Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 3 (The Promise)

RAF_F-35B

In Part 2 I looked at the recent history of the F35, specifically in the decisions around the switch to the CV F35C and then the subsequent reversion back to the F35B

Have a nice video before we start

As I mentioned in Part 2 at the time of the reversion there were numerous articles denouncing the decision.

For example;

As the British ships are to have electrical transmissions, meaning that they will have ample electrical power to run EMALS without further alteration, installing catapults will be about as simple an operation as one could reasonably ask for. If they have really got Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, head of the Royal Navy, to agree to this too … well, the best one can say is that Stanhope has betrayed his Service’s future. He ought to resign rather than sign up to this

That was one of the fruitier claims but don’t for one moment think that this was confided to the usual comics.

Oh no, even RUSI got in on the act of presenting what I thought was biased commentary, very often not putting some of the complex issues in context for example.

On the potential switch Dr Lee Willets of RUSI said;

Critics who say that this will cost too much overlook the long-term strategic value it will add.

That’s fair enough to some degree but it rather smacks of an old school MoD, damn the budget we must ‘have the best’ approach.

We all know the MoD does not live at the end of a magic rainbow with its endless pot of gold; every decision has an impact on other capabilities.

Dr Willets also raised the bring back payload issue and finished with

‘Cats and traps’ can both de-risk for today and future-proof for tomorrow. The F-35 B or STOVL will inhibit the very flexibility and political choice that is essential for the UK’s carrier capability.

After the decision was made and putting a brave face on it that loss of flexibility could be compensated for by bringing the second carrier into service.

The UK Government’s decision to opt for the F-35 B, vertical landing Joint Strike Fighter means that aircraft carriers will not be fitted with ‘cats-and-traps’ and will lose the strategic flexibility originally envisaged. To some degree, that loss can be offset by bringing two aircraft carriers into service.

Read the two articles, here and here

What seems to be generally accepted wisdom is the F35B is basically a pup; overly complex, overly expensive, limited in operational environment, limited in payload, not at all flexible, vulnerable, fragile and will straight jacket UK combat aviation for the next several decades.

I just don’t buy this.

Criticism of the F35 and of course, especially the F35B, is not limited to the UK.

In the USA, that criticism has reached almost religious levels.

Like many large programmes, and perhaps because it has an international dimension, the Joint Strike Fighter has a huge political dimension.

This means that much of the reporting, even from what might be usually thought of as impartial sources, is subject to doubt.

In this post I am going to have a look at some of these claims and describe the potential of the F35B.

Pup or tiger…

Training, Maintainability and Reliability

Thought I would start with the most important factor, not how far or fast but how much it costs to sustain.

A good example of that hyperventilated criticism I mentioned above was the well reported GAO report from last year in which reliability rates were subject to much criticism.

The subsequent reporting and the report itself were comprehensively battered by the Elements of Power blog, click here to read his detailed and knowledgeable rebuttal.

Really, go and have a read of the link, it’s a brilliant post.

What it essentially points to is the risk of taking snapshots of data for aircraft in development and drawing conclusions without having the trend information and an underpinning of appropriate knowledge.

This is just one example but the JSF seems to be particularly prone to negative comment from people in possession of partial bits of the big picture, me included of course!

Another simple truth that critics often fail to appreciate is that a new design test and evaluation programme is designed to throw out issues, problems and faults that need rectification, that being entirely the point.

Every development issue, in the eyes of the critics, becomes a nightmare that cannot be solved.

Commenting on the reliability of an aircraft in the middle of its development programme seems counter intuitive.

The Integrated Training Centre at Eglin Air Force Base in the USA will be used as a training base for most F35 operators and will deliver the usual advantages of a common training syllabus on a common aircraft, namely interoperability and improved efficiency. The ITC is rapidly gaining ground with an increase in sortie rate, throughput and more complex training activities all supported by state of the art synthetic training systems, pilots even get issued a laptop on arrival that allows them to use the full learning facilities.

It has also emerged just how much a reduced training requirement in comparison with the Harrier the F35B has. The advanced avionics mean that unlike the Harrier, flying the aircraft will not form the major part of a pilots training time, instead, they will be able to concentrate on tactics and missions.

This is a large through life cost reduction factor.

It has been designed to reduce pilot workload by a significant amount; this extract from SLD describes the opinions of an F22 pilot who is now an F35 squadron commander at Eglin

In contrast to the F-35, the F-22 has a 4th generation cockpit on top of a 5th generation sensor and information system.  It’s a very nice fourth gen cockpit when you’re talking multifunctional displays, push buttons, etc. but it is more like legacy platforms.

The beauty of the F-35 is that it has a very clean cockpit.

When they talk about heads up and heads down, the F-35 truly is heads up everywhere.

With an F-22, you have displays down between your knees.  You’ve got four multifunctional displays you of work with on a regular basis.

With the F-35, everything is out in front of you; it’s all touch screen.  It’s one huge piece of glass.  There are no buttons, switches, or knobs and it’s truly a glass cockpit; and then with the helmet the display is put all around the pilot.

