Reuters breathlessly reports from Farnborough that the F-35 had a dazzling debut at the annual UK air show, and that it is rapidly approaching readiness for real-world operations.
It reads like a Lockheed Martin press release. Nevertheless, let us hope this story is true. It’s bought with your money, after all. The airplane intended to be low-cost that will run $100 million a copy had better work as advertised, and for a good, long time.
However, this paragraph made me pause:
But U.S. officials argue the plane’s sophisticated fusion technology will let it spot enemy jets from such a distance that it never get into an actual dogfight, and that its cost will drop to around $85 million by 2019, stepping up competition with rivals such as Boeing Co F/A-18 and Eurofighter.
The second clause might actually happen – with steady production, costs will almost certainly drop. But the first… oh my, the first.
People forget history.
The aircraft: the F-4 Phantom II. The time: the 1950s.
Supersonic flight and missiles were revolutionizing everything – no dogfights would ever happen again. EVER. All the smart people said so. So the F-4, among other interceptors of the time, was designed without a gun.
But the Vietnam War popped up a couple years after the F-4 hit the fleet. That bubble got burst real quick.
The theory was supersonic fighters would be able to loose a missile at its target and be miles away before the unfortunate opponent even knew a fight was on. However, the tech hadn’t caught up. Missiles of the time weren’t quite as precise as Robert McNamara thought. And pilots would often slow down after the first unsuccessful pass in an attempt to turn around, get behind the target and try again.
Which put them in an oft-quoted situation – too bad there was no gun to remedy it. An externally-mounted one solved the immediate problem, but arguably the issue should have never occurred in the first place.
So now comes the F-35 – all three versions of it. It is a computer around which wings and an engine are mounted, with a bit of space for some weapons and a pilot. The “fusion” Reuters speaks of is (unfortunately) not the chimerical power source, but data from a plethora of sources all using the jet as a node for synthesis and analysis. This, combined with stealth, means it’s supposed to see and kill any aerial enemy before it can be seen and targeted itself.
Where to begin?
This is where we separate the men from the boys, and the general assignment reporter dispatched to an air show versus somebody who’s actually given a thought to the subject.
For argument’s sake let’s assume the F-35 fulfills every requirement (I sure hope it does). It remains the truth that all its immense technical capabilities will be controlled by humans, as war is a human endeavor. How we fight is constrained by any number of human factors, some intentional, some not. Rules of engagement will come into play – for example, if visual identification of a target is required before firing on it, then stealth and range are useless. If satellites are taken down (which will happen in the next Big One), then the datalinks are useless. And if the F-35 really does replace the A-10 in the ground attack role, as the US Air Force has long planned, then it’ll be down low where its radar won’t be able to see far and its noise will announce its presence to anyone with ears.
There might be mitigating measures for all these, to some degree or another. But the prospect of never getting into a short-range scrum is ludicrous. Just because something is technically possible doesn’t mean it’ll happen. And in this case, history shows it is virtually certain not to pan out the way the authorities expect. It is insulting that this stuff is still being peddled by the Joint Strike Fighter project office, uninformed news reporters buy it, and everyone else is expected to believe it.
As is common around here, I hope I’m wrong about everything.
PS – here is a recent background piece if you’re not up to speed on the F-35 project. You know, like a normal person.