Trump Is Right About the F-35

by Stephen Bryen

President-elect Donald Trump is right about the super-expensive F-35.  Not only is the plane very costly per copy and even more to keep it flying, but it is a very big bet on a single platform.  If it does not pan out as an effective fighter, the US will be left only with worn out airplanes for the foreseeable future.  Thus the $1.5 trillion gamble is a big one: too big in fact to be acceptable.

That is why Israel tried to find an alternative, and thought they may have found it in the proposed Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle.  The Silent Eagle would have been significantly cheaper than the F-35, would have had stealth features, and would have allowed Israel to use its existing logistics and support system for the aircraft.

Back in November, 2015 I wrote about Israel’s interest in the Silent Eagle.

In fact it was Israel’s interest that prompted the Obama administration, normally hostile to Israel to push for sending the F-35 to Israel as quickly as possible.

Obama’s Pentagon, supported by Lockheed made concessions to Israel on access to the F-35’s secrets so that Israel would accept the airplanes –the first two of which recently arrived in Israel (having been delayed for six hours by fog in Italy). Our allies –including the UK and Italy, do not have nearly the access to the on-board systems of the F-35 as does Israel; moreover, Israel jettisoned the all-controlling so-called logistics system that comes with the airplane, and were able to pull that off. The logistics system of the F-35 is really a political control system. Clearly Israel would not allow itself to depend on the vagaries of a US administration, especially one such as Obama’s which previously cut off supplies to Israel (including the Hellfire missile and Apache helicopter).

One of the cost-saving features of the F-15 Silent Eagle is that the electronics that the US has heavily underwritten for the F-35 can work just as well in the F-15, something the Pentagon knows. There are plenty of benefits of having those systems in alternative aircraft including lower price  by manufacturing more units, support across multiple platforms (easing repair and maintenance costs), and combat agility meaning that different types of aircraft can cooperate in combat.

The advantage of the F-15 is that, despite the fact that it is a large aircraft, is fairly agile and can carry a large load of weapons. As a workhorse the US, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel the F-15 in its latest variant is an all-weather strike aircraft and air superiority platform.

In a similar fashion, but probably without any stealth features, the F-18 Super Hornet could also benefit from the new electronics.  President-elect Trump has recommended that as a way to reduce the size of the F-35 buy.

Even if the F-35 pans out, it is a very expensive airplane to field in the numbers planned, currently running around three times the cost of a “conventional” F-16.  For the record the F-35 (there are three variants) is intended to replace the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 and the AV-8B in the inventory, leaving the F-18 Super Hornets and the existing F-15’s in service.  The AV-8B’s are the US version of the Harrier vertical take off aircraft. Congress has decided that the F-35 is an unsuitable replacement for the A-10, although questions still linger about the survivability of the A-10 against dense air defense systems.

But a better argument for using F-35 technology in alternative platforms is that you enhance the performance of all these platforms and retain the ability to sustain close-in encounters.  The F-35 relies almost entirely on beyond visual range weapons.  After it shoots them off, the F-35 needs to be protected by other aircraft.  Otherwise it will underperform against aircraft like the Russian Su-35, which is a formidable generation 4++ platform.  At present the US Air Force does not seem to have a plan to protect the F-35.  This is clearly a mistake, because there is no guarantee that the F-35’s long range weapons (few of which now exist) are going to be effective against sophisticated jammers and swift maneuvers, technology the Russians are paying much attention to these days.

In short, the idea of the F-35 as a nearly stand-along weapon is highly questionable as a strategy for the future.  Mr.Trump is right to think about alternatives not only to possibly save money but to improve the future of America’s fighter aircraft fleet.



by Stephen Bryen, November 5, 2015

According to news reports, Israel wants the F-15 Silent Eagle. The F-15 Silent Eagle is a stealthy evolution of the F-15 Strike Eagle, which forms the backbone of Israel’s Air Force.

Some analysts are surprised Israel would request the Silent Eagle.  But there are good reasons for it: in fact, the reasons are so good that if our Air Force had common sense it would reduce the size of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy and get the Silent Eagles for our Air Force too.

There is, of course, both a sort of respect and competition that characterizes relations between the US Air Force and Israel’s Air Force.  And there are differences in mission: Israel is a regional power, not a superpower.  It mostly fights in its own neighborhood; although the Iranian challenge means Israel needs more long range aircraft that can carry a significant load of air to ground weapons. The F-35 is not that airplane.

The F-35 is one of the most controversial and expensive aircraft ever built, rivaled only by the even more costly but canceled F-22.  But the F-22’s are aging and soon need to be upgraded; the F-35’s are stumbling forward, but the program has stimulated massive criticism from aviation experts who fault its value as a front line fighter.

The F-35 program hinges on two highly debatable suppositions.

Betting the Farm

The first supposition is that the F-35 can be the main fighter aircraft in the US inventory even though its capability to perform multirole tasks is far from certain.  The US Air Force has bet the farm on the F-35; in the end it means a smaller air force and one with far less flexibility than the air force now has.