In other words, the two marked differences between the F-22 and the F-35 are the displays and the helmet, and both of those interfaces in the F-35 are unbelievable.  The set up significantly reduces the workload for the pilot.

Before flying the F-35 I was skeptical about the touch screen.  I am a believer now.

Whoever designed the F-35 cockpit is a genius.  The bottom line is that is just works.

Compare the picture below of a Typhoon cockpit

Typhoon cockpit
Typhoon cockpit

To that of an F35

F35 Cockpit
F35 Cockpit

In October 2011 the USMC demonstrated the F35B aboard the USS Wasp

I am sure we have all watched that video of the two F35B test aircraft BF-1 and BF-4 flying off the 225m flight deck of the Wasp but not widely known was that piloting one of the test aircraft was a Marine Corps pilot that previous to the test and development work on the F35B had only flown F-18’s.

Lt. Col. Matt Kelly said;

I have found this airplane to be just a really nice airplane to fly in the shipboard environment. Prior to two weeks ago I had never landed or taken-off from this type of ship… It’s a pleasure to fly.

Interesting

Reducing flight crew workload logically provides potential for reduced costs by virtue of needing fewer flying hours.

This was again reinforced in the Lockheed Martin Code One online magazine in October 2012

“The ease of landing the B-model in STOVL mode is unprecedented,” explained Taylor, who had no STOVL experience before joining the F-35 ITF at Pax. “In the Harrier world, learning to operate in STOVL mode takes months of training. For us it is a couple of flights in the simulator and one, maybe two, flights in the airplane, because it is so intuitive. It is easy to land the F-35B in STOVL mode. We will never hear a Harrier pilot say the AV-8 is easy to land. The F-35B will hold whatever condition you command it to hold. It is like driving a perfectly aligned car down a perfectly straight highway with no wind. The F-35B will go straight until you tell it to do something else.”

“One of the beauties of this airplane is that it is so simple to land,” added Dan Levin, a Lockheed Martin test pilot and lead test pilot for the ITF at Pax. “Harrier airframes burn up about half their life in training pilots to land vertically. Landing vertically in a Harrier is a complex task. I’m a fixed-wing fast-mover pilot, and I was ready to perform STOVL operations after ten minutes in the simulator. STOVL operations are simple and intuitive. The flight control system is automated in the right ways. The pilot doesn’t even notice the transition between conventional flight and STOVL mode

“The training required to keep a pilot comfortable in the STOVL environment is going to go to near zero,” Levin said

In all fairness, the same reduced training requirement was also noted for the F35C.

It is telling that the USMC have adopted the USAF operating model for maintenance because this points to an emerging common approach that will likely proliferate across all F35 operators.

A common approach to maintenance means reduced through life costs as commonality usually leads to economies of scale.

Another significant, but lesser known, cost reduction aspect of the F35 is the global logistics infrastructure and the way in the aircraft reports a plethora of condition information. This has many parallels with the Typhoon approach, a tightly controlled development roadmap that ensures not just interoperability across a fleet but true integration. Instead of interval based maintenance the aircraft will use condition monitoring to predict maintenance requirements, nothing revolutionary, the Challenger engine is maintained on the same basis!

In any multinational operation i.e. most of them, the national operator will be able to take advantage of a shared logistic support infrastructure. There won’t be AV8B’s and GR9’s operating from the same location with completely different support assets but a pool of aircraft that can take advantage of one.

Of course the only operators of the F35B are going to be the UK, USA and Italy so far but perhaps there will be others. Still, that is still a sizeable force and at least one more operator than the F35C.

The aircraft itself has been specifically designed to reduce maintenance, a common configuration, in built fleet wide diagnostics and condition monitoring, real time documentation updates and specifics in the design.

Reduced maintenance is translated into greater operational availability and fewer overall aircraft to deliver against a specific requirement.

Finally, the F35 will be operated under a Performance Based Logistic regime which is not particularly new to the UK but is relatively new to the US forces.

I know I always bang on about logistics and through life costs but the reduced training and sustainment effort of the F35 will have a large impact on the actual costs of operating it

The F35 programme has been designed and will be evaluated on its reduced through lift costs in comparison with legacy platforms.

Instead of bodging logistics and support onto the end of the programme it has been fundamental to it from the very beginning.

I know this might sound impossibly optimistic, it may yet not materialise and the F35 turn out to be the most expensive aircraft to sustain ever but if so, that will not be for the want of trying.

So far, all the indicators are that the aircraft is moving towards demonstrating that the $1 trillion scare stories will be incorrect.

Stealth

What about the whole stealth thing, over hyped maybe?

Stealth should really be called a collection of techniques, equipment and technologies that reduce detectability but that doesn’t sound as good for the short attention span news articles. It really is complex and requires some commitment to understanding.

The greatest piece of nonsense is that stealth will be rendered obsolete by a combination of low frequency radars and visual detection systems. Whilst low frequency radars might be able to detect that there is ‘something over there’ they are not good enough to support accurate targeting.

