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No JSF Alternative?

March 11, 2010

MQ-9 Reaper Drone.

I am starting to think the principle reason the USAF wants the enormously expensive yet under-performing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is their passion for toys and new things. The back-breaking cost and the alternatives available matters little to the air generals just so they can get new airframes. Here is more from Politico:

“There are no alternatives to that in our system,” Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley told reporters last week. “Yes, you can build the 4.5-generation, enhanced-capability F-15 kind of capability. But really, there are no good alternatives to the F-35 at this point. This is a program to which we are deeply committed.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Not only are the legacy planes quite capable since they can carry the same advanced weapons as JSF (going with out motto, smart weapons don’t need smart platforms), but then you must consider the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles, and their successful debut in numerous combat situations. These have been performing stellar service in all theaters of war, and as long as there are enough air superiority fighters available, should be able to substitute for most if not all missions expected of the F-35.

So I think the Pentagon’s plans for 2000 JSF total is outdated and not at all in sync with modern warfare. But if you buy fewer planes, then the price goes up prohibitively. Did you notice the cost I posted earlier for the 43 JSF for next year of $195 million each? We can’t afford anymore mediocre platforms at gold-plate prices, all for the sake of tradition.

The last century JSF needs to be stopped now before further damage is done, keeping only the F-35B to replace the ancient Harriers for the Marines and foreign V/STOL equipped navies. Buy about 500 legacy fighters for the USAF and concentrate on new and better UAVs, which are the future.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    May 21, 2011 3:03 am

    Not sure about keeping the B probably 80% of the issues i have seen have to do with the B and C .

  2. Heretic permalink
    March 16, 2010 11:30 am

    That has been the Air Forces position since the introduction of air to air missiles (Why should we need a gun?) , but some how it never works out that way. ROE and the fog of war get in the way.

    Worked great for the F-4 over Vietnam, didn’t it?

    Aware of the history and the Harrier’s dogfighting ace up its sleeve…but that doesn’t mean that we should dedicate an airframe capable of such techniques to operating like an air superiority fighter. They can VIFF, but they’re not designed for the dogfight and I’m afraid that optimization in that direction will cost utility in its primary mission. Capable of dogfighting, but not meant for it.

    Which then begs the question … why not?

    The conventional wisdom in aerospace design in the 50s and 60s was that you want a rock-solid stable platform to drop your weapons from at treetop level in a CAS aircraft. That was because at the time, you didn’t have (affordable) computer controls to do a whole mess of tasks for you … from flying the plane itself (fly by wire/light) to computing the impact point and dropping the bombs for you at the exact moment needed to even designating the target by laser or electro-optical sight or IR bloom or GPS coordinates.

    With the introduction of the microchip and onboard computing capable of flying the aircraft automatically (under pilot direction), the “need” for a low wing load airframe to keep the plane stable and resistant to wind buffeting decreased. Furthermore, bombing tactics changed over the years from an emphasis on treetop approaches to mid-level bombing so as to stay out of range of MANPADS and Triple-A of various flavors. For higher (than treetop) altitude operations, lower wing loading is advantageous since it gives you a higher flight ceiling which can then be traded for greater payload and fuel capacity. Lower wing loading also yields better lift that can produced tighter turn radius, improving dogfighting capability.

    There was an effort in the 70s-80s to field a Big Wing Harrier, which the British Government nixed and the ultimate result was the A/V-8B out of St Louis. The effort would have resulted in a lower wing loading Harrier with better cruising characteristics and better fuel economy and capacity, increasing range and warload (iirc). But there wasn’t the funding for it, so it got canceled.

    My sense is that there is a GREAT deal of untapped potential still lurking in the Pegasus engine … just waiting for the right airframe to wrap around it, made possible by advances in metallurgy and other materials sciences which can make possible radical new planforms (see: Forward Swept Wings). As I said, the major advantage of forward swept wings with close coupled canard on a V/STOL airplane with a Pegasus engine would be what the planform does for aligning the center of gravity, the center of lift and the center of thrust in ways that you simply can’t do with rear swept wings.

