Wednesday, December 5, 2012

F-35: A "three to four to one asset"

That's an interesting phrase in the title.  We're not talking loss/exchange ratios here.  We're talking about the F-35 vs. current assets.

It's a claim by Lockheed Martin VP Stephan O'Bryan that needs a little clarification.  But, if the F-35 lives up to its billing, and it appears it will, then it is a statement that needs to be understood.

Here's O'Bryan's explanation:
The fighter’s capabilities will make it a three- or four-for-one asset, said the Lockheed briefers, meaning that it will be able to simultaneously perform the roles of several different aircraft types—from strike to electronic attack, from command and control to battlefield surveillance.

O’Bryan pointed out an important truth about air combat: Fourth generation strike aircraft assigned to hit targets guarded by modern anti-access, area-denial systems (A2/AD, in military parlance) require the support of "AWACS, electronic attack, sweep airplanes, SEAD" (suppression of enemy air defenses) aircraft and cruise missiles. Such a package could run to dozens of aircraft.

The same mission, he claimed, can be achieved with just a quartet of F-35s. Each would be capable of operations that go well beyond air-to-ground missions. The four-ship would be a potent factor in any scenario calling for the employment of airpower, O’Bryan asserted.
One of the things any military planner looking at the future has to factor in is the possibility of fewer assets (budget constraints, etc.) available for missions.  So the obvious remedy for such a possibility is more efficient weapons systems.  By that I mean the ability to use fewer assets to do the same jobs.

That, of course is where a multi-role fighter can come in quite handy.  But our current multi-role 4th gen fighters have to be configured for each mission.  So a certain number have to be configured to do a sweep mission, others to do SEAD, some to do EW and then there are the strike aircraft.  Add AWACs (which may or may not always be available depending on the situation) and, as O'Bryan notes, you have a package that could run into dozens of aircraft.  

But "multi-role" is going to be defined differently between existing 4th generation fighters and the 5th generation F-35.  What if you could have an aircraft that could do sweep, SEAD (or DEAD), EW and strike all in one sortie?  Wouldn't that obviously cut the package size down considerably?  Instead of having dozens of aircraft configured differently to take on one of those missions, wouldn't it be more efficient and less costly to have a smaller package, say 4 to 8 aircraft vs. the dozens of others, that could do all of those missions as well as being VLO, networked and working with fused sensor data?

Seems that it would.  Obviously that all has yet to be proven.  However, if proven, it makes uncommonly good sense.  Critics, of course, disagree, saying that a single aircraft can't be good at all those roles.  The logic doesn't hold up.  Either the EW capability is state of the art and does a superior job or it doesn't.  If we can put an EW pod on a 4th gen multi-role aircraft and it does a "good job" in the mission, there's absolutely no reason that same EW equipment (or better) won't see the F-35 do an even better job.  Same with all the other missions.

The day of the dedicated platform seems to be coming to an end.  And it is clear, if the F-35 preforms as planned, it will be a much more efficient and survivable but at least equally deadly platform than what we have flying today.


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