Mil.huanqiu.com shows a PLA Air Force promotion film today that shows off the flights of China’s advanced warplanes with focus on China’s stealth fighter jet J-20. The report titled “Fighting Eagles Defend Motherland at New Year! Air Force Issues Shocking Promotion Film with Rare Exposures of J-20s”.
The report and film in Chinese can be viewed at https://mil.huanqiu.com/article/3wkF1fErJZE. I don’t think the film needs translation.
Comment by Chan Kai Yee on mil.huanqiu.com’s report.
National Interest said in its outdated 2019-April-23 article “The Real Top Gun: Could China’s J-20 Fighter Beat An F-35 or F-22 in a Dogfight?” that China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet “lacked the maneuverability necessary to prevail in close engagements with enemy fighters. Relatively modest aerobatic displays in the Zhuhai 2016 and 2018 airshows” so that it concluded that China’s J-20 cannot beat F-35 or F-22 in a dogfight.
Sorry, its information is outdated, in mid October 2019, J-20 showed off its superb maneuverability with full load of weapons in a display to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of PLA Air Force. That was because it has been equipped with world most powerful fighter engine WS-15. I provided the information of China’s success in developing WS-15 in my post “At Least 3 Batches of World Most Powerful WS-15 Engine Delivered” on September 1, 2019.
Comment by Chan Kai Yee on National Interest’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/real-top-gun-could-chinas-j-20-fighter-beat-f-35-or-f-22-dogfight-53847
Forbes’ article “Building The Air Force We Need To Meet Chinese And Russian Threats” begins by saying, “In January, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released its unclassified assessment of China’s military capabilities, with the telling subtitle: ‘Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win.’ As DIA director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley explained: ‘China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region.’ He went on to emphasize: ‘…the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapons systems in the world. In some areas, it already leads the world.’”
The writer of the article blames former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for ceasing production of stealth fighter F-22 as he predicted that China would not have any stealth fighter jet by 2020 but why did he no change his mind to regard China’s military development as a “threat” when China tested its J-20 stealth fighter for the first time when he visited China in 2011? Because he was arrogant and did not believe that China would succeed in satisfactorily developing J-20 by 2020.
Now, Pentagon has changed its mind and begun to take China’s military development seriously. However, the US lacks funds to substantially increase its military budget. With much smaller budget, China is still able to catch up with and surpass the US. What if it substantially increase its budget? China has lots of funds to do so.
How can the US stop its own decline and China’s rise?
Think about that.
Comment by Chan Kai Yee on Forbes’ article, full text of which can be viewed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/davedeptula/2019/02/11/building-the-air-force-we-need/amp/.
In spite of the great progress China has achieved in catching up and surpassing Western powers, China is not satisfied with nor conceited about its successes as it has to fight for its own goals for its rejuvenation. If China has attained its goal for the next three decades, the US will fall far behind China. The US could not but remain enjoying the nostalgia of China’s failures in the past
It seems the US is helpless at China’s further rise as it has no national consensus to work hard to maintain its economic and technological leadership so that Americans have the mentality for nostalgia of the past.
To please them National Interest published an article dated October 14, 2018 more than one year ago to elaborate China’s problem in developing satisfactory engines for its warplanes especially WS-10 and WS-15 for China’s fighter jets. It chooses the date cleverly as three weeks later on November 6 China proves its success in developing a new version of WS-10 with vector thrust control (VTC) and showcased it in its airshow that day of a J-10B with VTC WS-10 engine that displayed its superb maneuverability in performing Pugachev’s Cobra and Falling Lease.
In Global Times report in Chinese on the event titled “When will J-20’s engines be replaced by vector engines? Yang Wei: How do you know they are not used” on November 7 says that when J-10B and J-20’s chief engineer Yang Wei was asked the question when J-20’s engines will be replaced by vector engines? “Yang Wei replied: your question is about when vector engines will be used on J-20, but how do you know that vector engines are not used on J-20 now?” (See my post “J-20 Uses Vector Engines and Has Superb Maneuverability” on November 7, 2018}
J-10B’s display of its super maneuverability proves China’s success in developing WS-10 engine with vector thrust. That is certainly based on its success in developing WS-10 without vector thrust.