By which time the low observable aircraft will have detected you and fired a load of unpleasantness your way.

Stealth aircraft will not operate in isolation either, another key point people tend to forget.

Against a sophisticated enemy ‘stealth’ is therefore a key requirement and will remain so.

Against a less sophisticated enemy it does of course deliver benefits but it could perhaps be argued that those benefits are less pronounced, but let’s not forget, the F35 is more than just stealth.

One of the perception problems that the f35 has is that it seems to be defined by stealth, in reality, its stealthiness is just part of the equation.

The aircraft is perhaps better characterised as being Very Low Observable and this is achieved not just by some magic paint and lack of corners.

This is a good description;

The F-35 is the only available Very Low Observable (VLO) stealth fighter.  VLO stealth must be designed into the aircraft from the very beginning.  It cannot be retrofitted into an existing 4th generation aircraft.  For the F-35, this means a full load of internally carried combat fuel and weapons, imbedded sensors, a curved/diverterless intake that hides the face of the engine, aligned leading and trailing horizontal/vertical edges, and a digital/computer controlled design that allows the aircraft to be manufactured and assembled to a very tight and exacting outer mold line tolerance.  These designed-in characteristics help to reduce the overall radar cross section of the F-35 and allow that signature to be maintained at a fraction of the cost compared to legacy stealth aircraft.

Also, the low observable characteristics have been explicitly designed to be maintained in forward locations. A forward location does not mean austere like the old Harrier hides but it does mean within a known and planned environment that can be supported in an expeditionary context.

By the way, the F35 does not make use of radar absorbing coatings or paints, the radar absorbing materials are part of the structure, baked in so to speak, it is called fibre mat

Systems and Sensors

Unlike, say the Harrier or even Tornado, the F35 is not just a fuselage and engine(s) onto which a collection of sensors are attached. The F35 comes with fully integrated radar, EW, ESM and optical systems, all built in.

Inside the stealth vehicle, the F-35 has the most advanced array of sensors and mission systems ever integrated into a fighter aircraft.  Using the more than 9 million lines of software code resident on the F-35, the data collected from the APG-81 AESA radar, the electro-optical targeting system, the electro-optical IR missile warning distributed aperture system, and the highly precise emitter detection and location data is fused together and presented to the pilot to provide him/her with unmatched 360 degree situational awareness.  Finally, the data collected from one F-35 is shared with other F-35 aircraft across a high bandwidth stealthy data link, ensuring every pilot in a flight of F-35 aircraft has the same tactical view of the battlespace.  The corresponding cooperative battle engagement capability changes the dynamics of the air battle and allows the F-35 to dominate the battlefield, even in the most demanding threat environments that will face the U.S. and allied nations over the next 30+ years.  In short, the F-35 provides a quantum leap in capability over competing fighter aircraft.

There is a bit of marketing hype in there of course, it was from Lockheed Martin but fundamentally, the statement is not incorrect.

The F35’s electronic warfare capabilities have been subject to much discussion, fuelled by the decision not to integrate the current F18 Next Generation Jammer. Any discussion on this is always going to be limited by what is publically available i.e. not a lot, but it is interesting to note that the F35 is specifically designed to go into battle with no support from the E3, EA-18G Growler or JSTARS. The USMC are replacing their (admittedly ageing) EA-6B’s with the F35.

Read more here

Even the previously troublesome helmet is now on the way to being fully capable.

The F35’s radar, the AN/APG-81 F-35 AESA Radar, is clearly an incredibly advanced system

The aircrafts AN/AAQ-37 distributed aperture system provides 360 degree situational awareness, combining detection, observation and targeting

The ability of the F35 to hoover up data using its combination of sensors, fuse it together, sort the wheat from the chaff and communicate useful intelligence (as opposed to data) to both the pilot and other friendly forces on land, sea and in the air is unrivalled.

Very clever stuff, the implications of which I don’t think people appreciate.

There are plenty of sites on the internet where you can learn about individual systems, a few below

http://www.jsf.mil/f35/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_Martin_F-35_Lightning_II

http://www.raf.mod.uk/equipment/f35jointstrikefighter.cfm

http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/f-35-lightning-the-joint-strike-fighter-program-2012-07501/

http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/f35.html

You might even find the content of these copied and pasted into other blogs in order to make them seem authoritative.

Range, Payload and Bring Back

One of the main criticisms of the F35B reversion is that compared to the F35C it suffers from lower payload and range and something called bring back.

These criticisms are all true, after all, all one needs to do is look at the specifications, right back to the original documents on the JSF, to see that the F35C has superior range and payload.

In respect of range and payload, the F35C is self-evidently a better choice than the F35B, but it is on purpose as part of the design trade off process and should come as no surprise to anyone.

Are they significant, or more to the point, are they significant enough to suffer the additional cost penalty of the carrier variant.

A cost penalty we know exists because there is no way the MoD would have stayed with the F35C if the F35B option was cheaper. Some might say it is worth the cost, fair enough, but there would have to follow a conversation about what to cut, a finite budget means choices.

