The F-35: Savior of U.S. Airpower or Albatross of the Asia-Pacific?

Is the F-35 the future of American airpower or a trillion-dollar tragedy? You make the call.

China’s missile program is a game-changer. For less cost and arguably greater impact, China is constructing a ballistic and cruise missile capability that will deny the US Air Force the capacity to field the short-range F-35s in the fight. Advocates of the JSF have no credible response for this new Chinese way of war.

Jamming

Short legs are not the JSF’s only problem. When it comes to conflict with a peer competitor, equally challenging is the aircraft’s limited jamming capability. As one recent story notes, the F-35’s radar jamming systems are unlikely to work against some new radar technology—under development in China and Russia. While Lockheed Martin suggests the F-35 is fully capable of jamming enemy signals to protect itself, in reality the F-35 will likely require additional jamming support from additional support aircraft that can block a wide spectrum of signals while moving to and from a target. This problem is well known; particularly since the aircraft’s jamming capability largely resides in the X-band. This means new radars under development in China and Russia, which utilizes L, UHF, and VHF wavelengths, cannot be jammed.

As Bill Sweetman has noted, before any fighter pilot activates the jamming capability, an adversary’s radar must detect the aircraft. The irony of this is, when the aircraft begins jamming a signal, its presence is revealed because the adversary can see the signal—even if a radar reflection is not visible. In essence, the ability to see the signal tells an adversary that a stealth aircraft is nearby, making targeting less challenging.

Stealth

Related to the discussion of jamming is the discussion of stealth, a major selling point for the JSF. If reports of Chinese and Russian radar developments are accurate and they are able to develop advanced radars that apply computing power to better utilize low-frequency L, UHF, and VHF wavelengths, the stealth properties of the F-35 no longer hide the aircraft from an adversary. Unlike the B-2, which does not have vertical stabilizers, the JSF may offer a significant radar return for new Russian and Chinese radars.

With radars far less expensive to field than fifth generation fighters, there is reason to believe that, once operational, Chinese or Russian-made low-frequency radars, specifically designed to detect the JSF, will proliferate among America’s adversaries. This too could greatly undermine the value of the F-35. 

Recommendations

For critics, a wide range of recommendations exists. Thus, to present the strongest case, the following recommendations are a compilation of those offered.

Among critics, Pietrucha offers a set of recommendations that combine termination of the JSF program, modernization of existing fighters, and the development of a low-end capability as a solution to the nation’s tactical fighter requirements. While such a dramatic choice is likely untenable—for many of the reasons offered by advocates—capping the total purchase at approximately 1000 aircraft is feasible. A total buy of this size would meet the needs of US and allies while maintaining the economic viability of Lockheed Martin.

In partially pursuing the course suggested by Pietrucha, the United States can address its short term need for modernized tactical fighters while also freeing up additional funding for the acquisition of long range strike bombers, which are in far greater need of recapitalization—particularly for an Asia-Pacific conflict.

It is also important that the USAF develop the weapon systems that will enable the service to meet the threats outlined in America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future (July 2014). In its latest strategic look at the future, the Air Force does not specifically rank its capabilities or missions by importance, but it appears clear that long range strike serves as the central mission around which the Air Force must organize. Thus, focusing greater acquisition dollars toward long-range strike platforms is both prudent and the best way to ensure conventional and nuclear deterrence.

Additionally, aside from the Korean peninsula, Asia-Pacific airbases exhibit few of the characteristics that made NATO bases resilient to attack, not to mention the fact that China’s missile threat to America’s island bases is far more technologically advanced that anything fielded within the Warsaw Pact. Regardless of the impressive (and expensive) aircraft based at Kadena, Andersen, or other Air Force bases, the deterrent value of a “soft” base is minimal. Subject to precision attack from long distances, American bases in the Pacific might be more of a vulnerability than a strength.

It is important to remember that Chinese strategic thinking views a preemptive attack against offensive assets as a defensive act. When talking about vulnerable bases, this is important.

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