    Because if you can build a low wing loading lightweight air-to-air fighter with Pegasus VIFF in it … you’ve just built the ultimate dogfighter of all time.

  3. CBD permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:17 am

    Aware of the history and the Harrier’s dogfighting ace up its sleeve…but that doesn’t mean that we should dedicate an airframe capable of such techniques to operating like an air superiority fighter. They can VIFF, but they’re not designed for the dogfight and I’m afraid that optimization in that direction will cost utility in its primary mission. Capable of dogfighting, but not meant for it.

    The F-22 comment, reminds me of this little story…but the trick is having the tactics and knowledge down…which is why A-4s, F-5s and trainers have a great advantage over many big/heavy/fast jets in certain scenarios: they can disappear into ground clutter, can rise more quickly and are harder to spot visually…not to mention that their turn radius is a minute fraction of their supersonic brethren’s.

  4. Chuck Hill permalink
    March 15, 2010 4:32 pm

    That has been the Air Forces position since the introduction of air to air missiles (Why should we need a gun?) , but some how it never works out that way. ROE and the fog of war get in the way.

  5. Heretic permalink
    March 15, 2010 12:51 pm

    The air-to-air capability is limited because optimizing for that would lose A-G capabilities or would result in other costs…the Harrier simply isn’t built for the “turn and burn” scenario…it’s built for CAS and strike missions…which it does very, very well.

    This is where a little aircraft history comes into play. ^_-

    Back in the 50s, when the P1127 was getting started, and on into the 60s, the thinking was that for an attack aircraft flying at treetop level, it was highly desirable to have a high wing load. This would reduce the amount of buffeting the aircraft experienced when flying low on a ground attack vector, making its attacks more accurate. A low wing load design would “respond” more dramatically to wind buffeting and would therefore be a less stable (and less accurate) ground attack platform.

    So the P1127, Kestrel, Harrier and Sea Harrier were all designed as high wing loading aircraft. And it’s wing loading that determines how tightly the aircraft can turn at speed (lower wing loading is better for maneuverability in air-to-air combat). But since the Harrier wasn’t “meant” to be a turn-and-burn dogfighter, that wasn’t all that big of a deal (as you say).

    Enter the USMC pilots and VIFF (Vector In Forward Flight).

    It was the USMC pilots who discovered the VIFF potential in the Harrier which had been there all along, but which even the designers were unaware of. In fact, when the USMC pilots started making inquiries about expanding the VIFF envelope of the aircraft, they got “threatening letters” to pull all support from the manufacturer. But then when everyone started to realize the incredible potential of VIFF, the manufacturer got on board and started making modifications to the airplane to support VIFF (which included doubling the strength of the chain drive for angling the nozzles).

    With VIFF, Harriers could out turn any other plane in the sky in a dogfight … and it was a high wing loading aircraft! The USMC wrote a whole new set of VIFF tactics which made Harriers extremely dangerous dogfighters in the 70s and 80s.

    Problem is … the current air-to-air tactics mindset is to eschew Visual Range dogfighting in favor of the Beyond Visual Range missile kill in which you never see your opponent. This is why the USAF has “no problem” building extremely heavy aircraft with limited agility … because they’re designed to never need to dogfight. Every opponent will be downed by a missile kill at BVR. This is why the F-22 is actually vulnerable once an enemy gets into Visual Range and is able to dogfight an F-22. The prevailing wisdom is that this will “never happen” and thus is not a weakness.

    And there is a jet trainer with an F-22 kill marker on it from an exercise. Why? Because the F-22 never saw it, and it got into visual range, and made a “kill” on the F-22 without the F-22 ever being aware of the jet trainer, so the F-22 wasn’t maneuvering to evade attack.

  6. CBD permalink
    March 13, 2010 12:25 pm

    The average age of the aircraft grounded is about 25 years. Although the headlines have all said ‘earlier than expected’, several of the stories have noted that the specific area at risk for cracks was predicted by aging models and testing…which indicated that these aircraft would need to be looked at…at just about this age. Sounds more like “as expected” than “earlier than expected.”