Later on September 2019, there had been information that China had delivered at least three batches of WS-15 engines. I have a post about the information inferred from official news though information about WS-15 and J-20 remains China’s top secret. (See my post “At Least 3 Batches of World Most Powerful WS-15 Engine Delivered” on September 1, 2019.)
China is making progress so fast in developing technology while for decades the US has not been able to develop a powerful engine for F-35 to enable it to supercruise without boosting. It had better remain enjoying nostalgia of the news about China’s failures in the past.
Comment by Chan Kai Yee on National Interest’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/chinas-air-force-has-one-big-problem-it-cant-seem-solve-34192
But can it take on America in a fight?
by Sebastien Roblin
Unlike the F-22 Raptor, designed to be the ultimate air superiority fighter, or the single-engine multirole F-35 Lightning, the J-20 is a huge twin-engine beast optimized for speed, range and heavy weapons loads at the expense of maneuverability. (This reblogger’s note as J-20 is installed with world most powerful fighter jet engine WS-15, its maneuverability is better than F-22 and F-35 now)
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China and its sister branch, the PLA Naval Air Force, operate a huge fleet of around 1,700 combat aircraft—defined here as fighters, bombers and attack planes. This force is exceeded only by the 3,400 active combat aircraft of the U.S. military. Moreover, China operates a lot of different aircraft types that are not well known in the West.
(This first appeared several years ago. (This reblogger’s note: The article is not updated so that it fails to include recent developments such as China’s success in developing world most advanced fighter jet engine WS-15 and improvements of its WS-10 engine by turning it into an engine with vector thrust.))
However, most Chinese military aircraft are inspired by or copied from Russian or American designs, so it’s not too hard to grasp their capabilities if you know their origins. (This reblogger’s note: China’s J-10 with most of China’s own intellectual property and China’s J-20 with canard design entirely not cloned from US or Russia prove that the above description is outdated. For the most advanced technology including vector-thrust WS-10 engine in J-10, please refer to my reblog of National Interest article “Could This 1 Chinese Fighter Jet Take on the Air Forces Best?” on December 15.)
The Soviet-Era Clones
The Soviet Union and Communist China were best buddies during the 1950s, so Moscow transferred plenty of technology including tanks and jet fighters. One of the early Chinese-manufactured types was the J-6, a clone of the supersonic MiG-19, which has a jet intake in the nose. Though China built thousands of J-6s, all but a few have been retired. However, about 150 of a pointy-nosed ground-attack version, the Nanchang Q-5, remain in service, upgraded to employ precision-guided munitions.
Recommended: Why North Korea’s Air Force is Total Junk
Sino-Soviet friendship ended in an ugly breakup around 1960. But in 1962, the Soviets offered China a dozen hot new MiG-21 fighters as part of a peace overture. Beijing rejected the overture but kept the fighters, which were reverse-engineered into the sturdier (but heavier) Chengdu J-7. Production began slowly due to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but between 1978 and 2013 Chinese factories turned out thousands of the pencil-fuselage jet fighters in dozens of variants. Nearly four hundred still serve in the PLAAF and PLANAF.
The J-7 is a 1950s-era hot rod in terms of maneuverability and speed—it can keep up with an F-16 at Mach 2—but it cannot carry much fuel or armament, and it has a weak radar in its tiny nose cone. Still, China has worked to keep the J-7 relevant. The J-7G introduced in 2004 includes an Israeli doppler radar (detection range: thirty-seven miles) and improved missiles for beyond-visual range capabilities, as well as a digital “glass cockpit.”
These aircraft would struggle against modern fourth-generation fighters that can detect and engage adversaries at much greater ranges, though hypothetically mass formations could attempt to overwhelm defenders with swarm attacks. Still, the J-7s allow China to maintain a larger force of trained pilots and support personnel until new designs come into service.
