Time to Face the Truth: F-35 = F-117B (Long read)

Nearly nine years ago I wrote about a suggestion from Boeing that the USAF buy F-18 E/F Super Hornets instead of the F-35. Their suggestion was so obviously a great idea that it almost felt tongue in cheek...but they weren't joking. Our coverage of this discussion must have struck a nerve because more people read it than any other post for a long time.

Nearly a decade later, the F-35 continues to fall far short of what anyone hoped for. It's one of the most expensive weapons that humanity has ever produced...which is problematic at a time when the Air Force is under significant financial pressure. The USAF actually grounded several combat fighter squadrons a couple years ago during Sequestration. Though the F-35 is funded through its own "pots" of money, the funds we're spending on it could be applied very differently.

Is the F-35 a cool airplane? Yes. Does it enable us to fight air wars in a completely new way. Yes. Is it a viable replacement for the A-10? Absolutely not! Is it a viable replacement for the F-16? Though this is debatable, I'm about to argue that the answer is also a 'No.'

For the sake of Integrity First, it's time for the United States Air Force to admit what the F-35 actually is:

The F-35 is nothing more than the F-117B Nighthawk II.

Let's put this in context by talking a little about the F-117.

First off, the F-117 was never a fighter. Yes, they considered giving it AIM-9 Sidewinders for some air-to-air capability. (It had no radar, so AIM-7s and AIM-120s weren't options.) The USAF also looked at putting a gun pod on (or in) the aircraft. However, it never had the potential to go up against an F-15, F-16, MiG-29, Su-27 or any other contemporary fighter aircraft.

The F-117 was a first-strike weapon...a true stealth bomber. It's strength was the ability to ingress a high-threat, denied area, employ precision weapons, and get back home without having to fight its way in or out.

From that standpoint, maybe they shouldn't have called it a fighter. A designation of B-117 or A-117 might have been more appropriate. However, it would have been tough to sell to Congress as a bomber. Just look at USAF bomber history. Medium-sized bombers like the B-25 gave way to larger, 4-engined ones like the B-17, B-24, and B-29. The (gorgeous) behemoth B-36 had 10 engines! Improved jet engine technology allowed the B-52 to manage with just 8 engines. It's still huge though...affectionately known as the BUFF, or Big Ugly Fat F*$($#. These large aircraft gave rise to the idea of the "Long Range Heavy Bomber." The USAF exists today in part by selling America on the idea of needing such machines. From the birth of the Air Force, bombers became massive undertakings for massive aircraft at massive cost. It would have been difficult to convince Congress to develop a small, stealthy, secret aircraft as a bomber.

Plus, there was some precedent for fighters attacking ground targets. We typically think of a fighter being a purely air-to-air asset like the F-15C and F-22. However, jets like the F-16, F-15E, F-18, and (at the time) even the F-4 were multirole. The same went for The F-100, A-4 and many others in Vietnam. They could dogfight, but they also had the capability of attacking ground targets. Years later, we'd see that these aircraft spent thousands of hours employing air-to-ground weapons in Afghanistan and an Iraq while never once getting into a dogfight. Pilots of the A-10 are proud to be "attack" rather than "fighter" pilots, but we still treat this primarily air-to-ground weapon like a fighter. If these air-to-ground machines could reasonably be called "fighters" then the F-117 could as well.

Was this inaccurate. You betcha! However, it wasn't an outright lie and it was probably the only way to get funding for a small, single-seat aircraft. So we sold it to Congress as a fighter.

The F-117 was built from the ground up as a showcase for stealth technology, and it worked very well. The designers sacrificed controllability for an angular, radar-evading design (it was only flyable thanks to quadruple-redundant flight computers.) The materials were cutting edge. The aircraft didn't have a radar, because enemies can detect your radar signal. Even the engine exhaust was ducted to reduce its IR signature. The F-117 participated in some well-publicized high-profile operations, and probably others that we won't know about anytime soon...if ever.

The technology wasn't perfect though. During Operation Allied Force (OAF) the Serbs shot down aircraft 82-0806, probably using an SA-3. That's right: a faction from a 2nd tier Warsaw Pact country shot down the world's ultimate stealth aircraft (at the time) using 1960s technology (per fas.org) borrowed from the former Soviet Union. How embarrassing! (Thankfully, the pilot was rescued in short order!)

This incident reminds me of the scene in Star Wars where CINC-Death Star claims to have constructed "the ultimate power in the universe" only to be shown that his "technological terror...is insignificant next to the power of the force." I hope that the Serb who launched that SA-3 quietly said "Mislim da je tvoj nedostatak nade uznemiravajuc." as he walked over the wreckage of our stealth fighter.

