This article is part of AIN’s comprehensive coverage of the F-35. Click here for news, videos and images of the long-awaited Joint Strike Fighter.
According to Lockheed Martin, only fighter aircraft belonging to the fifth generation “can survive and defeat the threats of tomorrow.” There are only two such aircraft, says the U.S. defense group–the F-22 Raptor and the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, now christened the Lightning II. And Lockheed Martin builds them both.
In an aggressive series of briefings around last year’s Farnborough airshow, Lockheed Martin executives built their case based on early U.S. Air Force experience with operational F-22s and their own predictions of forthcoming F-35 capabilities. Since then, the F-22 has performed impressively in a major exercise and the first flights of the F-35 were promising. But the F-22 has recently suffered a serious and embarrassing software failure and testing of the F-35 still has a long way to go.
The other fighters that are currently in production, such as the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon in Europe, and America’s own F-15/ 16/18 series, are characterized as fourth generation by Lockheed Martin officials. “They’re very good airplanes, but they’re at parity with the latest Russian fighters. Only superior training keeps us ahead,” said Rob Weiss, vice president for business development at Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics Company. Moreover, he told Aviation International News that “improvements in fourth generation fighters such as active array radars aren’t going to change the basic physics of the equation.”
Of course, that is a reference to the stealth characteristics of the F-22 and F-35, which were designed from the start for very low observability (VLO). Although only the F-22 claims all-aspect stealth, the two types share much VLO technology, such as diverter-less inlets, radar/radome integration, internal weapons carriage, surface treatments and edge alignment.
But the Lockheed Martin briefings also claimed three other “game-changing” attributes for the Raptor and the Lightning II. They are agility, sensor fusion and what company officials now call advanced sustainment, when they mean reliability, maintainability and deployability of the two aircraft. “Tactical aviation will never be the same again,” enthused Ralph Heath, president of Lockheed Martin Aero.
The briefings were quick to seize on reports from Exercise Northern Edge in Alaska last June, where F-22s dominated the air-to-air engagements. A squadron of 12 Raptors led the defending “Blue Forces” to a comprehensive victory over attacking “Red Air,” despite a four-to-one numerical disadvantage. F-22 pilots averaged five or six “kills” per mission.
More recently, F-22s were pitted against the USAF’s elite aggressor squadrons of F-15s and F-16s in a Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base. Again the Raptors triumphed, causing one aggressor commander to remark, “We tried to overload them with numbers and failed. It’s humbling to fly against the F-22.”
Unlike the earlier exercise, which was an all-U.S. affair, the Red Flag event included allied participation from the Australian and British air forces. One Australian squadron leader flying for the aggressors said, “The F-22 denies your ability to put a weapons systems on it, even when I can see it through the canopy. It’s the most frustrated I’ve ever been.”
Critics argue that peacetime exercises can be skewed to produce predetermined results. In a briefing to a Washington think-tank last year, two well-known American “fighter mavericks” made this point as well as many other criticisms of the F-22.
But Lockheed Martin’s Weiss told AIN that extensive simulation supported the company’s contention that its fifth generation fighters are significantly more effective than “legacy fighters”–and better value as well. He explained, “We modeled three major combat scenarios using classified and special-access data. In one of them, you needed 725 F-15/16-class fighters plus 230 airlifters and tankers to achieve air dominance at a life-cycle cost of $300 billion. Whereas only 230 fifth generation fighters were required, plus 100 airlifters and tankers. And the legacy losses in air combat were seven times greater.”
Heath also claimed that classified data proved a dramatic advantage for the F-22. He said that since there was significant commonality with the F-35, international customers for the latter would also enjoy unparalleled capability.
The F-22 enjoys very tight integration between its Northrop Grumman APG-77 active array radar and BAE Systems North America’s ALR-94 ELINT system. They work in concert to identify threats at long range and limit exposure of the aircraft through radar emissions. The passive electro-optical (EO) system also contributes in this regard, and the low-probability-of-intercept datalink helps facilitate “silent” air combat.
The F-35 will have similar systems. “Each sensor is advanced, but the fusion is dramatic. The pilot does not ‘operate’ the radar or the EO in the conventional sense,” noted Weiss.
All at Sea in the Pacific
But tight integration can be disadvantageous, as the formation of six F-22s deploying across the Pacific Ocean from the U.S. to Okinawa discovered last February. They lost most of their cockpit displays when the navigation system malfunctioned while crossing the International Date Line. Following an ignominious return to Hickam Air Force Base, with the Raptors following their refueling tankers, it took two days to troubleshoot the problem. This incident was somewhat more embarrassing than an earlier one when an F-22 pilot had to be cut out of his cockpit when the canopy jammed.
Also in the deficit ledger for the F-22 are cooling problems with the avionics on the ground, and cracks in the horizontal stabilizer that threaten the promised fatigue life.
America’s first stealth warplanes–the F-117 and the B-2–were initially difficult to maintain, especially their low-observable coatings. But there have been significant improvements.
Weiss told AIN that maintenance man-hours per flying hour needed to maintain the F-117’s low-observability have reduced from 50 to two. The equivalent figures for the F-22 and F-35 are expected to be 0.7 and 0.3 hours respectively.
Moreover, Weiss quoted the following reductions in sustainment for the F-22, compared with fourth generation combat jets: 40 percent less airlift to deploy; 35 percent less support personnel; 45 percent fewer spare parts; and 75 percent less support equipment.
Regarding agility, the F-22 lays claims to “twice the angle-of-attack of the F-16 and eye-opening speed,” according to Heath. Its two 35,000-pound-thrust Pratt & Whitney F119 engines confer a “supercruising” capability (for example, non-afterburning supersonics) and have automatic 2-D thrust-vectoring nozzles.
Still, the critics have alleged a poor dogfighting performance (see box below). The F-35 trades speed and some maneuverability for cost, such as a single engine, although its P&W F135 is the most powerful fighter engine yet (43,000 pounds of thrust).
The sheer expense of the F-22 has led to much censure in Washington, D.C. Development has cost some $25 billion, and unit production cost is $130 million to $140 million. The USAF was forced to more than halve its planned fleet, to 183. The cost of developing the F-35 has soared from $25 billion to $45 billion, but lean production techniques and sheer economies of scale (3,000 could be built) are supposed to keep the unit cost to an average $53 million.