Another Soviet-era clone is the Xi’an H-6, a twin-engine strategic bomber based on the early-1950s era Tu-16 Badger. Though less capable than the U.S. B-52 or Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers, the air-refuelable H-6K remains relevant because it could lug heavy long-range cruise-missiles hit naval or ground targets as far as four thousand miles from China without entering the range of air defenses. The H-6 was originally tasked with dropping nuclear weapons, but the PLAAF no longer seems interested in this role. Xi’an is reportedly developing a new H-20 strategic bomber, though there’s little information available so far.
In the mid-1960s, China began working on genuinely home-designed combat jets, leading to the Shenyang J-8 debuting in 1979. A large twin-turbojet supersonic interceptor that could attain Mach 2.2 and resembled a cross between the MiG-21 and the larger Su-15, the J-8 lacked modern avionics and maneuverability. However, the succeeding J-8II variant (about 150 currently serving) improved on the former with an Israeli radar in a new pointy-nose cone, making it a fast but heavy weapons platform a bit like the F-4 Phantom. Around 150 are still operational.
The two-hundred-plus Xi’an JH-7 Flying Leopards, which entered service in 1992, are beefy two-seat naval-attack fighter-bombers that can lug up to twenty thousand pounds of missiles and have a top speed of Mach 1.75. Though they wouldn’t want to get in a dogfight with opposing contemporary fighters, they may not have to if they can capitalize on long-range antiship missiles.
The Chengdu J-10 Vigorous Dragon, by contrast, is basically China’s F-16 Fighting Falcon, a highly maneuverable, lightweight multirole fighter leaning on fly-by-wire avionics to compensate for its aerodynamically unstable airframe. Currently dependent on Russian AL-31F turbofans, and coming several decades after the F-16 debuted, the J-10 seems may not seem earthshaking, but the J-10B model comes out of the box with twenty-first-century avionics such as advanced infrared search-and-track systems and a cutting-edge Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which cannot be said for all F-16 types. However, the fleet of 250 J-10s has suffered several deadly accidents possibly related to difficulties in the fly-by-wire system. (The article is ignorant of China latest version of J-10, the most advanced J-10C with China’s vector-thrust WS-10 engine as described in my reblog of National Interest article “Could This 1 Chinese Fighter Jet Take on the Air Forces Best?” on December 15.)
The Flanker Comes to China—And Stays There
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Russia starved for cash and no longer concerned about ideological disputes was happy to oblige when Beijing came knocking at the door asking to buy then state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, a highly maneuverable twin-engine jet comparable to the F-15 Eagle with excellent range and payload. This proved a fateful decision: today a sprawling family of aircraft derived from the Su-27 form the core of China’s modern fighter force.
After importing the initial batch of Su-27s, Beijing purchased a license to domestically build their own copy, the Shenyang J-11—but to Russia’s dismay, began independently building more advanced models, the J-11B and D.
Moscow felt burned, but still sold seventy-six modernized ground- and naval-attack variants of the Flanker, the Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 respectively, which parallel the F-15E Strike Eagle. Chinese designers also churned out their own derivative of the Su-30: the Shenyang J-16 Red Eagle, boasting an AESA radar, and the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark, a carrier-based fighter based on a Russian Su-33 acquired from Ukraine. Around twenty now serve on China’s Type 001 aircraft carrier Liaoning. There’s even the J-16D, a jamming pod-equipped electronic-warfare fighter styled after the U.S. Navy’s EA-18 Growler.
The Chinese Sukhoi derivatives are theoretically on par with the fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16. However, they are saddled with domestic WS-10 turbofan engines, which have had terrible maintenance problems and difficulty producing enough thrust. Jet-engine tech remains the chief limitation of Chinese combat aircraft today (This reblogger’s note: the description is outdated as China has successfully developed a new improved version of WS-10 with vector thrust and there has been reports in Chinese on impvoement of the quality of WS-10.). Indeed, in 2016 China purchased twenty-four Su-35s, the most sophisticated and maneuverable variant of the Flanker so far—likely to obtain their AL-41F turbofans engines.