This should serve as a lesson to the purveyors of stealth as an ultimate weapon. Any weapon can be defeated given enough time and effort. The Serbs shot down our aircraft in 1999. We've been working to improve stealth technology since then, but we'd be naive to think that the Russians and the Chinese haven't been working just as hard at finding new and better ways to beat stealth.

The F-117 officially left service in 2008. Knowing that its "older" stealth technology was vulnerable probably made our leaders reluctant to employ it. Plus, at the time, we were embroiled in two wars where a weapon like that had no relevance. In an era of cutbacks, the chances of starting a fight with an adversary that would necessitate the use of a first-strike stealth weapon were just too small. If worse came to worst the B-2 would offer this capability. Plus, the Air Force needed more money to fund the stealthy Joint Strike Fighter...

...and that brings us to 2016. USAF leadership doesn't talk much about the F-35 descending from F-117. However, I expect that if you cornered them they'd eventually be proud to admit that, yes, the F-35 is the next generation of F-117. It's a natural evolution of the technology that the F-117 demonstrated in combat. They intend to use it for exactly the same mission as the F-117, except they hope to buy more than 1,700 aircraft and envision waves of them streaking (stealthily) into enemy territory to devastate centers of gravity.

(If this sounds familiar to you, you're probably thinking of an Italian army officer named Giulio Douhet. The USAF's doctrine of attacking enemy centers of gravity comes in part from his 1921 book Command of the Air. That non-flying army officer also believed that airpower is an inherently offensive weapon and that bombers would always enjoy essentially uncontested access to bomb enemy territory. American General Claire Chennault proved Douhet's theory on the invincibility of bombers to be wrong. The Germans and the Allies also disproved Douhet's theories to each other during the Battle of Britain...at the cost of thousands of lives and aircraft.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, hence the USAF's insistence that the F-35 will be able to operate with impunity in a high-threat environment. But I digress....)

The USAF declared the F-35 "combat ready" on 2 August 2016, though Initial Operational Capability (IOC) seems to be a relative term. Less than a month later, nearly half the fleet was grounded due to a construction/mechanical flaw. The Daily Beast reported that the F-35's gun won't be operational until the aircraft's 3F software update...sometime in 2019. USAF officials backpedaled and said the actual date for 3F will be in 2017. Either way, the aircraft was declared IOC without an operational gun.

Let's call IOC a red herring and leave it alone for now, giving the USAF the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure most major weapon systems have their hiccups when they're first deployed. Instead, let's look at how the USAF has sold this aircraft to you, the taxpayers.

The USAF's official position is that the F-35 is a replacement for both the F-16 and the A-10. Those aircraft were from the same era as the long-gone F-117, and the USAF has a legitimate need to replace them. It used to be possible penetrate a country's borders by flying below a radar system's coverage, or higher and faster than its missiles could reach. Those days are gone. Our potential adversaries have radar and missile systems that the F-16 and A-10 just can't get past, even using our best jammers and other countermeasures. If we want to be able to strike deep into enemy territory we need stealthy aircraft capable of beating enemy radar systems. The B-2 can (hopefully) still do this, but the F-22 and F-35 are our only other options.

And with that you can see the overall strategy of US airpower. The B-2s and F-35s sneak in and take out enemy centers of gravity. F-22s can escort those aircraft to target without fear of enemy Surface to Air missiles (SAMs) shooting them down. If any enemy fighters show up, the F-22s will annihilate them. It's a good strategy...it's essentially the same one we've been using since Desert Storm, adjusted to compensate for improved enemy defense capabilities.

If that was all the USAF tried to sell us on with the F-35, there wouldn't be a problem. They could absolutely justify the cost of developing the F-35's technology. We had less than 60 operational F-117s, but I'm sure we'd be able to get permission to buy at least a few hundred F-35s. Tragically, the USAF couldn't stop there...and that's where we start having problems.

The USAF wanted more F-22s than it got...a lot more. Since it couldn't get enough, it needed another air-to-air capable fighter to augment that mission. In its infinite wisdom, the USAF decided to use the F-35 for that purpose. After all, the F-16 has supplemented the F-15's air-to-air capability for decades.

Unfortunately, the F-35 appears to be a failure as an air-to-air fighter. Last summer David Axe broke a story on War is Boring about a report from a test pilot who'd flown an F-35 against an F-16 (the aircraft it's supposed to replace) and lost...badly. Worse, the F-35 was fighting against a 2-seat Block 40 F-16D model carrying two large external fuel tanks. This means a "clean" F-35 in optimum dogfighting configuration lost to the heavier, less capable version of a 40+ year old fighter.

