America’s F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter may end up becoming cannon fodder for Russian Sukhois, suggests an August 2015 report by the US-based National Security Network (NSN).
In ‘Thunder without Lightning: The High Costs and Limited Benefits of the F-35 Program’, the think tank’s policy analyst Bill French and researcher Daniel Edgren say the F-35 is likely to be “outmaneuvered” and “outgunned” by its “near peers” such as the Russian Su-27 series Flanker fighter jets.
The report backs what a number of independent aviation experts have been saying all along – the F-35 is a truly useless aircraft that will be a sitting duck if it comes up against a serious air force.
“The F-35’s performance characteristics compare unfavourably with already deployed foreign 4th Generation fighters such as the Russian designed MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker in service with air forces around the world,” the report says.
“These are the kinds of aircraft the F-35 would most likely face in air-to-air engagements against a high-end opponent. Compared with both the Su-27 and MiG-29, the F-35 is grossly inferior in terms of wing loading (except for the F-35C), transonic acceleration, and thrust-to-weight. All F-35 variants also have significantly lower maximum speeds, Mach 1.6 for the F-35 compared to Mach 2.2 for the Su-27 and Mach 2.3 for the MiG-29.”
Air-to-air simulations paint a grimmer picture. “In 2009, US Air Force and Lockheed Martin analysts indicated the F-35 could be expected to achieve only a 3-to-1 kill ratio against the decades-old MiG-29 and Su-27 despite its advantages in stealth and avionics.”
The results of other simulations have been far worse. “In one simulation subcontracted by the RAND Corporation, the F-35 incurred a loss exchange ratio of 2.4-to-1 against (Chinese air force) Su-35s. That is, more than two F-35s were lost for eachSu-35 shot down.
“While these simulations take into account a host of other factors and include assumptions about the context in which the engagements take place, they nevertheless underscore the need for scepticism regarding the F-35’s air-to-air capabilities.”
The report agrees with the philosophy of Russian air combat where pilots prepare for close-up dogfights rather than rely entirely on beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles to achieve kills. “To succeed in air-to-air roles, the F-35 will very likely have to defeat enemy aircraft in within-visual-range (WVR) engagements, i.e. dogfighting,” the report says. However, the F-35 will be severely handicapped in close quarters with enemy aircraft. Dogfighting requires agility and maneuverability.”
But the F-35 lacks these characteristics and in testing has demonstrated maneuverability inferior to that of American 4thGeneration fighter aircraft – such as the F-16, F-15 and F-18 – it will replace. “The available data indicate the F-35 will be less maneuverable than advanced foreign fighters as well. While the F-35 was designed with a preference for BVR combat, in which maneuverability is supposedly less significant, history shows dogfighting is a persistent feature of air-to-air combat. Despite the F-35’s designers’ preference for long-range combat, avoiding dogfights may prove difficult.”
The Indian military summed it up beautifully after an air combat exercise with English air force pilots in Waddington in 2007: According to India’s Ministry of Defence, because there are plenty of counter and counter-counter measures available to make “modern missiles with claims of inescapable parameters redundant by using ‘chaff’ and other active/passive measures, a ‘gun kill’ is invariably a most certain kill”.
Western pilots who do not hone their close combat skills are in for a nasty surprise if they face a capable air force such as those of Russia, India or China.
The F-35 is a large aircraft but most of its internal space is taken up for fuel. This is a double whammy for the Lightning. First up, there’s precious little internal space for carrying bombs and missiles. Secondly, if the missiles are carried on external hard points, it nullifies whatever little claimed stealth it has.
“In addition to lacking maneuverability, the F-35 is hampered by limited space for storing weapons in its internal bays. A deficient weapons capacity has significant consequences for the aircraft’s ability to conduct missions against air and surface targets. In air-to-air engagements, the F-35 will be outgunned by foreign fighters that can carry greater numbers of missiles and cannon rounds.
“Nor can the aircraft carry enough long-range missiles to ensure it can fight effectively and reliably in BVR engagements. In engagements against surface targets, the F-35’s small internal payload means it will be able to destroy fewer targets per sortie if maintaining a stealthy configuration. This problem will be exacerbated by the F-35’s limited ability to generate sorties, i.e., fly missions, to repeatedly deliver its weapons to targets over the duration of a campaign.”
