10th January 2019 at 16:12Long time lurker, first-time poster. I've had some thoughts about the F-35 and was interested in what others believe.
Has the F-35 been considered in terms of its characteristics as an air defence interceptor? A precedent I'm thinking of is the air defence variant of the Tornado. It was not considered a necessity that the aircraft be an exceptional dogfighter; the important characteristics were that it had a good fuel load, a high-speed supersonic dash, a powerful radar, advanced digital avionics with Link 16 datalink and IFF.
Thinking about, for example, the Canadian air defence environment, the F-35A could provide these sort of capabilities. It has a genuine 1.6 mach capability flying clean (while 4th gens have lower speeds due to drag created by targeting pods, fuel tanks, etc). It has a very powerful radar and superb datalink / MADL / fusion capabilities. The ability for an F-35 to dash quickly to an unidentified target and use its DAS and EOTS to identify it at long-range could be very useful. It can fuse that optical / visual information with its radar data to provide a long-range identification, or to provide visual information for analysts on the ground (for example if an aircraft were damaged in a way that was externally apparent, the F-35 might be able to detect this at distance and so provide that information earlier in the process and speed up the OODA loop). So I think the F-35 could be a good air defence interceptor; the mix of its high-speed in clean configuration and excellent sensors really make it well-suited to the role. And looking at the $85 million price tag, it seems like a bargain for the Canadians.
What about as a strike fighter / SEAD? I don't think anyone denies that it could be very good in that role. Its ability to penetrate an air defence networks, the data fusion capability, the ability for a group of fighters to move as a sort-of wolf pack communicating using the stealthy MADL datalink, the ability to carry up to eight SDB-II / Spear 3 class weapons to launch at range 100km range. A wolf-pack of eight F-35s could approach an air defence site like an S-400 and launch 64 SDB-II, at a total cost of around $7.5 million for the munitions (approx $120,000 each); a very favourable exchange rate given the most advanced Russian interceptor missiles like 48N6E2 cost around $1 million+. The S-400 can either choose to engage the incoming SDB-II with its longer range, expensive interceptors costing around 10 times as much as each SDB, or save their more expensive interceptors and wait until the targets are closer, but then take a much greater risk of leakage. In addition, the Spear 3 is a powered weapon so engagement with long-range interceptor missiles may not be an option as the small, stealthy Spear 3s coming flying in low to the ground. Assume every single one of those incoming gets shot down. The F-35 can return to base, load up and fly out and release another 64 weapons, another $7.5 million. For $30 million expenditure in munitions, they can launch 256 guided weapons, they can essentially afford to keep firing until the S-400 runs out of ammunition. Consider that an S-400 regiment costs over $1 billion US dollars. It seems like the traditional asymmetric Russian cost advantage is actually reversed when you're looking at these expensive Russian SAM versus F-35.
What about close air support? While it is far from the best aircraft in the CAS domain, it could certainly provide serviceable CAS in the same way any aircraft with targeting pods (including B-1 bombers) can provide CAS using GPS/laser-guided bombs. No question it could step into the CAS work currently undertaken by F-15 and F-16.
The F-35 will also have an excellent career ahead of it as a reconaissance aircraft; its ability to "sniff" out electronic and radar emissions, to get electro-optical imagery at a long slant-range, its capacity to capture SAR imagery with short blasts of its powerful radar and not least its ability to infiltrate into airspace and much closer / into the enemy area, make it a very good intelligence-gathering platform.
What is the only drawback area? Some would argue air-to-air combat. I personally think there are strong arguments why it would be very good in the modern air-to-air combat arena. In an era of data fusion and the ability to positively ID targets at long-range, in an age of long-range, ramjet-powered air-to-air missiles like Meteor, and all-aspect, HOBS, HMD-aimed missiles, the idea that manoeuvrability is even in the top three most important characteristics of a counter-air fighter seems somewhat anachronistic. What primarily makes the F-22 an extremely formidable fighter is its first-look, first-shot, first-kill capabilities. Its mix of all-aspect stealth with high use of sensitive passive sensors, the advanced computing algorithms and software that allows it to put together a picture of the airspace with sparing use of the LPI radar, these are what allow it in the first instance to be so successful. And those are things that the F-35 can do well too. Its stealth may not be as good as the F-22s, but its radar and passive sensors (both in ability to process and fuse, and also in the vintage and sophistication of its ESM and electro-optical systems) are far superior to F-22.
The ability of, say, four F-22s to work together in a stealthy wolfpack, communicating quietly with their MADL datalink, with maybe flying in the front door using its radar to recon the enemy airspace while two others, flying below radar horizon and operating passively, to creep up and then smash into the side of enemy fighters with Meteor / AMRAAM missile shots... it's a much more tactical approach, much more about stealth, ambushes and surprise attacks, information asymmetry, where the first moment an enemy aircraft realises it is being engaged is when its Missile Approach Warning sensor goes off. In such a situation, an Su-35 might be able to dodge one or even two inbound Meteor / AMRAAM, but as it progressively loses (E-M) energy, the third or fourth incoming shots become deadly.
So with the above you have a good air defence fighter, a good strike fighter / interdictor, a serviceable CAS platform, an excellent intelligence-gathering platform, and what could be a very good counter-air platform if well-trained pilots and battle managers are playing to its strengths, does that not seem like a pretty damn good all-rounder? When you consider what the average, middle power nation like Canada, or Belgium, needs out of their air force and the fact they can't afford to purchase more than one type of fast jet, doesn't that actually seem like an amazing deal if coming in at $85 million (what you'd spend anyway for a legacy 4th gen like Super Hornet, and considerably less than a Rafale)? You get an aircraft that allows you, as a nation like Canada or Australia or Belgium, to contribute to almost all aspects of coalition air operations, whether flying clean / stealthy on the first day of war or flying with externally-mounted weapons on hardpoints for interdiction or CAS missions on the 7th or 8th day.
The only area in which it might not be excellent (air-to-air combat... and that is very much debateable), is the area in which a Canada or a Belgium will not be engaging unless it were part of a coalition anyway. Belgium will never be fighting Russia alone. Canada will never be fighting China alone. The F-35 seems like the Swiss Army Knife or aircraft, and an excellent contribution if need be to coalition operations.
With all that in mind, I find it mind-boggling that people would propose that Canada get anything other than the F-35. 10 years ago, when all of the mainstream information about F-35 was mindlessly positive and there were all sorts of problems in the development programme, it was definitely ahead of the curve for someone to be aware of the issues with the aircraft. Now every mainstream media outlet attacks the F-35, its challenges are well-known but there is also significant information out there about its capabilities, people seem like they think bashing the F-35 means they're "woke" when in fact the people who actually know what they're talking about are saying it's shaping up to be a pretty good aircraft.
Apologies again for the long post, if you got this far thanks so much for reading.