With the first Danish F-35 now officially handed over to the Flyvevåbnet, it seems to be a suitable time to look at the aircraft that perhaps arouses the strongest emotions of all HX-contenders. I have earlier criticised the Kampfly-programme under which the F-35 was chosen (though I should note that the F-35 not being able to fairly prove that it is best fit for the Danish requirements doesn’t mean it isn’t), and a number of decisions surrounding Denmark’s future fighter have raised questions about how a potential HX-winning F-35 force would look in practice (*cough*, the RDAF Skrydstrup budget). To get some answers to the questions, I recently had an opportunity to chat with Scott Davis, Lockheed Martin’s Managing Director for Finland.
While few if any analysts doubt that being stealthy is good, or that the F-35 is the stealthiest of the five HX-contenders, questions have been raised about the trade-offs that brings, and whether the same effects can be achieved cheaper and with greater versatility through the use of active electronic warfare systems? However, the F-35 is far from a one-trick pony, and while the marketing is often heavily focused on the passive measures taken to lower the aircraft’s signature, it does in fact sport a state-of-the-art active EW-suite as well. The two key pieces of hardware here are the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar with a large number of transmitter/receiver modules, as well as the huge Pratt & Whitney F135-engine pushing the aircraft and, crucially, providing electric power to all the subsystems.
The fact that the EW-suite is built up around internal systems means that all the power and cooling needed can be drawn from the aircraft’s main systems, as well as allowing the AESA radar itself to function as seriously sized jammer. Not only does this mean that the jamming power is more than an order of magnitude greater than those of traditional pods according to Lockheed Martin, but they also note the fact that the large antenna surface allows for a very narrow beam, lessening the risk of detection from enemy passive sensors. Scott acknowledges that podded solutions are easier to tailor for a wide range of threats, but while he won’t disclose the closer specifications of what the AN/APG-81 can do as a jammer, there are some things he can tell:
All things that can kill you […] is within our jamming range.
That includes both hostile aircraft as well as missiles, or in general anything that can give a fire-control quality radar track.
However, the aircraft is also able to use the radar in passive mode, during which it in essence becomes a large listening device. With several aircraft in formation sharing passively acquired data through the high-bandwidth MADL datalink (which is designed to be difficult to detect and jam compared to earlier standards such as Link 16), it can then rapidly triangulate other emitters.
If you’re not transmitting, you’re in effect an electronic sponge.
The nice thing here is obviously the synergies that can be had through having your aircraft naturally being able to operate closer to the adversary without being detected, but also being able to do so either completely passively or only using systems that are relatively hard to detect. In essence, with these capabilities feeding into each other the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Granted, electronic warfare capabilities are among the aspects that are hardest to judge based on open sources. However, if the F-35 even achieves par in the EW domain compared to the competition, it should according to all logic be better off overall in a combat situation due to the aforementioned synergies coupled with the stealth features, all other things being equal.
However, in reality all other things are rarely equal, and while Scott is correct in identifying the F-35 as the “Next European fighter” based on the large number of European air forces acquiring the type, most do so in significantly smaller numbers than the F-16 fleets they are replacing. In the case of Denmark, the plan is to replace the remaining fleet of around 50 left in service from the original of 77 F-16A/B (7 of which were attrition replacements) with just 27 F-35A in a single squadron. In Norway the cut wasn’t as drastic, but it still sees 52 F-35A replacing an original 74-strong F-16A/B fleet (of which 56 were upgraded to MLU-status). Still, Norway is also consolidating operations to a single base, further underlining the fear that a Finnish F-35 order might lead to a 40 aircraft Air Force and the closing of one of the two fighter squadrons.
Programme Director Lauri Puranen has however shot down at least the latter idea, stating that concentrating the Finnish fighter force to a single base hasn’t even been discussed, and Scott Davis is confident that the fear of an F-35 specific infrastructure cost causing issues is overblown. One example often brought up is that of Eielson AFB in Alaska, which has seen huge spending on F-35 infrastructure. However, much of those investments were due to the base not having been home to combat coded fighters in recent years, meaning that it was more of an expansion than a modernisation project.