The Stealth Fighters
In a remarkably short timeframe, China developed two distinct stealth fighter designs. Twenty Chengdu J-20s entered PLAAF service in 2017. Unlike the F-22 Raptor, designed to be the ultimate air superiority fighter, or the single-engine multirole F-35 Lightning, the J-20 is a huge twin-engine beast optimized for speed, range and heavy weapons loads at the expense of maneuverability. (This reblogger note: it has been pointed out above that this statement is outdated as China has successfully developed world best WS-15 engine for J-20.)
The J-20 might be suitable for surprise raids on land or sea targets—though its larger rear-aspect radar cross section could be problematic—or to sneak past enemy fighters to take out vulnerable support tankers or AWACs radar planes. Special-mission stealth fighters make sense for a country that is only just getting into the business of operating such technically demanding aircraft.
Meanwhile, the smaller, privately developed Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon (or FC-31) is basically a twin-engine remodeling of the F-35 Lightning—quite possibly using schematics hacked off Lockheed computers. Chinese designers may have developed an aerodynamically superior airframe by ditching elements supporting vertical-takeoff-or-landing engines. However, the J-31 probably won’t boast the fancy sensors and data fusion capabilities of the Lightning.
Currently, the J-31 appears intended for service on upcoming Type 002 aircraft carriers, and for export as a cut-price F-35 alternative (This reblogger’s note: Ignorant speculation: China will deploy a carrier-borne version of J-20. See my post “J-20 not FC-31 Chosen as China’s Carrier-Borne Stealth Fighter” on August 30). However, while there are flying Gyrfalcon prototypes with Russian engines, the type may only begin production when sufficiently reliable Chinese WS-13 turbofans are perfected.
Towards the Future
Roughly 33 percent of the PLAAF and PLANAF’s combat aircraft are old second-generation fighters of limited combat value against peer opponents, save perhaps in swarming attacks. Another 28 percent include strategic bombers and more capable but dated third-generation designs. Finally, 38 percent are fourth-generation fighters that can theoretically hold their own against peers like the F-15 and F-16. Stealth fighters account for 1 percent. (This reblogger’s note: The figures are sadly outdated as the article is quite old.)
However, the technical capabilities of aircraft are just half the story; at least as important are training, organizational doctrine and supporting assets ranging from satellite recon to air-refueling tankers, ground-based radars and airborne command posts.
For example, China has the intel resources, aircraft and missiles to hunt aircraft carriers. However, the doctrine and experience to link these elements together to form a kill chain is no simple matter. A 2016 Rand report alleges Chinese aviation units are scrambling to reverse a lack of training under realistic conditions and develop experience in joint operations with ground and naval forces.
At any rate, Beijing seems in no rush to replace all its older jets with new ones. Major new acquisitions may wait until the Chinese aviation industry has smoothed out the kinks in its fourth-generation and stealth aircraft.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Source: National Interest “HUGE: That’s the Only Word to Describe China’s Air Force”
Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views. This reblogger’s notes reflect some of my views on the article.
National Interest asks the question in its article “China Thinks Its Stealth Fighters Can Beat the F-35” on December 14 “Are they right” to think so?.
The article cannot deny J-20’s advantages over F-22 as described in an article in China’s Shipboard Weapons magazine in having greater fuel capacity and endurance and superiority in electronics, situational awareness and data networking as F-22 is an old fighter that has not incorporated the newest technology as F-35 and J-20 do.
As for F-35. though it is newer and not inferior in electronics, situational awareness and data networking, J-20 is superior in supersonic cruise an super maneuverability.
National Interest’s article cannot deny that but pointed out as China had not succeeded in developing WS-15 engines for J-20, J-20 lacked advanced engines to give full play to J-20’s functions.
Sorry, the article first appeared in September and failed to be aware of China’s fast development in technology.
As pointed out in my post “At Least 3 Batches of World Most Powerful WS-15 Engine Delivered” on September 1, the delivery of 3 batches of WS-15 proved that China had succeeded in developing WS-15 and had three batch of the engines delivered for installation in J-20s. As WS-15 is much better than US best fighter jet engine F-135, it make J-20 much superior to F-35 in speed and maneuverability.
Comment by Chan Kai Yee on National Interest’s article, full text of which can be viewed at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/china-thinks-its-stealth-fighters-can-beat-f-35-104977.
