So the other day I was watching a video which appears (cant be verified) to be a lecture about the performance of the Indian SU-30MKI at a previous Red Flag exercise in the US. The lecturer makes some interesting points and ends the session by refusing to be drawn into a debate about the F-35, presumably for time considerations.
I'll stick a link to the videos at the end, but suffice it to say that it doesn't seem to bode well for what is probably history's most maligned (and most talked about) defence project.
Now I've been a sort of fence sitter with regards to the F-35. I think the concept behind it was deeply flawed (due to the VTOL requirement) and the procurement program has been an utter mess. But ultimately I'm not as down as most on what should come out the other end.
The reality is that if nothing else then it will provide a much enhanced pilot-aircraft interface and offer superior penetration of enemy air defence networks compared to most legacy aircraft. In terms of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air combat its reduced radar cross section unquestionably gives it an advantage over current potential enemies, especially when coupled with its powerful new radar.
The arena where I will shift a cheek back towards the anti-F-35 crowd is in the realm of Within Visual Range (WVR) combat, the fabled "dogfight". For the 'A' version to be purchased by the USAF this isn't so much of a problem, nor is it for the 'C' version to be acquired by the US Navy. It's the 'B' version, destined for the USMC and the RAF & Royal Navy that mainly raises eyebrows.
As the program progresses ever closer to its in service date it is becoming increasingly apparent that the B version will not be able to handle the more vigorous demands of close quarters air combat, with the airframe being limited in its ability to perform the harsh manoeuvres often required.
"Not to worry" Lockheed Martin often says in response to such concerns, "we have a system onboard that will work with the new generation of short range air-to-air missiles to make the missile do the turning!"
Unfortunately not everyone has quite such faith in the ability of modern seeker heads to off set the need for aircraft performance and pilot training. The name "Vietnam" still echoes through the ages and sends shivers down the spine of many a veteran combat pilot. The fact that the latest test footage of the latest version of the AIM-9 Sidewinder shows it being lured in by flares does not inspire much confidence.
And this is where I go back to the video that I mentioned at the start. The lecturer - who appears from the video to be an instructor at Red Flag - speaks with some praise of how foreign air forces have been able to extract continued value out of old aircraft by fitting them with radar jamming pods, pods that are capable of jamming either the main radar carried by a fighter or simply to jam the seeker head of an incoming missile. To pinch one of his phrases the pods are helping these aircraft "get to the merge".
(Ironically enough the pods in question are produced by Israel, that country that the US gives a lot of money and assistance to...)
Which poses the interesting question; is BVR already coming towards the end of its life just as its starting to get going?
Many of the problems with BVR engagements that dogged pilots for years have essentially now been fixed, in particular with the much better command and control systems that are available today, both in terms of the technology and the tactics needed to exploit it.
And yet we're also seeing at the same time an increasing number of counters to the missile threat. Partly it stems from jamming pods. Partly from the classic trick of using chaff. And partly (most stop starting sentences with 'and') it stems from the use of towed decoys such as those carried by most modern western fighters like the Typhoon (which in turn can be used as jammers).
With this increasing array of modern wizardry levelled against it, it does beg the question about how much of a future modern radar "stealth" features and the allure of the missile have? Clearly something is better than nothing, but how far down that path are we prepared to keep going before the design compromises start to outweigh the positives?
In essence, will much of the F-35's design prove to not only be unnecessary but even detrimental before the jet has even had the chance to enter service?