Major General Charles R. Davis
Program Executive Officer
Joint Strike Fighter Program
Dear Major General Davis,
I am responding to your comments published in the 24th February edition of Inside Defense. While I don’t usually reply to ad hominem attacks, I think that in this instance it is in the public interest, and in the interest of the security of the free world, to publicly address your statements.
General Davis, you publicly lambast the Air Power Australia (APA) analyses. Did you not recall that your Lockheed Martin colleague, Steve O’Bryan, Director of Business Development, used and acknowledged APA’s future threat assessments in his ‘Navy League 2008a.ppt’ briefing? In Slide 7 of that briefing, O’Bryan correctly identifies the future threat as the Su-35BM Flanker E Plus armed with the R-77M Ramjet missile and the ‘double digit’ SAMS. You mentioned the Su-30MKI as the threat being assessed. It seems that Lockheed Martin’s Marketing Department has got it right, and the JSF Project Office has got it wrong. Surely one would expect it to be the other way around?
While you denigrate APA’s efforts, many draw heavily upon the APA website, which receives over 200,000 ‘hits’ daily, with a monthly information down load rate approaching half a Terabyte. There is a constant stream of correspondence, from many serving and former military personnel, thanking APA for its work and congratulating it on the accuracy, focus, breadth and depth of the content.
I therefore take issue with your claim that “they [APA] have no concept of the modern warfare and systems of operations and airborne battle systems and coalition ops”. I am puzzled as to how you can make such a statement given the sheer volume of high quality reference material on future air combat posted on the APA website. Have you actually invested the time to study any of the APA published works? You would be well advised to do so.
APA’s concern about the F-35 is not that it will meet a single Su-30MKI, as you claim, but that it will face a massed attack of advanced air combat fighters in the class of the Su-35BM. Mr. O’Bryan correctly used the Su-35BM as the one to beat in his presentation, not the Su-30MKI.
Recent variants of the Flanker have an inbuilt data networking system, so each Flanker shares what it knows with its peers. Unlike the Flankers, which have impressive fuel reserves, smaller aircraft like the F-35 are heavily dependent on Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) tankers for persistence, and AWACS for network centricity. The F-35’s dependency on front-aspect stealth for survival forces “nose cold” entry into combat and heavy reliance upon off-board AWACS data for situational awareness, lest it give its position away by using its radar. A few indiscrete sweeps could trigger the sensitive ESM systems of the Flanker E Plus.
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So, the reality is that in an intensive air battle, these so-called ‘assets’ become ‘liabilities’ that must be protected since readily available Russian technology includes ‘AWACS killer’ missiles – such as the 200 nautical mile R-172 and the 160 nautical mile R-37 Arrow. While it is difficult to shoot down a networked Su-35BM, the network centric AWACS and AAR tankers are big, slow, defenceless, lumbering targets.
In air combat scenarios, I always make the AWACS and AAR tankers the principal targets.
The attack plan is a simple overwhelming swarm: Offensive Counter Air (OCA) Flankers engage the Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) protecting the AAR tankers and AWACS, while other sections of Flankers simultaneously kill the AAR tankers and AWACS. The fuel and missile payload advantage of the Flanker over the F-35 makes this easy to do.
A probable scenario over vast areas of the Pacific Ocean where such air battles might rage, is that after the tankers are dropped, the F-35s exhaust their fuel and fall into the drink.
If you fail to recognise the vulnerability of AWACS and AAR aircraft, and the risks in heavy dependency upon these exposed ‘assets’, then any reasonable person might ask “who is the one who does not understand future air warfare?”.
This brings me to the subject of ‘reference threats’. Your assessments appear to be focused on threats that are currently deployed, while excluding those that the F-35 will actually face when it eventually reaches Initial Operational Capability (IOC). As I recall, you claim the F-35 is supposed to maintain air superiority over the next several decades.
The air combat ‘reference threats’ in the reliably foreseeable future (2015-2020) are represented by the Su-35BM Flanker E Plus, the MiG-35 Fulcrum, advanced SAM-based integrated defences comprising the SA-15, SA-19, SA-20, SA-21, SA-22, and SA-23, supported by the new sensors such as passive emitter locating systems, and active phased array (AESA) VHF metric and L-band decimetric wavelength radars specifically designed to counter aircraft ‘stealthed’ against X-band centimetric wavelength radars. Look closely at Steve O’Bryan’s brief – he put these SAMs, the Su-35BM and the R-77M Ramjet (RVV-AE-PD) front-and-centre as the ‘reference threats’ .
