The US Air National Guard is considering to retire its fleet of F-15C/D Eagle jets currently in use for air defense, and replacing them with F-16s. If this goes ahead, the F-16s would have to be upgraded with better radars and more endurance.
The announcement came as a surprise on Wednesday. The Air National Guard used the F-15 for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) plus other air defense duties, but finds the 45-year old design to expensive to use. Nevertheless, the F-15 is still regarded as the best air superiority fighter jet ever made, with 104 consecutive air-to-air victories in its career against zero loses.
What is most surprising however, is the mention of using F-16s to replace the Eagles. A number of Air National Guard units already flew F-16s before they started using their current F-15s. In the past, a specialized F-16ADF (Air Defense Fighter) was used by these units, as well as F-16C/D jets. The F-16ADF was never deemed very suited and was therefore retired in the Nineties.
Using F-16s again for air defense would mean upgrades in terms of radar and endurance. Upgrading retired US Air Force F-16s – which are now making way for the F-35 – into F-16V models is a likely option, but even new-built jets are being considered. These will then have to be built in South Carolina, since Lockheed Martin is to move F-16 production from Texas to here. This September, the last F-16 will leave current Lockheed Martin production in Fort Worth, Texas.
Of note: the US Air Force also still uses F-15C/D models in active service, operating them from airbase in the continental US and from airbases in the UK and Japan. The Air National Guard announcement therefore seems a bit odd and perhaps should mostly been seen in the light of Donald Trump’s plan to increase defense spending. The Air National Guard seems to want to make sure it gets its piece of the pie.
The pending US Air Force competition for a light-weight ground-attack aircraft has been widely publicized. The US is expected to formally announce the OA-X competition this summer. The winner of this competition could very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. Or could it?
Yes, the famed and feared Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt will continue to cause hazards to forces opposing the US for a few more years. However, unsure about exactly how many more years and if the Lockheed Martin F-35 will be able to fill the Thunderbolt’s shoes when it finally leaves, the US Air Force is looking at its ground attack capabilities. And the conclusion is that a small and flexible aircraft is needed.
That aircraft may very well be the Embraer A-29 Super Tucano. This Brazilian turboprop was designed in Brazil but is currenty also license-built in the US by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). As part of a contract awarded in February 2013, these aircraft are adding a ground attack capability to the Afghan Air Force. Pilots from Afghanistan learn to fly the A-29 with the US Air Force’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.
Given this experience, the A-29 is likely candidate to enter in the OA-X competition. But ideal enough to actually win? The US-designed and produced Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine may fit the bill just as well. And how about an armed Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet?
Plus, let’s not forget there’s another competition running right now, and it’s called T-X. The candidates in that competition may also offer the flexibility the US is looking for. An armed version over Lockheed Martin’s and Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 trainer already exists, and its called FA-50. Meanwhile, Leonardo in Italy is already busy developing the M-346FT Fighter Trainer, an armed version of the M-346 Master.
Obviously, the winner of OA-X competition won’t be announced for some years. But it’s just as obvious that upon closer inspection, there are a lot more likely candidates than just the A-29.
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 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.
Boeing on Thursday 2 March unveiled its MH-139 helicopter, which the company will enter in the competition to replace the US Air Force’s UH-1N Huey fleet. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin and its subsidiary Sikorsky are pitching their new HH-60U Ghost Hawk.
The US Air Force is looking to replace its UH-1N Hueys, which currently protect intercontinental ballistic missiles and transport government and security forces. The plan is to replace the current Huey fleet — which entered service in the 1970s — with up to 84 new helicopters.
Boeing’s revealed the MH-139 at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium. The offering is based on the Leonardo Helicopters AW139. “This northeast Philadelphia-built aircraft is sized to meet US Air Force requirements and offers more than 1 billion USD in acquisition and lifecycle expense savings over 30 years when compared to competitor aircraft,” said David Koopersmith, vice president and general manager, Boeing Vertical Lift.
The HH-60U Ghost Hawk shares many commonalities with HH-60W combat search and rescue helos currently in production. A decision on which helicopter will eventually replace the Huey in the US Air Force, is still some time away.
In a surprise move, Italian aircraft manufacturer Leonardo on Wednesday announced it is re-entering the US Air Force T-X competition with its T-100 design. Earlier, Leonardo dropped out together with US partner company Raytheon after being ‘unable to reach a business agreement that is in the best interest of the US Air Force’. Now, the Italians put forward their US company, Leonardo DRS, as the prime contractor.
According to Leonardo, the T-100 will be a US-based program that brings the US economic benefits through a newly established and skilled US work force, in addition to technological and industrial capabilities embedded in newly built US-based manufacturing facilities.
“Leonardo’s commitment to pursue the T-X builds on our deep experience in military pilots’ training and on the competitiveness of our T-100 integrated Training Systems that can meet the US Air Force’s current and future needs” said Leonardo CEO Mauro Moretti.
The Italians emphasize the T-100’s use of two US-produced Honeywell F124 turbofan engines in an attempt to show that US companies will benefit if the T-100 takes the prize. The T-X program also sees Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in competion with their T-50, plus Boeing and Saab with a newly designed jet. Both use General Electic;s F-404 turbofan.
The T-100 is based on the M-346 Master jet trainer that is used by four countries to prepare pilots in next-generation fighter aircraft. Leonardo never forget to point out that the M-346 was selected by the Israeli Air Force as their next training option. The T-100 will feature the same embedded tactical training system used by the M-346. It puts student pilots in realistic but simulated mission scenarios.