The difference between the F35C and the F35B might be operationally significant, or simply irrelevant, it would all depend on the operational requirements, geographic circumstances and a million other factors.

It does not automatically follow that some performance advantage is actually relevant.

Range

The JSF KPP for the F35C states a combat radius using internal fuel of 600 nautical miles using a USN mission flight profile and for the F35B, 450 nautical miles using a USMC profile. I have seen figures for the UK that are slightly different and have a different profile but the differences are not significant.

It is clear therefore (accepting potential differences in flight profiles) that the CV variant offers more range than the STOVL variant.

The first question to ask is do we actually need that extra range?

The US Navy does, simply because they are thinking about the Pacific where range is critical but fundamentally the UK has a wholly different set of strategic requirements.

The map below shows three concentric circles with a centre at a random location in the Arabian Sea, the outer represents F35C, middle F35B and for comparison, the inner is a GR9 Harrier (which would also have a lower payload)

F35 Range

These are KPP figures also, not what might be achieved for the production models or reflective of any growth in engine efficiency.

For defensive counter air the additional loiter range would result in a greater number of aircraft being needed to maintain a given combat air patrol.

There are however, a number of factors that although not completely negating it do go some way to mitigating it.

When operating CV aircraft in order to provide a margin of safety operators may choose to return with a greater fuel load than in the KPP, thus reducing the effective real world range. STOVL does not have these concerns so can maximise the fuel carried.

Ranges can be extended using external fuel tanks or airborne refuelling using land based aircraft although this also applies to the CV variant of course.

How many operations has the UK been involved with recently that did not enjoy extensive airborne refuelling support from the UK’s own resources and those of allies, not many is the answer.

This is one of those difficult realities that the F35C supporters tend to sweep under the carpet.

Ah, but what if we were on our own and out of range of land based RAF tankers I hear you say.

OK, it’s a possibility, but the UK defence planning assumptions are pretty clear in stating a UK only operation will be at a modest scale and even if we stood alone, in what geopolitical scenario would the extra 150 unrefuelled nautical miles on offer from the F35C prove to be decisive?

I mean decisive

You cannot simply make this operational reality go away.

The higher sortie rate of the F35B and STOVL deck operations might go some way to mitigating the loiter time advantage of the F35C.

The F35B will operate from conventional concrete runways much more often than the deck of a QE Class carrier. This isn’t based on dismissing naval aviation but a reality of the joint nature of the aircraft fleet, the operational reality of the Harrier and the most likely kinds of operations the UK will be involved in.

One thing I have never seen is the projected range figures for the F35B variant when using land bases but I wonder if the differential between it and the F35C would be the same or different?

Finally, in comparison with other aircraft (I know not strictly what we are discussing) they have to use payload capacity for external targeting pods and such like.

One of the reasons, as per Part 2, for the original switch to the F35C was using it as a means of fulfilling the deep and persistent offensive capability in light of a lukewarm commitment to UCAV’s and the zero likelihood of another European long range manned aircraft development.  Many see this as a simple one for one replacement for the Tornado GR.4 and the F35C would have been ideal in that regard, even though its unrefuelled combat radius at comparable flight profiles is smaller.

But in seeing it as simple aircraft replacement is to ignore the effects based approach to equipment of the last couple of decades, think effects not platforms.

With that in mind, can the shorter range of the F35B be mitigated in any way?

Surely if as naval aviation proponents argue, carriers can go anywhere and get closer, the additional range advantage of the F35C over the F35B is reduced by being able to get closer. I don’t often rely on internet figures for combat radius because they are influenced by so many factors which makes an apples and apples comparison difficult but the range of a Typhoon is not too shabby either, even when fully loaded, if the Internet is to be believed, its longer than the F35C anyway. If the UK completed development of the conformal fuel tanks and integrated storm shadow, accepting the loss of stealth and some avionics aspects, the UK would still have a formidable capability.

It’s a compromise of course, but trade-offs have to be made and against defence planning assumption, likely operations and the likelihood of operating alone the 150nm range advantage of the F35C does not make a compelling case for its adoption.

The F35C is a clear winner when looking at the naked figures but arguably, the range difference is not as significant on real life operations or when set against the UK’s other capabilities as imagined and certainly, at least in my opinion, not worth the sacrifices that would have to be made elsewhere and make no mistake, sacrifices would have to be made.

Payload and Bring Back

If the range difference is not as important as many think then what about payload and bring back.

I found these two graphics online in multiple locations so assume they are pretty open source (apologies in advance if not) but they provide a good illustration of payload options.

F35 Weapon Stations
F35 Weapon Stations
F35B Payload
F35B Payload

It is a good illustration because it shows the difference between internal and externally carried options and the weight and space constrained internal bomb bay of the F35B

Again, the F35C is a clear winner, not only in terms of payload weight and size but in its ability to bring unused munitions back to an aircraft carrier.

As with range though, is this that much of a negative factor that demands a reversion to the F35C and the declaration of the F35B as a pup?

