Tuesday, April 30, 2013

F-35: The superiority of the F-35's low observability capability

Read an interesting article by a Canadian journalist who went to Ft. Worth to see the F-35 being built and filed a story.  Part of the story includes these paragraphs which help make an important point:
Radar works by bouncing radio waves off targets, like aircraft, which are picked up by a receiver. Stealth technology doesn’t make F-35 invisible to radar, but rather redirects, absorbs or weakens the radar signal to make it harder to “see.”

That’s a “quantum leap” in air combat, says Flynn. “It’s not invisibility, it’s very low observability to the point you can almost act with impunity.” That, he says, will let the F-35 go where existing warplanes increasingly can’t: close enough to destroy air or ground targets defended by state-of-the-art anti-aircraft systems.

The F-35 has gained from Lockheed Martin’s stealth experience: They built the first operational stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, an aerodynamically unlikely, diamond-faceted flying flatiron that gave Saddam Hussein’s gunners fits in Iraq.

They also built the F-22 Raptor, America’s state-of-the-art fifth-generation air-dominance fighter. “That’s what we use as our stepping stone with the F-35,” says Flynn, who has piloted most fourth-generation fighters and test-flown Eurofighter Typhoon. “That’s our confidence.” “You can’t just apply a coating,” or tweak a few features of an older aircraft to make it stealthy, Scott stresses, perhaps referring to Boeing’s proposals for stealthy versions of its competing F-18 Super Hornet and older F-15 Eagle. “It’s . . . fundamental to the design.” 
This is a part of the F-35 story that often gets short shrift.  The low observability it enjoys is a result of 2 previous generations of stealth technology.  And, as the article points out, you can't just make a non-stealthy jet stealthy.  It's more than a coating.  It is fundamental to the design.   Unless the aircraft is designed to maximize low observability, there's not much a coating can do.  So "stealthy versions" of non-stealthy aircraft, unless that includes a major redesign of the airframe to maximize the low observability in the redesign, is just putting lipstick on a pig.  It may be "more stealthy" than it's unstealthy counterpart, but it is nowhere near as stealthy as the F-35.  Hanging stealthy pods on a non-stealthy aircraft doesn't make it comparable to the F-35. 

Another point to be made here is because the F-35 is a 3rd generation low observable aircraft, it's competition from Russia and China will likely suffer by comparison.  Each of those nations is developing it's first generation stealth aircraft, so we're likely to see much more sophisticated and effective low observability with the F-35 than with the Russian or Chinese 5th generation fighters.


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