    Furthermore, the ‘legacy aircraft’ Mike is asking us to produce are not the F/A-18A-D Hornets but the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets…a quite different aircraft. We’ve known for a long time that carrier landings wear out aircraft earlier than landings at airfields…we also know that many carrier based aircraft get more time in flight per year than their land-based cousins. The F/A-18A-D and F/A-18E/F are far from perfect, but their limitations are known to us and more aircraft are available…as the F-35 slips farther into the future and numbers promise to shrink.

    Your caps lock seems to be on.

    As you point out, lots of trade-offs and many different approaches are possible.

    Personally, I’d still come down in favor of the top-mounted intake…that seems to promise less complexity related to the core function of the engine system. I think that the issues of rear-field vision can be addressed somewhat by engineering the intake to block less and perhaps by including the DAS units there to give a view of the 6.

    As I mentioned in the “logic of small carriers” thread, I’d expect the AV-8’s involvement in fighter actions to be minimal. It isn’t the F/AV-8, it’s specifically an Attack-designated plane for a reason (like the A-10). The air-to-air capability is limited because optimizing for that would lose A-G capabilities or would result in other costs…the Harrier simply isn’t built for the “turn and burn” scenario…it’s built for CAS and strike missions…which it does very, very well. I’m wary of the desire to make so many aircraft into jacks of all trades, given the excellent performance of the Harriers and ‘Hogs (and Cobras) in CAS and strike missions…and since bombers have had somewhat less success in clearing adversaries from our current battlefields.

    So many, many options…and we got the F-35B!

  7. michael permalink
    March 13, 2010 4:36 am

    Just read that one of your ‘legacy’ aircraft that you seem to suggest are superior to the F35 has just been grounded.
    Or to be fair 104 of there number have,due to cracks appearing in various parts of the airframe ‘earlier than expected’.
    Seems that it would be risky to hang any armaments on something that is not airworthy,I reckon you are just going to have to go forward with F35 whether you like it or not.

  8. Jerry permalink
    March 13, 2010 12:14 am


  9. Heretic permalink
    March 12, 2010 3:47 pm

    You’ve clearly put a good bit of thought into this one.

    Not really … just a lot of wishful thinking. ^_-

    I don’t see how an under-belly intake helps any of those things. It takes up pylon spots, exposes your engine to ground fire and means that landing or taking off from an unprepared field fills your engine with debris. It also causes problems with intake of hot air from your own engines if using many VTOL systems.

    If you want to avoid the ‘mickey mouse’ ears, place your intake on top. Safe, invisible from the ground and always clear of debris. Boeing did this on their Bird of Prey.

    This is a case of “Damned no matter what you do.”

    If you have the intakes on the sides, like on the Harrier, you have the problem of Intake Yaw Momentum Drag … which is a VERY REAL KILLER. Hawker lost a test pilot to this phenomenon during early testing, and had some pretty horrifying 24 frames per second footage of his test plane ROLLING over during hover into an uncontrolled state. The pilot ejected … and the cameras filmed him and his seat being slammed into the ground at full force. Needless to say, the pilot died, and the test program had to be revised to explore (and learn how to avoid!) this part of the flight envelope. The result was the limited authority auto-stabilizer system which kicks in at 0.06G and is the reason why Harriers have a weather vane on the nose in front of the cockpit where the pilot can see it. That’s because Harriers NEED to be “nose to the wind” when landing to avoid this very dangerous phenomenon which can cause the aircraft to *rapidly* depart controlled flight while hovering, near the ground, where there’s no reaction time to avert and recover from a disaster.

    The problem is caused by wind being off-boresight inducing a differential moment of yaw due to inequal drag forces acting on the intakes. Basically one intake “inhales more” than the other, causing a pressure differential … which acts like thrust. The problem is that when hovering, none of the aerodynamic control surfaces offer any control authority, because there’s no air (or at least, not enough) passing over them for them to function. All control authority is performed by the Reaction Control System (RCS) set of puffers at the extremities of the aircraft (for the longest moment and thus greatest amount of torque). The hazard of Intake Yaw Momentum Drag is a set of forces and circumstances which are WELL in excess of what the RCS is able to counter … making it very much a “Do Not Enter” region of the flight envelope.