Looking first at basic payload, the obvious trend is reducing yield and greater precision with the UK’s current principle air launched weapons being Dual Mode Brimstone and the Payeway IV, both relatively low weight weapons at approximately 50kg and 225kg (500lbs) respectively, without launch rails.

More weight means less range of course but when we look at the effectiveness of DM Brimstone and Paveway IV both in Libya and Afghanistan the upper weight limits of even the F35B look increasingly unlikely to be used.

This doesn’t mean never but the maximum weapon load difference between the F35C and F35B the equivalent of roughly 6 Paveway IV’s which sounds a lot until you consider the F35B could theoretically carry over 20 if it had the space.

Weight for weight, one Paveway IV equals just over 4 Dual Mode Brimstone.

Add in a couple of drop tanks and the difference becomes slightly more noticeable but even then, it is still not significant.

As with range the difference between the two is well known, but in likely operational scenarios, not significantly so.

The next issue to consider is what the F35 can, should and will carry. It is here that we should look to the requirements of the aircraft itself. What is required of the UK’s F35B will depend very much on the type of operations it will be needed for and in what context.

In most cases, the F35B will be operating in conjunction with Typhoon and allies and likely from land bases.

Perhaps the most stringent requirement is where it will be operating from the QE carrier(s) alone, alone meaning without the benefit of land based fast air or with allies and against an enemy with a credible offensive air component. Even when operating from carriers beyond the reach of land based fast air it is likely that the UK would be operating in conjunction with allies, principally the US and/or France.

This scenario is arguably the least likely, but if the UK is to retain a full spectrum ability to operate alone, even at a modest scale, it is important that the F35B can deliver against air defence, interdiction, strike, reconnaissance and close air support.

Air Defence

ASRAAM

In service and a basic requirement for the F35B is the ability to carry and launch the MBDA Advanced Short Range Anti-Aircraft Missile or ASRAAM. Typhoon and Tornado can carry it and it has been widely deployed.

The plan was for SDD Block 3 F35B to have the ASRAAM fully integrated on the internal stations and external positions 1 and 11. Because ASRAAM is quite a fat missile it has a lot of propellant so it can fly, manoeuvre and still be lethal at longer ranges, although still not near the range offered by beyond visual range missiles like AMRAAM or Meteor.

This video explains the above and the challenges of launching from inside the internal bay, using a trapeze launching mechanism.

The F35 internal AA missile station uses a launcher (obvious when you think about it because the AIM-120 uses an ejector) and so does the air to ground position. So in order to carry ASRAAM on the AA missile position would need some sort of ejector/rail mechanism. For carriage of ASRAAM on the air to ground station would also need some sort of trapeze, as per the video link above.

In 2008, Janes reported a change in the ASRAAM plans

The original UK intention was to clear four MBDA Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (ASRAAMs) for internal carriage but this has been revised to include two internal and two external weapons instead.

The story since then has been characterised by uncertainty, especially in regards of internal carriage of ASRAAM.

The switch from B to C will have changed the integration programme, the latest publicly available briefing still made the assumption that the UK would take the F35C and showed ASRAAM as OFP Block 3 but on external pylons only, and Paveway IV incidentally.

The candidate weapons integration for Block did not list ASRAAM for internal carriage either.

It remains to be seen if, and when the UK’s F35B’s will be able to carry and launch ASRAAM from anywhere except the outer pylons but whether this is actually a bad thing is debatable anyway.

The story so far is 2 ASRAAM on the outer pylons although if other customers i.e. Australia require ASRAAM internal carriage we might be able to share costs. The US are not integrating their Sidewinder with the internal bays of any version so ASRAAM could well be the only IR AAM carried internally.

For defensive counter air that might sound a bit thin, a pair of ASRAAM’s, but before we all go slitting our wrists think back to the beginning of this section, the likelihood of UK F35B’s operating as air defence from the QE class where the UK is acting alone against a credible air threat is low.

Also, this is ONLY the initial release for an aircraft that will be in service for many decades. In the future we might see ASRAAM integrated with other pylons or internally, maybe even a dual rail launcher of some type.

AMRAAM

If ASRAAM is short range, AMRAAM, as you all know, is medium range.

The UK is replacing the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM with MBDA Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile (BVRAAM)so is running down stocks of AMRAAM in anticipation of Meteor but this is a delicate balancing act.

The recent NAO Major Project Report 2012 noted that in order to support the delayed Meteor IOC the UK will have to life extend existing AIM-120 AMRAAM stocks and this might introduce risks that stock levels will be insufficient. In order to save £65m some years ago, when Meteor was still supposedly on track, the UK chose not to upgrade its AIM-120 stocks to the C5 level, instead staying at B5 but this was reversed in 2004 with an £80m contract with Raytheon for conversion, Jane’s guessing at 150 missiles.

Because the AIM-120 AMRAAM is the backbone of the US air to air missile inventory it is not a surprise that it will be integrated with all versions of the F35, internally and early on. Block 2 will have 2 internal per bay and Block 3, 2 per bay. It’s recent problems are also likely to have been completely resolved by then.

