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The F-35 May Not Be So Special After All

July 23, 2019

The multirole F-35 might be considered the pinnacle of US military technology but it isn’t without issues. As the model goes mainstream and is snapped up by different countries, some analysts are beginning to notice its limitations. Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) takes stock of a looming crisis for the US Air Force’s current fleet: whether or not newer F-15E/X’ are a better investment than ordering more F-35A’s.

See, as Barrie explains, with the F-22 Raptor’s production line dormant and the F-15C pushing past 33 years,the F-35A is far from a viable model for the USAF’s complicated missions. Barrie describes Lockheed Martin’s stealthy F-35A being “intended more toward the air-to-surface mission.” This makes it ill-suited for maintaining air superiority during an actual war scenario that doesn’t involve bombing terrorists.

Under the current levels of budgeting for the USAF at least 48 F-35’s are entering service each year until 2024. This 2019, however, a total of 131 F-35A’s are being delivered since Lockheed Martin is hedging its production line with sales to foreign partners. Four new potential operators of the F-35A are Poland, Greece, Singapore, and Spain.

Yet sales figures don’t matter to Barrie. In his short essay for the IISS blog titled F-35 Situational Awareness: Sensing Isn’t Enough he explains how the F-35A’s superb avionics are its greatest asset for detecting and targeting air and ground-based adversaries at extreme range. But the F-35A is no dogfighter and a poor complement to the F-22 for air defense and suppression, with only 195 of the latter built and 166 in service for the next two decades. As Barrie points out, the USAF must buy new F-15’s to keep its dwindling fixed wing combat aircraft fleet large enough for a global role and ahead of the competition.

But the Boeing F-15EX has triggered a lot of controversy. The USAF believes it can maintain its combat fleet by purchasing 144 of the new F-15 variants in the 2020s. The attraction of flying the latest F-15’s is its peerless reputation as an air-to-air fighter and having the F-35A’s sensor suite added to it, giving the pilot a huge awareness and visibility boost. Some critics aren’t buying, however, and decry the F-15’s outdated design and the danger posed by the latest air defense systems.

Based on figures published by the USAF, as of 2019 its fixed wing combat aircraft inventory boasts 212 F-35A’s. Total combat aircraft reaches 1,242 with the greatest number belonging to 548 F-16C/D’s. By comparison, the Chinese PLAAF can only muster several hundred third and fourth-generation fighters (out of 2,300 total) and a few dozen J-20 stealth combat aircraft at most. The US Navy and the Marine Corps, by the way, are the main operators of the VTOL F-35B  and the carrier-based F-35C.

Readers will find the accompanying graphics on Barrie’s essay helpful for understanding why the F-35A is so prized. He also breaks down the model’s renowned sensor suite. These are:

  • The APG-81 AESA radar panel inside its nose.
  • The AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS), found in front and behind the cockpit.
  • The Electro-optical Targeting System (EOTS) under the cockpit’s fuselage.
  • The ASQ-239 electronic warfare suite.
  • The frontal edge of the F-35A’s wings serve as radar warning receivers.

Barrie does reveal a peculiar weakness of the F-35A. The complicated sensor suite feeds real time data to the pilot through an interactive helmet display. But this process is being refined by the arrival of a better Integrated Core Processor “due to emerge after 2023” along with a new DAS. Barrie doesn’t mention how this impacts the pilot’s abilities but it’s safe to assume he or she will be flooded with theater-wide data during a mission.

There are other unstated weaknesses of the F-35A/B/C that have nothing to do with the planes themselves. Two potent threats are advances in very high frequency (VHF) radar systems and their accompanying medium and long-range surface-to-air missiles and the risk of airbases and other sites hosting fifth-generation aircraft being struck by the enemy’s precision weapons and drone swarms.

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