Via J. Scott Shipman and Grurray on Twitter:
Real-life performance data shows that the most important and high-impact technologies are not the gold-plated, over-engineered wonder weapons that turn majors into colonels, colonels into generals, and young Jedi apprentices into Sith Lords. Instead, data suggest the real winners are humble, simple, low-cost products made by small, rapid innovation teams — the type of projects that don’t attract much attention from the press or from the brass because all they do is get the mission done without any fuss.
34 thoughts on ““Death Stars are overrated military investments””
Amen. The F 35 sounds like the most recent Death Star.
Another characteristic is the private developer. Where is the Skunk Works or the Leroy Grummans ? The B 29 did not work as expected and was finally used in a mission (low level incendiaries) that did not require all the pressurization of the design.
The A 10 is an example of a low tech weapon with few friends in the careerist military. The careerist military gave us the M 16 that had no cleaning kit in Vietnam. The AR 15 did not have one but the powder formula was changed before the M 16 was adopted and issued.
Why did we fight the European battles with the Sherman and not the M 26 ? Armored units had a 600% casualty rate in Normandy. By the end of the battles, the army was having trouble finding tank crews.
“Why did we fight the European battles with the Sherman and not the M 26 ?” My father always thanked his lucky stars that he was not assigned to Shermans but to Churchills: a bit under-gunned but very well armoured, and good across difficult ground. Particularly in the bocage country it did well against the excellent German tanks.
DeathStar is a loaded term since it, by definition, implies failure. Is big and expensive and complex better than small and cheap and simple? Generally, no. But it depends on what you’re trying to do.
The B-29 failed in high altitude bombing, as I understand it, because they did not yet understand the jet stream. They also lacked weapons with enough precision to do the pinpoint targeting we’ve only recently seen. I’ll argue that the development of an intercontinental range, pressurized cabin aircraft was significant in itself and was a world changing technology.
On the wider question of whether we’re better off F-16’s and A-10’s than F-35’s I can only say I think it’s complicated. Ideally, weapons fall out strategy:
A) Define the goal
B) Develop a strategy for achieving it.
C) Develop the tools to carry out the strategy.
But real life isn’t some ideal and central planning, including strategic planning, often fails. Pierre Sprey’s baby, the F-16, came out of the multiple failures of strategy and weapons development of the 50’s and 60’s. In many ways it followed the experienced engineers mantra. Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish, optimize everything for that, cut everything else away.
The F-35 is the antithesis of that thinking. Take everything everyone wants, build one aircraft to do that. That wasn’t the USAF’s idea. Nor the idea of USN or Marines. It came of the Soviet style Central Planning Committee of HASC and SASC. It was a directive. This is what thou shall build! One Jet for All to Fly. The F-35 is what you get. That it’s not completely FUBAR is a testament to Lockheed/Northrop/Boeing/BAE and the smart people therein. Three separate aircraft would have been a much better approach and would have been a far healthier thing for keeping our aerospace industry healthy and far better for innovation and competition. Thank Congress for the F-35. Not the services.
And if you want to know where the Skunk Works people of our generation are, look at SpaceX.
The sidewinder missile and P51 are other examples of quick and cheap designs – the Sidewinder, pushed by 1 man at China Lake, is 50 years old nd the Air Force says it will be used into the late 21st century.
Good points, Michael. The F 111 was a similar everything to everyone.
My point about the B 29 was that, while a great advance, it didn’t work as intended. The range was what was needed not the pressurized crew. The B 29 was quickly dispatched by the jet fighters in Korea.
The B 52 was one of the great designs of all time. They should reopen the production line.
The F16 came too, I believe, out of the realization from Vietnam that the smaller and more nimbler MiG 17s, 19s and 21s were more maneuverable than the F4s and F105s. The F4 and 105 came from an era in the 1950s where the planners thought dog fighting was obsolete – longer range missiles were the coming thing.
Interesting thing about the F16 – its competitor – and the “loser” from Northrup – the YF-17 – became – through the efforts of one man, the Navy’s F/A-18.
And I think Michael is right about the B29 – because of the jetstream, it couldn’t be used accurately for high altitude bombing.