Dr Kopp has used this ‘reference threat’ approach to developing Air Power Australia analyses. His technical knowledge of Russian SAM systems and radars is encyclopaedic, and it has been a deliberate strategy of his to conduct research and publish a comprehensive database of these threat systems on the Air Power Australia website. He is also an experienced engineer and much of his doctoral thesis dealt with the design of AESA radars. He cannot be simply written off as a ‘mere academic’.
So, when you made the derisory comment, “That's a very 1950s-type of mindset”, you would have been more accurate to use a 2015 date. An informed observer might reasonably conclude that the Air Power Australia analyses are focused in time much closer to 2050 than 1950.
The JSF’s combat effectiveness is totally dependent on the thesis that ‘you cannot see me, therefore you cannot kill me’. If this premise is proven to be false by the standard due diligence process, like testing and evaluating the JSF against representative threats, then the consequence is the conclusion that the F-35 fails to meet the standards required of a future air combat aircraft.
However, the glacial pace of development of the F-35 appears to have missed this crucial aspect in its DT&E program, and you must now rely on simulations alone to make your evaluations.
Lockheed Martin recently conceded, refer to Janes Defence Weekly, that their air combat simulations failed to examine the full spectrum of engagements with aircraft like the Su-35BM. They also disclosed that 1990s technology, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, was used to represent Flanker capabilities.
This choice is a fatal flaw in assessing the F-35’s capability – the Su-30MKI is not the future air combat threat – the much newer and more capable Su-35BM and the MiG-35 are. Surprisingly, no mention is even made of the potential of Sukhoi’s planned stealthy PAK-FA to overmatch the F-35.
In low-observable operations, the F-35 will likely carry a maximum of four air-to-air missiles and operational planners must make an agonising choice between the long range AIM-120 and the close combat AIM-9X missiles. This is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ decision.
If four AIM-120s are carried and they don’t kill all enemy fighters, then the inevitable result will be that the much faster Sukhois and/or MiGs will run the defenceless F-35s down and kill them from close range with R-73/74 missiles or GSh-301 gunfire.
If two AIM-120s are dropped for two AIM-9Xs, then the Beyond-Visual-Range capability is halved, increasing the chance of the F-35s being run down and engaged within-visual-range (WVR) by the Sukhois, which enjoy a substantial advantage in energy, height, speed, agility, range and number of missile shots available.
The Lockheed Martin briefing cited by Janes exposed a further serious defect in these F-35 simulations, which is the unrepresentative 72 percent / 31 percent / 7 percent mix between Beyond Visual Range / transitional / close combat engagements. With only four missiles and inferior egress speeds, deadly ‘end game’ WVR engagements are more likely than BVR engagements.
Where have you addressed the inevitable situation where the F-35 JSF runs out of missiles, or gas, or both, and must disengage and head for home with a super cruising Su-35BM, renowned for its large fuel reserves, rapidly closing for a 6 o’clock shot?
Air Power Australia analyses are based on scientific method evaluations of future air combat and, not surprisingly, reach the same conclusions as did the RAND study entitled ‘The Future of Air Combat’. You know the one – it is the prestigious work that resulted in Dr John Stillion losing his job for making this perceptive assessment:
‘F-35A is “Double Inferior” relative to modern Russian/Chinese fighter designs in visual range combat Inferior acceleration, inferior climb, and inferior sustained turn capability. Also has lower top speed. Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.’
Your incorrect and misleading public statements only serve to demonstrate that it is you who lack the necessary understanding of the likely threats that will be in the Asia-Pacific region when the JSF becomes operational some time after 2015.
You have also fallen into the trap of the ‘garbage-in, garbage-out’ syndrome sometimes seen in simulation studies, by misrepresenting the future threat as the Su-30MKI, when in reality the networked, super-cruising, digital Su-35BM with a massive 20 Kilowatt radar and an onboard arsenal of missiles will be the air combat aircraft the Lightning II must engage. At least the LockMart sales boys got it right.
As a former F-15 flight commander, and a weapons and tactics officer, you should know the likely outcome of a massed air battle of F-35s versus Su-35BMs. But if you cannot tell the difference between a Flanker E Plus and a Flanker H, the results will be ugly.
WGCDR C. L. Mills (Retd), AM, BSc (Physics), MSc (USAFIT)
Air Combat Analyst, Air Power Australia