The survivability of the future main combat jet of the US armed forces and many of their allies is again in doubt. Despite praising Red Flag Exercise after-action reports on deployed US Air Force and US Marine Corps F-35s, Airheadsfly.com feels the effectiveness in tomorrow’s air war against – let’s say – Russian or even Swedish fighter jets is not as rosy as we are “made” to believe.
A “Twenty-to-One kill ratio” by US Air Force F-35As and “extremely capable across several mission sets” for US Marine Corps F-35Bs. Wonderful statements in beautiful analyses on the most modern 5th generation fighter jet of US-allied armed forces going to “war” over the combat ranges of Nevada from Nellis Air Force Base. If we believe these reports flying the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II into combat is like winning the jackpot on The Strip in adjacent Las Vegas city.
But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas? What is not clear in neither the US Air Force statements as in the recent released report written by Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121’s Lt. Col. J.T. Bardo is how realistic the scenarios played at Red Flag are. We have no doubt they do mirror future war situations, but we do question if the more capable enemy aircraft are really put into play.
“Overall, the F-35 was far more survivable than the participating legacy aircraft,” commander Bardo writes on the six Marines F-35Bs participating in Red Flag 2016-3. Of course, the newer jet should be able to do a better job than the 4th generation F-16 Block 30 and 40s that were deployed. But can it match the Russian Sukhoi Su-37s or Swedish SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen MS20s?
The “professional adversaries” (Aggressor aircraft) during the Red Flag 2016-3 were above all 1980/1990s-era F-16s of the US Air Force 64th Aggressor Squadron as well as 1960s-era McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks flown by the Draken International paramilitary organisation. Hardly comparable to the most modern aircraft of today.
When it comes to manoeuvrability and range the F-35 is by far outmatched by its modern Russian rivals, such as the Sukhoi Su-35BM/S equipped with trust-vectoring (movable) engines. The Lightning II flies only a two-thirds (1,200 mls / 2,200 km) of the distance the Su-35 (1,980 mls / 3,600 km), while having tankers in a bandit-rich environment is not considered a likely scenario.
JAS 39 Gripen MS20
True, the F-35 has the stealth advantage but according to sources within Swedish SAAB and the Swedish Air Force the newest MS20 software upgrade of the JAS 39 Gripen jet enables the aircraft’s radar and other systems to detect and counter these stealthy aircraft quite well. Although it is unlikely American jocks will fly against Vikings the new Meteor missile has given the JAS 39 Gripen – as well as the French Rafale – a lethal weapon against enemy aircraft over the 60 miles (100 km) range.
The Swedes have fielded the upgraded Gripen MS20 and Meteor mainly to cope with the Russian Sukhoi PAK A/T-50 stealthy air-supiority fighter and the non-stealthy Flankers of the 4+ generation. But the technology as such can – in the wrong hands – quite likely turn a F-35 into a smoking hole in the ground as well.
What the largest country of Scandinavia has, is quite likely to be available soon in some sort to the jocks flying for Moscow. Add the newest generation of Russian electronic counter measures and the Red Bear outclasses the American Eagle. Especially if the threat from the ground is added. Russia’s S-400/40N6 surface-to-air missile system can kill targets up to 250 miles (400 km) away at speeds up to Mach 5.9 (4,500 mph or 2,000 m/s).
Moreover, Russia is traditionally keeping a better pace between aircraft and missile technology, while US puts more money into its aircraft technology and let its pilots often fly with somewhat antiquated anti-air weaponry and having its ground forces operating with less-good-than-what-the-Russians-have missile batteries.
Believe vs Make-believe
We do believe the F-35s state-of-the-art sensors give its users a great asset in any war scenario, but with still lacking basic things as stand-off weapons, the ability to bring just four air-to-air missiles to the air war in order to remain stealthy (all weapons internal) and with the newest electronic counter and detect developments made by other defence manufacturers worldwide the survivability as advertised by the Red Flag after-action reports may very well be nothing more than make-believe.
© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: Killer or prey? A hoovering F-35B at the Royal Internationl Air Tattoo in 2016 (Image © Elmer van Hest)