F-35: Designed to handle all roles

The Pierre Sprey’s argue that old school, lower tech aircrafts like the F-15 and F-16 are better choices and more than capable of handling evolving threats coming out of Russia and China. They also argue that mere modifications to the systems of each platform will suffice and that the battlefield isn’t changing in the way that most fighter pilots insist that it is.

The David Berke’s and Billy Flynn’s of the world argue that the F-35 represents the future of manned aircraft and that it has no equal on the battlefield thanks to its fully integrated systems, which are more like a drone with an on-board pilot as opposed to a traditional fighter. Especially as we move to 2025 and beyond.

The F-35 is indeed the first aircraft that is being designed from the outset to truly handle all roles. The Dassault Rafale is billed as omni-role but it is still a holdover from the fourth generation of fighter aircrafts in many ways. It is an extremely capable platform and would be the writer’s second choice, but it is not the F-35’s equal. The F-35 just has too many advantages over the platforms it competes with.

One of the F-35’s greatest advantages is its core processor which can process 400 billion operations per second. Take a minute to think about that number and imagine a battlefield situation. There are upwards of 250 threats on the sea, the ground and in the air from all hostile groups. Say each target has an average of 100,000 potential moves based on known variables. That gives us 25 million possibilities which leave 399 plus billion operations per second free for use. With a 360-degree sensor suite with image stitching, it can track each and every target simultaneously in real-time and provide the pilot with constant updates on the direst threats as well as information on the most efficient method of attack or defence. As if that wasn’t enough it can also broadcast all of this information to various individuals at sea, in the air or on the ground. The F-35 won’t be solo either. Add two more F-35’s to that mix and you have 1.2 trillion operations per second at your disposal. That’s with the limited processors we have now. It’s basically a miniature AWACS that’s far less of a liability and far more efficient in terms of maintenance per service hour, fuel burn and longevity. It’s also more than capable of dogfighting and thus doesn’t need an escort for defence.

Now we have its stealth and radar cross-section (RCS) reduction characteristics. Many detractors argue that stealth is useless merely because methods of detection are improving. If an aircraft with a reduced radar signature and thermal signature reduction characteristics can be spotted at 50 miles than an aircraft with twice (at minimum) the RCS and thermal signature can be spotted at double the range and targeted with far more accuracy. So really, stealth isn’t irrelevant in any way. The F-35’s radar absorbent material (RAM) coating is also baked into the airframe and unlike the F-22 it’s good for the airframes entire life-cycle.

Many people have mentioned buying a variant of the F-16 ‘Block 60’ that the UAE bought, as it’s already had its R&D costs covered ($3 billion) by the UAE so the roughly $80 million per unit cost they paid would be closer to $45 million per unit now. The problem is that the block 60+ F-16’s are also nearly 3,000 pounds heavier than the block 50’s when empty. True, the F-35 is 9,000 pounds heavier than the block 60’s but it’s non-afterburning military thrust is also 28,000 lbs. Under full afterburner, the block 60 F-16 puts out 32,500 pounds of thrust compared to the F-35’s 40,000 lbs. The F-35 can also carry it’s full 19,000-pound fuel load internally which means it doesn’t have to carry heavier, drag inducing external tanks to carry out its missions. This greatly reduces airframe stress over time and the internal loadout allows the F-35 to be less conservative while manoeuvring with combat loads as there is virtually no fear of damaging the pylons, release mechanisms or over-stressing the wings.

Another important factor is the potential for future growth. As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced and is able to handle more complex algorithms, the F-35 will become even more deadly by extension. IBM’s Watson for example, has demonstrated the ability to learn and adapt to changing situations with efficiency and accuracy, and as an oncology aid it has shown to be as proficient and in many cases better than actual oncologists at diagnosis and treatment plans. Watson uses gathered info like symptoms, blood results and other tests and compares them to a massive collection of databases in rapid fashion and creates an accurate assessment, diagnosis and treatment plan. Oncologists can then simply confirm that the data is accurate which cuts substantial time off of the diagnosis period which means treatment can start sooner. Watson is also not as advanced as the systems found in the F-35 which are in a league of their own. Take the F-35’s 400 billion operations per-second and 360-degree awareness and use the Watson example to imagine what a system that is several times more potent could do on a battlefield. Watson, like other AI systems, has also beaten the world’s best and brightest at their individual areas of expertise.

