Monday, October 15, 2012

F-35 not just a "stealth airplane"

One of the tendencies of those who try to denigrate the capabilities of the F-35 is to attack the idea that "stealth" isn't as effective as it once was.

Obviously, as with every other advantage one side develops, those who might oppose it attempt to develop counter-measures.  It's a constant battle that develops whenever something new and advantageous is developed by one side.  The other side works to counter it.

But the F-35 is not just a "stealth airplane".  In fact, stealth is only a part of the aircraft's capabilities.

Popular Mechanics has an interesting piece that makes the point that while stealth may not have the effect that it once had, given advances in radar technology and the like.  However, as mentioned, it isn't what defines the F-35:

The F-35's approach to radar-absorbent material (RAM) is more reliable than that of any earlier warplane. The F-22's surfaces are made of aluminum, which are covered in RAM that must constantly be reapplied. This is, of course, a nightmare for maintenance crews. But the F-35 is made of carbon-fiber composite; Lockheed engineers bake RAM into the airplane's edges in an effort to soak up inbound radar.

But the Lightning II's key to survival is its own radar, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) installed in its nose. Conventional radar systems turn their gaze mechanically—imagine a dish spinning or a flat surface tilting to aim radar beams. Electronically steered radar does not move, but its beams can broadcast in different directions, thousands of times a second and across many frequencies. This agility allows AESA to map terrain and track hundreds of targets.

AESA is built to do more than scan—it can reach out to enemy radars and scramble their signals. A combination of radar and electromagnetic warning sensors alert an F-35 pilot to the threat of enemy radar; he can then dodge the threat or use the AESA to jam the signal, no matter what frequency the radar is transmitting.

And, if a missile is launched, the F-35 can track it with 360-degree infrared-sensor coverage and then, in some cases, overwhelm the missile's guidance system with the AESA. "Stealth works in conjunction with all those other techniques to make the F-35 what is probably the most survivable airplane of all time," O'Bryan says. 

That last statement by Steve O'Bryan (Lockheed vice president and former F/A-18 pilot) is the point - stealth is only one aspect of the capabilities the F-35 has which works in conjunction with other advanced systems to increase the survivability of the aircraft.  And, of course, our side will be developing counter-counter measures to those developed by our potential enemies and designed to better detect our aircraft.  Those will be incorporated in later upgraded versions of the F-35 as they become available.

The point, of course, is to understand that stealth is an "enabler" not a definition of the F-35.  It is one of many systems designed to make the aircraft hard to detect and therefore much more survivable than our 4th generation legacy aircraft.

Keep that in mind when you see critics trying to separate out stealth as the "definition" of the F-35 and then panning it as not as effective as it should be.  They can only do that if they ignore all the other capabilities the aircraft brings to the fight.


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