That’s what the U.S. government did on the F-35.
by Sebastien Roblin
Key Point: The F-35, despite its laundry list of setbacks and malfunctioning, might be too big of a program to fail.
The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is estimated to be the most expensive weapons system in human history, based on its projected lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion dollars ($406 billion for the aircraft, the rest in lifetime operating costs)—and that’s before we factor in the endless cost overruns. (This reblogger’s underline, ditto below.)
One could argue there is a certain logic to this. The United States spends greater sums on the military than any other country (though some spend a greater percentage of GDP), and it has emphasized air power as its chief military instrument in recent decades. Additionally, different variants of the F-35 are prepared to equip the Air Force, Navy and Marines through most of the twenty-first century, and the type is also slated to serve in the air forces or navies of Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and Turkey—with more countries likely to join the list.
However, the F-35 program has been notoriously mismanaged and perpetually over budget, and remains far behind schedule. The Pentagon was persuaded to pay for “concurrent” production of F-35s before it had been developed into a fully operational prototype; today Lockheed is shipping non-feature-complete F-35s, which will need to be expensively upgraded later when new components and systems are finally ready. Listing everything that was and continues to be wrong with the F-35 procurement process could be the subject of many articles.
But at the end of the day, however mismanaged the program may have been, does the F-35 at least amount to a decent jet fighter?
How Did the F-35 Come to Be?
Back in the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force developed the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, which arguably still reigns as the top air-superiority fighter in service: it is fast, highly maneuverable and extremely stealthy. However, the Raptor was less optimized for ground-attack roles and deemed too expensive to build and operate to serve as a replacement of the Pentagon’s large inventory of fourth-generation fighters—so production was cut to just 180 aircraft, 120 of which serve in operational units.
The Navy and Marines also needed a new fighter, so the Pentagon committed to building a more multirole “joint” stealth fighter that would eventually replace the F-15, F-16, FA-18 and AV-8 Harriers serving in all four branches. The last time an interservice fighter-bomber was pursued, it didn’t work out, but Lockheed and Boeing both gave their best shot anyway, and the former won the competition. The JSF was supposed to a more affordable stealth fighter that could also be marketed to friendly nations, unlike the Raptor.
The trickiest requirement for the JSF was the Marine Corps’ insistence on making its version of the F-35 a jump jet. For historical reasons, the leathernecks want jets like the Harrier that can fly off smaller Marine-operated amphibious carriers or remote forward bases. However, the compromises needed to make them work leave them significantly inferior to conventional fighters. Lockheed actually acquired schematics for a prototype Russian jump jet called the Yak-41, and tried to make the most aerodynamic airframe possible.
Sniper, Not a Sword-Fighter
To cut a long story short, the additional weight and bulkier fuselage necessary to make the F-35B jump jet version left all variants of the F-35 saddled with performance thresholds that are objectively inferior to the fourth-generation fighters it is intended to replace.
The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, compared to Mach 2 to 2.5 for the F-16 and F-15, respectively. Its service ceiling is fifty thousand feet, compared to sixty thousand for the other models. In 2015, the Air Force tested the F-35 in a short-range dogfight with an F-16D mounting external fuel tanks, and the test pilot complained that it was simply out-turned and less energy efficient than its more agile opponent.
This critique doesn’t mean that the F-35 is a terrible plane. In one post (scroll down for English), a Norwegian F-35 pilot praises its ability to maintain high angles of attack. Nonetheless, the Lightning remains less kinematically optimized for air-to-air combat than most fourth-generation fighters.
The Air Force and Lockheed, however, insist that the F-35 isn’t meant to engage in a within-visual-range dogfight in the first place. After all, low-observable aircraft are stealthier when they are more distant from adversaries—and new beyond-visual-range missiles like the AIM-120D or British Meteor that can strike enemies up to a hundred miles away potentially allow an F-35 to sneak up on enemy aircraft and engage them with missiles without having to get close. Such a strategy is aided by the superior characteristics of U.S. Active Electronically Scanned Array radars.
