The military does developmental and operational testing of stealth aircraft at the Western Test Range at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The tests are conducted against the ground radar simulator equipment and surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers. Aircraft being tested fly over these arrays to see if the aircraft’s onboard sensors—in particular its electronic warfare systems and ground mapping radar—combined with offboard intelligence provided via data links can detect the threats and respond appropriately, such as by warning the pilots, jamming the signals, or firing defense suppression missiles.
The problem is a complicated one because the radar signals that reveal the presence of a SAM, for instance, thereby allowing the aircraft to either target the SAM or avoid it, are not necessarily distinctive and often closely resemble the signals of radars that pose no immediate threat to the aircraft. The F-35 can't carry enough weapons to bomb everything. Its sensor and sensor fusion system must be able to tell the difference between enemy SAM radars that pose a genuine threat and the many innocuous radars that may be within range of detection—general purpose air surveillance radars, short-range, low-altitude air defense radars targeting weapons and not aircraft, and even nearby civilian air traffic control and weather radar systems.
Equally crippling, until the ground radar simulator equipment is in place, the F-35 program will be unable to properly develop, validate, and update the F-35’s mission-critical onboard software files, called Mission Data Loads (MDLs). MDLs are huge files specifying all target and threat locations together with their individual electronic and/or infrared signatures and all relevant mapping data. Without accurate, up-to-date MDLs, the F-35 cannot find targets or evade and counter threats—nor can it carry out the networking and sensor fusion functions that are said to be its primary strengths. The F-35 cannot go to war without its MDLs. The MDLs also need to be updated continuously with information concerning such things as threats, targets, and signals that is gathered on every F-35 mission. F-35 pilots can only be sure the MDLs they need to survive work properly after they have been tested over ranges equipped with the necessary ground radar simulator equipment.
New and complete MDLs must be created for each theater or conflict zone by a central reprogramming lab using massive data inputs from the relevant combat command. F-35s operating out of England would have different files from F-35s based in Japan, for example. Only one such reprogramming lab exists today and, due to JPO mismanagement, it is has only recently been scheduled to receive necessary upgrades to produce a validated MDL. It takes the lab 15 months to produce a complete MDL. If F-35s are suddenly needed in a new, unanticipated theater of operation, those F-35s will not be able to fly combat missions for at least 15 months.
Because the full range of necessary ground radar simulator equipment for the reprogramming lab is not yet in place, DOT&E stated that the earliest the reprogramming lab will be able to produce validated MDLs just for IOT&E will be June 2018. That is nearly a year after the planned IOT&E start in August 2017—and two years after the Marines declared the F-35B initially operationally capable. DOT&E further stated that F-35 MDLs suitable for combat “will not be tested and optimized to ensure the F-35 will be capable of detecting, locating, and identifying modern fielded threats until 2020.”
Ineffective as a Close Air Support Platform:
The F-35 has plenty of shortfalls performing air-to-ground interdiction missions well away from the immediate battlefield, but it is even worse in its other intended air-to-ground role directly in support of engaged troops, close air support (CAS). DOT&E concluded that the F-35 in its current configuration “does not yet demonstrate CAS capabilities equivalent to those of fourth generation aircraft.” This statement is particularly disturbing in light of the Air Force chief’s recent statements that the service intends to renew its efforts to cancel the CAS-combat-proven A-10 in 2021.
CAS is the other major mission where a lack of an effective cannon will significantly limit the F-35’s combat usefulness.
An effective cannon is essential for many CAS missions where any size bomb, guided or unguided, would pose a danger to friendly troops on the ground or where there are concerns about collateral damage, such as in urban environments. The cannon is even more crucial when our troops are being ambushed or overrun by enemies only meters away, in “danger close” situations where only pinpoint effects delivered by the most highly accurate fire can help our side and kill or disperse the enemy. Ground commanders interviewed as part of a recent RAND study said they preferred the A-10’s cannon fire even to guided munitions because 80 percent of the cannon rounds fired hit within a 20-ft radius of the aiming point, providing exactly the kind of precision that danger close situations absolutely require. Cannons are also most useful for hitting moving targets because a cannon burst can lead the target in anticipation of movement.