Lockheed Martin is also constantly working to create even better systems. Namely the block 4 upgrades which will be implemented in 4 increments (4.1/4.2/4.3/4.4)

Block 4.1 is billed as the increment that will allow the F-35 to realize it’s full planned platform potential.

Software based multistatic radar incorporation.

The multistatic radar is one of the key components of this block. Stealth aircraft generally rely on the scattering of radar signals away from the source. Multistatic radars can pick up on this deflected energy and with the F-35’s systems it will enable multiple linked sources to be accessed to provide this information. The F-35 can stitch this data together and use it to accurately fire upon said aircraft. Block 4.1 is slated for a 2023 release.

Block 4.2 makes use of systems originally intended solely for the F-22B program. It builds upon the systems integration improvements of block 4.1 and breathes new life into many of the F-35’s existing systems.

Block 4.2 is scheduled for a 2026 release to enable issues that arise from the F-22B program implementation to be dealt with prior to installation in the F-35.

Block 4.3 marks the arrival of the Pratt & Whitney F135-200 ADVENT engine. This variant improves on the core technology of the F119-200 and the ADVENT designator comes from the addition of the variable bypass system. Combined with the first fully 3D-printed fan disk, the F-35 will see its fuel efficiency at cruise improved by over 25 per cent which will improve range by 35 per cent while also providing a 15 per cent boost in thrust over the baseline F-35. The F135 will also provide a new 2MW power generation capability. Block 4.3 is slated for a 2025 release and is dependent on block 4.1.

Block 4.4 is where the F-35 takes a step into the realm of science-fiction with the implementation of two different airborne laser system packages for the F-35. One exclusively for A and C models and another for A, B and C models. The scalable laser architecture (SLA) which is developed by General Atomics allows several different types of lasers to be fitted to match various mission profiles. The contract was received from DARPA as part of the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System (HELLADS) initiative.

The FPL and MLL both make use of three modes:

Block 4.4 is slated for release by 2028 and requires blocks 4.2 and 4.3 for operation. The individual block upgrade costs (Table 1).

At present only Italy, the United States and Asia-pacific partners are on-board with the block 4 program which is being overseen by Integrated Technical Consulting (ITC) based in Alaska.

The evidence of why the F-35 is such an amazing aircraft is all around us. The de-classified AI systems around us like Watson are incredible and they give an insight into what the F-35 has to offer in a package that is available now. When the F-35’s vastly more sophisticated nature is taken into account as well as its planned upgrades it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Canada should be acquiring them above anything else.

True, the F-35 costs more than the F-15, F-16 or F-18 Super Hornet but it also represents the future. It’s likely the final bridge to the quickly approaching autonomous battlefields to come. Where the aforementioned aircraft including the Typhoon will be relics in the boneyard by 2030, the F-35 will be years into its life-cycle and ready to operate to 2050. This also provides a safety gap to allow the bugs to be worked out of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) without degrading combat readiness beyond 2030.

The reduced maintenance costs over its service life are another added bonus and its networking capabilities would be a huge asset to Canada as they would allow more efficient use of Arctic monitoring stations by enabling the US, Canada, Norway and the UK to share data to create a much bigger picture of what’s going on in the region. With climate change bringing about the massive melting of the Arctic, the resources that are revealed will create new points of contention (and in fact already are) which means Canada needs a significant boost and fast.

In the short-term, the F-35 provides Canadian pilots with peace of mind and drastically increased combat capability. In the long-run, it puts us on equal footing with our southern neighbours and NATO allies and puts us above emerging threats from Russia and China. No other aircraft offers Canada so much in terms of short-term and long-term capability, nor the kind of scalable architecture present in the design.


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