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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why so much controversy? The truth about the F-35

More up to date argument for F-35 (Link here)

Recently Lockheed Martin has been taking a lot of heat from media around the world. Air Power Australia, an Australian think tank, describes the F-35 as "pathetic" and unable to beat older 4th generation fighters. The parliament in Denmark has called a vote to suspend their involvement in the JSF program all together. Some go as far to say that the entire 382 billion dollar program should be scraped all together. Is there any merit to these concerns?

The F-35 is the product of more than 100 years of American innovation and aeronautic development. Since its creation in 1993, the JSF program has become the most expensive military project in human history and involves international participation from 8 nations. The U.S military alone plans to acquire 2,443 of the jets for the Air force, Marines, and Navy. The F-35 is designed to provide western nations with the next generation of affordable stealth strike aircraft. The F-35 has 3 variants: one variant for the Air force with conventional landing and takeoff (CTOL), one variant for the Marines with vertical take off and landing abilities (VTOL), and a variant for the Navy with short take off and landing (STOVL) capabilities. Because all of these variants originate from the same basic design, initial estimates suggested that as much as 80% of the parts used in the panes are identical, reducing costs even further. The United States as well as much of the free world has pinned the responsibility of establishing total air superiority on the F-35 for the next 30 years. Is the JSF program living up to its promises?

After wining the contract to build the JSF in 2001, Lockheed Martin started refining the design of the X-35, the prototype of the F-35. Since 2001, Lockheed has been falling behind schedule. Due to ineffective management, the projected production cost of the F-35 has skyrocketed. In 2002 it was projected that an F-35A would cost $50 million dollars, by 2010 each F-35A is estimated to cost $80 million in 2002 dollars (89 million 2010). Further concerns mounted when the Chinese hacked their way into the Pentagon's data base and downloaded terabytes of data on the project. And if this wasn't enough, many have asserted that the F-35 isn't even up to the job of competing with modern fighter jets let alone competitors from the future.

The source of many of these assertions of poor performance from the F-35 can generally be traced back to Dr. Dr Carlo Kopp of Air power Australia. Kopp claims that the F-35 is inferior to almost all modern 4.5 generation fighters. He vehemently disapproves of his country's decision to purchase the F-35 and pushes the Australian government to keep requesting the American F-22A. In his reports he says that the F-35 isn't stealthy enough to penetrate Chinese airspace, not maneuverable enough to win a dogfight, and doesn't carry enough ordinance to make it an effective air superiority fighter. Too be honest, Dr. Carlo Kopp is too biased. I have read articles from several think tanks and none are as opposed to the JSF as Dr. Kopp. Furthermore, in the majority of his articles he commonly makes the case that Russian aircraft and equipment are far superior to their western equivalents. I do think a lot of Russian equipment is underrated by the West. However, the degree in which he frames Russian technological superiority is too much. He states that the 4.5 generation Su-35BM Russian Flanker is far superior to the F/A-18E and F-35, some of America's best 4.5 and 5th generation fighters respectively. "Australia is however pursuing the opposite path in its planning for the future region, acquiring 'interim' F/A-18F Super Hornets, and seeking the Joint Strike Fighter long term, neither of which are competitive against advanced Flanker variants." The F/A-18E super hornet is certainly competitive against the Su-35BM. In several respects the super hornet is actually superior to the Su-35BM. However, to say that the Su-35BM is superior to the F-35 is nonsense. The F-35 would see the Su-35BM from more than 80 miles away; at more be able to immediately fire an AIM-120D and destroy it. The Su-35BM would not even see the F-35 even from the side aspect until 53 miles away. (28 miles from the front aspect) On the other side of the spectrum, the U.S air force has conducted tests in which the F-35 was pitted against all fourth generation fighters currently available and was AT LEAST 4 times more combat effective than existing 4th generation fighters.

"F-35 enjoys a significant Combat Loss Exchange Ratio advantage over the current and future air-to-air threats, to include Sukhois". - USAF Major General Charles R. Davis

The F-35 dominates ALL existing 4th and 4.5 generation fighters. THERE IS NO QUESTION! The real question that remains is if the F-35 can stand up to future 5th generation threats from China and Russia. Recently, the Russian Federation conducted test flights on the only 5th generation fighter built outside the United States, the Sukhoi Pak FA. This might give some insight into what the future may hold for the F-35. Sukhoi has not released too much information on the Pak Fa. From what has been released, the Pak Fa has excellent maneuverability, trust to weight ratio, and payload capacity. However the critical piece of information, its the size of its radar cross section (rcs), has not been released. Without this critical piece of information, it is hard to determine how it compares to the F-35. Initial estimates say that the Pak Fa has an rcs around .01m^2.