    This whole problem though is a function of the fact that the intakes are on the sides of the fuselage (and are huge) … meaning that if the nose is not pointed into the wind, the nose can block the wind entering one of the intakes (thereby creating the differential which produces excessive yaw beyond what the pilot has authority to counter). Any aircraft with intakes (plural) as large as the Harrier’s will have this sort of problem if the pitch/yaw/roll authority is as limited as the Harrier’s is via the RCS while hovering. Note that the F-35B has much smaller horizontal intakes, so this is far less of a problem for it.

    The “solution” to this problem is to have a single intake … which then begs the question of where to put it? As you suggest, it’s possible to have a single dorsal intake like what you see on Global Hawk. Problem with that is … there goes your rear visibility for your pilot. We’ve already been down the road of “no rear view” planes in the original RAF Harriers, the F-4 Phantom and other aircraft. For a “pure” strike aircraft, it’s less of an issue (per se…), but for anything that you anticipate will need to do “turn and burn” for A-to-A (as opposed to A-to-G) … you really want that F-16 bubble canopy “all around view” … if you can get it.

    So a big dorsal intake is not exactly “practical” on a fighter/attack aircraft with a pilot in it. No reason NOT to have one on a UAV, but then you’re doing any and all situational awareness through cameras, not through a Mk I Eyeball inside a canopy.

    And that set of circumstances leads to the “fact” that if you’re not doing left/right intakes alongside the fuselage … and you’re not doing a big dorsal intake on top of the fuselage … you’re left with doing a ventral intake under the fuselage … simply for lack of anywhere else to go. As far as losing a pylon spot goes, I’m not convinced the F-16 (which also features a ventral intake) is losing a pylon slot because of the placement of its intake. However, I wasn’t referring specifically to the F-16 intake position/geometry … but rather to the X-32 intake and (variable) geometry … which was also a ventral intake more in line with that of the A-7 Corsair II (albeit an angled half hexagon instead of curved).

    A key feature of the X-32 intake is that the forward portion of it swiveled downwards like a shovel (hence the “yawning hippo” comment). This acted as a very good “air dam” discouraging hot gas reingestion and would also dramatically limit FOD potential when hovering. The swivel open intake allowed for a very sharp lip profile when “up” which is ideal for high speed flight (reduced drag) and a very blunt lip profile when “down” which is ideal for low speed/hover flight (reduced drag again). It was actually a very ingenious solution to a problem that plagued the development of the P1127 and the Kestrel.

  10. B.Smitty permalink
    March 12, 2010 2:36 pm

    If the F-35B tanks, rather than re-imagining the Harrier, I think countries who want carriers would be better served picking an existing CATOBAR aircraft and building a larger carrier (or just dusting off the plans for the existing Harrier, if that is even feasible at this point).

    Developing a new fighter is complex, expensive and time consuming business. By the end of the development process, Super Hornets flying from a bigger ship will look like a bargain.

    Sea Gripen would be an interesting option for a small carrier. It should have an even smaller deck footprint than a Harrier while having capable 4+ Gen performance (especially if the F414 EPE is used). My biggest problem with the concept is having any faith that Saab could deliver a viable carrier aircraft unless they teamed with another company with experience.

  11. CBD permalink
    March 12, 2010 1:19 pm

    You’ve clearly put a good bit of thought into this one.

    One thing I’d question: the intake placement. Part of the problem is heat (and thus IRSAM vulnerability), another is operating in VTOL and from forward air bases.

    I don’t see how an under-belly intake helps any of those things. It takes up pylon spots, exposes your engine to ground fire and means that landing or taking off from an unprepared field fills your engine with debris. It also causes problems with intake of hot air from your own engines if using many VTOL systems.

    If you want to avoid the ‘mickey mouse’ ears, place your intake on top. Safe, invisible from the ground and always clear of debris. Boeing did this on their Bird of Prey.