A nice article on the F35B and AMRAAM, click here

This means, in Block 3, the UK will have the option of up to 4 internal AMRAAM and 2 external ASRAAM.

Depending on stocks, possible upgrades to the RAF AMRAAM’s likely in service dates of the QE carriers and shipboard F35B this is more than a credible capability, even if the possible life extension was just that, and not an upgrade.

Compare that with Harrier GR9 and even the Sea Harrier.

In the medium term, as threats evolve, we should avoid maintaining two fleets of medium range anti-aircraft missiles, AMRAAM for the F35B’s and Meteor for Typhoon, which brings me on to Meteor.

Meteor

The UK’s future beyond visual range anti-aircraft missile will be the MBDA Meteor that is due to achieve Initial Operating Capability is 2015, although this is looking optimistic. The National Audit Office 2012 Major Projects Report confirmed this slippage;

However, the delivery of the full integration programme outturn is dependent on the completion of the Typhoon Future Capability Programme 1. This has now been delayed until late 2013, meaning that Industry cannot now develop and validate Meteor capability until late 2016, which supports a likely In Service Date 2 declaration in October 2017

Meteor won’t be full operating capability probably until late 2018 which puts a rush for F35B integration into some sort of perspective. Italy is also a Meteor partner and F35 users so integration costs might be shared if we chose to do so.

If you look at earlier pictures of the Meteor and compare it with this video of its first Typhoon test firing in December last year, the evolving physical form should be obvious, the absence of front fins and clipped rear fins.

In 2010 MBDA reported on their clipped by 20% fin design changes and the hope that it would be included in Block 5.

It seems unlikely MBDA will produce some sort of F35 internally carried version and an externally carried version, anything but a single version would be commercially nonsensical.

Currently there no confirmed funding for Meteor F35B integration but if I were Generalissimo of MBDA for a day I would fund it directly because if it can be carried internally and externally, it opens up a potentially large market with a clear advantage over the AIM120-AMRAAM.

Just to clear up another point, Meteor is only 10mm longer than AMRAAM and is specifically designed to compatible with AMRAAM ejector systems, this from Exelisfor example but this does not automatically mean it can be easily carried internally, possible weight or space limitations could dictate on which position it is carried.

This July article from AIN described Meteor and goes into a little detail about Meteor F35 integration, describing work on initial integration into the internal bays. It also says the UK will use AMRAAM initially and that Meteor is scheduled for Block 4.

That is an interesting update, especially regarding the Block 4 software but I haven’t seen that elsewhere.

Whether the UK integrates Meteor with F35 is of course going to come down to when the cash becomes available but unless we want to either a) only arm it with ASRAAM or b) maintain stocks of AMRAAM, it will eventually be so.

Ground Attack

Things get even more interested in the ground attack space.

The UK will have 4 main ground attack munitions, Paveway IV, Brimstone, Storm Shadow and whatever comes out of Spear Block 3.

Paveway IV

Block 3 will see the Raytheon Paveway IV Precision Guided Bombintegrated with the F35B for internal carriage. It is an extremely sophisticated weapon, fully proven on operations where its sophisticated fusing options (point, post or airburst), programmable impact angles and highly accurate guidance provide an enormous amount of targeting flexibility.

Harrier GR9 with Paveway IV
Harrier GR9 with Paveway IV

From the manufacturer

Paveway™ IV features dual-mode guidance and is the latest generation of the Paveway family. For extreme accuracy in all operational scenarios it utilises second-generation, state-of-the-art GPS aided inertial navigation that incorporates anti-spoofing and anti-jamming technology. It also incorporates a laser-guidance system and the pilot is able to switch between modes as necessary, even after release. This gives maximum flexibility to attack re-locatable and moving targets as well as fixed targets

The UK has purchased so far about 1,600 Paveway IV’s.

There are no current plans to integrate the larger Paveway II and III or the enhanced Paveway at least in the initial integration efforts.

Is this a problem?

Given the trend towards smaller weapons and possible growth in Paveway IV (wing kit, low yield warhead, penetrating warhead etc.), perhaps not. It would be nice to have, no doubt but this is one of those trade-offs.

Brimstone

I wrote a fairly detailed post on Brimstone in March last year, click here to view.

I said at the time;

SPEAR Capability 2 is a development of the Dual Mode Brimstone introduced as an Urgent Operational Requirement in 2008. Work for the Block 1 requirement commenced a few years ago but the latest variant will be introduced into service in 2013 as Brimstone 2, this time, into the core equipment programme.

The recent NAO report has updated that somewhat and a recent replenishment order fills in the blanks

Selective Precision Effects at Range Capability 2 Block 1 (Spear Capability 2 Block 1) – Brimstone 2 – replaces the legacy Brimstone missile’s energetics and airframe with a new Insensitive Munitions (IM) compliant warhead, rocket motor and an upgraded seeker and airframe. Spear Cap 2 Block 1 will replace the Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone (DMSB) capability currently in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and will be integrated onto Tornado GR4 and is intended for integration on Typhoon Capability 2 Block 1 and Block 2 combined, a bit of upgrading with the resulting Brimstone 2

If Brimstone 2 is the long term replacement for Hellfire and likely carried on F35B then it should also be cleared for carriage aboard the QE carriers.

