Editor’s note: Last year Defence Watch reader Kyle Meema wrote a two-part series arguing that Canada should purchase the Gripen fighter aircraft plus other aviation assets. In this three-part series he argues against the purchase of the F-35 as a replacement for the CF-18. In the coming weeks Defence Watch will be publishing another article from a reader arguing for the need to purchase the Rafale. If other readers want to take a supportive position on the F-35 let me know and I’ll review and edit that submission.
By Kyle Meema
Defence Watch Guest Writer
A fighter’s maximum altitude is an important capability. The higher an aircraft can fly, the faster it can go due to less air resistance. It also means that the aircraft can achieve faster speeds when going into a dive. When engaging enemy fighters, a higher-flying aircraft can trade altitude for speed. Likewise, a fast-flying aircraft can trade speed for altitude.
Spec-wise, altitude is the only basic requirement that the F-35 does not fail miserably. It should be able to fly up to 60, 000ft, but this has yet to be achieved due to flight-testing restrictions. Thus far, it has been tested up to 43, 000ft. To put this in perspective, the Gripen can fly at 50, 000ft and the Typhoon and F-22 can fly at 65,000ft.
However, while the F-35 should be able to fly at sufficient altitudes, this has yet to be achieved even though it was supposed to be fully operational and combat ready by now. There is no guarantee that the 60, 000ft ceiling will ever be reached. Even if it is reached, altitude alone does not sufficiently compensate for its other deficiencies, such as low top speed, lack of supercruise, and limited payload capacity/compatibility.
Like the F-35′s other flaws, its lack of manoeuvrability lies in its inherent design and compounded by its lack of thrust. Its small wings results in poor wing-loading and therefore poor manoeuvrability comparable to the level of a 1960s F-105.
Its wide, high-drag design means that it is incapable of generating the excess thrust in order to compensate. Wing loading refers to the weight of the aircraft divided by the area of its wings. The lower the wing loading ratio, the greater manoeuvrability the aircraft possesses
-F-22: 313.5kg per square metre
-F-35A: 428kg per square metre
-Gripen E: 317kg per square metre
-Typhoon: 311kg per square metre
-Rafale C: 328kg per square metre
-F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: 620kg per square metre
From these numbers, it is apparent that dedicated air-superiority fighters and air-superiority-capable multi-role fighters should have a wing loading just over 300kg per square metre.
However, the F-35 and the Super Hornet are not designed for air-superiority as their primary mission and thus have very high wing loading numbers. They are, at heart, strike fighters. Strike fighters are designed to carry bombs, not pull tight, fast, high G turns. The aircraft with wing loading numbers of air-superiority fighters such as the Typhoon can manoeuvre significantly better than aircraft with high wing loading numbers, such as strike fighters like the F-35.
Thrust-to-weight ratios also is the amount of thrust divided by the weight of the aircraft. A high thrust to weight ratio means that the aircraft produces a large amount of thrust compared to its weight.
A low thrust to weight ratio means that the aircraft produces little thrust compared to its weights. Air-superiority fighters have high thrust to weight ratios because it means they have extra thrust to maintain speed when making tight manoeuvres.
-F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: 0,93
Again, a pattern emerges. Air-superiority fighters such as the F-22 and Typhoon have high thrust-to-weight ratios whereas strike fighters, such as the F-35A and Super Hornet, have low thrust-to-weight ratios. Air-superiority fighters require large amounts of thrust in order to stay nimble in the air.
The F-35, however, lacks such thrust. The F-35′s deficiencies all compound one another, thus making a fighter that is worse than the sum of its parts.
The F-35 design also lacks the features that other fighters employ. Fighters such as the F-22, Su-35, and T-50 use vectored thrust in order to produce enhanced manoeuvrability. Fighters such as the Gripen, Rafale, and Typhoon all use canards coupled with tail-heavy and inherently unstable designs that greatly increase manoeuvrability and are managed by flight-control computers.
Three-dimensional thrust vectoring as been rumoured to be a feature that will be added to Tranche Three Typhoons, adding to its already impressive manoeuvrability.
Such features can add to the nimbleness of a fighter in the air and can also help compensate for poor wing-loading or thrust-to-weight numbers. The only variant of the F-35 to employ any such features is the F-35B with its thrust vectoring. However, the F-35B uses limited thrust vectoring in order to facilitate its short-take-off-vertical-landing (STOVL) ability and provides no use in combat manoeuvres because thrust can only be vectored 90 degrees straight down.
This need for STOVL in the F-35B also means the F-35 does not and cannot use an inherently unstable design to increase manoeuvrability. Because the F-35 seeks to maintain commonality, all three F-35 models have had their manoeuvrability crippled by the severe design compromises that have been made in order to make the F-35B model achieve STOVL. In terms of its ability to manoeuvre, the F-35 is the worst fighter Canada could opt for. One Typhoon test pilot said there is “no way an F-35 will ever match a Typhoon fighter jet in aerial combat.”
