Sunday, November 18, 2012

Air Force Magazine on the Latest From the F-35 Mavens

Part 1 of How Ever Many it Takes

Earlier this week, Solomon over at SNAFU! posted a piece centering on an excerpt from an Air Force Magazine article “The F-35’s Race Against Time (November 2012 issue). I had read it already, and didn’t see anything ‘earth-shattering’ at the time. But with Sol’s posting, it occurred to me that it would probably become more interesting to people the further you got away from those familiar with the current state of aeronautics, and it may draw secondary comments from the anti-JSFers to boot.

500th Sortie of an F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter from the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., flies over the Emerald Coast Sept. 19, 2012 preparing to land. (From Original U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)
The magazine itself is the monthly publication of the Air Force Association, so one could almost view it as an ‘unofficial’ Air Force’s newsletter. It’s a glossy-photo publication designed mostly for consumption by AF/Defense insiders and Hoi Polloi, so you won’t find improperly leaked technical details or rants about programs, policy or planning. There are special topics the magazine takes on from time to time where they go into great depth on the topic, but that is not their normal fare. What you will find frequently are general info articles that sometimes yield nuggets of gold: first glimpses of information as it is officially released into the public domain. The excerpt Sol was excited about was the first public revelations of the F-35s capability to travel some distance over Mach 1 without afterburner. Not really ‘supercruise’, but surely a performance surprise for the F-35’s more ardent critics.

I thought I’d add to Sol’s posting with some more excerpts and observations on some things that may be of interest in the same article.
Lockheed Martin Vice President Stephen O’Bryan, the company’s point man for F-35 affairs, declared that the fighter meets requirements. A former Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot, O’Bryan said the combat capability of even the earliest baseline model will greatly exceed that of the most heavily upgraded fourth generation fighters and strike aircraft, such as the F-15, F-16, and F-18.

The one thing I think we should take away from this point is the implied fact that the first full-rate production versions of F-15, F-16, and F-18 aircraft were NOT representative of the fully capable type, and many were bought in relatively large numbers compared to the total buys. ALL underwent significant, mostly preplanned design ‘upgrades’ before their definitive types were finally fielded. By ‘definitive’ I mean most or all the capabilities that were programmed to be part of the platform when production began were either installed or ruled out.

Example: The Lightweight Fighter Mafia and their fellow travelers consider the early F-16s to be ‘definitive’ from their POV, but until the Block 30/32 aircraft were brought to realization, there were considerable shortcomings seen in the type, and they were seen by the responsible players from the start:
Gen John J. Burns, a man with impeccable fighter-pilot credentials antedating any of those belonging to members of the “Fighter Mafia,” enthusiastically endorsed missiles— especially the BVR variety. This inclination largely accounted for his skepticism about the lightweight fighter. As it stood at the time, because the F-16 did not have a sufficient radar for semiactive AIM-7s, it could usually fire on an enemy only from the rear quadrant— whereas an enemy with a radar missile could shoot one in the face of the F-16 pilot. Since World War I, the plane taking the first shot has a rather pronounced tendency to win.  
As noted, not until the AMRAAM got its initial operational capability in the early 1990s did the Viper acquire a BVR weapon—itself a “high-tech” answer. General Burns’s attitude is neither new nor limited to senior officers. From the beginning, one could find in the Fighter Weapons Newsletter of the late 1950s great enthusiasm for the new missiles among junior fighter pilots. For example, Capt Robert Thor, writing in 1958 while Boyd was still assigned to Nellis, argued that in the near future a fighter pilot who came back claiming a gun kill would be confessing a failure to use his missiles properly. -------Dr David Metz “Boydmania” (some solid debunking of ‘Boyd’ myths at the link)


The Air Force Magazine article continued…
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.

The first paragraph is OK as long as we’re talking about missions versus numbers. Lanchester’s Square laws still apply, though the ratios may vary, and keep in mind one airplane can’t be in more than one place. The assertions made in the two paragraphs following the first indicate that this is O’Bryan’s intent, but I can see people confusing missions and end strength if they don’t know any better.

Next the discussion moved to ‘Maintainable Stealth’….

When it comes to maintainable stealth design, the F-35 represents the state of the art, O’Bryan said, superior even to the F-22 Raptor, USAF’s top-of-the-line air superiority aircraft.  
The F-22 requires heavy doses of regular and expensive low observable materials maintenance. F-35 stealth surfaces, by contrast, are extremely resilient in all conditions, according to the Lockheed team. 
"We’ve taken it to a different level," O’Bryan said. The stealth of the production F-35—verified in radar cross section tests performed on classified western test ranges—is better than that of any aircraft other than the F-22.  
This, he went on, is true in part because the conductive materials needed to absorb and disperse incoming radar energy are baked directly into the aircraft’s multilayer composite skin and structure.  
Moreover, the surface material smoothes out over time, slightly reducing the F-35’s original radar signature, according to the Lockheed Martin official. Only serious structural damage will disturb the F-35’s low observability, O’Bryan said, and Lockheed Martin has devised an array of field repairs that can restore full stealthiness in just a few hours.

This is a mixed bag to comment on. On the one hand, yes the F-35 LO design approach was heavy on incorporating lessons-learned from prior systems, and it appears the result is solid. But if you want to make commentary on any earlier LO designs, you have to also acknowledge the reason why the lesson ‘took’ was that designers figures out that the first peacetime priority for wing commanders is flying schedule and pilot proficiency.

I suspect the F-22’s peacetime LO maintenance burden is skewed by commanders opting to NOT fix LO discrepancies when they appear and let them fester and grow lest they threaten the flying schedule. Funny thing how metrics can drive the performance instead of measure it: if Commander performance reports are involved they usually cause people to care about what they measure MORE than measuring what they should care about.

I also have a minor problem with the blanket F-35 RCS performance “is better than that of any aircraft other than the F-22”. If he would have said ‘fighters’, I’d MIGHT be fine with it. But since LO design is tailored to the mission and operating environment, non-fighter LO systems’ LO performance are not comparable. I won't even mention that he couldn't possibly be briefed on every program to make such an assessertion, nor would the people running the range likely tell him more than he needed to know, and he wouldn't need to know the performance of other systems.

End of Part 1
Part 2 Here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he should have said F-35 RCS is better than any other Lockheed product other than the F-22?