Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Abandon the F-35, Continued

The latest on our trillion dollar boondoggle of a fighter plane is that, according to reports circulating on defense news sites, it can't defeat a 30-year-old F-16 in a dogfight:
The F-35’s ability to compete against other fighter aircraft in a close-in dogfight, even against the decades old designs it looks to replace, has always been a contentious issue. Long ago, the F-35’s maneuverability was planned to far exceed that of fourth generation fighters. Over time, those claims eroded to the point where the troubled stealth jet is described as being “about as maneuverable as an F-16.” . . .
And now we have a first-hand account of a simulated dogfight:
The test pilot flying the F-35 makes it very clear that the new jet, even in its ideal configuration without any external stores, was no match against a Block-40 F-16C in a less-than-ideal configuration with a pair of under-wing fuel tanks:

Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement. 

In dogfighting, energy is everything, and if your enemy has more kinetic and potential energy for maneuvers than you do, then you’re toast.
Great way to spend a few hundred billion, no?


G. Verloren said...

The F-35 is less a "fighter" and more a glorified bomber or gunship.

Yes, the F-35 doesn't dogfight very well. But it's a stealth aircraft, designed to be able to detect and fire upon enemies at long range while remaining invisible to enemy detection. If you're flying these planes close enough to an enemy that they can visually detect you and engage at close range, you've done something very, very wrong.

It also was built for different usages and 'roles' than the F-16.

The Falcon is an air superiority fighter built for daytight flight. The primary job it was specifically designed for is close range engagement and dogfighting in clear weather with good visibility.

Meanwhile, the F-35 is was specifically designed to be a long range stealth fighter, taking out enemies with precision strikes before they even had a chance of detecting it, much less locating and engaging it. Maneuverability isn't nearly as important in that capacity as having better sensor evasion and detection systems is.

It's like the differences between an assault rifle and a sniper rifle.

Assault rifles hold a lot of rounds and have automatic fire, making them great for close range engagements and all out firefights. But their accuracy kind of stinks at medium ranges, and is absolutely awful at long ones - they're terrible sniping weapons.

Meanwhile, sniper rifles hold only a few rounds, fire slowly, and are larger and more cumbersome than assault rifles - you definitely wouldn't want to use one in a close quarters urban firefight. But with a proper marksmen to aim them, they can take out high value targets with precision from half a mile away, without the enemy having any warning and without the possibility of effective retaliation.

Tools are built with certain usages in mind - be they weapons, vehicles, or anything else. A rubber mallet isn't worse than a sledgehammer because it doesn't hit as hard - they're meant for entirely different purposes, and their qualities suit the needs of their usages.

So while the F-35 can't beat an F-16 in a dogfight, one must also point out that an F-16 can't beat an F-35 in anything OTHER than a dogfight. At any sort of appreciable range, the F-16 is a sitting duck.

John said...

This is indeed the theory behind the F-35, but from what I read its stealth abilities are turning out not to be nearly what was intended, and anyway the builders of radar are increasingly able to beat our bag of stealth tricks. A trillion dollars is a lot to spend on a plane that might be rendered obsolete by better radar before it even becomes fully operational.

G. Verloren said...

Yet at the time the project was started, we had no notion what sort of advances might occur in radar technology. And if we're comparing to the F-16, we must take into account the fact that their electronic systems are now downright ancient in comparison.

One might argue we'd be better served to retrofit the F-16 to have more modern electronics - indeed that's probably something that's going to be done at some point. But even then, the F-16 is still only truly suited for it's intended role. It has certain design limits and tradeoffs that simply cannot be overcome.

If the F-35 isn't as superbly stealthy as might have been hoped, it's still decidedly not going to stick out like a sore thumb the way an aged F-16 will, and it still is going to have vastly superior long range capabilities. And we otherwise lack any sort of long-range fighter that could fill the needed role, so I really don't know what anyone honestly expects the military to do other than continue the project.

Was it the best possible bang for the buck? Absolutely not. But military spending is never clean and easy, even putting aside issues like whether we should even be doing it in the first place.

The entire process is a nightmare of trying to get engineering, politics, and cost to align in a way that is acceptable to a half dozen different parties with different interests and needs. Compound the whole situation with a development timescale that necessarily spans decades, during which both technology and tactics can change radically, and you've got a problem that very rarely can be solved to everyone's satisfaction - and sometimes can't even be solved at all! The number of military prototypes that show extreme promise and then just... fizzle out, often after many billions of dollars are spent, is staggering.