List of rcs for modern aircraft (front aspect)
N = normal rcs; R = reduced rcs; S = stealth
- F-15C 5m^2 N
- Mig 29 5m^2 N
- Su-35BM 2m^2 R
- Dassualt Raffale 2m^2 R
- Eurofighter Typhoon 1m^2 R
- Pak Fa .01m^2??? S
- F-117 .025m^2 S
- F-35A .0015m^2 S
- F-22A .0001-.0002m^2 S

When compared with other stealth fighters this rcs estimate for the Pak Fa seems initially large, however, this is the first stealth aircraft Russia has ever produced. The U.S has been making stealth aircraft for over 20 years. Additionally the Russian engineers admit to having trouble in reducing the radar cross section because of the shape of the air intake inlets. Don't be fooled however, .01m^2 is small enough to evade most radars at least initially. As the the aircraft gets closer to the source emitting the radar, the signal becomes easier to detect. In the future of stealth combat, rcs size is critical. Whoever can achieving missile lock first has a much higher chance of defeating its opponent. The state of the art AN/APG-77 radar used on the F-22A is extremely powerful with 1,500 TR modules. It can detect aircraft with an rcs of 1m^2 at 125-150 miles away. (Note: the previous figure is an estimation due to the classified nature of the AN/APG-77) The AN/APG-81 radar system is an upgraded version of the system used on the F-35 with 1,200 TR modules. The N050 BRLS AFAR/AESA which has 1,500 transmit\receive modules (upgraded N035). Basically, the F-35 will be able to detect the Pak Fa first and destroy it due to its lower rcs. At a range of 50 miles the Pak Fa reportedly has an rcs of .01m^2.

If it comes to visual range combat, the Pak Fa has an advantage. Even though the F-35 has good maneuverability, the Pak Fa posses astounding agility. The Pak Fa possesses 2 thrust vectoring Saturn AL-31 engines (upgraded combat versions, prototype has different engines). The F-35 intentionally did not incorporate thrust vectoring and supermanuverability. Rather, it pinned its success on a new technology, the helmet mounted display (HMD). The HMD allows the pilot to achieve a missile lock simply by looking at a target. This technology greatly reduces the importance of supermaneuverability in a dogfight. (at least that is the claim) A pilot equipped with an HMD can literally look bellow the floor of their cockpit and fire a missile at an enemy below their plane. Pilots with HMDs no longer have to have their plane facing the enemy to fire a missile (using older HUD system). The HMD allows F-35 pilots to shoot 90 degree off bore sight shots with their heat seeking AIM-9X sidewinder missiles. This ability helps make up for the F-35s reduced maneuverability. Thus,the F-35 has the advantage in beyond visual range (bvr) combat and is a strong contender in visual range combat as well. All in all the F-35 should be able to handle the Pak Fa. The Russian Federation does not have the funds to produce the Pak Fa in the numbers needed to seriously threaten U.S interests. Russia and India plan to procure 200 Pak Fa jets for themselves and 600 for export, in total, 1,000 jets. However, assuming Lockheed can deliver on its promises, the U.S will posses 2,243 F-35 jets of all variants along with 187 F-22A raptors.

Recently U.S intelligence estimates say that the Chinese will possess stealth fighters by the year 2018. However, before that US intelligence also said that nobody would have stealth fighters besides the U.S until 2020 or 2025. Guess what the Russians had it by 2010. Score one for military intelligence, again. I would not be surprised if the Chinese came out with a stealth fighter before that. Officially, the Chinese government has said many things. They are clouding the J-XX program with misinformation. Other names for the Chinese stealth fighter program include: J-X, J-XX, XXJ, J-12, J-13, J-14, and J-20. Deputy Commander He Weirong stated that he expects the Chinese stealth fighter to be in service between 2017-2019. As defense secretary Robert Gates said, " 2020, the United States is projected to have nearly 2,500 manned combat aircraft of all kinds. Of those, nearly 1,100 will be the most advanced fifth generation F-35s and F-22s." China will just be putting the first jets into service by that time. Even on a quality basis, it is reasonable to presume that the F-35 would have AT LEAST a slight advantage. If its anything like the Pak Fa, the J-XX will have a larger rcs (as it is their first stealth fighter) and not as advanced avionics as its American counterparts.

The F-35 will be able to secure air superiority for the United States and it's allies for the next 30 years assuming no radical developments render stealth technology useless.



  1. hey dude this really helped me understand the f-35 really isn't a little piece of shit. I just hate those hundreds of internet sites that say the f-35 isn't worth a dollar let alone now one hundred eight million dollars each. (current estiamated cost)

  2. Glad to help. The reason I wrote this article is because I was tired of so many political websites and news organizations were writing about how bad the F-35 was without knowing a thing about the actual aircraft or program.

  3. Thanks for this article. I went though tens of other ones concluding that the F35 was illogically designed with no key advantages. I'd love to know your estimates of the rcs for the T-50 and the J-20 as well!

  4. Your welcome! Good to know someone actually reads these. As for the J-20 and Pak Fa rcs estimates, its hard to say. From the frontal aspect the Pak Fa makes thorough use of planform alignment. There are a couple trouble areas however. In all, I'd say .01m^2 is a reasonable estimate for the frontal rcs. The rear of the aircraft is much less stealthy both to radar and IR detection. As for the J-20, the implementation of canards makes it difficult to guess. While in flight the canards will be moving constantly which will change the surface area exposed to radar. Even with radar absorbent materiel, canards have terrible stealth characteristics. However, the rest of the airframe is very stealthy from the frontal aspect, more so than the Pak Fa. Roughly .01m^2 or slightly smaller seems reasonable. Its unclear how well the Chinese have mastered radar absorbent material coatings. Best way to find out would be to make mock-ups and have them undergo radar testing. Unfortunately, I do not have that kind of equipment :C . More info is in the Threat Analysis Pak Fa article under stealth section.