weapon load is somewhat on the lighter side as it can carry just 6 Air to Air missiles inside its weapons bay. It has 6 external hardpoints to carry weapons when stealth is not needed. One of the most recent additions is the capability to fire the newly developed Joint Strike Missile (JSM) , which is a medium-range cruise missile for attacking surface targets. It is developed so that 2 of them can be fitted In the internal weapons bay. This gives the F-35 a standoff strike capability.
Its light weapon load is justified by statements saying that the ‘stealth’ features of the F-35 will be used to allow it to sneak into enemy airspace, suppress their air defense systems and attain air superiority by the usage of its BVR missiles. Then it would exit the area and a wave of conventional aircraft like F-15, F-16 carrying heavy weapon loads would take care of the further conflict with their superior weapon loads and ranges. But the F-35 is not designed to be as stealthy as the F-22 and can offer stealthy features in many situations. The USAF will undoubtedly have the advantage of numbers when they field around 2200 5th generation F-35As as the rest of the countries are planning to field just a handful or a couple of hundred 5th gen aircraft.
The one unique and great feature of the F-35 is going to be its HMDS ( Helmet mounted display system) which is said to be the best in its class. The F-35 is also integrated with the latest cruise missile is the American arsenal , the Joint Strike Missile ( JSM ) . This will give the F-35 the ability to engage surface targets at ranges of over 270 km . 2 of these missiles can be fit the bomb bay of the F-35 and it can thus retain in low RCS while on a strike mission . This , combined with the ability to carry JDAMs ( Joint Direct Attack Munition ) inside the bomb bay will surely enhance the attack capability of the F-35.
The surprising thing is that the F-35B is going to be the only fighter capable of vertical takeoff and landing after a few years when all the harriers are retired. This is something unique and wonderful that the USA has in their inventory. This gives them a lot of flexibility in deploying high-performance fighters from smaller aviation platforms like LPDs and LHDs. It is also the only fighter option available for countries like Spain, Italy, UK, Australia which operate small aircraft carriers or LHDs with ski jumps. No other country in the world has been able to produce an equivalent since the Russian Yak-141 program was canceled.
The F-35C is the carrier based version which will be launched from catapults and operated only by the US navy on its fleet of 10 supercarriers. It will be the only 5th generation carrier capable aircraft in the near future as the Russian and Chinese designs are still on the drawing board. This aircraft will give the US Navy to enter hostile airspace with greater safety due to the low observable nature of the F-35. Although it won’t have the range and payload of the Super Hornet , it will complement them until the navy can field a high-performance 5th or 6th gen fighter beyond 2030, for which it has already requested design proposals.
The one thing that surprises me is that the USA is the only country in the world which is sure of operating an Air force comprised of entirely stealth fighters by around 2030. Their main adversary, Russia will field an Air force consisting of several hundred Flankers and Fulcrums. The Su-30/34/35 will be the core of the Russian Air force fighter and tactical bomber fleet. They are non-stealth aircraft with extremely long ranges and huge weapon payloads and powerful radars. Their secondary aircraft will be a couple of hundred Mig-29/35 which too are non-stealth and have decent range and payload comparable or better than the F-35.
Their Airforce will be spearheaded by a fleet of around 200 Su-50 ‘stealth’ fighters which Russia admits, doesn’t have a lot of stealth features as they want to trade in performance for stealth. Unlike USA which is placing its bet on the F-35 for every task and will cost a bomb in maintenance and procurement, Russia will maintain an Air force which will offer far more punch conventionally and cost less to maintain. Though stealth is very attractive as it adds an aura of invisibility, it will be effective only when used in small numbers and backed up by large numbers of conventional aircraft will greater capabilities and will be highly ineffective against an adversary equipped with an Integrated Air Defense System (IADS).
France will be fielding an Air Force consisting of Rafales. Germany , Spain, and Britain will be fielding the Typhoon as their primary combat aircraft. Sweden will have the Gripen. So none of the major European nations are relying on a stealth aircraft for their future needs as they feel 4++ generation aircraft with advanced sensors and equipment can perform the same task with greater efficiency .
There are several joint exercises between USAF and RAF which prove that the Typhoons managed to detect the F-22 by using IRST (Infrared Search and Track) and obtained a virtual kill. Now, the F-35 is admittedly less ‘stealth’ than the F-22. So imagine how it would hold up in combat against enemy fighters which are most likely to be flankers. It’s only big edge over modern flankers is its low RCS (Radar Cross Section). The Russians are equipping their fighters with powerful AESA radars and IRST which can probably detect the F-35 from a hundred kilometers away. Yes, the F-35 too can detect the Flanker from a hundred kilometers away. So where is the advantage offered by its stealth now? It would have to fight the flanker in what would be a game of speed, maneuverability, and range, all of which it lacks in. Its sensors might be high tech, but always the Russian technology is underestimated and American tech is assumed blindly to be superior. What I say is, both have equally high technology and can exploit each other’s weakness well enough. And the F-35 doesn’t give them the needed edge.