Desperate rebuttals have abounded, but the only plausible one I've seen was from Dan Ward at Breaking Defense. No matter what your excuses, there is no arguing that the F-35 couldn't keep up in a dogfight against the aircraft it is supposed to replace...let alone a cutting edge Eurofighter, Su-37, J-31, or J-20. Hold that thought; we'll get back to it.

The other side of the F-35's problems stem from the fact that the USAF claims it's going to replace the A-10 for performing the Close Air Support (CAS) mission. CAS is basically defined as using aircraft to attack enemies who are located in close proximity to friendly ground forces. It's a dynamic environment that requires flexibility and maneuverability. It's best done with slower aircraft, that can loiter over target for a long time, that can precisely employ weapons with limited effects...so as not to risk collateral damage. It also helps to be able to carry a lot of weapons because CAS fights are so dynamic. There is frequently a need to re-attack the same target, or deal with new enemies who show up to the fight. The A-10 is one of the best CAS assets ever made. Vying against it for top spot in America's wars over the last couple decades have been the AC-130 and AH-64. All these aircraft carry heavy weapons loads. They can stay overhead for a long time, keeping awareness of what's happening below them, and are very practiced at working with ground forces.

The USAF argues that we need to replace these platforms because in our next war we may have to put forces on the ground inside the threat envelope of the advanced SAM and radar systems we discussed earlier. The USAF argues that the outstanding endurance of the A-10 and AC-130 won't matter because they'd be shot down long before they got to the friendly forces' location.

In that scenario, the USAF is correct. If an F-15 or an F-16 can't survive against these "near-peer" threats, an A-10 or AC-130 certainly has no chance. The problem is: although the F-35 might be capable of orbiting overhead friendly forces inside one of these threat envelopes, it is wholly incapable of providing effective CAS while it's there. Let's look at why:

  1. The F-35 can't carry enough weapons to provide effective CAS in a "contested" environment.

    Lockheed Martin proudly proclaims that the F-35 can carry 3,500 pounds of ordinance in its internal weapons bays. That amounts to a grand total of two bombs and two air-to-air missiles. It also has 180 rounds for its 25mm cannon (at least it will in 2017...or 2018...or 2019 when it finally gets that big software update,) but that's it. By contrast, the A-10 it's supposed to replace can carry up to 16,000 pounds of bombs/rockets/air-to-ground missiles and has more than 1,100 rounds of 30mm ammunition for its legendary gun. The AC-130 carries thousands of rounds of ammunition.

    Lockheed and the USAF will answer this by saying, "well yes, but the F-35 also has several external weapons stations." It can carry up to 18,000 pounds of ordinance if you add those in.

    That's a different story, right? Well, yes, but not in the way you think. The minute you bolt an external weapons pylon onto an F-35 (let alone hang a bomb on that pylon) the aircraft loses it's stealth. It becomes just as vulnerable to enemy radar as an F-16 or an A-10. (Lockheed admits this by saying it can only carry the 18,000 pound load when "uncontested.")

    Like it or not, when the USAF tries to tell you that the F-35 is capable of replacing the A-10 for CAS because only the F-35 can operate in a "contested" or "high-threat" environment, it's telling you something that is at best a half-truth. Yes, the F-35 can fly in that environment, but only if it's limited to a total of two air-to-ground weapons when it does.

    Go ask any aviator who has provided CAS or any ground troop who has been protected by CAS over the last 15 years (or the last 113.) They will all tell you that two weapons per aircraft is nowhere near enough for effective CAS.

  2. Even if it could carry more weapons, the F-35 wouldn't be able to stay on target long enough to provide effective CAS.

    We haven't discussed this yet, but the F-16 also does CAS. It's okay at it, but supported forces would always rather have an A-10, an AC-130, or an AH-64. One of the reasons is that the F-16 has very "short legs." It's can't carry enough fuel to loiter over the target for very long. If a ground force has two F-16s assigned to it, the best they can possibly count on at any one time is a single aircraft...because one of them is constantly back at the tanker refilling it's tiny fuel tanks.

    The F-35 is about the size of an F-16, but it has a somewhat bigger engine. It's also less aerodynamic because it's airframe has to be designed for stealth rather than...well...aerodynamics. This means it will burn fuel quickly. Somehow, it can carry more than twice as much fuel internally as an F-16. The F-16 has traditionally made up for it's low internal fuel capacity by carrying large external drop tanks. Overall, an F-16 with external tanks has roughly the same amount of fuel as carried internally by the F-35. This means that at best the F-35 will probably have about as much endurance as the F-16. This is notably less than the A-10 and hours less than the AC-130.