Beyond Visual Range (BVR)

The second supposition is that it’s beyond visual range capability is the essential trump card that makes the F-35 superior to the competition.  BVR capability is important, but BVR is not a technology solely under US control –our main competitor, Russia, has BVR and is getting better and better at enhancing all its onboard electronic capabilities.

The idea behind BVR was born out of the famous air battle in June 1982 over the Bekaa Valley, where Israel, using mainly US aircraft (plus its home-grown Kfir) decimated the Syrian Air Force. The reason for the success was that the US F-15’s that were used in that battle had look-down shoot-down radars, a technology the Russians would not have for another ten years. This meant that high-flying Israeli fighters could pick out Syrian MiGs and Sukhoi’s and hit them before they saw the Israeli planes.

But, while look-down shoot-down was really important, it is only a part of the story.  The Israelis also had command and control and radar planes in the area giving them excellent coverage -they saw the Syrian planes from the moment they lifted off from their bases. And, even more importantly, Israel using brilliant home-grown tactics, were able to shut down and destroy most of Syria’s ground-based air defense missile systems.  The elimination of Syria’s SAMs (surface to air missiles) meant that the Syrian Air Force was left on its own. Consequently, 86 Syrian fighter planes, including the Mach-3 MiG 25, were shot down.  Israel lost no planes in air to air combat; it had four combat losses to ground fire.

Superior Technology?

Thus, the translation of what happened in 1982 to 2015 is not so simple.  In 1982, the US had superior technology.  In 2015, the US has excellent technology, but potential adversaries are gaining ground.  Russia, for example, now has stealth in its forthcoming PAK FA-T50 (made by Sukhoi, an important evolution of the Su-35 4th++ generation fighter).  It has Active Electronic Scanned Array radar (just like the F-35 and F-15 SE); it has infrared tracking capability; it has BVR weapons; and most of the other features of the F-35.  But, unlike the F-35, the Su-35 and T-50 are excellent maneuverable fighter planes. For whatever reason, once the F-35 exhausts its air defense missiles, it is a sitting duck unless it can run away in a hurry. Here the Su-35 and T-50 are exceptional because they have supercruise capability that the F-35 lacks.

Supercruise is the ability to operate supersonically without using engine afterburners.  This means far greater range (because afterburners are fuel hogs), and it means weapons launched under supercruise have greater range too.  Can the F-35 escape against a supercruising F-35 or T-50?  Most experts think the F-35 cannot.

This brings us back to the reasons why the Israelis are seeking the F-15SE.  They need a fighter-bomber that can fight.   They understand that if the Russian relationship with Iran continues, that the Iranians will want top of the line aircraft and will pressure the Russians to give them.  Iran is already getting the best air defense missiles the Russians have (violating current arms agreements set by the United Nations).  It won’t be long before the Russians agree to sell modern fighters to Iran, and Israel must plan on that relatively near-term eventuality.

For Israel, there are other considerable gains in buying the F-15SE.  It is an evolution of an aircraft already in inventory, which means all the logistics and support systems are already in place.  Pilots are already well trained on the platform and have experience in combat, meaning that the capabilities of the plane are well known. And the F-15SE costs less than half of what the F-35 costs, meaning that Israel can get much more punch for the buck than the F-35 offers.

Indeed, the F-35’s main contribution to air forces around the world is that it is so unaffordable it will shrink every air force that buys it. This must cause delight in Moscow as well as Beijing.

Mitigating Risk

But even more concerning is why the US Air Force isn’t mitigating the risk of the F-35 by buying an equal number of F-15 Silent Eagles?  It does not take a supercomputer or even an abacus to understand that putting the entire US Air Force at risk with only one fighter plane in the inventory is a danger to national security.  If the platform fails to perform, America will not only risk its credibility, but our allies who are buying the F-35 are going to be left in the lurch.

Indeed, there are even more risks. 

The US cannot afford to keep its older planes flying once the F-35’s enter the inventory.  The F-15’s and F-16’s are unlikely to be further modernized or even properly maintained.

Even worse, the soaring cost of the F-35 and the difficulty of maintaining it in any power projection scenario (and the huge support costs) means that even fewer will be purchased and even less will be available in the field when needed.  This is not a scenario that should be welcomed, and it is likely the Israelis understand the problem all too well.  The F-35 was pushed at them; they did not jump up and down wanting it. Now, for all practical purposes, they really want to hedge their bets or get out from under the f-35 albatross.

So what should we expect?  Any suggestion the US Air Force should buy the Silent Eagle will be met by extreme hostility for sure.  In fact, it is likely the Pentagon will try and block Israel’s request, or try and unload some more F-35’s to shut the Israelis up.  That’s the reality of power-Pentagon politics these days.  What the Silent Eagle needs is some Congressional champions to head off the usual bone-headed Pentagon argument to spend more, get less, and risk our security.

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