Friday, July 31, 2015

How Should We Assess the New War Concept to Deploy F-35?

F-35 Lightening Joint Strike Fighter is presumed to be a game changer in aerial combat. However, the loss in a dog fight against F-16 Fighting Falcon that is supposed to be replaced by this fighter jet has spurred a nationwide controversy (“The F-35 Can't Beat The Plane It's Replacing In A Dogfight: Report”; Foxtrot Alpha; June 29, 2015). In a mock dog fight, it is not necessarily surprising that a brand new fighter loses against a less advanced counterpart. Though F-15 Eagle is a well known invincible air superiority fighter in real combats, it was defeated by two-generation older F-104 Starfighter of the Japanse Air Self Defense Force in its early days (“Legendary SDF Pilot Shot Down Brand New US Fighter with Aging Jet”; Sankei Shimbun West; December 3, 2014). It is imprudent to judge the quality of the weapon by a single victory or loss.

The Department of Defense defends that the result of the dog fight does not disqualify F-35 as the core of America’s air power. According to the Joint Program Office, the F-35 in the dogfight had no sensors to detect the enemy for the first look, stealth coating to make it invisible to radar, and weapon to hit the enemy plane without turning to and aiming at it (“F-35 fighter makers leap to its defence after it loses dogfight to 1970s jet”; Daily Telegraph; 3 July, 2015). Also, F-35 is designed for BVR combat and ground attack, not for dogfight. It is F-22 Raptor that assumes close aerial combat role, and this is the Hi-Lo mix of the 5th Generation fighters (“Military: Don't Worry If F-35, Most Expensive Fighter Jet Ever, Can't Dogfight Well”; ABC News; July 1, 2015). Furthermore, Retired Air Force General Mike Hostage comments that F-35 may not fly high and fast as F-22, but it is more stealthier. Therefore, he argues that F-35 can get through enemy airspace to destroy their air defense system, and leaves air-to-air combat for F-22. Even so, he asserts that its low observability is a significant advantage over the 4th Generation fighters to defeat them in BVR combats (“F-16 Vs. F-35 In A Dogfight: JPO, Air Force Weigh In On Who’s Best”; Breaking Defense; July 2, 2015).

Despite such positive arguments by defense planners, it is the anonymous testimony of the F-35 test pilot in a blog “War is Boring”, published by a journalist David Axe, that sensationalizes the result of the dogfight. He questions the maneuverability of the F-35, even though it fought “clean”, while the F-16 carried extra drop tanks under the wings. Also, he argues that the helmet, which is designed to help the pilot analyze information, is so large to look back that it is difficult to move the head during the dogfight. Therefore, the pilot grades F-35 inferior to 4th Generation fighters (“Test Pilot Admits the F-35 Can’t Dogfight”; War is Boring; June 29, 2015). Actually, F-35 is in similar weight with F-15E Strike Eagle which is heavier than normal F-15 for more payload and flight range to enhance ground attack capability. However, it is far less maneuverable because of its smaller wings and weaker afterburner thrust of its engine (“F-35 designed for long-range kills, not dogfighting”: Flight Global; 1 July, 2015). Furthermore, Bill Sweetman, Senior Defense Editor of Aviation Week, rebuts General Hostage’s argument for F-35’s stealth advantage over F-22. Aerodynamically, F-22 reflects less electric wave than F-35 does. Also, F-35 is primarily made for export. Besides air superiority, F-22 is more advantageous in DEAD operations, due to speed and larger missile load (“F-35 Stealthier Than F-22?”; Aviation Week – ARES; June 9, 2014).

Such nationwide controversies are largely due to rising costs, schedule delay, and technical problems like software and weapon matching. The total cost to develop F-35 has already exceeded that of F-22, though the price for each is still cheaper. The development cost is more than $200 billion than originally planned, and the schedule is three years behind. Therefore, the number of F-35s to be deployed will fall, and more fund will be allocated to upgrade existing combat planes (“The F-35: Is it worth the cost?”; WBALTV; July 16, 2015). Technological problems also matter seriously. Though the Marine Corps started to deploy the STOVL variant F35B this summer (“F-35 Joint Strike Fighter passes important, live-fire test”; CNBC News; 6 July, 2015), it cannot equip a full load of SDB II, which is the most advanced multi mode guided bomb to attack targets on the ground including moving ones. This is because the weapon bay does not fit, and it will not be resolved before 2022 (“F-35 Can't Carry Its Most Versatile Weapon Until At Least 2022”; Foxtrot Alpha; February 28, 2015). In addition, old A-10 Thunderbolt is more specialized for close air support (“Major Obvious: F-35 Pilot Says A-10 Will Always Be Better At Air Support”; Foxtrot Alpha; April 10, 2015).

