In trials off the California coast in January 2015, a 1980s-vintage U.S. Air Force F-16 repeatedly defeated one of the flying branch's brand-new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter stealth jets in mock dogfights. "The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage," the unnamed JSF pilot wrote in a scathing five-page brief that War Is Boring obtained.
The test report is the latest proof that the F-35 — which Lockheed Martin is developing for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines, and a host of American allies — is an inferior fighter in close combat compared to much older planes. Complex and heavy, the JSF "can't turn, can't climb, can't run," to quote one infamous 2008 war game report.
But the U.S. Navy — the third-largest purchaser of F-35s — seems unperturbed. Indeed, in recent planning the Navy describes the JSF less as a traditional fighter than as radar-evading, flying sensor and communications node.
The Navy apparently doesn't care that its F-35C version of the stealth jet — as well as the Marines' F-35B model — is a poor performer in raw kinetic terms. In the sailing branch's evolving battle scheme, the JSF will focus on finding targets … for older F/A-18 fighters and missile-armed warships to shoot down.
To be sure, the F-35 packs lots of high-tech sensors. In the nose — a Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 electronically scanned radar composed of a thousand tiny transmitter-receivers. Under the nose — Lockheed Martin's AAQ-40 Electro-Optical Targeting System, basically a high-resolution, zooming camera.
In addition, the JSF comes with the Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System, a bank of six infrared cameras scattered around the airframe that automatically detects heat plumes from incoming missiles and other threats. Finally, the F-35 boasts BAE Systems' highly sensitive AN/ASQ-239 electronic warfare suite, which listens for enemy radar signals.
Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, the Navy's top aviator, called the JSF's sensor combo a "game-changer." "Suck[ing] in all that information," an F-35 can paint "a great, clear picture of who's good and who's bad."
And that can help solve one of the Navy's biggest problems — identifying targets at long range inside enemy lines so that surface ships and non-stealthy F/A-18 fighters can bring to bear their SM-6 and AIM-120 missiles, which can travel farther than the shooters' sensors can see.
Indeed, the Navy is building an entire battle plan around the F-35's sensors and its ability to share sensor data via radio data-link, all while avoiding detection by enemy forces. "The F-35 will lead the way ashore, disabling information nodes and grids, while providing the air-ground task force with unprecedented awareness of opposing challenges," the Navy explained in its Naval Aviation Vision planning document from 2014.
"The F-35B/C will integrate various active and passive sensors from multiple aircraft into the F-35's operational picture," the document adds. "This process automatically formulates weapons-quality tracks for each target that can then be shared with other aircraft and ships, enabling them to engage the target."
The Navy has a name for this battle plan — "Naval Integrated Fire Control — Counter-Air," or NIFC-CA. There's actually a lot more to it than just F-35s, F-18s, and destroyers. At its heart, NIFC-CA is actually an expanded version of the Aegis system that equips all of the Navy's cruisers and destroyers.
By itself on a warship, Aegis combines radars and missiles to detect, track, target, and destroy enemy planes and rockets. NIFC-CA extends the Aegis system via a network, so that multiple ships plus E-2D radar planes, drones, EA-18G airborne jammers, fighters, and even Army airships can all feed sensor data to shooters in the air and on the surface.
"The NIFC-CA operational view extends the battlespace, increases survivability, and provides maximum engagement capability in the air and at sea," according to Naval Aviation Vision.
Critically, the F-35 is the only stealthy contributor to the NIFC-CA network that the Navy acknowledges — so it's arguably the best sensor platform for gathering data for the network even when enemy radars are scanning and enemy fighters are patrolling. With its radar-absorbing coating, the F-35 might be able to sneak past defenders without firing a shot. For an F-18 to do the same thing, it'd first have to fight its way through opposing forces.
If it's sneaking and sensing instead of merely fighting, a JSF might not need to be a superior dogfighter. That's why, to the Navy, it apparently doesn't matter that an F-16 turns faster than an F-35.
The first Marines F-35B squadron is on track to declare "initial operating capability" in July 2015. The Navy's F-35C should be combat-ready sometime in 2018. The sailing branch fired the first test missile using NIFC-CA in 2013 and deployed the network for the first time with the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier battle group in March 2015.
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