[Eielson AFB] was a plus up, adding two more squadrons of fighters […] The logistics footprint of the F-35 is actually less than that of the F-16
In general, the aircraft has turned out to work well in colder climates, including not only in Alaska, but also in locations such as Burlington, Vermont, and over in Norway. Asking about whether actually operating the aircraft in cold weather as opposed to ‘just’ doing cold weather tests have revealed some major insights, Scott confirms that this has indeed been the case. “We’ve definitely learned some lessons”, he confirms, but also states that overall it is going very well and that the “Norwegians are very happy”.
And speaking of happy Norwegians, they just did the first drop-test of an JSM from an F-35. The anti-ship missile is stealthy, sports a passive IIR-sensor, a secondary land-attack role, and crucially can be carried internally on the F-35. As such it is more or less a perfect fit to the aircraft in that it is difficult to detect throughout the attack run, and while Lockheed Martin can’t discuss details of the weapons package offered to the Finnish Air Force, we know from the DSCA-notifications that it is on the table. An interesting detail that often is overlooked for the F-35 is that a better capability to close with your enemy will not only give you more accurate information about what is happening and where, but also offer the possibility to use shorter-ranged (read: cheaper) weapons to hit defended ground targets.
Another question which has popped up related to HX is whether the aircraft can be properly dispersed, especially considering the ALIS/ODIN maintenance software which likes to be connected to the international network to which it sends data. There’s also the added question of cybersecurity risks surrounding the data being sent. Scott, however, isn’t concerned, and notes that sovereign data management is already found in the system, with the user filtering what data they want to share. The Portable Maintenance Aids (in essence dedicated laptops, to be replaced by pads come ODIN) also allow maintenance to run smoothly during dispersed operations regardless of whether the system is connected to the main database or not. The rumoured 30 days limit to offline use is also just a rumour, with nothing more dramatic happening than day one falling out of the aircraft’s memory on day 31 if it hasn’t been able to upload the data in between. Interestingly enough from a Finnish point of view, the USAF is also awakening to the need for dispersed basing, largely as a result of the threat from China. This has seen the logistics footprint being tested in recent exercises such as Cope North 21 earlier this year, which saw Eielson-based F-35s deploy from their home in Alaska to remote airstrips in Guam. The US Air Force’s agile combat employment concept (ACE) is based on a hub-and-spooks principle, i.e. a central permanent base supporting austere satellite fields, not completely unlike the Finnish concept of operations. During Cope North, a key base was the unassuming Northwest Field, which saw fighters operating from it for the first time since WWII.
However, even if the F-35 turns out to be both affordable and deployable, there’s still some particular questionmarks hanging over the project. One is regarding sovereign mission data management and exploitation. Things would be routed through the US (not unlike Boeing’s offer), but with the large number of parameters involved in the F-35’s threat library, Lockheed Martin is careful not to make any promises regarding turn-around times for updates (unlike Boeing’s offer).
We are in discussions with numerous Finnish suppliers about multiple opportunities for potential future work on the F-35. Details on the nature of these discussion are competition sensitive so we won’t disclose that information.
Another question that still waits for an answer is the industrial participation aspect of things. With both Saab and BAES/Eurofighter GmbH having promised production of both the aircraft and the engines in Finland in case their respective bids win, and with both having released general numbers for the amount of Statements of Work they have prepared, as well as highlighting key subsystems that are open for cooperation, the answer to my question about the IP-package was surprisingly timid. In particular after the weak showing in the Swiss AIR2030 programme where the offer was for “assembly of major components” of four (!) out of 40 fighters locally, and considering the challenges the rather strict Finnish requirements for industrial participation (3 Bn Euro, of which the majority is direct), it does sound strange that Lockheed Martin isn’t able to provide any details at the time being when they otherwise are rather talkative.