Monday, July 23, 2012

“Stealth” is an “enabler” for the F-35, not its central definition

That statement is found in the paper “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection” and is a point that is often misunderstood.  Here’s the entire quote:

The F-35 joint strike fighter is often defined by its stealth characteristics, and the debate revolves around whether one needs “a high-end aircraft” or, if one is pessimistic, whether “stealth is really stealthy.” Although interesting, such discussions miss the point. Stealth is an enabler for this aircraft, not its central definition.

In fact, Lockheed Martin refers to the F-35 as a VLO aircraft, or “very low observable”.  What that means is the chances of it being detected and targeted are much, much less than those of the current generation of aircraft. That means it has a much higher chance of penetrating and accomplishing any of a multiple of missions in denied airspace.

Here’s a Marine F-18 pilot describing what that means within the reality in which he must work:

I would say low observability is a capability set or is an asset to the platform, but the platform as a whole brings a lot by itself. There are situations where low observability will be very important to the mission set that you’re operating in. And then there will be situations where the ISR package or the imaging package that comes with that aircraft, the ability to see things, will be more important; that will change based on the mission set and how you define the mission.

The authors of the paper then say:

Moreover, one of the challenges facing the F-35 is that it is often described using historical aviation words, generally obscuring the technological advance of stealth itself. As Lieutenant General David Deptula, USAF (Ret.), constantly reminded his Service and others, the “F” before the F-22 and the F-35 is somewhat of a misnomer. There are significant generational changes in the way individual combat aircraft and fleets of aircraft handle data and can make decisions.

Stealth on this aircraft is a function of the manufacturing process; it is not hand built into the aircraft and maintained as such. It is a characteristic of high-tolerance manufacturing, and as such, stealth will be maintained in the field, not in the factory or depot. This is revolutionary in character.

Unsaid specifically, but certainly implied, is the fact that low observability is designed into an aircraft, it can’t be retrofitted.

Think of the legacy 4th generation fleet.  Then consider this list of characteristics necessary for a very low observability aircraft:

  • Large capacity internal fuel tanks
  • Weapons carried internally
  • Low emissions radar and avionics
  • Low observable seams and RAM seals
  • Curved, diverterless inlets, “buried” engine
  • Embedded/Internal antennas (DAS/EOTS/IRST)
  • Aircraft shaping and edge alignment

The truth of the matter is that regardless of how hard we try, we can only do things that will make the current generation of fighter aircraft “stealthier”, but will never accomplish the mission of making them VLO aircraft. 

It’s in the design.  And that design increases the chances of survivability in denied airspace exponentially

The F-35 is the state-of-the-art in VLO aircraft, something which gives us quite an advantage over our possible enemies in future conflicts, make no mistake about it.


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