    Given the experience of Soviet and American STOL transport designs for similar environments and the use of such an engine placement for the extant UCAV designs shows its capability in what are supposed to be combat aircraft. The next-gen Harrier needn’t be that stealthy, but there’s no reason to expose yourself to the more likely threats (IRSAMs) if you can get around it.

  12. Distiller permalink
    March 12, 2010 1:06 pm

    Of course 2000 F-35 are a pipe dream. 600, maybe 700 yes, As, not Bs, not Cs. (Though I would very much love to see the C as standard).

    Core question: How realistic is F/A-XX? If that thing should really go ahead the Navy will jump on it, and the C is dead. It could also take over from the F-15C and E, *and* the F-22, and the SHornet family.

    For the carriers that could mean something like e.g. 36 F/A-XX and 18 J-UCAS, plus 18 CSA. Ha! The Navy still needs the CSA!

    Where does that leave the F-35? At around 600 A versions to replace the F-16C/D, I guess.

    Without F/A-XX? I don’t know. Chaos. Decline. Defeat.

    Ceterum autem censeo, that the Marines should get out of fast-jet aviation NOW.

  13. Heretic permalink
    March 12, 2010 12:02 pm

    In a “perfect world” … ie. with funding and political support … I’d want to see a new airframe wrapped around a Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine, the heart and soul of the Harrier series. What sort of airframe? Well, airframe technologies and materials have advanced (somewhat) since the 1960s (AV-8A) and 1980s (AV-8B).

    The first major change that I’d want in my wishful thinking is … Forward Swept Wings with close coupled canard. The reason for this has less to do with a desire for maneuverability gains than a realization that a major challenge with fixed wing VTOL is getting the center of lift to align with the center of gravity and also with the center of thrust from the engine.

    With aft swept wings, the engine needs to be moved forward to counterbalance the weight and torque arm length of the wings and empenage of the aircraft. This was a major bugaboo for the development of the P1127 and Kestral demonstrators, where the airframe designers kept needing to move the engine further and further forward in the aircraft in order to get everything to balance correctly. Forward swept wings would help to counteract this necessity, since in a forward sweep configuration the center of gravity for the aircraft is not only “moved” aft by virtue of the “heaviest” parts of the wings being towards the rear end of the aircraft, but also because the entire wing box structure is also moved aft as well. This in turn produces an aircraft that can have an overall shorter length of airframe for a given wingspan because of how the internal structure and spaces get rearranged.

    So the main benefit then of a forward swept wing airframe wrapped around a Pegasus engine is that the engine can be placed further aft in the airframe relative to where it would be with rear swept wings and because of the change of shape, size and design of empenage due to the close coupled canards at the wing root, would also produce a weight savings in terms of relative structural weight(s) when taken in aggregate for the entire aircraft.

    The second major change that I’d want is to add enclosed jetpipe shrouds that extend aft of the rotating nozzles so as to carry the pressurized exhaust gases to the aft end of the aircraft without exposing them when the vector nozzles are in the aft position. This would move the “hot spot” for IR detection from the center of the aircraft to the tail. IR signature, and its location on the airframe was not a concern when the engine was first being designed in the 1950s, but it has since been discovered that IR MANPADS are a real threat to the Harrier since the missiles home in on the center of the aircraft, rather than the tail. A side benefit would be that any sort of afterburner could be placed in these jetpipes, well “downwind” of the engine itself and “outside” the rotating nozzles. If these jetpipes also incorporate a passive “mixing” system allowing the cooler exhaust from the LP turbine to mix with the hot exhaust that’s passed through the engine core before reaching the afterburner, then there should be a much higher than normal oxygen content in the exhaust gases before reaching the afterburner, increasing afterburner efficiency (hopefully).

    The third major change I’d want to make is to move away from the “mickey mouse ears” intakes arrangement of the Harrier (which really is pretty much the only way to “do it” with a fixed intake) towards a ventral intake reminiscent of the “yawning hippo” variable intake last seen on the X-32 with a dorsal intake(s) augment for increased massflow at low speeds for vertical thrust.

