F35B in focus (PART 2) The multi-role marvel

Don’t worry – it’s not falling apart, this is what an F35B is supposed to look like when making a vertical landing
Photo: USMC.

Like its Sea Harrier predecessor, the F35B is a ‘swing role’ aircraft ie. a plane that is both a fighter, reconnaissance and a strike aircraft. Here we take a cursory look at how the F35B may fit into these roles in UK service.

Air defence

Given that most recent conflicts involving the UK have not involved confronting nations with a serious airforce, air defence for the fleet has been sometimes overlooked. With the premature and ill-advised withdrawl of the Sea Harrier FA2 in 2006 the RN effectively lost the ability to intercept enemy aircraft, the most important part of layered defence for a naval task group. (The remaining Harrier GR9s were essentially ground attack aircraft with a minimal air defence capability). If the RN and its allies are ever to operate against nations with even a rudimentary airforce then it would be most unwise to rely purely on ship-mounted weapon systems. History has shown that without air superiority (or at least parity) provided by carrier-based aircraft, ships are very vulnerable.

A good fighter aircraft generally has a slim fuselage, relatively large wings and a good power-weight ratio, rather the opposite of the F35. As a stealthy strike aircraft, it needs a bulky fuselage to encase weapons. It is not especially manoeuvrable and ‘old school’ fighter pilots are unimpressed. Where the F35 supposedly has the edge over virtually all adversaries is in its sensors, communication and avionics. With a very advanced radar and 10 million lines of onboard software allied to powerful computers, the pilot is presented with complete situational awareness though a single large touch-screen display. The helmet will provide 360º view, wherever the pilot looks so he can even see through the cockpit floor. With data links via satellite the F35 can obtain, analyse and share information about a vast battle space. Using long-range missiles the theory is that the F35 will not need to get into close-quarters dog-fights, destroying the enemy aircraft beyond visual range (BVR).

As far back as the Vietnam war this kind of combined radar and missile BVR air-air combat was envisaged but in practice close-quarter engagements developed with missiles often being of secondary importance to guns. Obviously technology has advanced a long way since then but total reliance on gadgets ahead of pilot skill and aircraft agility seems questionable. Although all the world’s best fighters have BVR capabilities, air combat may not always develop that way – why else do other aircraft designers put so much effort into building agile planes? While the old Harrier could not reach supersonic speeds like the F35, it had a few dogfighting tricks thanks to it’s VSTOL design. For example the Harrier could ‘slam on the brakes’ at high-speed by pointing its jet nozzles forward but the F35B cannot do this. With its delicate engine ‘doors’ it must reduce speed before gentle transition to hover. Exactly how the F35B would perform if it was ever forced into high-G dogfighting manoeuvres has yet to be tested but don’t be surprised if is out-performed by other fighter aircraft upto 20 years older, whatever Lockheed Martin may claim. The crux of whether the F35B can provide effective air-superiority at sea is how reliably this new generation of electronic technology performs. If it works as advertised, the F35 pilot on combat air patrol (CAP) can supposedly cruise around relaxed, pushing a few buttons when prompted with enemies despatched at distance. Most modern Western fighter aircraft are currently superior to the Chinese or Russian designs flown by potential adversaries but it would be unwise to assume that the technological lead can always be taken for granted. Given the many known failures in cyber security and the persistent criminal hacking activities sponsored by the Chinese government, is it possible that information that could compromise the F35’s much-lauded stealth, networking & sensor capabilities has already been obtained by China? Even if they don’t have the ability to interfere with aircraft in action, they have probably freely obtained some of the complex technical data needed to start make their own copies.

The ‘strike’ mission

Sometimes it maybe that the deterrent effect of an aircraft carrier sitting off a coast is enough to prevent conflict or achieve strategic aims. Should this deterrence fail, going by recent history, the most likely ‘live’ combat mission for an F35B launched from HMS Queen Elizabeth in the early 2020s would be precision bombing of a specific target on land. The strike mission is the key role of the aircraft and the F35 will probably prove to be a better bomber than fighter, especially given the incredibly sophisticated and accurate air-dropped munitions that are now available. Its superior stealth, supersonic speed and increased range should help it evade defences and quickly hit targets far beyond the capability of the Harrier GR9. The ‘strike’ mission can be divided it to 3 main types. Tactical or close support of troops on the battlefield, strategic bombing of targets deep in enemy territory and attacking enemy ships.