Initial plans had Brimstone integrated with the internal bay of the F35 but since it has dropped off the funded list, currently that is.

The Dual Mode variant, like Paveway IV, has been used extensively on recent operations. Together, they are as impressive as anything available and it would be ridiculous not to integrate it with the F35B and should be a higher priority than Storm Shadow.

Storm Shadow

Another MBDA product, Storm Shadow is an air launched stand-off cruise missile, or conventionally air-launched stand off missile (CASOM)

It is a bit of a monster at just over 1,200kg or 2,650 pounds. The F35B inboard external pylon is rated at 5,000 pounds so well within the limit for Storm Shadow but for both F35C and F35B it would have to be carried externally and it is too heavy for pylon positions 2 and 10 so no matter what version, it is being carried externally and to a maximum of two.

The whole point of Storm Shadow is that it allows the launch aircraft to stand off missile so internal carriage is possibly a bit superfluous anyway.

The Storm Shadow Capability Enhancement Programme (SSCEP) seems to be still limping along which will introduce a range of enhancements.

It would absolutely make sense to integrate Storm Shadow with the F35B, if only to provide launch platform diversity, but it would not be a high priority. Given the Saudi and future users of Typhoon it would probably make more sense to ensure integration with that aircraft before the F35B.

It was originally on the integration programme but deleted at the same as Brimstone.

As Tornado goes out of service towards the end of the decade, around 2018/19, it is likely that Storm Shadow (and Brimstone for that matter) will be integrated with Typhoon well before thoughts of hanging them off an F35B are realised.

SPEAR Capability 3

This is the most intriguing because of them all, it is the only one still in concept stage.

The NAO describe it as;

Spear Capability 3 is a new 100kg class weapon. This capability will be the primary air-to-ground armament for the Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA)/F-35B Joint Strike Fighter from ***, and optimised for internal carriage. Spear Capability 3 will provide the means to destroy/defeat a wide range of targets at range, including mobile and re-locatable targets, in all weathers day and night, in complex environments under tight rules of engagements (ROE)

What is interesting here is the word ‘primary’ in respect of the JCA’s air to ground armament but you can read into that almost anything!

With a planned 100km range and high subsonic speed, it will sit between the 50kg Brimstone and 250kg Paveway IV crucially providing the capability to attack mobile and re-locatable targets at a greater range and with greater punch than Brimstone and higher speed than Paveway IV. Its stand off feature is clearly intended to allow mobile air defence targets to be engaged, no need for anti-radiation missiles which are so nineties!

Spear Capability 3 is designed to be internally carried, 4 per bay in the same manner as the US SDB-II, again, a nod to stealthy attacks against ground based air defence targets, although the various reports do note that there may be some space challenges for 4, maybe 3 is more realistic.

MBDA SPEAR Internal Carriage F35
MBDA SPEAR Internal Carriage F35
MBDA SPEAR on F35
MBDA SPEAR on F35

There is a nice article on SPEAR Capability 3 (and Meteor) here

Unlike glidebombs, SPEAR will be able to work against headwinds,” explains Thornley. The new missile will be about 2m long and will be fitted with a multi-mode seeker, multi-effects warhead and GPS/INS data links. SPEAR will have three fins and turbojet propulsion.

There is a potential to take the SDB-II off the shelf but this seems unlikely.

I read a suggestion on another forum for a SPEAR Capability 3 variant that replaced the warhead with an active decoy which I think is a smart idea.

If you think about the commercial potential for F35 A, B or C integration for Paveway IV, ASRAAM, Meteor, Brimstone 2 and Spear Capability 3 it is actually pretty big as it provides a excellent market  alternative for F335 operators to AIM 9, ASRAAM, JDAM and SDB-II combination.

Another discussion point is the overlap between SPEAR Capability 3 and Paveway IV, especially in light of the latter’s potential low yield warhead, data link and glide kit development path.

External Fuel

External fuel tanks seem to be a simple fact of life for most modern aircraft but because the F35B already has a high fuel load and range in excess of what it is replacing the UK may choose not to take them for some time.

Whilst drop tanks on the F35B will of course compromise their ‘stealth’ it was planned to introduce a transonic and low signature optimised 426 Gallon (1,612L) tank in Block 4 although the UK has not indicated if it will obtain these and the development seems uncertain in any case. The Israelis have also proposed a larger 600 Gallon version and even conformal tanks to meet their obvious un supported range requirement.

We may see an F35B buddy tanking capability emerge but I doubt it, not just because of the cost but because the cost AND likelihood of use. The vast majority of operations will see the UK’s F35B’s operating within a multi-national coalition where the RAF’s Voyagers and other nations land based tankers will be fully utilised.

I even read one suggestion that the UK would implement some system where the lift fan could be removed and replaced with a flexible fuel tank, would be interesting seeing the safety case for that one!