A stealth fighter project is costly and technically demanding. Moreover, the Joint Strike Fighter is a multilateral project, which makes the decision making process complicated. This was the case with the Eurofighter Typhoon project. F-35 needs to elaborate to coordinate diversified requirements of partner countries more than Typhoon did. In the past, America pursued a Navy-Air Force joint project to make F-111 Aardvark led by Secretary of Defense-then Robert McNamara. The fundamental idea is to make a common aircraft model carrying long range missiles that would satisfy requirements of both the Navy and the Air Force to reduce the cost for development and maintenance. As a result, F-111 had become too heavy for maneuverable flight and carrier based missions. Is F-35 repeating the same mistake?

Despite cost and technical problems, we must understand new tactical and strategic concepts of F-35, beyond stealth capability. Former RAF Group Captain Andrew Linstead who was a Tornado pilot, comments that it is understandable that people rely on metrics that they are already familiarized with to judge new fighter, like speed, altitude, and agility. However, he says that F-35 has a huge advantage in integrating all field information into one picture to help the pilot's SA to make decisions quickly and properly, and in sharing it with the colleague planes. From his long term experience with Tornado, Linstead argues that this technology is the key to new era combats (“In defence of the F-35: Why future air combat will be different”; Daily Telegraph; 3 July, 2015).

F-35 is not just technological innovation. As we are not pilots, engineers, nor aviation mechanics, we must focus on strategic concepts of the new era for policy making. Eric Adams, Aviation and Military Editor of Popular Science, says that the key to the future of ‪American‬‬‬ ‪‎air power‬‬‬ is beyond ‪new technologies like ‎stealth‬‬‬, ‎UAV‬ and EMP, but the ‪concept‬‬‬ to nullify the enemy without air combat, in "Secret of Future Air Power 2015" of Discovery Channel. See the video below.

Actually, stealth technology itself is nothing new. Nazi Germany had already developed a prototype of current stealth fighter jet. Just reducing RCS does not change the war so dramatically. See the video below.

Nor is BVR combat a new tactical concept. It was already in practice in 1954 when US Navy F-3D Skyknight began to load AIM-7 Sparrow missile. Strategic and tactical philosophy to deploy F-35 is an outcome of such long term evolution. Therefore, it is premature to evaluate a brand new fighter by a single loss in the dogfight. As a Japanese military analyst, Isaku Okabe comments, “It is meaningless to compare fighter jets simplistically from a viewpoint to discuss which is stronger in the battle, tiger or lion” (“How serious Chinese military threat is to Japan?”; Shukan Daiamondo; November 15, 2012). Ex-Group Captain Linstead comments similarly.

However, we have to bear in mind that war makes evolution while maintaining old characteristics. Therefore, excessive obsession with new concepts is quite dangerous. During the Vietnam War, F-4 Phantom relied entirely on BVR missiles without carrying guns against Vietnamese MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21. As a result, American F-4s were completely vulnerable in the dogfight after they fired all missiles they loaded. The United States equipped their fighter jets with guns again to rollback in close aerial combats (“The U.S. Air Force Promised the F-4 Would Never Dogfight”; War is Boring; July 6, 2015). F-111 was obsessed with BVR and ground attack, which made it completely incapable in aerial combat. It was F-14 Tomcat that managed to meet both BVR and close aerial combat requirements, as the fighter was capable of loading heavy weight long range AIM-54 Phoenix missile and agile enough to defeat F-15 in mock dogfights. Unlike F-14, F-35 may fall into early stage F-4, or F-111 in the 21st century. War philosophy may evolve, but the fact that F-35 tested dogfight competence implies that old style combat capability still matters.

Regardless of pro-con debates, F-35 will be the key to air defense for the United States and numerous allies involved in this. Without sufficient understanding of the new warfare concept and the strength and weakness of F-35, it would be difficult to take advantage of this brand new fighter. I wonder whether all the JSF partner and customer governments understand them well. Some of them may have jumped on stealth technology. Also, it is the job of policymakers, not pilots and engineers, to review the Hi-Lo mix of the air power. As General Hostage comments, F-35 will be used for initial stage air strike penetrating through enemy radar. This implies F-35 is a Lo role fighter. It is expected that F-35’s Hi-Lo mix partner by country would be 5th Generation F-22 for the US Air Force, and 4.5th Generation Typhoon for the Royal Air Force. But unlike the United States and Britain, Japan’s Hi fighter would continue to be 4thGeneration F-15. Can the JASDF counter China’s planned stealth Hi-Lo mix of J-20 and J-31? Also, while F-35’s rising cost and schedule delay are controversial issues in the United States and main JSF partners, some countries like Japan, South Korea, etc seem too good customers as to be content with simply buying them. So many things need consideration to start deploying F-35 in a couple of years.