In this view of things, the F-35 would act as a sort of sniper in air-to-air engagements, stalking its prey from a distance until it has a good angle for a shot, releasing its weapons and then hightailing it for home before the (possibly faster, more maneuverable) enemy has a chance to come close enough to detect it and retaliate. And if more intense air battles are anticipated, then the more specialized F-22 could take some of the heat.
No stealth fighter has ever shot down another jet in actual combat, and long-range air-to-air missiles have only been used a few times in action, so how the F-35 performs versus fourth-generation fighters depends a great deal on theory rather than operational experience. The Air Force feels this strategy has been validated by the results of repeated air combat exercises in which stealth fighters have racked up kill ratios as lopsided as 15:1 against faster, more maneuverable fourth-generation jets. And because of its low-observable characteristics, the F-35 can pick and choose when to engage and when to withdraw from a dangerous opponents in a good position.
Of course, those exercises are only good predictors of performance if they are built around correct assumptions about air warfare will work out. A big question remains, concerning how high the hit rate will be for long-range air-to-air missiles, which have seen limited use in actual combat. An estimated hit rate of 50 percent may prove optimistic. Here, F-35 doubters may point out that the Air Force overestimated the hit rate of its air-to-air missiles during the Vietnam War, resulting in disappointing kill ratios when pitted against North Vietnamese fighters in that conflict.
Critics also point out that stealth would not prevent an F-35 from being detected if an enemy got close, as stealth fighters begin to appear on X-band targeting radars once the distance is short enough. Furthermore, though optimized for minimal infrared signature, stealth fighters remain susceptible to detection by infrared-search and track (IRST) systems.
Finally, the stealth fighters can be tracked using low-bandwidth radars, which are typically found on ground-based installations. Such radars lack the resolution to engage a stealth fighter with missiles from distance, but they could be used to direct intercepts by fighters, or to stage short-range ambushes with the targeting radars of surface-to-air missile systems—the latter a technique used to down an F-117 stealth fighter over Yugoslavia in 1999. (This reblogger’s note: China has developed and showcased its radar able to detect and track stealth warplanes.)
Another tactic could be to overwhelm stealth fighters with a swarm of lower-cost jets, accepting some losses while charging into the short-range envelope the F-35 is vulnerable in—a tactic that caused the defeat of F-35s by inferior Chinese jets in a RAND Corporation simulation.
F-35 proponents, in turn, are skeptical that the ability to pull off tight maneuvers is as useful as it once was—a view in sharp contrast to that of Russian aircraft manufacturers, which continue to produce super-maneuverable jets with vector thrust engines. American air-combat doctrine emphasizes maintaining a high energy state through speed, and altitude that can be traded for speed. Pulling off extremely tight turns may help dodge a missile, but usually at the cost of so much energy that the aircraft will have little speed and altitude left to evade a follow-up attack.
Furthermore, modern short-range heat-seeking missiles like the American AIM-9X and Russian R-73 can target hostile aircraft through a helmet-mounted sight without needing to point the aircraft’s nose at a target (though doing so still confers additional momentum, of course). Such missiles are believed to have hit probabilities as high as 80 percent, quite possibly making short-range dogfighting agility a moot issue—though an F-35 configured for stealth can’t carry any AIM-9s.
Insufficient Payload and Range?
There’s another issue in play: can the F-35 carry a worthwhile payload? If a Lightning is to remain stealthy, it cannot carry external weapons, limiting it to just four (or, eventually, six) missiles carried in a stealthy internal-weapons bay, plus a twenty-five-millimeter cannon. This does not compare favorably to the eight to ten hardpoints on most fourth-generation fighters. This issue is even more salient when considering the F-35’s ground-attack capabilities in stealth mode, amounting to 5,700 pounds of internal stores, leaving them at a deficit compared to the roughly fifteen thousand pounds or more of external stores that can be carried on U.S. fourth-generation aircraft.
To be fair, Lockheed has advertised a nonstealthy “beast mode” configuration of the F-35 with sixteen wing-mounted bombs and missiles, allowing a full twenty-two-thousand-pounds payload. However, this configuration remains only hypothetical.
