The F-35: A flying boondoggle

William Kim

Staff Writer

The F-35 is the most expensive defense program in history. A Pentagon document obtained by Reuters estimates that the F-35 program will cost $1.5 trillion for development, procurement, maintenance, and operation. This estimate does not include future upgrades. Worse, the cost is still rising.

Most importantly, the F-35 isn’t a very strong aircraft. The weaknesses of the F-35 reveal that it is not worth its high cost. First, the F-35’s headrest is too large and impedes rear visibility. This is very dangerous in air-to-air combat because it is crucial that pilots be able to “check their six” and detect enemy fighters coming up behind them. Indeed, the Soviet Mig-21’s limited rear visibility meant that many of them fell prey to fighters attacking from the rear.

Secondly, the F-35 carries a pitifully small payload. The F-35 is a relatively small aircraft to begin with and due to its position as a stealth plane, it must carry its armament internally. Thus, the military plans to arm the F-35 with only two air-to-air missiles. The F-35 wouldn’t have a chance in a dogfight if it were outnumbered three-to-one or more. Worse, what if one of the missiles misses its target or malfunctions?

Major Richard Koch, chief of United States Air Force (USAF) Air Combat Command’s advanced air dominance branch reportedly commented on the possible failures of the aircraft.

“I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of the F-35 going in with only two air-dominance weapons,” Koch said.

Perhaps the greatest failure is the complexity and contradictions inherent in the design. The F-35 is a one-size fits all aircraft. There is a land-based variant for the Air Force, a carrier based variant for the Navy, and a Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant for the Marines. The result is an underpowered and overweight plane that, in the words of one RAND analyst “can’t turn, can’t climb, and can’t run”. In short, by attempting to do everything the F-35 is successful at nothing.

Moreover, the F-35 program is behind schedule. The F-35 was expected to enter service in 2010 but that date has been pushed back to 2015, and the Navy and Marine Corps variants are not expecting to enter service until 2016 and 2019 respectively. By the time the F-35 enters service, advances in Russian and Chinese air defenses might negate its stealth features.

The F-35 program should be immediately cancelled. The US military should instead upgrade existing aircraft with a proven track record.

The Navy should purchase upgraded Super Hornets. Each Super Hornet costs about $66.9 million, while each F-35C costs $235 million. Thus, the Navy can purchase three and a half Super Hornets for every one F-35C. The Super Hornet has served in every conflict since its inception and has proven to be a capable and adaptable fighter. The F-35C exceeds the Super Hornet in three ways: sensors, range and stealth.

However, Boeing has a Block III Super Hornet under development that has conformal fuel tanks that give it a similar range to the F-35C. The Block III Super Hornet also has sensors that are roughly equivalent to the F-35’s. For stealth, Boeing has developed an enclosed weapons pod with a stealthy shape that can be fitted on the Super Hornet. Furthermore, the Super Hornet already has stealthy features including stealth shaping, radar absorbent coating on key areas, and angled AESA radar. Finally, the Block III improvements also include a glass cockpit display that is similar to the F-35’s and improved engines that increase thrust by 20 percent.

Additionally, the Navy should buy more EA-18G Growlers. These are electronic warfare planes that can jam radars and remove the need for stealth in the first place.

The Marine Corps should also be allowed to buy Block III Super Hornets to replace their aging F-18Cs. The Marines want the F-35B because of its STOVL capabilities. The need for STOVL aircraft is arguable due to their short range. If STOVL aircrafts are stationed too far away from the battlefield, they will be unable to carry a very large payload or be able to achieve the distance. However, if they are stationed too close, they could become vulnerable to enemy commandos and rocket artillery.

If the Marines insist on a STOVL, a “Super Harrier” should be developed with greater range, bigger size, stealthier features, more sophisticated sensors, better electronic warfare capabilities, more AESA radar, heavier armament, additional lightweight armor, and improved engines. Each Super Harrier probably costs less than $100 million, far less than the $291 million price tag of the F-35B

The Air Force should upgrade its F-15s and F-16s. Boeing is already developing the F-15 Silent Eagle, an aircraft that is just as stealthy as the F-35 from the front but also includes improved radar and electronic warfare capabilities. Similar improvements could also be made to F-16s.

If the Air Force insists on stealth capabilities, the purchase of additional F-22s would be an adequate solution. The F-22 is far more capable than the F-35 and costs $22 million less. The F-22 can also be fitted with some of the features of the F-35 such as improved sensors and a helmet-mounted display. To fulfill the ground attack role, the Pentagon can develop a ground attack variant of the F-22 called the FB-22 Strike Raptor. The cost of doing so would be $40 billion, far less than the F-35 program.

The need for stealth is debatable at best. Stealth aircrafts are hard to maintain and they carry a smaller payload. Furthermore, many nations are developing countermeasures to stealth.

For attacking surface targets, it would be better to implement cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are very hard to detect because they fly very low. Also, bombers can launch them beyond radar range and stay undetected

For aerial combat, it would be wise to arm AWACS. AWACS have large radars that can detect a fighter 400 miles out, and can even detect at 250 miles if the target flies low. A fighter’s radar can only see 100 miles out. Thus, AWACS can detect a fighter long before it was detected. AWACS could be armed with a cruise missile with a range of 650 miles or more. The cruise missile would contain a short-range missile that would deploy once it got close. Their long range would allow them to attack from the top, side, or rear. Since fighters have radar that only sees forward, they would not know where the missiles were coming from. This would be the equivalent of stealth in an aerial battle.

All of these alternatives could be funded by the money saved from cancelling the F-35, with money still left over. This would leave billions of dollars available for other programs, while giving the military superior capabilities in the skies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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