    Lockheed and the USAF might again bring up the fact that you can mount external fuel tanks on the F-35's wing pylons. Unfortunately, that compromises it's stealth characteristics just like external weapons do.

    There's no way around it. If you're planning on operating in a "contested" environment, the F-35 can't loiter for nearly as long as the A-10 it's supposed to replace. It might be able to loiter as long as an F-16 can now, but that's already not long enough.

  3. One of the ways our CAS and ISR platforms help us win wars is by using "sensors" or targeting pods to see the battlefield. These very high power cameras allow our aircraft to identify friendly forces and enemy targets. Even better, our aircraft are able to transmit Full Motion Video (FMV) from their sensors to the ground forces they're supporting. The people with boots on the ground can watch a FMV feed of the targeting pod video during the fight on a laptop computer. They can literally identify a target by saying something like, "Move your cross hairs 30 meters to the left. Yep, that truck with two people in the back is your target." These amazing capabilities make our CAS platforms lethal and accurate, and save the lives of friendly forces every day.

    As sensor technology improves, we remove older targeting pods and equip our CAS aircraft with newer ones. It makes sense right? Knowing this, you should be heartbroken by The Daily Beast's report that the F-35's sensor is at least 10 years behind the technology currently used by the A-10, F-16, and AC-130. Worse, the F-35 has no capability to transmit FMV from its sensor to the ground forces it's supporting.

    Even worse, in order to keep the F-35 stealthy we couldn't just mount a Sniper XR pod under it's wing. (See discussion on external weapons and fuel tanks above.) Instead, the hardware for the F-35s sensor had to be integrated deep into its design. This means it would be cost-prohibitive to ever change it. That's right. The F-35's sensor will never be any better than technology that was 10+ years old in 2014.

    There is no way around this. The F-35's sensor isn't anywhere near as capable as those on the CAS aircraft it's supposed to replace. Worse, it can't ever get any better.

  4. Another problem with the F-35 as a CAS platform is that it's the loudest fighter aircraft ever made. The city of Valpariso, FL, actually sued (and eventually settled with) the USAF over it's decision to base the F-35 at Eglin AFB, FL, because of noise concerns. The USAF has also faced opposition to bases in Vermont, and New Mexico. We can call those residents Commies for not loving "Jet Noise: The Sound of Freedom!", but the noise signature of the F-35 brings up a significant problem with its ability to provide CAS.

    You see, when our forces are on the ground in enemy territory, they don't necessarily want the enemy to know where they are. This is especially true for Special Operations Forces who are constantly worried about loud aircraft overhead "burning the target"...causing the bad guys to run away or giving them warning to prepare an ambush. In Afghanistan, louder fighters like the F-16 and F-15E are required to stay further from target than quieter A-10s in noise-sensitive situations. At the ranges they have to fly to prevent burning the target, their sensors are less effective. They really can't contribute much to the mission unless things get bad enough that noise isn't an issue...and they get permission to fly overhead. By contrast, the A-10 and AC-130 can fly closer to target without burning it. Their sensors are more effective and they can help build awareness of the target area and perform meaningful mission tasks without tipping off the bad guys.

    The USAF talks about the F-35's stealth being critical for it to provide CAS in a high-threat environment, but once it starts orbiting loudly over a target area, it's radar-evading capability won't mean much. The bad guys will be able to hear and see it and the element of surprise will be lost. At the very least, the F-35 is louder than the A-10 that it's supposed to replace.

I could go on, but let's leave it there for now and just sum up.

The F-35 is worse at dogfighting than the F-16 it's supposed to replace.

The F-35 cannot provide meaningful CAS in a "contested" environment, and in an "uncontested" environment it's drastically less capable than the A-10 it's supposed to replace. It can only carry 2 bombs, it can't carry enough fuel to loiter as long, its sensor is far inferior to the A-10s and can't ever be upgraded, and it's much louder.

Simply put, the F-35 is not a viable replacement for the F-16 or the A-10.

You'd think that since one of the USAF's Core Values is "Integrity First" it'd be willing to admit these deficiencies. Sadly, this isn't the case. The USAF has chosen to blatantly ignore the F-35's significant inferiorities and argued that none of those matter...because STEALTH!

The good men and women of the USAF have long known that this line of reasoning is outrageous. The people who have been fighting our nation's wars for the last 15+ years know that the F-35 is incapable of providing meaningful CAS, let alone replacing the A-10. The USAF ignored this well-known truth and pushed a party line that said the A-10 is done, and the F-35 will be a great replacement. Maj Gen James Post even went so far as to direct a room full of officers to stop trying to point out the truth to their Congressional representatives. He said, "If anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it...anyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason."