It was Gen Curtis LeMay, who had a bunch of these hugely expensive (over $600,000 apiece) bombers on Saipan and Tinian, who conceived of the devasting low-altitude firebombing of Japan.
A round trip took 14 hours.
John Boyd was really the father of the F 16 but there is credit enough for all.
The F 105 was a tough airplane but no dogfighter. The fears are that the F 35 is another F 105.
The F 22 has its own problems and the pilots who reported it have been punished in spite of denials.
A friend of mine was the Marine group commander in Bahrain in Gulf War I. A group of visiting Congressmen came through before the air war kicked off and asked if his planes had everything they needed. His answer was NO and they got what they needed before the war began but he retired as a colonel, passed over for a star. He was a famous Marine pilot in Vietnam. It doesn’t pay to tell the truth sometimes.
From a history of the F 4, a pdf file.
“The criteria Lancer used to select aviators for the Warrior panel focused on Marines with high‐flyer F‐4 credentials, including pilots like Col. Manfred “Fokker” Rietsch, credited with 653 combat missions. Fokker is recognized as the Marine pilot with the most F‐4 combat missions flown in Vietnam.”
After retiring, Manfred had a spectacular career in business. He is now retired again.
The process of weapons design and procurement is so clearly broken that it hard for me to worry about the curtailment of the defense budget. Hagel is too stupid to take on the process and Obama thinks that the US should give up its weapons. It is all pretty hopeless.
Robert, I agree. I had hopes that Rumsfeld would take it on but he got sidetracked by 9/11/
Well, Scott knows much more about the subject then me, but it makes sense to most of us to be suspicious of putting all your eggs in one basket, especially when that basket is consuming more and more of your shrinking budget.
Sprey’s real baby was the A-10. Boyd was the spiritual godfather but was a fighter pilot at heart, so he didn’t care much for close air support.
The overriding principle was Boyd’s energy maneuverability theory, which, if you paid attention to the world famous Chicago Boyz Osinga Roundtable and read the book, you would know he developed from studying Korean War flight envelopes of the F-86 and MiG-15. The concept of fast transients – gaining and losing energy faster than your opponent – was a major conclusion.
There should be a system level analysis like maneuverability envelopes for all weapons systems and platforms. Measures, countermeasures, time, speed, distance, adjustments, etc should all be variables. I’m sure there’s got be things like that out there, but they’re obviously ignored when politics, influence peddlers, and mission creep settle in.
The F 16 was a dog fighter. Boyd went on the OODA loop which is now a decision theory truism.
His genius was far beyond fighter planes but was mostly ignored.
I have to agree with most everything that is said. I would like to add from my personal experience a few points.
One of the issues is that military innovation is almost exclusively top down. For example, no combat soldier I ever met endorsed the 5.56 mm round in favor of the 7.62mm. Its only advantages are that it is lighter to carry and cheaper. No combat soldier ever recommended replacing the .45 ACP with the 9mm.
The long overdue replacement for the M-60 series tanks would never of had a turbine power plant if any tankers would have been asked and once the M-1 was fielded, it would not have been up-gunned to the 120mm cannon either. Bigger is better right? No, the 120mm has no significant armor penetration capability beyond the 105mm long rod penetrator. The ability of the long rod penetrator is sufficient to penetrate frontal slope and turret armor of viable platforms we might face. Granted the 120mm has more potential for future development, but that isn’t required. Why not a 150mm or 200mm? If the threat isn’t there and isn’t even realistically possible in the lifespan of the system, why do it at great cost. The Germans and the Brits have bigger cannons than we do, “NATO Standardization”, etc. None of that really matters when you reduce the readily accessible cannon rounds in the turret from 23 to about 12, and you must effectively disengage so you can turn the turret around in order to reposition rounds from the hull on both sides of the driver to the turret racks. You also reduce the on board number of rounds from 55 105mm to 40 120mm. In a really intense “target rich environment”, this is not conducive to survival, much less the agile maneuver based offensive tactics for which the tank was designed.
