People who are into radical politics are rarely interested in military technology. All the radical generally needs to know is that the bad guys have got all the cool planes, bombs, tanks, submarines and aircraft carriers while our team maintains an edge only in raw hats and distressed fatigue jackets. Hence in the interest here at ATS in 4th gen warfare which explicitly assumes that the opposition will have a numeric, economic and technological advantages everywhere all the time.
Having said that it is commonplace for radicals to argue that the societal and economic arrangements of the West aren’t particularly effective and as a result this society is declining, which is one good reason why we’d quite like to try something else. It’s also fairly common for us to complain about NATO (and other configurations of Western military power) expanding the dominance of the West via the employment of its immense capacity for organised violence. Which is where our subject for today, which would otherwise be unacceptably uncool for a site such as this, becomes relevant. Compañero I ask your indulgence for a moment as ATS goes full nerd and discusses; a plane.
The plane in question is most commonly known as the F-35 Lightning II, although is sometimes referred to as the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter). The significance of this particular aircraft comes from its relationship with other machines in the new generation of Western warplanes, in that there aren’t any. If you have taken any kind of interest in the adventures of Western powers in foreign countries over the last thirty years or so you may be vaguely aware these have involved an extensive list of aircraft types. F-15 and F-16s are the kinds most commonly used to bomb the shit out of recalcitrant states and groups by the USAF and its allies; particularly the Israelis. However you may of heard of F-111s (used to bomb Libya in the 80s), A-10s and AV-8B Harriers (Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again), F-117 “Stealth Fighters” (Iraq, Yugoslavia), US Navy F/A-18s and F-14s (Iraq, Afghanistan and Top Gun).
Back in the 90’s the US military came to the conclusion that it could no longer afford to design and build different combat aircraft to do different jobs and maintain an enormous fleet of these various types. So it decided to build one kick ass replacement for all of them and build thousands. In a further stroke of brilliance it decided to invite all its major allies to participate in the project so that they would all have a stake in it and thus be effectively compelled to buy the finished product. So not only did the US pour all its research and development into this one project but so did the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway and Turkey.
It quickly became apparent that an aircraft required to fulfil almost every fixed wing combat role there was probably wouldn’t be brilliant at any of them; particularly since it was insisted that the F-35 have a “short takeoff and vertical landing” capability (in order that it could operate from small carriers and assault ships). The limitations this placed on the design proved to be enormous. However this was deemed to be a relatively unimportant problem since the F-22 Raptor, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, was about to start rolling off the production lines. So in the unlikely event someone did come up with a better plane than the Lightning, well the F-22s would deal with them should the need arise.
The plan started to fall apart back in 2010 when the F-22 program was cancelled after the USAF had been supplied with only 187 aircraft (the original order was for 750). The F-22, although awesome, started looking to be a little indulgent after the financial crash of ’08 and, after all, the F-35 was awesome as well. Some have questioned whether a fleet as small as 187 aircraft can justify the cost in training and support required to keep them in the air, as of today 5 have already been destroyed in accidents.
Doubts about the capabilities of the F-35 itself had been raised as far back as ’08 after an Australian military account of a USAF simulation of a campaign against existing Chinese fighters over Taiwan resulted in the F-35s “being clubbed like baby seals” circulated on the net. A steady stream of criticism has followed, including by Pierre Sprey (chief designer of the F-16 and A-10) and John Stillion (defence analyst for RAND). The basic thrust of these criticisms is that the F-35 can’t carry enough weapons, isn’t fast enough, can’t compete in dog fights (“can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” according to RAND) with Russian and Chinese aircraft all ready in service, that it’s “stealth” qualities aren’t all that and that it lacks range. Just about every aspect of its qualities as a combat aircraft have been questioned. Additionally the aircraft which have been built have suffered a string of technical faults, particularly around their software and electronics but also concerning the machines apparent (and ironic) vulnerability to lightning strikes.
If the F-35s shortcomings weren’t bad enough the project has set new standards for projects going over budget and being delivered late. The original contract was issued to the aircraft’s builders in 2001, the first production aircraft were constructed in 2006, the latest estimate of the delivery of fully functional machines is 2018. The F-35 is so overdue that several of air forces which have ordered them, including the USAF, have developed “fighter gaps” meaning they won’t have enough planes to fly because their current ones will have to be scrapped before they get their F-35s. Meanwhile the costs of the project have doubled, making it the most expensive military procurement in US and indeed world history. Some analysts now claim that each F-35 will work out to be more expensive than the F-22s cancelled in favour of the“cheaper” F-35.
In summary then the situation is this. Western airpower is now largely dependent on the success of the F-35 project. By the end of this decade many of the existing aircraft of many Western nations will be so old that continued operation is not an option and the only available replacement is the F-35. This is important because NATO military strategy is entirely dependent on airpower. Without complete air supremacy over the battlefield and without the ability to utterly suppress any potential enemy air force NATO and Western forces can not guarantee the kind of total military dominance or minimal casualty rates the West has come to demand.
“But surely, however much the F-35 sucks balls, it has to be better than the kind of thing it might have to fight?” you might say. Well maybe, however, maybe not. One of the roles the F-35 has to fulfil is that of ground support, traditionally this involves getting close to the ground and shooting up whatever luckless conscripts or rebels which have been deemed to have an insufficiently tolerant attitude towards gay marriage (within the vicinity of a significant oil field). Aircraft undertaking such missions are vulnerable to ground fire from conventional weapons and cheap ground to air missiles because they must operate at relatively low altitude. For this reason aircraft like the A-10 which currently undertake this mission air heavily armoured and designed to survive considerable damage. That’s not the F-35 which is reported to lack even the kind of manoeuvrability which might let it dodge a few bullets or the speed to outrun a few missiles. F-35’s undertaking this mission are likely to be far easier to destroy than those aircraft doing it now. At that is without taking account of better short range anti aircraft missiles becoming available to the enemies of NATO over the next fifty years; the projected lifespan of the F-35 as the main weapon of Western air forces.
