Various analysts have warned that counter measures to the JSF are being developed and deployed much faster than the troubled project is moving towards delivery.
One of them, an authoritative and experienced military identity, who wishes to remain anonymous until he chooses otherwise, has sent us a review of this dilemma for the JSF in language accessible to lay readers.
Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying: “Quantity has a quality all its own”. And so it goes with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. America plans to provide about 2,500 to its Armed Forces, and Lockheed Martin plans to sell another 1,000 to the USA’s Allies. The more hopeful marketers in Lockheed Martin are suggesting that the JSF will annihilate its competition, creating a monopoly market for up to 6,000 aircraft.
How people feel about this quantity of F-35 JSFs depends on two factors – firstly whether the aircraft will be protecting or attacking them, and secondly whether it will be effective or ineffective at National-Defence-critical roles such as air dominance and penetrating strike.
Many in the Western World have full confidence in the F-35 ‘Lightning II’, and are comfortable with the thought that this world-wide armada of aircraft will protect them, their Nation and its global interests. They are willing to pay an unknown price for the privilege. Cost estimates have the price at least $150M a copy – the most expensive production fighter aircraft – ever.
Outside the West, the view is different. How would Nations like Russia and China feel about having 3,500 combat aircraft arraigned at them? Insecure? Threatened? Non-Western military arms companies might see this differently. A threat of this magnitude presents a huge opportunity to develop effective countermeasures which can be sold in large volumes for large profits.
And so Russian and Chinese military arms companies have been investing substantial resources in analyzing the F-35 JSF to find ‘chinks’ in its armor. They draw on the immutable laws of physics to find their answers and opportunities.
‘Stealth’ is the main attribute that the Lightning II relies on for its combat effectiveness. The simple logic is: ‘If you can’t see me, you can’t kill me’. After the success of predecessor ‘stealth’ aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, the F-22A Raptor and the B-2 Spirit, ‘stealth’ has been ‘designed-in’ the JSF – but with compromises made to yield ‘affordability’.
In the 1990’s the main threat to air combat aircraft was radar with wavelengths of about 10 cm. Deflecting these incoming waves away from receivers and absorbing those that cannot be deflected is the stratagem for creating ‘Low Observable’ aircraft. In the F-35, this has been achieved quite well for the front quarter, with the radar-cross-section about the size of a golf ball. From other aspects, building a truly ‘stealthy’ aircraft is expensive, so ‘affordability’, and the sheer physical difficulty of ‘stealthing’ slab-sides and complex, open shapes like jet nozzles, means that the all aspect observability is not ‘golf ball’ all-round, but ‘Pacman’ – low from the front, but higher from other directions. And large enough for the more powerful 10cm radars to detect, engage and kill it.
At frequencies longer than 10cm, another problem appears. Low frequency radars with wavelengths of a couple of metres – TV frequencies – resonate on aircraft structures and produce strong returns. Absorption is not an option, as the layers would be so thick as to make the aircraft un-flyable.
Then there are the equally troublesome higher frequencies, such as Infrared. The F-35 JSF’s F-135 engine is the most powerful and hot air-combat engine ever made. As it takes a lot of power to propel a ‘chunky’ stealth aircraft, a lot of heat is generated. So the Lightning II has a large Infrared signature, and its size and design does not allow these emissions to be masked as was done for the F-117, the B-2 and to some degree, the F-22A.
Finally, ‘Network Centric Warfare’ has become the flavour of the second Millennium. Mobile networks rely on radio transmissions and receptions, so are inherently ‘un-stealthy’. While it might confer a tactical advantage to be ‘network connected’, the transmissions are sources that can be detected, especially in electrically quiet areas like the Pacific Ocean. Networks that rely on nodes such as Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft are subject to attack and destruction, partially blinding network dependent aircraft like the JSF in the process.
So, with these physical realities, how have the Russian and Chinese military weapons designers responded to the prospect of being surrounded by thousands of F-35 JSFs?
The Russian response can be seen in aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-35-1. This fighter aircraft is an evolution of the widely admired Su-27 series. The large size of the aircraft and its ability to generate large amounts of electrical power has resulted in it being fitted with the most powerful air-to-air fighter radar currently in production, and the large antenna gives it a high sensitivity. ‘Low Observability’ is not ‘No Observability’. If radar is powerful enough, and sensitive enough, it will detect and track small radar-cross-section targets.
And so it is with the F-35 JSF. Even front-on detection ranges are sufficient to guide air-to-air missiles, and for other aspects the detection range is much longer than the missile range. One of the difficulties with air combat is that there are usually lots of combatants, and so it is impossible to keep your low-observable nose pointed at all enemy aircraft. The later model Sukhois are equipped with their own intra-flight network, so even if the Lightning II points its nose at one Sukhoi, it presents its ‘Pacman’ signature to another. With shared detections, one Sukhoi can be detecting the Lightning II and another guiding a missile at it.
