New F-35 Mission
It becomes clearer and clearer every day that the F-35 airplane is a failure as a future frontline fighter aircraft. A failure we can ill afford to pursue as the possibility of the inter-state conflict becomes more real every year. The program which was initially conceived for all three services to replace their aging fighter fleet is the victim of that same design. Just as the F-111 was initially conceived as a multi service platform, a task at which it failed, the F-35 will fail as well. One need only to type “F-16 vs F-35” into Google and the latest failure report comes out. At the base of it, the F-35 is just a bad airplane design because of multi-service compromises, just like the F-111 was. The Navy, as with F-111, saw the fiasco coming and invested in only 200 or so F-35 units, which is why they slowly recapitalized their fighter fleet with the proven and upgraded F-18E/F. It wouldn’t even be surprising if at some point in the future the Navy totally pulled out of the F-35 program as they did with F-111 and focus on something better.
For the US Air Force (USAF) the time has come to admit failure and change direction. While given its technologies the F-35 will at some point be an okay Beyond Visual Range (BVR) platform, the poor design is a proven a failure at the Within Visual Range (WVR) fight. The recent F-16 vs F-35 test showed exactly that. The report would have been even worse if the F-16 would have been flown in a combat configuration without wing tanks, which any pilot would jettison prior to engaging in the WVR air to air combat. While the defenders of the F-35 are saying the F-35 will never need to engage in WVR fight, it sounds as if we have been transported 50 years in the past. The same was said of the F-4, and that turned out to be completely wrong. To imagine that in major combat operations that the F-35 will not need to engage in WVR is folly. For every electronic capability, there is a counter electronic capability. To think that our adversaries are not working on counter F-35 technology is naive. If the F-35 stealth and electronic capability was ever neutralized it would be in a world of hurt, just like the stealthy F-117 over Bosnia in 1999. However, there is a different way forward.
With regards to the F-35, the Air Force should immediately halt the buys. There is no reason to throw good money after the bad. The small F-35 fleet of 200 airplanes should be capped as is. And while the F-35 does not have a future as a front-line fighter aircraft, it can have a future as an electronic warfare (EW) aircraft. Much like the EF-111, and the EA-18G, the F-35 can still serve a useful purpose. The aircraft is well suited for the role and has inherent self-defense capabilities that the EF-111 lacked, such as the AIM-120 internally carried air to air missile. With slight modification an F-35 can become an EF-35, a capability which at this time the Air Force does not possess. With that modification the Air Force can still find a useful employment for the aircraft, and add its capability to supplement the fighter force of future. While providing standoff EW support for the aircraft engaged in combat operations there would not be a need for the EF-35 to ever go inside a WVR engagement and as such its WVR limitation would not apply to future combat.
Future Fighter Force
The US Air Force does need a replacement for the aging fighter aircraft that compose the bulk of its frontline fighters. To do so the basic strategy for a future conflict needs to be understood. What the USAF needs is a mix of very capable and capable aircraft, much like a super bowl team that has a few pro-bowl level players with solid mix of slightly above average players complementing them. In the same way the future of USAF will have to consist of the minority of very capable day one of the war platforms and the majority of the day after platforms. That is, someone to kick the door down by destroying the adversary’s most capable air defense systems and then someone to bring the majority of the firepower to bear after the defenses have been destroyed or degraded.
Luckily for the USAF the platforms in mind already exist or can become feasible in a very short order. The two aircraft are the upgraded F-22 and the upgraded F-16. To remain a viable form of military instrument of power the USAF has to plus up the F-22 fleet and completely replace the F-16 fleet. Both aircraft are a good match because inherently both are well designed airplanes. The F-22 is a 5th generation aircraft with no equal and performs well both in BVR and WVR engagements. While the F-16 if upgraded to the F-16 E/F+ level can become a lethal 4.5 generation fighter aircraft. Both aircraft would complement each other with the F-22 destroying or disrupting the most capable air defenses, while the F-16 would provide the bulk of ordinance in pursuit of US objectives. With modern and integrated avionics the F-16E/F+ would be capable of supporting the F-22s even on day one of the war, especially with EF-35 support.
To be even better both airplanes could be redesigned with ease of maintenance and upgrades in mind. For those not familiar with fighter operations, at any given time a certain number of airplanes are down for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. If the time it takes to conduct each could be reduced, the benefits in reducing the number hours the airplanes are unavailable and the number of maintenance personnel required for their servicing could be immense. The savings in maintenance personnel will also result in the corresponding savings in support personnel. Add to that the coming robotics revolution and it is not too far-fetched to imagine robots doing most of routine maintenance with minimal human supervision, further reducing the personnel requirement. While not possible now to incorporate robotic maintenance, both upgraded F-22s and F-16s could be redesigned with that future and ease of avionic upgrade in mind.
So what about the numbers? The savings from stopping the F-35 program could be translated into new purchases for the F-22 and F-16. The number of F-22 has to be increased from the current sub two hundred to at least five hundred. Some of which could be stationed in the Pacific and some in Europe, with the majority in the US available for either theater support. The new F-16s would completely replace every US active duty, reserve, and guard squadron F-16, which according the F-16.net is about 1,000 aircraft. The number is about right, especially combined with added F-22s and EF-35s. Combined together the future fighter force would be ready to handle any contingency. The total price would also be reduced with the F-16 estimated price of approx. $50M per aircraft the total would come out to $50B dollars. The F-22s, using the $187M per unit price would come out to $53B dollars, for a combined total of $103B. Which is much less than the estimated $300B plus slatted for the F-35 program.
The future of USAF fighter force and by extension the US military power is at stake. Without adjustment the Combat Air Forces are on the way to equipping their fighter units with a poorly designed airplane that is not ready for all contingencies. As more and more studies are coming out showcasing the F-35 limitation, USAF has a choice. It can continue with a plan that has failed or change direction and create a fighter force which will secure air dominance for the US well into this century. Without air superiority nothing else the USAF does or any of the other services do will be possible. The reason for the dominance of the US military instrument of power is the ability of the USAF to assure complete air dominance anywhere in the world. Such will only be possible in the future if the US is willing to invest in the fighter force of the future which is capable of engaging the adversaries both in BVR and WVR combat. For that to happen the F-35 program in its current state has to be stopped.