Payload brings us to the matter of range. Once again, the F-35 cannot rely upon externally-mounted fuel tanks if it wishes to retain its stealthy radar cross-section. In compensation, the Lightning has longer range on purely internal fuel than most fourth-generation fighters. Unfortunately, this still means that both land- and carrier-based F-35s will need to be based within range of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) that are quite capable of devastating airbases or sinking carriers. Mid-air refueling could help with this problem, but tanker aircraft too may be vulnerable to attack, unless the Navy chooses to acquire a stealthy tanker drone.
The Pentagon remains optimistic about the F-35’s ground-attack capabilities for a simple reason: they believe the F-35 will give it a convenient tool for penetrating increasingly deadly integrated air-defense systems without having to put together a huge strike package, including jamming planes, Wild Weasel anti-SAM aircraft, escort fighters and so forth. As discussed above, F-35s wouldn’t be invulnerable to ground-based air defenses, but they would have an easier time slipping past and dismantling ground-based missile batteries with fewer support planes put at risk.
New Paradigm of Networked Warfare
F-35 proponents also emphasize that the F-35 is designed around new digital technology to an unprecedented level. It has sophisticated sensors that not only soak up copious data from the surrounding environment, but then funnel it back for use by friendly forces via high-capacity datalinks. F-35 pilots use state-of-the-art helmets that allow them to “see through” their own aircraft (which is good, as the canopy on the F-35 has poor visibility to the rear). The F-35’s mission systems computer is designed to automatically download mission parameters, while its logistics computer can offload status reports for technicians through a proprietary encrypted system.
Thus, in the F-35, the futurists of the Pentagon envision a new networked way of war, wherein each fighter will serve as much as a sensor node for a larger war machine as it does as a distinct weapons platform.
Of the course, the flipside of seeing the F-35 as the apotheosis of a networked paradigm is that it may be more vulnerable to hacking attacks and other electronic warfare systems than any warplane before, potentially allowing for a Battlestar Galactica scenario in which a digital surprise attack leaves many of the stealth fighters compromised. Particularly unpromising is that Chinese hackers apparently broken into Lockheed’s computers twice and acquired F-35 blueprints—which may explain why China’s J-31 Gyrfalcon stealth fighter bears more than a passing resemblance to the American stealth jet.
All in all, the F-35’s rising costs and mounting delays towards achieving full operational capability have caused the Pentagon to appreciably begin downsizing or delaying F-35 orders in the near term, and advance plans on keeping the older F-15, F-16s and FA-18 in service into the 2040s. For example, the Navy now plans on phasing in two squadrons of F-35s on its carriers alongside three squadrons of FA-18 Super Hornets. One can imagine a similar force mix of F-35s cooperating with F-15s, -16s and -22s.
Rather than fully replacing the last generation of jets, the F-35 may best fit in as a complement to them by undertaking missions that take maximum advantage of its stealth characteristics and networked sensors. For example, F-35s could range ahead and ferret out the location of enemy fighters, radars and missile batteries. Then the data they gather could then be used to coordinate intercepts and attack runs by more heavily armed Eagle or Super Hornet fighters following in their wake, or even guide their missiles to their targets.
The F-35 program has long been criticized as too big to fail, and that may in fact be true given the enormous resources already sunk into it. The Pentagon, and many other countries, are betting that the new (promising but not combat-tested) air-warfare paradigm will limit the impact of its shortcomings. However, due to mounting expenses, continual delays and breakdowns, and high operating costs, the Lightning is likely to serve alongside its predecessors for a long time to come.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This piece was first featured in April 2018 and is being republished due to reader’s interest.
(This reblogger’s note: This article is outdated as it was published more than a year ago. China’s J-20 is much better than F-35 as China has already succeeded in providing it with powerful WS-15 engines. Moreover, China is now developing 6th-generation fighter jet, which will make F-35 entirely outdated when it is deployed one or two decades later. Pentagon is entirely incompetent in developing new weapons as proved by its troubles in developing its F-35, Zumwalt-class destroyer, littoral combat ship, Ford aircraft carrier, etc. )
Source: National Interest “F-35: Would You Spend $1,500,000,000,000 On a Plane That Can’t Fly?”
Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views (some of my views are provided in this reblogger’s notes).