Critics have been constantly touting the idea that we don’t need the F-35 or its capabilities, but instead can get along just fine upgrading our legacy fighter fleet.
Reality, however, has a bad habit of intruding on such flights of fancy with the hard, cruel facts of life. While they may think incremental technological changes may be sufficient for the future, it is obvious our potential enemies don’t.
Flight Global discusses that in an article and shines a little light into the dark corner in which the critics like to stay. It has to do with the emerging AirSea doctrine and its requirements. The legacy aircraft are not a good fit:
"Upgrading the F/A-18 family is a good idea, and it could extend their service lives," says analyst Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). "That being said, F/A-18-based platforms are short-range, lack unrefueled persistence, and are best suited for operations in relatively uncontested airspace."
That’s reality. The problem? One cannot base a doctrine like the AirSea doctrine (or any future doctrine) on an assumption that the enemy we will face will always present us with “relatively uncontested airspace”.
In fact, it looks like the opposite is more likely true (consider Russia’s equipping Iran with its latest air defense weaponry as an example).
That reality takes to task the critic’s upgrade fantasy:
But in the future, uncontested airspace is unlikely to remain the norm as potential adversaries develop means to deny US forces access to a region, US Department of Defense (DoD) officials and analysts say. Many future conflict zones are likely to be heavily defended by new surface-to-air systems, advanced aircraft and other weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.
The DoD is developing a concept called AirSea battle, which calls for the USN and US Air Force to work together to an unprecedented degree to overcome those challenges.
The problem is most acute in the Pacific theatre, where the USN's aircraft carrier fleet would be the tip of the spear. The mainstay of the carrier decks is the F/A-18 fleet, but those aircraft might not be up to the task.
"They are not well-suited for AirSea battle-like operations against a highly capable enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area denial systems," Gunzinger says. New surface-to-air weapons and emerging airborne threats pose a lethal threat to non-stealthy aircraft.
"This isn't just a navy issue of course, the same can be said about the air force's F-15 and F-16 fleet," Gunzinger says. "All three legacy fighter platforms would be outmatched in a fight against the [Chinese Chengdu] J-20 or [Russian Sukhoi] PAK-FA."
Thus the crying need for what? The F-35 – an aircraft designed to address the need to operate in contested airspace against advanced aircraft and air defense systems.
By the way, should we find ourselves in conflicts where there is relatively uncontested airspace, we’d be fine with the F-35. It can operate well in both types of airspace.
Not so the legacy fleet.
And that’s reality.