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article imageOp-Ed: Tough calls vs F35 – A decade of doubt meets decision time

By Paul Wallis     Mar 8, 2021 in Technology
Washington - The F35 has had a lot of criticism, in both terms of its combat capabilities and its cost. Now it’s getting serious. The bang for the bucks argument is getting traction in Congress. That throws multiple spanners into the works.
Rep Adam Smith (D-Wash) wants an overhaul of the F35 monetized Disneyland. So, apparently, does the US Air Force, for the not-very-amusing reason that it wants more combat capability.
That’s a major issue. The F35 has been criticized for:
• Lack of speed.
• Lack of combat firepower
• Comparative weaknesses in relation to Sukhois and current generation Chinese fighters.
• Perceived air superiority issues like can F35 deliver actual air superiority when it’s not really designed to do that job?
These arguments are made in context with the aging fleet of frontline F22 Raptors (2005) and older air superiority planes like the F15 (1970s). The USAF is making a perfectly valid point. The F35 may well be able to sing and dance, but can it fill the functional gaps?
A lot of critics say it can’t. While the criticism ranges from the expert to the purely anecdotal, the fact is that a very expensive, high-maintenance plane sprinkled all over the planet isn’t the obvious all-purpose solution. The F35 was designed as a stealthy strike plane, not a “go shoot down everything that needs shooting down” plane.
Tactical tech issues are also catching up with the F35. The “loyal wingman” drone issue is well within F35’s reach. It can manage drones. But – how well? In what scenarios? Drones just happen to be a lot cheaper, and easier to adapt to fifth and sixth-generation air warfare.
The combat side is more complex. They could be outgunned, too. F35 lacks hardpoints compared to the Sukhois in particular. These big brutal fighters are real air superiority fighters. They’re competition for F22s, let alone tech-heavy specialist planes like F35s. F35 has more sensory range capacity and probably better ECM (electronic countermeasures) and ECCM electronic counter-countermeasures), but does that matter if the Sukhois just show up unexpectedly or at short ranges where these advantages are nullified?
There’s a need to oversimplify here, because of the technical complexities – This argument, which does have some traction in the professional sphere, is based on the survivability of the F35, not air superiority or anything like it.
A bit of history here – I’m no fan of the F35 in multiple ways. Starting with my firm belief that Lockheed of all companies doesn’t need to be told how to make a fighter, I’ve been more than skeptical. This is the antithesis of the stunning Skunk Works epiphanies, and it shows. This is a combat plane as piecework, and it doesn’t work.
Discussion isn’t futile, but it’s often thankless when it comes to the F35. The “flying credit card” as I’ve been calling it, however, does have some unexpected possible strengths. It can easily be a flying information network. That’s not even one of its advertised capabilities. It can be a real-time combat information system, which is invaluable in air warfare. This allows real-time combat management.
As I see it, the F35 suffers from a classic design imperative – It was designed to be a fighter-bomber strike plane in the classic interpretation. It was too-closely following in the footsteps of the F117 Nighthawk and other 1990s planes.
Those days are gone. The whole combat environment has passed it by. The trouble is that the fighter-bomber role is now not necessarily the best use of any manned combat plane. A stealth drone could do that, at a much lower price. Even the recently-obsolete long-range drones could still do that quite well, without risking planes and people.
…So the F35’s supposed main role doesn’t really stack up. It’s not an air superiority plane, either. It’s slower than the Sukhois. It doesn’t have the firepower of most other fighters, even older ones. Its range is questionable, even with air refueling, which can be cumbersome, and better used for proven combat-effective aircraft.
Its saving grace as a mobile information manager, however, isn’t to be totally sneered at; at least not yet. It’s a true fly-by-wire plane, one of the few operational at that level. It could well be a working platform for the development of future flying networks. It could be far more useful in that role than just going out and getting chopped up by some clunky but functional fourth-generation thing.
The unavoidable fact is that its tech is more valuable than it is as a combat aircraft. That’s an unkind thing to say about a plane or any design, but it’s not going off the radar anytime soon, pun intended. If F35 is repurposed to something it can do well, not things it can barely do at all, it’ll pay for itself.
That still leaves the USAF with the not-very-appealing task of getting a working air superiority plane in the air. It’ll be interesting to see how that works. May I suggest:
• Leave the combat capabilities to the operational guys. That means pilots - You need the guys who have the air time to think in 3 or 4 dimensions, even for drones.
• No “nightclub in the wiring” nonsense. If it’s not essential and not better than anything else, leave it out.
• Speed matters. The hypersonics are on the horizon. That’s likely to be more of an issue than contractual niceties, both for planes and systems.
• The planes should be able to mount new systems efficiently with power to spare. The need is for a high-grunt hardpoints carrier, not some damn flying electronic chandelier.
• Outclass everything else in the air. To hell with the sensitivities of widget-suppliers; focus on a truly lethal combat system that can get in the air and take care of itself well.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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