His implication was bad enough in that it continued the USAF's efforts to hide and/or distort the truth about the F-35's inadequacies as a CAS platform. However, it also equated to an unlawful order. Members of the US military are, in fact, allowed to speak directly to their Congressional reps. Nobody, not even a General can prevent that. MG Post was eventually fired and reprimanded for his comments.

(This was a rather tragic end to a sad story. I'm sure that MG Post didn't intend to actually curtail anyone's Constitutional rights or hide truth. I am absolutely sure that he felt immense pressure from above to get his people to toe the party line. I suspect that even he knew the underlying dishonesty of the USAF's position on the F-35 as a CAS platform. I believe that under different circumstances, MG Post would have provided many more years of valuable service to his country. He's a victim of the USAF's choice to insist that the F-35 is something it isn't.)

Let's return for a moment to the fallacy that the F-35 can replace the F-16 as an air-to-air fighter. We've already shown that it can't.

I wasn't all that surprised when an official representative of the USAF implied that the USAF knows this and doesn't care. Business Insider recently wrote an article about the F-35 that included excerpts from an interview with an F-35 pilot, Maj Will "D-Rail" Andreotta.

Business Insider quoted D-Rail as saying, "As a pilot, dogfighting is fun, but it doesn't get the job done...If I'm dogfighting I'm not bombing my target. I'm not getting my job done, and what I'm probably doing is wasting gas and wasting time."

USAF Public Affairs probably cringed when they saw this statement. D-Rail essentially said that the F-35's purpose is not dogfighting.

Finally! I assert that this is probably the first time anyone in the USAF has gone on record admitting that simple truth.

The truth is that the F-35 isn't a fighter at all. It's a bomber, just like the F-117.

According to the USAF, America's most recent bombers, the B-2, costs about $1.1 Billion dollars each. Just as there was no way the USAF was going to get Congress to buy a stealthy, single-seat bomber capable of carrying two bombs in the 1970s and 1980s (a B-117,) there was no way the USAF was going to get Congress to buy a stealthy, single-seat bomber (still) only capable of carrying two bombs today (a B-35.) The solution was the same in both cases. Since it looks more like a fighter than a bomber, and since fighters can drop bombs too, just call the thing a fighter.

When you get right down to it, the mission of the F-35 is exactly the same as that of the F-117. Penetrate the enemy's most advanced defenses and drop (a very small number of) precision weapons on enemy centers of gravity. Just as D-Rail so aptly put it, if the F-35 is dogfighting, it's "wasting gas and wasting time." It was never meant to dogfight.

Unfortunately, it's not capable of providing meaningful CAS either.

It's time for the USAF to admit these facts. It's time for the USAF to stop violating its own Core Value by making arguments that are blatantly untrue. It's time to stop accusing those who speak truth of committing Treason.

If the USAF had admitted in the first place that the F-35 is nothing more than the F-117B Nighthawk II, we would never have had this problem.

The USAF has plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35s. That number is based on replacing the F-16 and the A-10. Quite frankly, we don't need that many. I'll absolutely allow for buying a few hundred F-35s to carry on the F-117's role of stealthy first strike. That's it though.

Once we admit that we only need this many F-35s, we could re-purpose the money we'd save in ways that will actually make a difference. If we need more aircraft capable of operating in "contested" environments we can buy more F-22s. (That's been looked at. It's outrageously expensive, but it's worth considering.)

We have another option as well. There's been a lot of discussion about "5th Generation" fighter aircraft in the media over the last few years. The F-22 and F-35 are America's 5th Gen assets. China has the J-20 and J-31. Russia's new T-50 has also been in the news lately. Before we go any further, we need to get one thing straight: Fighter "Generations" don't actually exist. Look at the Wikipedia page (yes, it's wikipedia, I know...) about fighter generations and you'll see several conflicting sets of defintions. The Russians may have started using this terminology to describe aircraft, but it's largely beomce a convenient buzzword for defense contractors, the media, and people who want to justify buying military aircraft. The generation to which an aircraft is assigned doesn't actually matter. What matters is their capabilities.

It's not easy to find the list of capabilities that the USAF uses to define the 5th fighter generation. The best I can get is this list from Air Force Magazine: "All-aspect stealth with internal weapons, extreme agility, full-sensor fusion, integrated avionics, some or full supercruise."