If poor wing-loading and thrust-to-weight numbers were not bad enough, the U.S. Department of Defence has had to consistently lower the F-35′s performance requirements in order to meet the significant limitations of the aircraft. For example, the F-35A’s sustained g’s rating was reduced from 5.3 sustained Gs to 4.6 sustained Gs.
The F-35B was lowered from 5 sustained Gs to 4.5 sustained Gs and the F-35C was reduced from 5.1 sustained Gs to 5 sustained Gs. To put this in perspective, the F-35′s sustained G performance is “the equivalent of an F-4 or F-5… [it is] certainly not anywhere near the performance of most fourth and fifth generation aircraft.”
This limitation has been described as “an embarrassment” with “obvious tactical implications.” At high altitudes, the inability to sustain high Gs reduces survivability of high altitude surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and at low altitude makes the aircraft more vulnerable to short-range SAMS and anti-aircraft fire.
The F-35 lacks the teeth to meet the air-to-air threats or today and tomorrow. The menu of armaments for non-stealth aircraft is quite broad. Virtually anything can be loaded under the wings or on the body provided the aircraft has enough thrust to get it off the ground, including air-launched cruise missiles. However, stealth aircraft suffer from severe size restrictions due to the limited space available in their internal weapons bays.
This limits the size and number of weapons that can be carried internally. While weapons can be mounted externally, this defeats the purpose of having a stealth fighter in the first place. In the world of air-superiority, a pilot needs every edge possible. F-35 pilots will have to sacrifice additional weapons in order to maximise what dubious stealth they have.
There are three significant failings suffered by the F-35 that cripple its air-to-air capability from a weapons standpoint. The first is the limited number of weapons it can carry in its internal weapons bay. The F-35 can only carry four missiles internally. That is a laughably small payload, particularly when compared to the F-22 with its eight internal pylons and the T-50′s ten internal pylons.
Proponents claim that the F-35′s limited internal weapons capacity is redressed by an increase in speed and stealth due to “flying clean;” not carrying weapons under the wings. However, the extra thrust generated by its competitors compensates for the extra drag, making the “flying clean” speed gains minimal; capped by an already inadequate top speed and poor acceleration as discussed above.
The second failing is the limited size of weapons it can carry in its internal weapons bay. For example, it cannot carry the MBDA Meteor BVR missile, the most advanced BVR missile in the Western world, as it simply does not fit in the F-35′s internal weapons bay. Given how heavily the F-35 will have to rely on BVR combat in order to stand a chance against modern and future airborne threats, it will need the best BVR weapons available.
Modifying the Meteor’s tail fins has been proposed, but no action has thus far been taken. As such, the F-35 is only equipped to carry the AMRAAM BVR missile. The Meteor is the best BVR missile on the market and if the F-35 has to do without it will further lower its already small chances of surviving an encounter with fourth or fifth generation enemy fighters.
The third failing is that it cannot carry any WVR missiles internally, such as the Sidewinder stocked by Canada; its standard air-to-air load out being four internal AMRAAM BVR missiles. This means that its only hope so scoring a missile kill against an enemy fighter would be using a BVR weapon. Within visual range, the F-35′s only offensive capability is its gun, but the likelihood of a successful kill using the gun is limited by the F-35′s poor manoeuvrability. Going into a situation without WVR weapons where enemy fighters are present is practically suicidal.
Of particular importance is the IRIS-T infrared WVR missile which is capable of intercepting incoming missiles from all directions, even from behind. The IRIS-T will become essential for modern Western air forces in the future, particularly as a countermeasure for Russia’s new AESA radar-guided missile which cannot be avoided, like most missiles before it, by making a sudden sharp turn at the last second. As such, a fourth generation fighter equipped with the IRIS-T would have a significantly higher rate of survivability due to this missile-interception ability.
The only WVR missile the F-35 is planned to be able to carry internally is the ASRAAM IR.
However, like the Meteor, it has yet to be integrated or tested. Particularly troubling is that only the British RAF are likely to use the ASRAAM IR. Given the F-35′s many unresolved issues, it will likely be a long time, if ever, before the ASRAAM or Meteor are fully compatible with the F-35′s systems. While this may slightly assuage the fears of the unfortunate RAF pilots who are to fly the F-35, it is of little comfort to other pilots and air forces worldwide. Coupled with their better base performance and greater missile compatibility and capacity, the very fourth generation fighters the F-35 is meant to replace would have a better chance against current and future threats than the F-35.
Part 3 To Be Published Friday.
Ayton, Mark. “F-22 Raptor”. Air Forces Monthly, August 2008, p. 75. Retrieved: 19 July 2008.
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