Tactical bombing and close support is a vital role and gives far greater threat and edge to the RN and its allies amphibious power. The ability to pinpoint and destroy individual tanks, artillery and formations in close proximity to advancing troops is decisive but requires practice and superb communication, ideally with a tough aircraft that can survive damage and provide a stable weapons platform in the more turbulent air at low-level. As the photo above shows, the F35 is fragile and complex. (Although ease of maintenance, self-diagnosis and support logistics have been given a high priority from the start of the program). Never the less, lacking basic cannons, being so frail and expensive, it is unlikely to be sent to mix it at low-level over the battlefield where a single bullet from a $100 rifle could bring down a £143Million aircraft. In Afghanistan, jets mostly delivered precision munitions from high level. (Fine where there is no serious air defence). The US Marine Corps is building landing ships specifically to carry the F35B and it will be interesting to see how their doctrines evolve for supporting amphibious operations using the aircraft.

In the ‘strategic’ bombing role the F35B appears fairly well suited, although the reduced range of the B variant reduces the radius for ‘deep strike’ significantly. What is more questionable is the strategic mission itself. Obviously it maybe desirable at times to be able to knock out command centres, military facilities, terrorist bases etc at considerable distance (as in the liberation of Libya). In contrast, the bombing of cities (such as the “shock and awe” raids prior to the invasion of Iraq) maybe both morally questionable and counter-productive. Destroying utilities and transport infrastructure will probably hinder the progress of the army it is supposed to assist. The inevitable killing of civilians (‘collateral damage’) will mean troops arrive to face an angry population understandably keen to take revenge, sowing the seeds of future terrorism and conflict. It is this dubious ‘deep strike’ bombing role that is the main raison d’être of the UK’s Tornado force. The F35 is seen primarily by the RAF as the Tornado replacement, rather than the aircraft carrier’s main armament. This situation will be at the root of many problems which we will discuss in Part 3.

The Royal Navy now has only 2 heavyweight weapons for use in the anti-shipping role. The most effective way to sink ships is by torpedo but with the tiny attack submarine force (currently down to 5 and unlikely to rise above 7 in the 2020s) there are precious few submarines to fire torpedoes. The other option is the ageing Harpoon surface to surface missile carried by the Type 23 frigates (and possibly to be fitted to the Type 45s). Although Harpoon has a range of around 60 miles, its basic design is 30 years old, it is not especially fast or manoeuvrable and maybe defeated by modern warships countermeasures. There are of course the 4.5″ guns but gunnery duels with enemy warships would be unlikely and an option of last resort. The helicopter-launched Sea Skua (and its promised replacement) are very useful anti-surface weapons but are only for use against small vessels. The F35 therefore offers a 3rd and important option for taking out warships. To destroy large vessels requires at least a 500lb or ideally a 1000lb bomb hit which the F35 could deliver. To sink a modern warship would require a very well coordinated strike with multiple aircraft to have much hope of success and would probably result in the loss of aircraft. Ideally a stand-off anti-ship missile would be used but the RN lost this capability with the demise of the Harrier and the Sea Eagle missile. The F35 could possibly carry (externally) the air-launched variant of the Harpoon or its successor the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) currently in development in the US. However there are no existing MoD plans to add this capability, particularly as anti-surface warfare is becoming something of a forgotten art, way down a very squeezed priority list.

The carriers will initially go to sea without dedicated Airborne Early warning aircraft. (The Government complacency and mismanagement behind the lack of this relatively cheap and important capability has been well covered elsewhere). Without in-depth radar coverage, the carrier and its naval task group are at risk. The F35 does have an exceptional radar and this may at least be able to partially off-set the blindness left by lack of AEW but the F35 is not really designed for this persistent surveillance mission and there will be precious few spare aircraft anyway. A basic function of carrier aircraft is simple reconnaissance and it is always useful for naval commanders to have intelligence gathered by the ‘Mk1 eyeball’. Like many modern fighting aircraft, the F35 has sophisticated electro-optical cameras that can beam high quality images back to the ship.

The unmanned future?

The political implications of an expensive plane being shot down and the death or capture of its pilot has been an increasing factor in limiting the use of strike aircraft. The development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) offers the attraction of reduced cost and the elimination of risk to a pilot. UAVs have been in action around the world for more than 10 years, the majority are unarmed and mostly used for intelligence gathering but there are a few land-based drones such as the RAF’s Reapers that are weaponised. It is virtually certain that UAVs will be an increasing feature of naval warfare and it is likely the RN’s carriers will be routinely operating them at some point alongside the F35 and one day manned military aircraft may disappear entirely. Unfortunately the loss of cats and traps means the RN’s carriers will not be able to launch long-range, heavily armed UAVs such as X-47B being developed in the US. Until either a heavyweight VSTOL UAV is developed, or cats and traps are fitted to the carriers the RN will be limited to smaller UAVs with minimal or no armament and will thus be heavily reliant on the manned F35B for many years to come.

In Part 3 we look at the ownership and operation of the aircraft.