Before anything else, let's admit one thing: we've already noted that the F-35 doesn't meet any definition of "extreme agility." (If we're using this defnition, the F-35 already fails to meet the criteria of a 5th Generation fighter...not that it matters.)

Let's also agree that although the F-35 technically has internal weapons, it doesn't have enough of them. We already discussed why. If the F-35 is to carry enough weapons to do any damage they have to be carried externally...neither a stealthy nor a "5th Generation" configuration.

Of the remaining capabilities, the one that is most unique and exclusive to the F-35 is "all-aspect stealth." I hope that the F-35's stealth capability is as good as everyone claims. I hope it's very difficult for the enemy to see using radar. (We'll get back to this.) However, stealth isn't everything. General Mike Hostage, the former head of Air Combat Command and zealous F-35 proponent had something to say about this in an interview with Breaking Defense. He said:

"People focus on stealth as the determining factor or delineator of the fifth generation. It isn’t; it’s fusion. Fusion is what makes that platform so fundamentally different than anything else. And that’s why if anybody tries to tell you hey, I got a 4.5 airplane, a 4.8 airplane, don’t believe them. All that they’re talking about is RCS (Radar Cross Section).

Fusion is the fundamental delineator. And you’re not going to put fusion into a fourth gen airplane because their avionic suites are not set up to be a fused platform. And fusion changes how you use the platform."

What Gen Hostage was getting at with the word "fusion" was the idea that all information coming into the aircraft through radar, datalinks, and other sensors (targeting pod, etc.) is integrated into and displayed through a single system for consumption by the pilot. In the case of the F-35, this includes all the screens in its cockpit and an augmented reality visor on the front of the pilot's $400,000 helmet. Even better, all that information gets pushed out onto a strikeforce-wide datalink network. Every friendly aircraft in the sky shares and has access to the data in this "Combat Cloud."

This is a great concept and the USAF is working hard to leverage this capability. The F-35 will provide increased capabilities for this type of fusion. It will help give everyone on the battlefield more information and is the future of warfare.

One of the fancy new tools that the F-35 uses to increase it's situational awareness, and provide more useful data for the Combat Cloud is called an Electro-Optical Distributed Apature System, or EO DAS. You can think of it as one of those new-fangled 360 degree cameras, except that it sees in infrared as well. Not only does this camera system provide the pilot with vision in a continuous sphere all around the aircraft, it gives him or her the capability to track targets using a (stealthy) passive system (instead of something active and detectable, like radar.) This concept has been in development for a long time under the moniker of Infrared Search and Track or IRST. The US, European nations, and the Russians started working with IRST in Vietnam. Northrop Grumman offers an Open Pod with capabilities that include "Advanced IRST" and LIDAR. The F-35's EO DAS is a very cool application of IRST. For a great discussion on the capabilities of these kinds of systems, check out this article on DefenseIssues.net. It suggests that the Dassault Rafale's IRST sensor can track an aircraft from more than 68 km (front aspect) or 110 km (rear aspect.) The article mentions that an F-22 using supercruise will have a increased IR signature just due to skin heating...and that this will make enemy IRST sensors even more effective against it. That's right, the 5th Gen air superiority fighter that the USAF plans to use in high-threat environments can probably be detected from well beyond visual range by a French IRST system. If our allies put forth the effort to build a system that can beat our stealth technology, we'd better assume that our enemies have been working even harder to do the same thing.

The frustrating thing though, is that most of the capabilibies that Air Force Magazine and Gen Hostage discussed as difinitive for 5th Generations fighter aren't exclusive to the F-35. Many 4th Generation fighters are more agile than the F-35. Advanced sensors like IRST and LIDAR can be implemented on any aircraft. Even the F-35's EO DAS system could be fitted on any aircraft. That data could be integrated into an improved avionics suite in any other aircraft. Any pilot with that data could wear the F-35's fancy helmet. Any aircraft could be equipped with the datalink capabilities on the F-35.

Gen Hostage mentioned this idea when he talked about Generation 4.5 or 4.8 airplanes. He argues that you can't upgrade a 4th Generation aircraft to give it the type of fusion he wants. While that's definitely the case with the DOD's existing fleet of fighter aircraft, it doesn't have to be the case with future aircraft.

We could also take all of the advanced systems that make the F-35 a "5th generation" fighter and put them on something else...like a new production run of the F-18E/F, an F-16C Block 60 or F-16V or an F-15 Silent Eagle. This would include things like an AESA radar, an EO DAS, LIDAR, cutting-edge datalink capabilities, and a $400,000 helmet for the pilot to wear. There's no reason these systems couldn't be used (for a much less money) on an F-15, F-16, or F-18. Other than its stealth, every piece of technology that makes the F-35 special could be installed on one of these aircraft.