Why not a turbine power plant? It is powerful, simple and small. It uses three times the fuel, puts off a massive heat signature and has a high failure rate in dusty environments. Not to mention we didn’t bother to build a transmission that could handle the turbines shock loads. Could it have been retrofitted with a reciprocating piston power plant? Yes, there were prototypes in the 1980’s. How would you like to go back to congress and tell them you need that kind of money to fix what you already fielded? Never mind that Chrysler’s M-1 proposal was “selected” for political reasons after it finished a distant third to the Leopard II and the GM prototype in the “trials.”
We have now modified the M-1 through two major models and several block upgrades, but have failed to correct and in some cases made worse the biggest issues with the M-1 since day one: reliability, fuel consumption, heat signature, inability to determine range to target through battlefield dust and smoke (IR laser rangefinder vs CO2), second rate thermal sight (poor image quality and higher failure rate due to inadequate cooling system as compared to that of M-60A3), totally inadequate commanders weapon station (.50 machine gun on a pintle mount a la WW II, , big step backward compared to M-60 series). We have found funds for such things as a bigger gun, NBC overpressure system (which only works if you don’t rotate the turret), various digital interfaces and displays, and commander’s independent thermal viewer. These aren’t all bad ideas, but they haven’t increased the effectiveness of the tank for the role for which it is uniquely designed. In several cases it has made it less capable.
There are no concrete plans to replace the M-1 after 35 years of service. The concepts being floated are not based on much input from tankers and would not fulfill a main battle tank role. They might be easily air deployable, but they will be no more survivable than a Stryker and incapable of going against even currently fielded MBT’s, not to mention highly developed prototypes, of say Russia and China. The M-1 was fielded in the late 1970’s. Creighton Abrams didn’t live to see it fielded, but I’m pretty sure his WW II experience as a tank battalion commander and subsequent service in armor helped shape many of the major improvements that were seen in the M-1. The irony is that we have managed to make the original design some what worse in some areas and failed to correct some very fixable shortcomings over the ensuing 35 years. It is a good thing we never had to use it against a formidable foe.
“For example, no combat soldier I ever met endorsed the 5.56 mm round in favor of the 7.62mm. Its only advantages are that it is lighter to carry and cheaper.”
I have an entire book on military misfires on small unit weapons. In fact the book is called Misfire . It tells the story of why the Union army did not adopt the repeating rifle and the metallic cartridge, which would have stopped the Confederates from arming themselves with discarded Union muskets since the south had no manufacturing capability to make the metal cartridges. And why the BAR was not used in World War I because we were afraid the Germans would copy it !
It goes on and on.
I worked in the defense industry before medical school and saw a few reasons for the screwups.
Saw this image on twitter this morning of Postulated effect of strategic bombing on German will to resist during WWII from
Antoine Bousquet military and political science professor and author of the highly recommended The Scientific Way of Warfare.
It came out of the strategic bombing surveys
perhaps the last time America had a coherent strategy. I was skimming through the Quadrennial Defense Review awhile back and it seemed severely disconnected from reality and current events by comparison.
B-29: Another factor of low level incendiary bombing of Japan was the distributed nature of Japanese industry – the target.
And LeMay’s solution was genius.
The answer to all of the above is the military isn’t properly integrated into the national government’s power and money loop. It’s the only major government program that’s discretionary budgeting for instance, the only one that ever gets cut in terms of people or money.
So until the military is a full partner it will continue to be abused. It’s on the bottom in terms of power, all other government programs sacrosanct but not the Military. That speaks to political incompetence on the part of the Pentagon and Chiefs of course.
Of course anyone with any agenda whatsoever can take advantage of the military, they’re muted by obedience as matters stand.
[**I understand fully what I just wrote].
I beg to disagree. I think it’s too integrated.
I think what we really have now is a hangover from the corporate and political integration of the post-war military. It worked for awhile, as much as any other professional enterprise did, but now it’s a victim of its own success. We emerged as the undisputed winner because of our all-out effort to outspend and outlast with complex, big ticket systems. Now we don’t know how to stop, but we have to stop. Everybody will have to stop. The military is just the advance team.
The real problem now is the divide with the civilian population. It’s a long, deep recurring problem whose latest, but certainly not only, manifestation has occurred since the end of the Cold War.