Now, I mentioned that the F-35 will be used as a part of an initial attacking force to gain air superiority and will be followed by conventional aircraft in performing the later missions. But there’s only one problem with that, USAF won’t have conventional fighters once the F-35 fleet is fully inducted. Their missions using the F-35 will cost twice as much as it would using an F-15. Stealth aircraft also have a notoriously low availability rate compared to conventional aircraft. In my opinion, the structure of the USAF could have been , 189 F-22, 500 F-35 , 1000 F-15 Silent Eagle and 500 F-16 upgraded to the latest versions. This would give them a powerful fleet of 5th generation and 4++ generation aircraft. The balance will be maintained and availability of the aircraft will be way higher than a fleet of stealth aircraft. I say this based on reports that the F-22 spends almost a week in the hangar after flying one operational sortie and that the RAM coating on the aircraft is delicate and prone to falling off which increases the maintenance cost.
One more incident which backs up my opinion. When the F-22 was facing the oxygen deprivation issue and pilots started getting sick and losing consciousness, the whole fleet was grounded for days. But now USAF had their F-15 and F-16 to maintain the combat edge and operational readiness. But if an incident of similar magnitude occurs with the F-35, say a malfunctioning or a crash, the entire fleet would be grounded till investigations reveal that it is safe to fly.
The other thing that I don’t agree with is replacing the A-10 fleet using the F-35. I know that almost any aircraft can perform Close Air Support (CAS) as the F-15 and F-16 have been doing so in Afghanistan and complementing the A-10, but to have a CAS aircraft which can survive a modern battlefield unlike Afghanistan, it needs to be rugged, armoured and have a huge payload and cannon to strafe targets and provide gunfire support. The A-10s cannon and air to ground armament are unequaled and means hell for the enemy on the battlefield. The F-35 is not rugged, armoured and nor does it have a cannon like the A-10 to provide gunfire support. The A-10 needs to be replaced by a modern CAS aircraft with better capabilities and not the F-35.
Coming to the carrier capable version F-35C, it is no doubt the only stealth fighter in service, but it has half the range and payload of its non-stealth contemporaries like MiG-29K, Rafale, and F/A-18 Super Hornet. It sacrifices performance for stealth which I don’t think is a very good idea. The US has been managing to gain air superiority over lightly defended airspaces and well-defended ones too with ease now. I don’t see how the F-35 will make a difference as it can’t sneak past an S-300/400 Air defense system, which defeats the purpose of its induction. The F-35B notoriously sacrifices its range and payload in exchange for the ability to take off vertically. It won’t matter much to the US as the F-35B is their secondary aircraft deployed in small numbers on amphibious assault ships. But for other countries which use it as their primary fighter, it will make a noticeable difference in performance.
The main reason that it has managed to get a lot of criticism is that it is the largest defense program in the world. It is worth hundreds of billions of dollars and will potentially decide the future of the USAF and the air forces of several other nations. But one fact is clear. No other country is putting all its eggs in one basket like the US. The Royal Air Force will maintain a large fleet of typhoons in the future and just 24 F-35s will form a part of their air force. But if you look at the case of USA, 2300 F-35s are expected to enter service in the next 15-20 years. They will be the mainstay aircraft in every conflict and every situation. One problem with the aircraft could ground the entire air force. There is only one variant used by the USAF, the F-35A, and so one problem and practically the whole air force will be crippled. They would have to rely on a tiny fleet of 189 F-22s out of which only around 130 are combat capable and only around 40-60 will be available for combat duties at any one point in time.
This shows that, no matter how capable the F-35 is or what numbers it is deployed in, it will be a delicate situation for the USAF. The F-35 won’t offer too much bang for the buck, as aircraft costing way less than it, can perform similar missions. It’s the only advantage will be it’s ‘stealth’ which according to many countries is no longer such a huge advantage as seen in training exercises. I’m not saying the F-35 is a bad plane. It is one of the best in the world and a marvel of engineering (especially the F-35B), it will be an even match for the world’s best fighters if not better according to USAF claims. But what I’m trying to tell is, replacing several types of aircraft with a large number of aircraft of one type is not such a good idea. You don’t invest all your money in one company’s stock, do you?
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