True, upgrading "legacy" aircraft designs would leave them vulnerable to advanced enemy air defenses. I assert though, that the answer to this problem is not building a manned fighter aircraft. Want to take out enemy air defenses and centers of gravity? How about developing better cruise missiles. We've been using air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles for decades. They're great! A single B-1 can carry 24 AGM-158s. They're autonomous, low-observable, long-range, and cost a fraction as much as using an F-35 to get a weapon with a similar payload to a target.

Even better, why not look at an unmanned solution for flying into contested airspace? I'll be the first person in line at the International Drone Haters Convention, but to be perfectly honest, the F-35 isn't even as good a CAS platform as the unmanned MQ-9. The Reaper has been flying CAS missions every day for years. It carries four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and a pair 500 pound bombs. (That's three times as many air-to-ground weapons as an F-35.) It has a modern sensor turret that can be upgraded as technology advances, and it can beam FMV to the forces it supports. It is quiet and carries enough fuel to stay airborne for several times as long as an A-10, let alone an F-35. It's a relatively small airplane with many (potentially stealthy) composite parts. It probably wouldn't take much to improve its stealth capabilities. Even if it isn't stealthy, the whole point of a drone is that you can sent it into a high-threat area without caring what happens to it. Nobody dies if it gets shot down.

The MQ-9 isn't nearly as good at CAS as the A-10, AC-130, or AH-64. However, I assert that it's at least as good at CAS as the F-16, F-15E, or the B-1B. (I say this based on my experience over 249 combat missions, frequently working with these aircraft as they provided CAS.) If we're looking at making a stealthy aircraft capable of providing some sort of CAS in a contested environment, we'd do a lot better with a drone than we ever will with the F-35.

Bottom line: Buying a few hundred F-35s as stealthy strike aircraft (F-117 replacements) makes sense. Buying 1700+ F-35s would be a waste of our tax dollars.

I'd end my discussion of the F-35's technical shortcomings there, but we need to address one more issue. In his Business Insider interview Maj Andreotta made a comment that deeply troubles me. He said, "I have stealth, so I've fought against F-16s and I've never gotten into a dogfight yet. You can't fight what you can't see, and if F-16s can't see me then I'm never going to get into a dogfight with them."

Once again, we see an attitude that stealth is the ultimate power in the universe...and an implication that it can't possibly be countered. I think this attitude is a mistake.

The USAF made a similar mistake in the 1950s when it designed and purchased the F-4. With the invention of missiles, the USAF decided that cannons were no longer necessary for fighter aircraft. It bought the F-4 (perhaps the F-35 of its time?) without an internal cannon...planning to equip it only with missiles for air-to-air engagements. History has shown this to be a terrible mistake.

MSgt Stanley Anderson from the 366th Fighter Group Association published a great history about the F-4's early operations in Vietnam. The article explains how Soviet fighters much older than the F-4 were able to beat it in dogfights due to the limitations of the F-4's missiles. When Col Jones E. Bolt took command of the 366 TFW he was unsatisfied with the situation. He worked to get SUU-16 gun pods installed on his F-4s. The installation was a roaring success. Eventually, the USAF admitted that it had been wrong in buying the F-4 without a gun. When it upgraded to the F-4E, it made sure that the aircraft had an internal cannon. As MSgt Anderson notes, we've never bought another fighter that didn't have a gun...to include the F-22 and F-35.

I can understand where the USAF went wrong. Missile technology was novel at the time...the potentials of the technology were amazing. It must have been easy to be seduced into thinking that it would solve all your problems and grant significant tactical advantages. However, those attitudes didn't account for an enemy capable of analyzing and adapting. I suspect these attitudes were also championed in part by individuals who either weren't familiar with the realities of aerial combat, or just hadn't participated in combat in so long that the memory of those realities had grown dim. I hate to say it, but I feel that this is also the case with many of the Air Force leaders championing the F-35 today.

MSgt Anderson concluded that, "It was a hard lesson we learned or I should say re-learned. It's a shame we have to keep ‘re-inventing the wheel’. If our present day Air Force leaders do not read and pay attention to history then we will make the same stupid mistakes again and again and again."

And that once again brings us to Maj Andreotta's attitude in 2016. The USAF has some (relatively) new technology with the potential to give us a tactical edge in combat. It's very cool, sexy technology. We'd love to think that "if [my enemies] can't see me then I'm never going to get into a dogfight with them."

We need to remember though that we had people saying similar things about the need for a cannon on a fighter aircraft in the 1950s.

