November 25, 2013
Leaders of smaller air forces are worried that they could be priced out of flying fighter aircraft by rising acquisition and operational costs, and countries that once fielded large forces are recognizing that they cannot cover all their historic missions as they switch to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
That program's leaders admit that the F-35's projected operational costs are not affordable—while promising to bring them down—but one major U.S. contractor has broken ranks and challenged the value of the Pentagon's huge investment in radar cross-section (RCS) reduction, the JSF's dominant technology.
Much of the U.S. defense community “has lost sight of reality” as to what stealth means, a Raytheon executive told the Defense IQ International Fighter Conference here this month. Michael Garcia, the company's senior business development manager for active, electronically scanned (AESA) radars, suggested that longer-range sensors and weapons and electronic attack should be considered part of stealth, rather than placing complete reliance on RCS.
Comparing detection and weapon ranges, as well as RCS, Garcia argued that the “essence of stealth is that the Blue circles [for detection and weapon range] impact Red before Red can detect,” and that jamming, sensors and weapons affect that calculation.
“The level of RCS has not been improving,” Garcia said, and it cannot be greatly improved through an aircraft's life. “It is time-stamped with whatever date it came out of the factory. There has been a revolution in detection” of low-RCS targets, meanwhile, he added, citing the Russian development of an operational, mobile VHF AESA radar (AW&ST Sept. 2, p. 28) and resurgent interest in infrared search-and-track systems. “Conventional stealth is vulnerable to low-band detection,” Garcia said. “And the 'fifth-generation' scenario has become outdated over the past five years.” He mentioned contrails and visible vortices as signatures that are not affected by RCS reduction. Other analysts have noted the dense wingtip vortex trails visible in many inflight photos of F-35s.
Raytheon is a major supplier to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program and has a small stake in the F-35. However, this is the first time that any U.S. contractor has gone on the record with a direct critique of the JSF's prime rationale.
The fact that Raytheon's fighter customer is the U.S. Navy may also be important. At the conference, executives close to the Navy's procurement process said the service had not made a bureaucratic error when it issued a solicitation in October calling for more F/A-18s in fiscal 2015. “The error was that it became public,” one official said, adding that the solicitation was rescinded under pressure from the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. The same executives confirmed that the Navy's alternate program objective memorandum process, which is looking at spending if the Budget Control Act's cuts remain in force, includes options to defer the F-35 by two or three years.