Just as it’s said the central government has become so bloated and irrelevant to regular citizens, the military is the same way. Same with Wall St. Is the military with it’s declining troop strength and rising reliance on all-in-one, leviathan weapons systems really that much different from multi-national corporations with soaring profits, higher automation investments, and increasing layoffs?
Distributed, open sourced, and decentralized is one way to fix it. Improving readiness and integration with state defense forces would be another, especially in Northern urban areas that haven’t had any connection with the military for decades or more.
One big difference is that the military has no profits, only costs. It’s amusing to see the brain dead efforts to cut expenses while throwing money down several rat holes at the same time. I spend two days a week examining recruits in Los Angeles. There are about a dozen doctors, all but two retired, who do this and we recently were required to clock in (by phone) within two minutes of the time we are scheduled to work. It used to be 15 minutes. It’s amusing in a sad way to see this great institution deteriorate.
My recollection about the F-16 is that Congress was pissed off about the then-exorbitant price of that “gold-plated” F-15. The F-16 was sold as a low-end day fighter, to supplement the high-end F-15. Quality and quantity…. kinda, sorta.
And my recollection about the advanced technology fighter program that eventually metastasized into the F-35, was that the program office SWORE on a stack of Bibles that it was only seeking common technology such as avionics and engines, for a family of aircraft. “No way,” they swore, were they going to repeat the fiasco of the switchblade Edsel (F-111), a common aircraft for everyone. Yeah, right.
MikeK – I think you will like this article – about Elon Musk – and re-inventing the whole space rocket equation. In many cases he didn’t want t pay the prices going for the Atlas rocket – a rocket still in use after 50 years – and is redesigning the parts – cheaper (by magnitudes) and better
Bill, I worked on the Nike Zeus in 1959, You don’t have to tell me how far we’ve come. My lab partner in medical school was one of the two engineers to design the solid fuel rocket at Aerojet General. In the summer of 1962 he went back to work for for them during summer vacation. He eventually became a pathologist. He flunked the first biochemistry quiz in medical school because he couldn’t figure out the questions. He had a PhD in P-Chem. They gave him an A and he didn’t have to take the class.
LeMay was less a genius than a man cornered by the US Navy code breaking games blocking Japanese weather reports sabotaging his predecessor and senior USAAF and OSRD officials pushing incendiary bombing,
This is from my February 21st, 2014
History Friday: A Tale of Balloon Bombs, B-29s and Weather Reports
General Hansell’s XXIth Bomber Command spent October 1944 through January 1945 learning how to bomb through the jet stream accurately. It turns out that it is possible and that there was a “Book Solution.” As the 1949 the US Army Seacoast Artillery Research Board Survey states, bombing accurately across the jet stream was impossible. The XXIth Bomber Command learned by bombing with the Jet stream that it was impossible, as the ground speed of 500(+) miles an hour (800kph) was far too fast for the analog computer Norden bomb sight.
Bombing into the jet stream at a slightly lower altitude of 27,000 feet was a different story. The ground speeds fell from 300 miles an hour to between 100 and 150 MPH (160 to 240 KPH), which was within the Norden bomb sight’s capability. The fact that the bombs trailed further behind the aircraft when dropped could be compensated for by adjustments in bomb trail built into the sight to account for the drag of different bomb types.
Against German flak gun air defense this would be suicide. Against the Japanese, it wasn’t. It was not until Hansell’s last B-29 mission on 19 Jan 1945 against the Kawasaki aircraft plant located near Akashi, after long experience of learning by dying against Japanese fighters and poor high altitude Japanese anti-aircraft gunnery, that Hansell’s staff hit on that solution. It was, by then, too late for Hansell. He had been relieved by General Curtis LeMay.
Had Hansell and his staff been aware of Japanese upper altitude jet stream weather from the beginning, these adjustments would have happened sooner.
For want of weather reports, the XXIth Bomber Command would have done far more damage to the Japanese aircraft industry, and suffered fewer B-29 crew deaths from repeatedly and ineffectively striking the same aircraft plants over and over again.
For want of experienced B-29 crews by the XXIth, who would have lived and struck effectively using the better tactics weather reports could have provided, the reduced output of Japanese aircraft from approximately late November 1944 through the start of LeMay’s firebombing campaign in March 1945 didn’t happen.
