The growing number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters possessed by European air forces will give the NATO alliance an edge over Russia in high-intensity conflict.
That’s according to a report by think tank RAND, released last month, which explains that Russian political and military leaders are already concerned about NATO’s advantage in the air domain – a worry that is likely to worsen as the number of fifth-generation aircraft grows to the west.
There are seven European NATO nations that operate or plan to buy the F-35: Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and UK.
By 2025, those militaries ought to collectively own more than 200 examples of the stealth fighter. “This will exceed the number of US fifth-generation aircraft stationed in the European theatre by a wide margin,” says the report. The combined force of F-35s possessed by European allies is likely to approach 400 aircraft by 2030 and would represent roughly 30% of the combined fleet.
For its part, Russia plans to acquire 76 examples of Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter by 2028. Moscow said recently the first such stealth aircraft would be delivered by December 2020.
European allied air forces have around 1,900 fourth-generation fighters comprising types such as the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed F-16. The combined force currently has less than 100 F-35s fielded, according to RAND.
Those fourth-generation aircraft would be vulnerable in a high-intensity conflict against Russia, a country with robust surface-to-air missile defences.
“During the opening phases of a conflict with Russia, vulnerability to advanced ground-based threats would constrain the roles of most fourth-generation and so-called fourth-generation-plus platforms,” says the report. “As long as an extensive [integrated-air defence] threat persisted, more advanced platforms such as the Rafale or Eurofighter could theoretically perform strike missions inside the threat zone in conjunction with fifth-generation platforms, although this approach could yield unacceptable attrition.”
But with fourth-generation fighters likely still to make up 70% of European NATO air forces by 2030, the alliance needs to find ways to make better use of the aircraft.
The fast jets could be used to launch long-range missile strikes from beyond the range of Russia’s surface-to-air missiles. And, if upgraded with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, European fourth-generation fighters would be more capable on defence. AESA radars can detect, track and identify more targets, faster and at much longer distances, notes RAND.
“The resultant situational awareness and ability to defeat multiple threats at the same time makes an AESA capability essential for aspects of high-intensity operations—for example, to intercept cruise missiles,” says the think tank report. “The French decision to procure AESA [for the Rafale fighter] is informed by the opportunity to provide a 50% increase in detection range, including of low-observable targets, and maximise the value of new weapon systems such as the [MBDA] Meteor beyond-visual-range missile.”
The Meteor is an active radar guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile that is reported to have a reach of 54nm (100km). In theory, if a fourth-generation fighter like the Rafale has an AESA radar and is armed with a beyond-visual-range missile like the Meteor it ought to be able to see and hit incoming Russian aircraft, while staying out of reach itself.
However, beside the addition of AESA on the Rafales, other European fourth-generation aircraft lack the advanced radar.
“Uncertainties remain as to which nations will invest in AESA radar technology, advanced and long-range munitions, and secure communication links, among other important capabilities,” says RAND. “The degree to which European air forces acquire these technologies will directly impact their ability to contribute to the range of combat air missions expected in a high-intensity conflict.”
The UK Royal Air Force announced in September plans to add the Leonardo UK ECRS Mk2 AESA radar to 40 examples of its Tranche 3 production-standard Typhoons, with initial operational capability targeted for 2025.
Ultimately, to make the most of a mixed fleet of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft NATO will need to invest in communications technologies to link the jets, as well as training exercises to practice coordinating the combat aircraft.
F-35’s can communicate among themselves with their multifunction advanced data link (MADL), a low probability of intercept communications link. RAND points to a fourth and fifth generation fighter operating concept called “combat intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mode” described by Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute think tank.
“In the ‘combat ISR’ mode, a four-ship flight of F-35s connected by MADL generates situational awareness and shares targeting data with legacy platforms that can then fire their payloads from outside the range of the most capable of the enemy’s air defences,” explains RAND. The fourth- and fifth-generation combat aircraft would communicate and pass targeting information with the Link 16 system, adds the report.
RUSSIAN EW HAS A VOTE
However, this might be a vulnerability point. “It is reasonable to assume that the Russian military would seek to disrupt this synergy during a conflict, particularly in light of recent Russian investments in EW [electronic warfare] capabilities,” RAND says.
Still, European NATO militaries are getting more practice with the F-35. “Already, allies have undertaken initial steps to establish common tactics, techniques, and procedures for incorporating fifth-generation assets into combined operations through targeted exercises as well as preliminary synthetic training systems that link fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft,” the think tank says.
One of the highest hurdles to NATO collaboration might be investment in aircraft readiness. “To be operationally relevant during a theatre conflict, NATO’s air forces must maintain a sufficient number of available aircraft, munitions, and aircrew,” says RAND. “Currently, most European air forces maintain around half of their existing fleets or less at mission-capable status, with some allies falling below that mark.”
What’s more, many fourth-generation aircraft are suffering from “rising maintenance costs from platform age, operational wear and tear resulting from a high operational tempo, and challenges associated with spare parts pipelines serve as significant constraints to aircraft availability”, says the report.
The new F-35 also has teething problems, including its Autonomic Logistics Information System, a support system that is so troubled that it has to be replaced across the worldwide fleet.
RAND recommends a number of solutions to NATO aircraft readiness problems including making public data on mission capable rates. It also suggests “public agreement by NATO leaders on standard availability objectives could provide renewed political and budgetary focus on efficient and adequately funded maintenance and sustainment”.
Ultimately, RAND concludes that the growing number of stealth aircraft in Europe means the “trend lines lead in the right direction”.
“With additional budgetary and policy attention to increasing readiness, European allies have the opportunity to significantly enhance combat airpower over the coming decade,” says the think tank.