On the other hand, Russian Flankers have 10 external hard points to carry air-to-air missiles or other ordinance. Some like the Su-35 Super Flanker have 12 external hard points. This is a huge advantage for Flanker pilots because they can fire repeated salvos to achieve an air-to-air kill.
Compared with the armoury of short-, medium- and long-range missiles that Flankers are known to carry, the F-35 has been virtually disarmed. French and Edgren quote Major Richard Koch, chief of the US Air Force Air Combat Command advanced air dominance branch, “I wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of the F-35 going in with only two air-dominance weapons.” But the aircraft is still sizeably outgunned even when carrying the maximum four missiles.
Missiles that miss
According to French and Edgren, the American plan to use the F-35 as a long-range combat platform – using BVR missiles – is fatally flawed because US air-to-air missiles do not have a splendid record in war. “During the Cold War, radar-guided missiles achieved a 6.6 per cent probability of kill in BVR engagements. Of the conflicts featuring BVR engagements, the highest probability of kill was achieved by Israel in the 1982 Lebanon War, yielding a 20 per cent kill rate. In the post-Cold War era, the effectiveness of BVR missiles improved. Through 2008, the US achieved a 46 per cent probability of kill with the AIM-120AMRAAM (the mainstay of the US BVR missile inventory), though these results are based on a tiny sample size of 6 engagements.”
However, the report warns, the above gains in missile effectiveness should not be expected to apply to conflict against “near-peer competitors”, which presumably include Russia, China and India as well as countries flying advanced Russian warplanes. “According to analysis by RAND, the US AIM-120 record is weighted heavily by circumstances that favour the shooter: none of the kills was achieved against adversaries that themselves had similar BVR missiles; the downed pilots did not employ electronic countermeasures, in some cases were fleeing, non-maneuvering, or lacked radar; and one case (out of a total of six) was an instance of friendly fire. US aircraft also enjoyed quantitative parity or superiority in all cases.”
The above circumstances should not be expected to characterize BVR engagements between the US and an advanced adversary. “For example, the presence of electronic countermeasures alone would probably result in a drastically lower probability of kill as Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft presently employ electronic countermeasures that use digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) jamming reported to significantly hinder radar-guided missile effectiveness.
“We, the US, haven’t been pursuing appropriate methods to counter electronic attack for years,” a senior US Air Force official with extensive experience on the F-22 (the US’s most expensive stealth fighter) told The Daily Beast. “So, while we are stealthy, we will have a hard time working our way through the electronic attack to target (aircraft such as Russian-built) Su-35s and our missiles will have a hard time killing them.”
DRFM jammers in Russian and Chinese aircraft are reported to “effectively memorise an incoming radar signal and repeat it back to the sender, seriously (hampering) the performance of friendly radars. Worse, these new jammers essentially blind the small radars found onboard air-to-air missiles like the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM, which is the primary long-range weapon for all US and most allied fighter planes”.
The report concludes: “Despite plans for the F-35 to replace most of America’s fighter and attack aircraft, the platform is ill-suited to cost-effectively counter near-peer foreign militaries. The aircraft lacks the maneuverability, payload, likely ability to generate sorties, and range to effectively compete with near-peer competitors despite its lifetime costs of $1.4 trillion.
“The aircraft’s survivability depends largely upon stealth characteristics that are already at risk for obsolescence against adversaries who over the next 50 years will only continue to upgrade their radar and infrared detection systems….Given the critical failings of the F-35 programme and its exorbitant costs, the aircraft should be regarded as a bad bet. As such, proceeding with the full programme buy of nearly 2,500 units – or any large-scale buy that approaches that number – should be avoided.”
The think tank’s findings portend grave implications for American security. “By staying fully committed to the F-35 programme, the United States is investing unprecedented resources in the wrong aircraft, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons,” it says.
If the US still proceeds with full scale production, slated for 2019, the F-35 could turn out to be the biggest dud in military history, putting at risk American, and allied, lives in danger.