For want of destroyed Japanese aircraft plants these weather reports would have made possible, there were suicide aircraft reserves for the Okinawa campaign. Thus were destroyed many US Navy picket destroyers that should have lived, as the Japanese need to maintain a reserve of suicide aircraft for the Ketsu-Go final defense against invasion that would have truncated the Kamikaze campaigns which those destroyers suffered in May and June 1945.
For want of a more successful with precision bombing campaign those weather reports would have provided, the fire bombings of Japan General Hansell resisted doing would have been delayed further still before the A-bomb arrived, thus reducing the final death toll of Japanese civilians in the Pacific War.
And finally, for want of a Pacific War “narrative comparison” column, you didn’t know any of the above…until now.
Bill, The Atlas rocket of today is not the Atlas rocket of 50 years ago. It was completely redisigned in the mid 1990’s from a relatively small parallel staged rocket using American designed/built engines to a more conventional 2 stage design using Russian designed/built engines with almost 3 times the power of the real Atlas’s engines.
I think they used the Atlas name to get it approved easier for DoD/NASA purchase.
Joe – that is interesting about the Atlas Rocket
On the Musk article what I found interesting was that in designing his rocket – the Falcon – he originally wanted to buy a lot of “off the shelf” components – parts used in the Atlas for example – and he found them ridiculously expensive – because of traditional government cost-plus development – and too complex.
So he has redesigned a lot of them from scratch – mush less expensive and complex – and better.
Mike – the 50s were heady days in So Cal for aerospace. I was childhood friends with one of the Wooldrich children – I guess Wooldrich left his company with 2 others to found TRW – all gone now.
I’m reading a biography of Simo Ramo. TRW was just about a half mile from the Douglas building on El Segundo Blvd where I worked. Now I pass that site a couple of times a week as the MEPS is just around the corner. None of those buildings still stand.
There were still layoffs going on in that area. One summer in college, I got a job working for a moving company moving aircraft worker families out of small houses and into apartments. I was young and strong then. We would move couches by lifting them on a rope over the shoulders through a second floor window when the staircase was too narrow.
Elon cracked the code as to why rocket science is both so expensive and so hard:
Significantly, the Merlin engines—like roughly 80 percent of the components for Falcon and Dragon, including even the flight computers—are made in-house. That’s something SpaceX didn’t originally set out to do, but was driven to by suppliers’ high prices. Mueller recalls asking a vendor for an estimate on a particular engine valve. “They came back [requesting] like a year and a half in development and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just way out of whack. And we’re like, ‘No, we need it by this summer, for much, much less money.’ They go, ‘Good luck with that,’ and kind of smirked and left.” Mueller’s people made the valve themselves, and by summer they had qualified it for use with cryogenic propellants.
“That vendor, they iced us for a couple of months,” Mueller says, “and then they called us back: ‘Hey, we’re willing to do that valve. You guys want to talk about it?’ And we’re like, ‘No, we’re done.’ He goes, ‘What do you mean you’re done?’ ‘We qualified it. We’re done.’ And there was just silence at the end of the line. They were in shock.” That scenario has been repeated to the point where, Mueller says, “we passionately avoid space vendors.”
In a few cases, SpaceX has even been able to advance the state of the art. For the Dragon’s heat shield, the company chose a material called PICA (phenolic impregnated carbon ablator), first developed for NASA’s Stardust comet-sample-return spacecraft. Rejecting the prices they were getting from the manufacturer, they took advantage of help from NASA’s Ames Research Center to make it themselves. According to Mueller, SpaceX’s material, called PICA-X, is 10 times less expensive than the original, “and the stuff we made actually was better.” In fact, says Musk, a single PICA-X heat shield could withstand hundreds of returns from low Earth orbit; it can also handle the much higher energy reentries from the moon or Mars.
It’s the culture, stupid.
The culture of the rocket field is that of government contractors and government customers, not either private business nor of frontiersmen.
