F35 Lightning II lands following flight tests.
The Lockheed Martin F35 Lightning II is one of the most talked about defence procurement projects of all time. It’s also the most expensive, with total project costs estimated at $1 trillion over the type’s lifetime ($40 billion for development alone.) The design has a wide range of advanced new features that are claimed to give it a vast leap in capability over any previous aircraft. Advanced situational awareness systems, integrated support for network-enabled warfare and the most powerful engine ever installed in a fighter aircraft are just three of its selling points. They seem to work, because it’s certainly attracted plenty of orders. Apart from the massive number required by the USA (over 1,760 for the USAF alone, with a further 260 for the USN and 420 for the USMC) an unknown number will be bought by the UK, which is the project’s only Level One partner, and several other countries are lower-level partners in the programme; Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Turkey are all involved and Japan and Singapore, while not programme members, are interested in buying the F35 as their future fighter. Israel is also on the list of potential buyers, although there have been issues caused by their insistence on fitting their own avionics and the partner nations’ refusal to let them. All in all the F35 is a massive, advanced programme to give a number of western and friendly air forces a highly effective new multi-role fighter.
The F35 isn’t without its critics though. Some of the concerns are about specific aspects of the programme, such as the UK government’s idiotic decision to build two full-sized aircraft carriers then limit them to STOVL operations with the F35B. Others strike deeper, going for the F35 design as a whole. The most frequently cited issue is the cost, which has already spiralled far beyond Lockheed Martin’s most pessimistic predictions and is still heading upwards faster than an operational F35 ever will. However cost issues have rarely sunk a defence project completely; at worst the numbers procured may be reduced. What’s more worrying in the case of the Lightning II is the criticism aimed at the aircraft itself.
There’s no doubt about the capability of the aircraft’s electronics. The F35 has been designed from the start to operate alongside unmanned combat systems, so each fighter is capable of acting as mother ship to a swarm of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs.) This would allow the aircraft to stay out of range of enemy defences while sending in UCAVs to carry out reconnaissance and, if necessary, strike targets. Sensor information from the UCAVs and other sources, such as AWACS, can be integrated with the F35’s own sensor system to give outstanding situational awareness. This is also aided by the advanced helmet mounted display, The F35 is actually the first fighter built in decades that doesn’t have a Head Up Display; it doesn’t need one, because all flight and combat information is projected onto a screen directly in front of the pilot’s eyes. The helmet also works with externally mounted cameras to give all-round visibility. An F35 pilot looking down won’t see the floor of his cockpit; he’ll be able to see what’s below the aircraft – and, with the helmet’s targeting capabilities, he’ll be able to attack it.
However, electronics can be added to older aircraft. In fact older designs often have a lot of space that’s filled up by bulky, old-fashioned radios and navigation systems. A comprehensive rebuild with new, miniaturised equipment can fit a lot of capability into those big systems bays, and there’s no reason why a refurbished F15E couldn’t gain a lot of the F35’s network-centric abilities. The latest versions of the Eurofighter Typhoon – which is operational in significant numbers – are already integrating a helmet display system that allows all-round observation and attack.
Of course the F35 is a stealth design, which greatly reduces its vulnerability to enemy surveillance and weapons systems. It’s not an F22A though. Its stealth features are most effective through a fairly narrow angle off the nose, and if a radar is looking at it from any other direction its signature goes up dramatically. While it’s stealthier than a Generation 4.5 aircraft like the Typhoon or Rafale the difference is one of degree, rather than being a completely different ball game like the F22A. And there’s another big difference too. Even if an F22A is detected it can still out-fight any likely opponent. The F35’s ability to do that has been seriously questioned.
Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon insist that the F35’s performance is equal to that of the F16, but the data suggest otherwise. It’s not all that fast and its supercruise ability is poor – in fact significantly inferior to an earlier namesake, the 1957 English Electric Lightning F.1. There have been serious questions asked about its climb rate and its sustained turn rate has been downgraded to a figure that is at best mediocre. Its only hope against a capable fourth generation opponent is to maintain stealth and electronic superiority; if a Typhoon, or a modern Russian type like a Sukhoi Su-30MKI, manages to detect it then it’s probably dead. Unless it sacrifices stealth by carrying external stores it has a restricted weapon load and the self-defence systems are unlikely to be superior to the PRAETORIAN system fitted to Typhoon; in fact the additional systems Israel wants to fit are all defensive avionics, and their declared reason is that they don’t trust the F35’s stealth to keep it safe.
The F35 is by no means a bad design; the reports of groundings and systems failures can be safely ignored, because it’s normal for any new type at this stage of development to have some teething troubles. The big question is whether it’s worth the stupendous amount of money it’s going to cost. As partner nations slash the size of their orders and in some cases consider cancelling altogether it seems that there are more than a few doubts about this.