Magazine article National Defense

Air Force F-35 Proponents Strike Back at Critics

Magazine article National Defense

Air Force F-35 Proponents Strike Back at Critics

Article excerpt

For close to two decades, critics have taken shots at the F-35 joint strike fighter--and they had plenty of ammunition.

Cost overruns and schedule delays piled up as it became known as the most expensive weapon system ever fielded. There were those who wondered if the Defense Department would ever see any results from its massive investment. The plan to fly it as it was developed, known as concurrency, was at one point called "acquisition malpractice" by the Defense Department's Undersecretary of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall.

But at the beginning of August, the aircraft's largest customer, the U.S. Air Force, declared that it had reached initial operating capability, or IOC, which means battlefield commanders can call on at least one fully equipped and trained squadron to drop precision-guided weapons on enemy air defenses in contested environments.

"It's a major milestone in the sense that it has grown up a bit. It has still got a lot of growing to do. There is still a lot of work with the avionics and interfaces as well as the software, and those go hand in hand," said John Venable, a former F-16 pilot with more than 3,000 hours of flying time, who is now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

There are key components that have yet to be integrated, including parts of the helmet's display system, a Gatling gun and the ability to shoot Sidewinder missiles. Much of that will be part of the next block of software due in August 2017.

Meanwhile, the aircraft's defenders such as Venable are beginning to talk about what it can do as opposed to what it can't yet do. Pilots and tacticians are just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the aircraft and its fifth-generation capabilities.

"When people talk about situational awareness, it is exponentially higher in this airplane than it has been in any airplane up to this point. And that is a godsend for the guys in the fighter cockpits," he said in an interview.

Venable penned an Aug. 4 backgrounder report for the foundation in which he interviewed 31 F-35A pilots and asked them to compare their new aircraft with their previous fighters in terms of maneuverability, stealth and tactics.

He noted that fighter pilots were well known for blunt opinions and a lack of tact. As an outsider he was met with a good deal of skepticism.

"When I walked out of these [interviews] I got the gospel on what each man genuinely believed about both of his jets," he said. Their first aircraft is the love of their life and the F-35A is "the mistress" they are unsure about. The pilots had F-15C, F-16C, F-15E and A-10 backgrounds, but none came from the F-22 community.

Maneuverability in a dogfight has been a big question mark since a leaked report in 2015 called into question the F-35A's air-to-air performance over a fourth-generation aircraft.

Venable noted at the time of that test F-35A pilots were governed by software control laws, known as CLAWS, that limited them to three to five Gs during turns. There have been big strides since then and they are now limited to seven Gs. Ultimately, they will be allowed nine Gs. For the purpose of the survey, he asked the pilots to consider only what the aircraft can do now at seven Gs and to not speculate on how it would perform when the software no longer restricted them.

All but two of the pilots thought the F-35A outperformed his previous airplane in air-to-air combat engagements. The two who didn't favored their old F-15Cs in the 9,000-foot perch setup, a high-altitude combat scenario.

In beyond-visual-range scenarios, they all chose the F-35. For setups where energy and maneuverability are critical to success, they chose it 80 percent of the time.

"The F-35A was not designed to be an air superiority fighter, but the pilots interviewed conveyed the picture of a jet that will more than hold its own in that environment--even with its current G and maneuver restrictions," Venable wrote. …

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