    I have to wonder … in a Blue Sky Fantasy sort of way … if such an “update” on the aging Harrier wouldn’t breathe new life into the incredible legacy bequeathed the West by Sir Sidney Camm, Ralph Hooper and Sir Stanley Hooker in the form of their Incredible Aeroplane … which remains to this day unmatched in what it can do … 50 years later.

    Too bad no one wants to find out … :(

  14. CBD permalink
    March 12, 2010 10:16 am

    Nix that. We now know some of the weight cuts: the fire suppression and fuel safety systems.

  15. CBD permalink
    March 12, 2010 9:08 am

    I think the reason lies in that the F-35s were supposed to be midway through flight testing by now…but technical issues and delays inherent to the design of the F-35 has meant that only a handful of the thousands of basic test and qualification flights have been achieved.

    The F-35 is PREDICTED to have worse handling characteristics than just about any non-transport plane in the US fleet, maybe beating to the low & slow A-10…but coming in far inferior to the F-16 in replaces. They’ve also had to add weight and structure to some LRIP models to make them safe to fly…and while some weight has been cut, it’s still unclear whether any of that cut weight was needed (note: the recent problems with early-model F-15s and a support piece not built to full design specs).

    The F-35 has a marginally improved range over some aircraft, but that is only on paper. We haven’t had many opportunities to test the F-35’s claims on many of its abilities…there are just too few models still running around with training wheels firmly affixed.

    The F-35 has depended on advanced technologies to replace maneuvering…but many of those technologies are now in the F-16s, F-15s and F/A-18s…and on older opponent aircraft. The DAS system on the F-35 should be great, but IRST is on the market and likely to be integrated into aircraft that cost a third as much as the F-35. The F-35 development team, by the by, is not claiming any sort of IR stealth…and the radar stealth it has is limited.

    The F-22’s stealth may be similarly compromised, but only by certain systems (rare) and its stealth is much more effective from all angles and includes a significant internal weapons payload (almost twice what the F-35 bears). It also has plenty of speed, maneuverability and range when stealth can’t be depended upon. Drop in IRST or DAS to a F-22B and you get the benefits without the drawbacks. A plane worth its exorbitant price.

  16. michael permalink
    March 12, 2010 8:25 am

    How can you condemn the F35 as underperforming when it has only just began its flight testing,I find your views rather previous.
    As for you legacy aircraft F15/F16/F18 all over 30 years old and have had more cosmetic surgery than an ageing film star.
    F22,well even with the funds at your disposal you are finding it exhorbitantly expensive.
    So you would even at this late stage in the development of the F35 and the billions of dollars already spent scrap it?.
    It would appear that you are thinking along the lines of the UK government and TSR2.
    I know that UAV’s are the flavour of the month but it will be a long time before piloted aircraft are phased out,if ever they are.

  17. Sanem permalink
    March 11, 2010 11:53 pm

    is the F35B really a necessity?

    the reason I’m asking is because, although I’m sure the Marines will get it (they got the V22), other small carrier nations “might” be less enthousiastic about the price jump

    maybe it’s time for a Harrier II, or a UCAV version. anything will be cheaper than F35B’s

  18. CBD permalink
    March 11, 2010 9:16 pm

    One wonders, minus the extensive RAM application, how stealthy the F-22 might be?

    Just its systems are likely to surpass the F-15E in most situations. It still has maneuverability, range, power and speed on its side. How much would a leading-edge RAM only, upgraded F-22B cost?

  19. Aaron permalink
    March 11, 2010 8:59 pm

    “there are no good alternatives to the f-35’s at this point”
    wrong- its called the f-22, its a better airframe, better stealth and is already in production.
    500 f-22’s for world wide air superiority…
    agree that the f-35b’s look viable as they replace the harrier.
    scrap the f-35C’s in favor of super hornets at 50 million apiece and have enough money left over to actually fly the damn things.
    also- develop the b-22. a delta wing version of the f-22 with supercruise and a larger weapons payload. low development cost of around 10billion since its a variant on an existing design.

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