The Buzz

The F-35 Still Has a Long Way to Go before It Will Be Ready for Combat

The F-35B and F-35C will both use an externally mounted gun pod rather than an internal version like the Air Force model. Because of differences in the shape of the fuselage of the two models, the Marine Corps and Navy will use different model gun pods. Both have been test-fired on the ground, but the flight tests to see what effect the pods have on the jet’s aerodynamics are only just now beginning. DOT&E has warned that, as happened with the gun door on the F-35A, unexpected flight control problems are likely to be discovered. The fixes to these will have to be devised and then tested as well. Only then will the program be able to begin the fuller in-flight accuracy testing, which is necessary to determine whether the gun pod is accurate.

Developmental testing delays, and the process of fixing the problems that testing will likely uncover, are severe enough that the program may not have an effective gun for Initial Operational Test & Evaluation. This could not only further delay scheduled testing but also, more importantly, prevent the aircraft from reaching the warfighter any time soon.

Ineffective as an Interdiction Bomber

There are several major reasons F-35s will have extremely limited interdiction usefulness—the Air Force’s and Marine Corps’ declaration of “initial operational capability” notwithstanding.

For instance, defense companies in Europe, Russia, China, and even Iran have been hard at work for years developing and producing systems to defeat stealth aircraft. And they have had some success. We saw this clearly in 1999, when a Serbian missile unit shot down an F-117 stealth fighter with an obsolete Soviet-era SA-3 surface-to-air missile (SAM), a system first fielded in 1961. Serbian air defense crews discovered they could detect the stealth aircraft by using their missile battery’s longwave search radar. Then, using spotters and the missiles’ own guidance radars, the Serbian forces were able to track, target, and kill one stealthy F-117. To show that was no fluke, the Serbian SAMs hit and damaged another F-117 so badly it never flew in the Kosovo Air War again.

Unaffected by the special shapes and coatings of modern stealth aircraft, these search radars easily detect today’s stealth airplanes, including the F-35. Since WWII the Russians have never stopped building such radars and are now selling modern, highly mobile, truck-mounted digital longwave radars on the open market for prices as low as $10 million. The Chinese and the Iranians have followed suit by developing similar radar systems.

An even simpler system that is even harder to counter than a long wavelength search radar is a passive detection system (PDS) that detects and tracks the radio frequency (RF) signals emitted by an aircraft—radar signals, UHF and VHF radio signals, identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) signals, data link signals like Link-16, and navigation transponder signals like TACAN.

A good example of a modern PDS is the VERA-NG, a Czech system being sold internationally that uses three or more receiving antennas spaced well apart to detect and track and identify the RF signals emitted by fighters and bombers. The system’s central analysis module calculates the time difference of the signals reaching the receivers to identify, locate, and track up to 200 aircraft transmitting radar signals. The VERA-NG is only one of many types of PDS used throughout the world: the Russians, Chinese, and others produce PDSs, as well, and these have been widely fielded for several years.

The beauty of a PDS, from the perspective of an adversary employing one, is that radar stealth is irrelevant to it ability to detect and track aircraft. If the aircraft has to use its radar, radios, data links, or navigation systems to accomplish its mission, the PDS stands a good chance of being able to detect, track, and identify it by these emissions. Every aircraft in the world is susceptible to PDS, stealth and non-stealth alike, and the F-35 is no exception.

The F-35’s main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120, is a beyond visual range radar missile; as a result, the F-35 has to use a large radar transmitting high-power signals in order to detect airborne targets and then guide the missile to them. Likewise, the aircraft has to employ high-powered ground mapping radar signals to find ground targets at long range. Moreover, if the plane’s systems have to communicate with other aircraft in the formation or with off-board supporting aircraft like AWACS, it has to use its radios and data links. The F-35 is thus likely susceptible to detection by passive tracking systems. Several of these passive detection systems are significantly less expensive than search radars—and they are virtually undetectable electronically.

The DOT&E report also lists several major reasons for the limited interdiction usefulness.