What about the Lightning II’s large, unmasked Infrared signature? Sukhois have for decades employed ‘InfraRed Scan and Track’ (IRST) sensors as an integral part of their weapons system. They also employ Infrared sensors on their Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. So, a Lightning II JSF may be quietly cruising along minding it own business, only to find a non-radiating Sukhoi detects it and fires an Infrared guided BVR missile. The F-35’s first alarm might be the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) detecting the gliding, cool missile at very close range. Whether this detection range provides adequate warning for effective countermeasures is a matter of conjecture, but the smart money is on the missile.
Even the F-35’s ‘Network Centric Warfare’ transmitters, and the aircraft’s radar, albeit ‘Low Probability of Intercept’ (LPI) become missile magnets to a new class of seeker head – passive homers. These missiles are guided to the proximity of a radiating source and then home on any electrical transmission in front of the seeker. As electronic devices become more sensitive, passive homers become more effective. Since these BVR missiles emit nothing, they give no warning of their approach, and present the F-35’s DAS with the same challenge as Infrared homing missiles.
One of the striking differences (excuse the pun,) between the Russian and Chinese order-of-battle and that of the West, is that the West has invested very little in ‘area denial’ weapons like Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems. In contrast, Russia, greatly concerned with being surrounded and having its cities like Moscow attacked, has invested a great proportion of their military budget in SAM systems, and has done so for decades. As a result, they have great depth of understanding of the technology.
Recent developments in solid-state digital electronics have greatly improved the capability and reliability of these systems. Furthermore, their operations analysis and miniaturization has guided the development of ‘shoot and scoot’ systems, typically with five minutes or less from set-up, shoot and an evasion movement. This rapid mobility is sufficient to avoid attacks from weapons designed to find and destroy SAMS. Aircraft like the F-35 which rely on the free-fall Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) cannot attack one of these mobile SAM sites and escape without being shot-down by a missile.
Detecting ‘Low Observability’ aircraft targets is easier for ground based systems than for aircraft-based systems, because the constraints on power and aperture are largely removed for these SAM sensors. Where a Sukhoi radar might see the ‘Low Observability’ F-35 at 50 km, a ground-based radar could find it at 150 km – well outside the release range of the SDB and well inside the engagement range of the SAM’s missiles.
It gets worse. The Russians have been reviving Television Frequency radars – and making the beam electronically ‘steerable’ and placing the whole radar on a five minute ‘shoot and scoot’ truck chassis. A two metre wavelength will produce strong returns from the Lightning II’s body. Returns from these radars is of course networked into the SAM’s fire control system, and the large antenna gives sufficiently accurate tracking that the missile can be guided to its detection and tracing distance from these low frequency radars alone. A JSF monitoring the battle-space for the usual SAM high frequencies may miss the low-frequency tracking and consequently be surprised by a guided missile’s attack radar at close range.
And if that is not bad enough, there are the passive detectors. There are different types. The first ‘listens’ with several detectors widely spaced on a range of frequencies that cover the JSF’s own radar and networking transmissions, compares the time-of-arrival, and builds up a track of the JSF’s passage. These tracks are also networked into the SAM sites. The second uses reflections from TV, FM and mobile telephone transmissions and through signal processing, finds and tracks an aircraft, even if it is not radiating. As these systems are passive, it is impossible for a JSF to know that its presence has been detected and is passage tracked.
Point Defences are also proliferating. These are truck-sized self-contained, but networked, SAMs and sometimes integrated radar-directed guns. You could call these ‘Mini-SAMs’. They are designed to catch incoming ‘leakers’ to protect larger SAM systems. Their missiles are rapid-fire and agile, and can detect and engage small targets like the SDBs. The threat for penetrating strike aircraft like the F-35 JSF is that the Point Defence weapons can be instructed to remain silent and undetectable until an F-35 JSF is within its detection and engagement range, and where the F-35 is unable to escape, when the Mini-SAM activates its sensors and shoots a volley of missiles or guns. Again, the smart money is on the Mini-SAMs.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – Predator or Prey?
In the 1990’s environment for which the F-35 JSF was designed, it would definitely have been a predator. Its ‘Low Observability’ would have worked effectively against the low power, low sensitivity airborne sensors, lacking networked situational awareness. For many of the fixed SAM systems, it could have threaded its way safely past the fixed installations, and have come close enough to attack with its free-fall bombs.
In the 2015-25 future when the F-35 JSF is expected to become operational, it will encounter a very different world. Its potential enemies have been assiduous in exploiting its weaknesses, especially in over-powering its stealth defences, networking so what one engagement system misses, another will catch, deploying effective sensors at frequencies where the F-35 cannot hide, and with long and short range engagement missiles and guns that can be directed to within killing range.
Every dog has its day. For the 1990s environment, the JSF was a predating winner. Time and tide has moved on, and in the 2015-2025 era, it looks increasingly that the innovative application of the Laws of Physics and rapid development of effective JSF engagement weapons systems makes it more likely that the future JSF will be prey.
Nations relying solely on the F-35 JSF for domination of the air and unfettered penetration of an adversary’s battle space do so at their own risk and peril.