Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Don't Drink, Don't Smoke, What Do You Do?

The Air Force F-35 is not ready to be the primary ground support aircraft for the Army. But it doesn't have to be the primary ground support aircraft yet.

Given the eagerness of the Air Force to dump the A-10 close air support plane, this news about the F-35 is kind of disturbing:

When the Pentagon’s nearly $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter finally enters service next year after nearly two decades in development, it won’t be able to support troops on the ground the way older planes can today. Its sensors won’t be able to see the battlefield as well; and what video the F-35 does capture, it won’t be able to transmit to infantrymen in real time.

Apparently, since the plane has its sensors for ground support--Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS)--built into the air frame (for stealth purposes), that system is a decade behind the newest pods hung from our older planes. Those internal systems are not as cheaply or easily upgraded.

Sure, the systems can and will be upgraded eventually--for a price that adds to the already high cost. For a plane that will last decades in service, upgrades will happen anyway.

So I'm not overly worried, since the F-35 will just be in initial operational capability. It's capabilities and numbers will increase over time. And until they do, those older airframes that can support the troops (including the A-10 if the Air Force is denied its wishes to dump the aircraft) with the newest targeting systems will continue to dominate the inventory.

Further, as the picture in the article shows, the F-35 can put stuff on external hard points. Yes, this wrecks the stealth (since stealth is maintained by putting unstealthy weapons in an internal bay within the stealth envelope of the plane), but for irregular and insurgent enemies, we can put those newer pods on the F-35 can't we? Stealth doesn't matter in those types of fights.

I'm not going to panic that the F-35 can't take over the close air support role when it debuts. It doesn't have to do that--yet.

Honestly, while I have worries over the ability of the F-35 to provide ground support, my worries on this subject actually center on whether the Air Force even thinks it is a priority mission for them.

But I'm starting to elevate my worry that the F-35 isn't ready for its primary mission that the Air Force is 100% behind--air superiority.

Except for a small number of F-22s, the F-35 is basically going to be the tip of the spear of our Air Force when its production run ends. Let's hope that all these issues are just normal breaking-in problems that will be resolved rather than fatal flaws.

There was a time, after all, when the M-1 Abrams and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were questioned, and both turned out to be excellent weapons.

We absolutely need the F-35 to be added to that success list of superstars. Despite the subtle innuendos questioning whether the plane can gain air superiority let alone support troops on the ground, there must be something inside, right?

UPDATE: When I spotted an article about the F-35 not having the software to fire its gun until about 2019, I figured this was no big deal because the plane isn't designed to dogfight. Unless an enemy cooperates by flying in front of the F-35, what pilot will use it? And the excuse for getting rid of the A-10 is that the new and improved Air Force doesn't need to fly low to provide support to ground troops.

Anyway, the article has this bit about why it doesn't matter that the plane will have but 180 rounds (or 220 in an external pod for the Navy and Marine Corps versions) even when the software arrives:

The lack of a gun is not likely to be a major problem for close-in air-to-air dogfights against other jets. Part of the problem is that the F-35—which is less maneuverable than contemporary enemy fighters like the Russian Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker—is not likely to survive such a close-in skirmish. “The jet can’t really turn anyway, so that is a bit of a moot point,” said one Air Force fighter pilot. ...

Another senior Air Force official with stealth fighter experience agreed. “From an air-to-air standpoint, an argument could be made that the F-35A not having a functional gun—or any gun, for that matter—will have little to no impact. Heck, it only has 180 rounds anyway,” he said. “I would be lying if I said there exists any plausible tactical air-to-air scenario where the F-35 will need to employ the gun. Personally, I just don’t see it ever happening and think they should have saved the weight [by getting rid of the gun altogether].”

I don't know enough to say the assumptions for air superiority behind the F-35 are wrong. But alarms are going off all over my ground-based cockpit.