And Elon has picked the best of both American business culture and the “Skunk Works” model engineering development culture to impliment his vision, combined with the example of Russia’s lower tech/lower manpower space program —
But as for SpaceX’s organizational style, it’s Silicon Valley, not NASA, that had the most influence. In Hawthorne, where everyone including Musk works in cubicles instead of offices to encourage communication, the buzzwords of the business culture—lean manufacturing, vertical integration, flat management—are real and fundamental. Says former SpaceX business development director Max Vozoff, “This really is the greatest innovation of SpaceX: It’s bringing the standard practices of every other industry to space.” Having almost all of SpaceX’s engineers under one roof means the process of designing, testing, and improving is greatly streamlined. One NASA manager who visited SpaceX quips that when there is a new problem to solve, “it looks like a flash mob” in the hallway.
Some observers have questioned whether SpaceX’s smaller workforce can build and operate a vehicle safe enough for astronauts to fly (see “Is It Safe?” April/May 2009). But former astronaut Ken Bowersox, who joined SpaceX in 2009 as vice president of astronaut safety and mission assurance, says safety stems mostly from a vehicle’s design. Bowersox, who flew four space shuttle missions as well as the Russian Soyuz, says that at NASA the shuttle’s complexity required a large organization to manage the risks. “People started to think that that’s the only way you can operate. And I have to say that I would’ve been in that boat if I hadn’t been sent off to train in Russia,” where the workforce is much smaller. Because the Soyuz is far simpler than the shuttle and includes an escape system, he says, it is safer despite the inevitable human errors. Dragon follows the same design philosophy.
Sorry to bother you, but is there a link for that Musk quote?
Elon Musk just announced about an hour ago on Twitter plans to unveil his manned rocket:
“Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that @SpaceX has been working on w @NASA. No trampoline needed”
“Cover drops on May 29. Actual flight design hardware of crew Dragon, not a mockup.”
The trampoline reference is regarding Russia’s deputy Prime Minister’s recent tweat:
“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline”
Kirk, I saw it today and can’t find it.
It was up thread —
Yeah … the big stuff gets noticed. The coming battlefield will not feature humans. They will not be able to survive. Little deals like this puppy point the way modern war will take:
We are pretty well there.
One must keep in mind the mighty US has fought only very weak enemies for a quite a while. It will be instructive to see how the Ukrainian debacle goes.
Trent: Thanks! I hadn’t gotten past the first page there yet…
Trent – SpaceX is working on something that I have wondered – why it was never done before. Using reusable Rockets.
OK, the Space Shuttle reused them – but at what cost to refurbish something that parachutes into the ocean?
SpaceX is working on having the rocket retain enough fuel to back down slowly and land itself at a designated landing zone.
I’ve often wondered about where the Space Shuttle has placed us. Talk about a Death Star Project.
It was supposed to be a new era in cheap, quickly returned space transportation – NASA put all of its eggs in that basket and where are we today?
Depending on the Russians to launch our astronauts.
Bill, the original shuttle design was for a much smaller vehicle launched from a supersonic first stage airplane similar to the B-70 bomber. But the Air Force got involved when NASA tried to corner the US launch market and the shuttle tripled in size, and costs increased an order of magnitude, and reusability was reduced.
Boeing has gone all in to hack at the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Boeing really wants to sell more EA-18F Growlers and they are not going to let the F-35 Mafia get in their way when they have Sweetman to play ball. Sweetman’s column (see below) and the Boeing brief it is based upon publicly, with US Navy’s endorsement, validates APA article linked to in comments above.
That APA F-35 column appeared over a 10 years ago.
IMO, the US Navy wants options outside the F-35. The EA-18F gives them one. Their unmanned fighter is the other.
Again, IMO, the US Navy has decided that a forward UAV controller/jammer is the better option fighting the Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) and over the horizon radar (OTH-R) complex than the F-35.
The Growler/UAV concept is simply far more robust. Especially given that the F-35 has such short range and a small payload of air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance in full stealth mode.
This move is vital for the USN as the Chinese have deployed their own underwater passive sonar barriers (Think America’s Cold War SOSUS system in the North Atlantic) to push back American and Japanese cruise missile sub launchers out of the Yellow Sea.