Bring Back

The USMC KPP for the F35B states a short take off of just under 183 metres (shorter for the UK although the QE class carrier has a deck length nearly 275m) with enough fuel for the KPP mission profile, 2 AMRAAM and 2 1000lb JDAM’s and a vertical landing bring back weight equivalent to enough fuel to safely land with an appropriate margin whilst carrying the same 2 AMRAAM and 2 1000lb JDAM’s.

I have also seen references to a bring back weight of 5,000 pounds

The KPP also states that this will be carried out with a 10 knot wind over deck (WOD), at sea level (funnily enough!) and in a ‘tropical day’.

The UK’s bring back requirement is even more stringent than the USMC reflecting no doubt, our financial aversion to dropping costly precision weapons into the sea and many years of having to do so with the Sea Harrier.

Bring back thus becomes critical in only a small range of climatic conditions and only for space constrained runways, something the F35B detractors often fail to point out. Remember that Joint thing, operating the F35B from a land location using a conventional landing instead of a vertical one makes the whole bring back issue pretty much go away.

This reduces even further the number of landings that the UK F35B will have to do where bring back becomes an issue i.e. carrier only and only in certain climatic conditions.

If we are going to use the F35B to carry Storm Shadow then the vertical landing bring back weight limitation is an issue because they weigh in at just over 1,200kg, are expensive and are available in a finite inventory, self-evidently, not a good thing. If they hang up on the pylon then the implications might be even more serious so Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) is designed to use wing lift to increase the maximum landing weight and consequently, the bring back weight for unused munitions.

SRVL has been in development for some time and Lockheed Martin was awarded a $13m contract in 2010 to integrate it onto the F35B, there is a nice article here that provides some background.

SRVL was off the menu post F35C decision but now seems to be back on.

In August last year, the MoD’s in house defence equipment magazine (DESIDER) had an article on the F35B including a section on Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL)

Onboard the Queen Qlizabeth aircraft carriers, the jet would take off at its maximum weight of nearly 27 tonnes using a UK-developed ski-jump and land either vertically or using the novel UK-developed Short rolling Vertical Landing (SrVL) technique. This would enable the jet to land at a much higher weight than is possible in a purely vertical landing.

Wg Cdr hackett said: “SrVL is under development for the carriers but it means the aircraft would fly in at around 60 to 70 mph and then brake to a stop on the deck, without the need for any costly arrester gear. It will be able to land up to 1.8 tonnes heavier than otherwise be possible, meaning unexpended weapons can be brought back to the ship.

That was of note because the 1.8 tonnes figure was previously much higher than estimates. It is easy to go down a rabbit hole of trying to work out actual weights but if true, that comment would seem to indicate a much higher bring weight than the KPP.

In the September 2012 F35 Fast Facts there was also a reference to something called the Creeping Vertical Landing or CVL but did not make clear what this actually was.

The 2013 January edition of DESIDER also has more information on SRVL/

Whether SRVL is used routinely, or just for high payload brink back will depend on many factors, it is still in development after all, but it is not just about vertical landing bring back, there are other advantages so who knows where it will ultimately end up.

Bring back weight remains a challenge, SRVL appears to be progressing well but we won’t know for some time whether and how it will be used.

Payload and Bring Back Summary

The known payload and range advantage the F35C has over the F35B, at least for the UK’s strategic and operational context, looks like it sits in a quite narrow band of requirement and not that significant.

If we can fill that narrow band with other capabilities then what might seem like a compelling case for the F35C does not exist.

With likely future integration of Paveway IV, Brimstone and Storm Shadow on Typhoon, if we have the common sense to put strike length cells (either Mk44 or Sylver) on Type 26, whatever MALE UAV we end up with, invest in SPEAR Capability 3, Astute with its Tomahawks, if we ever end up buying ATACMS or put a decent gun on the pointy end of Type 26 the UK will have a range of platforms that can put varying degrees of precision guided explosives onto the swedes the Queen’s enemies.

And this is before we even start looking at the F35B

Bring back remains a challenge but there seems to be a range of measures to progress a solution and we should also be very clear that it only becomes a big problem in very specific climatic conditions and for vertical landings.

Summary

The F35 is the right aircraft family for the Joint Combat Aircraft requirement, expensive and late, yes, but worth the wait, a world away from the Harrier and in many respects, the Tornado

The F35B is the right JSF variant for the UK; it fits within UK doctrine, defence planning assumptions and the reality of its future employment.

Detractors of the F35B have a range of valid arguments but they are frequently over played and certainly not compelling enough to warrant the cost of the F35C

The UK, with its close relations with MBDA and their expertise, has a range of simply brilliant air launched weapons that will be used on the Typhoon and ultimately F35B; these weapons have both growth potential and export opportunities

Together, Typhoon and F35B provide the UK with a capability that is not only capable but flexible as well

Seriously, what’s not to like

Other posts in this series

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 1 (Introduction)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 2 (Dredging Up the Past)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 3 (The Promise)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 4 (Down to Earth with a Bump)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 5 (By Sea By Land)

Looking Forward to an F35 Future – Part 6 (Summary)

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