It may well be then that in the future, should the West come into conflict with a state possessing the ability to build and distribute such weapons, the cost of the kind of casual intervention which has become fashionable since the fall of the USSR might dramatically increase. Back in the 80’s the USA distributed exactly such missiles (Stingers) to the Afghan opponents of the Russian invasion. It’s not hard to foresee Iran or China doing something similar in the future. The potential for such weapons to inflict terrible losses given the right balance of technology was demonstrated during the Vietnam War where the USAF lost 1,737 aircraft to enemy action, mostly anti aircraft fire and surface to air missiles. To put that into perspective the US plans to buy 2,443 F-35s, but will almost certainly considerably reduce that order. In other words if the USAF fought another Vietnam style war in the future under the same sort of conditions it would be effectively annihilated.
However, evil as that prospect might be to Western military planners it palls into insignificance compared to another potential threat. Russia, India and China all have new combat aircraft planned to come into service around the time, or shortly after, the F-35. The Russian Sukhoi PAK FA is expected to enter service with the Russian air force in 2016, it’s also the basis of the Indian Sukhoi/HAL FGFA Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft estimated to be delivered to the Indian air force in 2022. Whilst this detailed information about these aircraft are not in the public domain and since their final design has not been fixed we can say with some confidence certain things about them in comparison with the F-35. Such as; they are bigger, faster, more manoeuvrable (this has traditionally been an obsession of Russian aircraft designers), fly higher and further and, crucially, can carry more weapons. (The Sukhoi can carry six missiles internally to the F-35’s two, both aircraft can carry more externally at the cost of losing most of their stealth performance) The only advantage the F-35 may have over the Sukhoi is in its “stealth” capabilities and in superior avionics; radar capability, computerised targeting systems, navigation etc. Although even in those areas the Sukhoi is fairly competitive. Most critically of all, the Sukhoi is a hell of a lot cheaper.
The one consolation here is that the Russian federation is unlikely to build enormous numbers of these aircraft since it lacks the kind of economic infrastructure and resources to do so at present. (India proposes to acquire 214 of its version, initially (compare to the USAF’s 180 F-22s.))
That consolation does not apply to the Chengdu J-20, China’s answer to the F-22 Raptor; predicted to be deployed to the Chinese air force by the end of this decade. The J-20 is thought to possess similar capabilities to the Sukhoi, and indeed may be based on technology acquired from the Russians developed in relation to that program, and enjoy similar advantages over the F-35. The difference is that the PRC has the resources to manufacture very large numbers of these aircraft.
The F-35 has been built on the assumption that “stealth” technology will be sufficient to give it the necessary edge over potential rivals. This assumption failed to account for the possibility that other powers might gain access to roughly comparable stealth technology. More troublingly still it may be that relatively cheap and simple technologies are becoming available which render the entire concept of “stealth” obsolete. Stealth is largely about minimising radar profiles, but however much you minimise them they are still there. Typically “stealth” engineers talk about radar “returns” comparable to a tennis or soccer ball which are effectively invisible to conventional radar. The problem is radar systems have been developed which are capable of tracking objects of that size, NATO’s C-RAM system can track objects the size of mortar shells. Passive radar systems use powerful computers to monitor radio waves and other transmissions looking for disturbances which might be a “stealth” aircraft. Radar systems using none standard wave lengths, and multiple different wave lengths, are also potentially capable of detecting stealth aircraft. Such modifications would be cheap as compared to the massive investment made in“stealth” by the West.
If these even some of these fears are realised the global geo-political situation might begin to shift early in the next decade and by the end of it may well look very different to what it does now. In Eastern Asia the Chinese air force would increasingly dominate the region, American allies such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan would be increasingly threatened and the US would be increasingly unable to guarantee their security. Such fears might be driving the recent Japanese talk of rearmament. In South Asia the Indian air force would become a serious proposition, creating a regional superpower vastly outclassing its local rivals such as Pakistan. Meanwhile export versions of these aircraft might find their way into service with all sorts of “second rank” states, Vietnam has been mentioned as a potential customer for the Sukhoi. Even limited numbers of these aircraft, given the apparent limitations of the F-35, might be able to dissuade Western forces from the kind of opportunistic interventions, such as Libya and Yugoslavia, they currently undertake. It is entirely possible that Russian and Chinese aircraft of these advanced types might be supplied to Iran; this could potentially radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East and provide a direct threat to western client states such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Over the last decade or so it the idea that the West might be declining as a global power and might face a challenge from “rising powers” has become mainstream. If the F-35 project has been anywhere near as disastrous as its critics have claimed then it would be hard to find a better illustration of the declining abilities of the West. However since the F-35 project is so crucial to the projection of Western military power it represents even more than that. If the F-35 really is the turkey it is so often painted as then its failure will be the actual mechanism by which Western global power starts to collapse. By 2030 American carrier groups might be undertaking a serious risk by venturing closer to China than Pearl Harbour. Israeli politicians might well no longer have to option of bombing Arab military installations whenever they need a push in the polls, indeed they might find themselves wondering if the IDF can even defend its own skies. For the first time in a generation Europeans might look East with real fear instead of contempt. And that is situation could well occur even if the West maintains it current economic power, which itself looks to be an optimistic assessment. If the F-35 can not secure total air superiority wherever it is required then Western influence will start rapidly receding in the very near future. China, India and maybe others will have secured decisive military superiority in the most vital military field not in seventy, sixty or fifty years from now but less than twenty. And once the West has lost that advantage it is hard to see how it might be regained.