Sweetman column below —
Opinion: Jamming Is Needed Against Agile Radar Threat
Fake secrecy clouds Growler debate
Apr 29, 2014 Bill Sweetman | Aviation Week & Space Technology
This column appears in the April 29 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Using secrecy to squelch debate is undesirable. Using bogus secrecy to
do it is, to borrow the British civil service’s strongest term of
It’s reasonable, if misguided, to argue that the U.S. military has all
the EA-18G Growlers that it needs. It does not make sense first to
maintain that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will not need
electronic-attack (EA) support, but then simply to cite “its
combination of stealth and advanced sensors” in support of that
statement, while withholding comment on any details. And that is what
Lockheed Martin has been doing. (The JSF project office is not
commenting at all on the issue.)
Two characteristics of the JSF that bear on this debate have been
raised by Boeing and recent think-tank papers. One is the fighter’s
susceptibility to detection by very-high-frequency (VHF) radars, and
the other is the extent of its EA, or jamming, capability.
They are not secret at all. The F-35 is susceptible to VHF detection
and–as Boeing’s charts suggest–its jamming is mostly confined to the
X-band, in the sector covered by its APG-81 radar. These are not
criticisms of the program but the result of choices by the customer.
To suggest that the F-35 is VHF-stealthy is like arguing that the sky
is not blue–literally, because both involve the same phenomenon. The
late-Victorian physicist Lord Rayleigh (photo) gave his name to the
way that electromagnetic radiation is scattered by objects that are
smaller than its wavelength. This applies to the particles in the air
that scatter sunlight, and aircraft stabilizers and wingtips that are
about the same meter-class size as VHF waves.
The counter-stealth attributes of VHF were discussed here a few months
ago (AW&ST Sept. 16, 2013, p. 30). They were known at the dawn of
stealth, in 1983, when MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory ordered a 150-ft.-wide
radar to emulate Russia’s P-14 Oborona VHF early warning system.
Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth division should know about that
radar–they built it.
VHF-stealth starts with removing the target’s tails, as on the B-2,
but we did not know how to do that on a supersonic, agile airplane
when the JSF specifications were written.
Neither did the technology to add broadband active jamming to a
stealth aircraft exist in 1995. Not only did stealth advocates expect
jamming to fade away, but there was an obvious and (at the time)
insoluble problem: To use jamming, you have to be certain that the
radar has detected you. Otherwise, jamming is going to reveal your
presence and identify you as a stealth aircraft, since the adversary
can see a signal but not a reflection.
We can be sure that onboard jamming has not been added to F-35 since.
Had the JSF requirements been tightened by one iota since the program
started, its advocates would be blaming that for the delays and cost
What the JSF does have is an EA function in the radar and an
expendable radar decoy–BAE Systems’ ALE-70–which may be free-flying or
towed, most likely the former. Both are last-ditch measures that would
be used to disrupt a missile engagement, not to prevent tracking.
JSF’s planners, in the mid-1990s, were close to correct when they
calculated that low-band stealth and limited EA, combined with passive
electronic surveillance for situational awareness, would be adequate
at service entry. But they expected that to happen in 2010, and
China’s military modernization then was barely imaginable.
The threats of the late 2010s will be qualitatively different. Old VHF
radars could be dealt with by breaking the kill chain between
detection and tracking: They did not provide good enough cueing to put
analog, mechanically scanned tracking radars on to the target. Active,
electronically scanned array (AESA), high-power VHF radars and
decimeter- and centimeter-wave trackers are more tenacious foes.
Russian developments have been covered here, but one worry for the
U.S. Navy is that Chinese warships carry the Type 517M VHF search
radar, which its maker says is an AESA.
None of this is to say that stealth is dead, but it is not reasonable
to expect the cat-and-mouse game of detection and evasion in air
combat has stopped, or that it ever will. EA and stealth still do not
coexist very comfortably on the same platform, but offboard EA and
stealth are synergistic: The smaller the target, the less jamming
power is needed to mask it. The argument in favor of deploying the
Next Generation Jammer system is that its greater precision and power
will allow it to provide covering fire for stealth assets from a
stand-off range outside the defender’s reach.
But the threat’s demonstrated agility drives home the lesson that
there is no one winning move in the radar game. Excessive reliance on
a single-point design is not a good idea, and using fictitious secrecy
to squash the debate is an even worse one.
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