We also need to remember that the Serbs shot down a cutting-edge F-117 in 1999 using 30+ year old borrowed Soviet technology. An enemy showed us 17 years ago that they can, in fact, see our stealth aircraft...that even a stealth aircraft can be forced into a fight.

The USAF will undoubtedly argue that it has worked hard over those past 17 years to improve our stealth technology. I certainly hope they have! I absolutely believe they've improved the technology significantly since the F-35.

By the same token, I hope we're not so naive as to think that our potential enemies haven't been working just as hard on technologies designed to detect and attack stealth aircraft. Russia's T-50 PAK FA is still in development. China has only just recently started flying the J-31 and J-20. They're years behind our own aircraft (in part possibly because China probably had to wait until we'd developed the technology so they could steal some of it.) I refuse to believe that either of these countries has been doing nothing about stealth except working on these three fighter jets.

The Serbs probably detected that radar-evading stealth aircraft using a radar. It was probably a technique that even newer stealth technology probably can't beat. (National Interest published an explanation of how this works.) They probably didn't even use the IRST systems that can detect our aircraft well beyond visual range without us even knowing they're looking at us.

If nothing else, Northrop Grumman's bragging about the F-35's own Electro Optical Distributed Aperture System (EO DAS) is an example of technology against which radar-evading stealth has zero effect or advantage. To see them brag, check out an an article I wrote featuring a Northrop Grumman video about the EO DAS more than six year ago. The video highlights the DAS's ability to detect and track targets without the use of any radar. It's a really cool technology (that we should be bolting onto an F-16V, F-18E/F, or F-15 Silent Eagle.) However, it is a perfect example of an existing technology that our potential enemies could use to defeat our stealth aircraft. I am sure that this is just one of several possible technologies that could counter the advantages of stealth.

I worry that if we base American Air Power strategy on the stealthy characteristics of the F-35 and F-22, we're in for a big shock and a lot of disappointment. I worry that we'll find an enemy capable of detecting, tracking, and countering our stealth aircraft. I worry that the F-35 will not have its assumed freedom to operate with impunity while performing CAS. I worry that D-Rail's assumption that he's never even going to be forced to get into a dogfight will be proven wrong. I worry that the aircraft the F-35 has to face when that happens will be at least as capable as a Block 40 F-16D carrying two bags of gas (and certainly more capable than the F-35.)

Is the F-35 a cool jet? Absolutely! Does it leverage technology to levels we've never seen before? Yes. Does it have a valid real-world mission? Yes. None of that makes it a valid replacement for the F-16 or the A-10...even when you consider the possibility of operating in a "contested" environment. None of that justifies spending more than $1 Trillion taxpayer dollars buying 1700+ F-35s. A few hundred? Yes. 1700? No.

The F-35 is nothing more than the daughter of the F-117. It's time for the USAF to admit that.


Even if the USAF were to admit the truth about the F-35, it would have an extremely difficult time turning back now. Numerous sources including Business Insider and Bloomberg have demonstrated that our defense contractors have grown adept at gaining Congressional support for their programs. The F-35 supports more than 32,000 jobs in 46 out of 50 states. Try getting a member of Congress to cut jobs or government pork dollars flowing into his or her state and you'll learn the meaning of futility. It would be difficult enough to accomplish this with one Congressional rep. With the F-35 we're talking about Representatives and Senators from 46 different states.

That's a major obstacle before you even think about how Lockheed Martin, an outstanding American company, would react to having it's F-35 order reduced by 1,400 aircraft. LM would be (rightfully) irate. However, choosing to base our F-35 alternative on an F-16V would keep them fully in the game. They could also win if they were chosen to integrate the F-35's advanced systems into a Boeing aircraft like the F-18E/F or F-15 Silent Eagle.

Sadly, even if the USAF were to admit the truth it would take extraordinary leadership to counter the push-back we'd see from Congress. I'd like to think the USAF has leaders with that kind of courage and will. We need leaders who look at lot more Mitchell than Post, a lot more like Boyd than Hostage, but so far all we've seen is leaders willing to bend truth to the breaking point trying to help sell the F-35 based on capabilities it just doesn't have.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't try though. As a taxpaying citizen you should talk to your Representatives and Senators about the F-35. You should tell them that you know what it is and what it isn't. You should demand that we, as a country, acknowledge the fact that the F-35 is noting more or less than an updated version of the F-117. You should tell them that we need a few, but that it would be wrong to buy them in the numbers we have on order right now. It's not just a waste of money...it would put us at a significant tactical disadvantage if, God forbid, we ever get into a fight with a near-peer adversary. America deserves better than that.