The F-35 Debate Continues

For those following the great V/STOL/Harrier/F-35B debate, here’s some great responses to my responses from Mr. Ehling. Everyone feel free to join the fray.

Me: Do you really think that it’s anything like an equalizer?

Ehling: I don’t know. I’ve been told viffing gave the Harrier an edge at low altitude engagements against our own aircraft (F-16s, etc.) and Soviet aircraft (simulated) in past exercises.

The lift fan theoretically gives the F-35 a similar capacity to turn tighter for a missile shot. It might boost the roll rate as well.

Remember that they wargame these platforms in the digital domain well before they bend metal.

Your concerns are valid; the F-35 may be less than it’s cracked up to be. It may be more. As a taxpayer, I’m hoping for the latter. As an American, I’m expecting a little of both.

Me: By the time the death rays are ready for service, there will be a new generation of aircraft better suited for a weapon of that kind.

Ehling: Directed energy weapons might not be as far away as you think. If they aren’t, we want to get there before or the same time as everyone else. They may portend a true revolution in military affairs.

What "new generation of aircraft" are you referring to? UAVs? If so, note that the F-35 is already under consideration as an unmanned platform.

Me: Is that risk extreme enough to deserve such a costly mitigation strategy?

Ehling: I don’t know. You can also ask the converse: can we afford not to mitigate the risk?

My impression is that a lot of our defense establishment looks to past American failures to keep pace with trends in world aircraft design — i.e., WW I and II, and Korea — and are motivated not to repeat those mistakes. Does that mean we now tend to overmitigate? Possibly.

The matter doesn’t seem to be subject to easy proof or resolution, except by an exchange of opinion, like we’re doing here, or maybe taking a vote. At this stage in the voting process, it looks like the F-35′s moving ahead, despite your perfectly rational concerns.

Many thanks Bob. For the record, I’m a professional skeptic. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely down on the F-35B or the greater Joint Strike Fighter program.

Personally, I like how my friend Robbin Laird, a defense analyst, characterizes the F-35. Robbin advises against thinking of JSF as a fifth-generation fighter, and instead as a first-generation airborne combat system. That is, as a pure fighter, the F-35 may not be the better of many earlier-generation fighters, to include the Typhoon and perhaps later-model Flankers and MiGs.

But the F-35 may be the first fighter designed from the start as part of an integrated combat system, and therefore represents the first of completely new kind of combat aircraft.

That kind of thinking makes sense to me, and I think helps to clarify the true strengths and weaknesses of the program.

Let the discussion continue.

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