On Friday, the heads of the Joint Strike Fighter program took the unusual step of calling a phone-in press conference at short notice to "set the record straight" on the F-35.
They were reacting to two things: a Jane's Defence Weekly opinion piece in which defense analyst Winslow Wheeler and former "Fighter Mafia" member Pierre Sprey labeled the F-35 a "dog"; and an Australian press report claiming JSFs were "clubbed like baby seals" by simulated Sukhois in Pacific wargames.
One had substance, one sensation, and together they were perceived as a big problem for the program. In Australia, where the choice of the F-35 as the RAAF's next fighter is highly controversial, the problem went all the way to the Prime Minister.
On Friday, JSF program executive officer Maj. Gen. Charles Davis acknowledged the sensitivity. "We are at a point in the program where more people are making decisions that at any other point." The attacks threaten the cohesion of the nine-country JSF international partnership. "Within the next two months to two years, every partner will make a decision [on buying JSF]," said Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin executive vice president of F-35 program integration.
On Friday, Davis said the criticisms of the F-35's combat capability were "just flat false...the data is just wrong". Without added comments except for clarification, here's how he defended that claim:
Fighting a clean fight
The defense of the F-35 rests on the fact it carries its combat load of fuel, weapons and sensors entirely internally, and should therefore be compared with an F-16 carrying its combat load of fuel tanks, weapons and targeting pods externally.
"Wheeler and Sprey have no real concept of the design characteristics," said Davis. "If we just flew the aircraft in air-to-air configuration it would have a thrust-to-weight [ratio], with 18,000lb of internal fuel in the CTOL, equivalent to an F-16 with six missiles and three tanks externally... There is no way [the F-16] is going to have excess thrust-to-weight with that load."
With two missiles and two JDAMs internally, and no tanks or weapons externally, the F-35's take-off weight is 49,000lb and take-off thrust 42,000lb, said Davis. "You cannot even begin to compare configurations. A clean F-16 without tanks has 40 minutes endurance... With a clean F-35 you can go to war, and take it a distance. Just look at fuel, you can't argue with that," he said.
"Existing aircraft in the configurations flown cannot even go to war on the first day," Davis argued. "They will have to sit at home and let someone else do the work. At that point they are useless. On Day 5 or Day 10 we can use all 11 stations on the F-35. That gives us total flexibility from Day 1 to the last day of the war."
Those extra external stores stations will not all be available for use when the F-35 first enters service, and Davis acknowledged that clearing the "30 to 35" possible permutations of weapons configurations over the 11 stations "will take time".
Davis also dismissed the idea of developing a simpler aircraft, like the original F-16 and A-10 in which Sprey had a hand. "Today you cannot build a simple single-mission aircraft and make it effective. It might be effective over Baghdad, but not over Georgia - we saw what they did to the latest Russian aircraft. The F-117 was fantastic for the mission, but it could only do one mission carrying two or three types of weapon. Once the air defenses were knocked down it was basically useless."
Who let the seals out?
Davis is certain someone with an agenda originated the "baby seals" story, but he does not know who, and would not say what he thought the agenda was. In Australia, at least, the agenda is clear: some people want the F-22 because of its superior air-to-air performance.
"We talked to the individuals involved in the wargame, and looked at the scenario. It did not involve an air-to-air scenario," said Davis. "Three days of full-time work analysing the wargame and we found exactly nothing relating to the program. The exercise involved basing capacity around the Pacific Rim. It was a logistics and deployablility exercise, not a battle," he said.
So where did the "baby seals" comment come from? During the period of the wargame there were briefings given by analysts, predominantly on the F-22, he said, adding: "There may have been an offhand comment. We have no way to prove what was said." Nothing in the story "had anything to do with what happened in the wargame," Davis said.
He again defended the F-35's air-combat capability. "It's a 9g aircraft. Maneuvering at F-16 and F-18 combat weights there is no real difference in turn rates, turn radius and other air-to-air metrics," Davis said. "The F-22 has thrust vectoring, and a different flight control structure, and is more maneuverable in a 1v1 visual fight. If you assume technology doesn't do anything for you, like four times the radar detection range, [the F-35 is] not as maneuverable as the F-22, and that's the crux of the Australian issue."
Countering criticism that the F-35 carries only two air-to-air missiles in its full-stealth configuration, where its non-stealthy competitors can carry many more weapons externally, Davis said: "When you compare it to aircraft with 10 or 12 missiles, we can load the aircraft with external missiles. We can equal them on external load. But those aircraft cannot go do a Day 1 mission. In a Day 1 highly defended, anti-access [environment], air-to-air is not the biggest concern - when [enemy] air defenses are up and running they are a threat to their aircraft too."
Asked whether potential international customers thought stealth was as valuable and effective as the U.S. does, Davis said: "Stealth is not the biggest factor in the aircraft's effectiveness. It's the volume of data it's collecting from Aegis ships, soldiers, UAVs, legacy fighters, AWACS, Wedgetail... It's about situational awareness, total knowledge. Stealth is just a part."