Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fighting With the Tray Table Down

Aviation Week's blog describes our F-35 joint strike fighter as a plane that will not need to maneuver to fight enemy aircraft:

Moreover, DAS is expected to track with enough accuracy and tenacity to permit a safe high-off-boresight, lock-on-after-launch (LOAL) missile shot with any datalink-equipped missile. Indeed, Northrop Grumman's DAS business development leader, Pete Bartos - who was part of the initial USAF JSF requirements team - says that this was basic to the F-35 design and the reason that it did not need maneuverability similar to the F-22. Rather than entering a turning fight at the merge, the F-35 barrels through and takes an over-the-shoulder defensive shot. As a Northrop Grumman video puts it, "maneuvering is irrelevant".

I'm nowhere near close enough of an expert on airplanes to really judge this claim, but 40 years ago, we thought dogfighting was obsolete with air-to-air missiles in our arsenal until cheap enemy fighters over the skies of North Vietnam disabused us of that notion. Forty years is a long time, of course, and times change. Perhaps no enemy can get close to us again to shoot us down with old-fashioned cannons or shorter-range missiles.

The technology that supposedly makes maneuver irrelevant does seem impressive:

DAS comprises six fixed, wide-angle infrared cameras that constantly image the entire sphere around the F-35. It's been publicized in the past for its ability to allow the pilot to "see through the floor" in a vertical landing, and one of its functions is to provide imagery to the VSI helmet-mounted display. Another is missile warning. But one of the DAS' most interesting capabilities is that it can constantly track every aircraft in the sky, out to its maximum range - which varies but, absent clouds, covers the within-visual-range envelope.

Will an enemy really be unable to come up with counter-measures that degrade our visual-range envelope? Will there always be natural conditions that don't allow an enemy to close with our F-35s and engage us first? I'm not really qualified to judge these claims.

I guess I know enough air power history to be nervous about the claim, however.