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Can Joint Strike Fighter Survive
the Quadrennial Defense Review?

Air Power Australia Analysis 2005-04
7th August 2005

A Paper
by Dr Carlo Kopp, MAIAA, MIEEE, PEng,
Peter Goon, BE (Mech), FTE (USNTPS)
Text © 2005 Carlo Kopp, Peter Goon

F-35A SDD Prototype (Image via Air Force Link).


This paper explores the viability of the Joint Strike Fighter in the context of the evolving global technological threat environment, and the shifting strategic environment resulting from the industrialisation of Asia, and Global War on Terror. Many key design features and capabilities of the JSF reflect late 1980s US Air Force research in enhancing battlefield interdiction and strike aircraft capabilities against Warpac forces, and the now unique experience of Desert Storm, where Saddam opted to pit Warpac style ground forces against US led air power. What is not well understood is that the JSF has been defined around assumptions and thinking which are characteristic of scenarios dating to the Fulda Gap era, thus making it a true artifact of the Cold War period.

The current Quadrennial Defense Review will be the most important for many decades, as it encompasses developing needs which have changed most dramatically since the end of the Cold War.

The United States is now grappling with the realities of the twenty first century, a world which has split along the divide of the wealthy and developed, and the poor and the undeveloped. The smooth continuum of wealth and national development which charactertised the world of two decades ago has vanished, as the collapse of the Soviet Empire and economic globalisation have created two distinct strata of nations.

The Dichotomy in Force Structure Needs

The Americans now confront a world in which there are two distinct categories of potential and actual opponent. The first are developed or developing nation states with agendas including Iran, the DPRK and, importantly, the PRC. The second are failed states, failing states, underdeveloped nation states, and associated non-state entities with military or paramilitary agendas. The ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT) concentrated on Al Qaeda and its affiliates is the primary focus in this domain, accepting that challenges like the Somali militias and like will continue to pop up over coming decades.

This dichotomy in force structure needs is the greatest single planning challenge the US has faced for nearly a century. Throughout the last century the focus in almost all force structure planning has been nation state conflict, by neccessity. This peaked at the end of the Cold War, when almost all of the budgetary outlays in the US, and other Western nations, were concentrated into assets intended to defeat the Soviet Bloc in a full scale conflict.

In historical terms this is not a unique case study. The Romans faced similar issues in the latter centuries of the empire, as nation state opponents reduced in numbers and tribal conflicts at the periphery of the colonies dominated planning and expenditures. The British Empire faced a similar dichotomy in its latter years, and preoccupation with force structure planning to deal with colonial rebellions and movements had much to do with Britain's inability to deal with the rise of Germany and Japan during the 1930s.

This presents US planners with some genuinely difficult choices, as the emerging world environment presents major risks in the domain of nation state conflict, as well as the domain of failed states and non-state actors. The potential for the latter to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction has elevated the latter to a position in the public debate which is often overwhelming.

In practical terms this amounts to a need for a two tier force structure, in which an 'upper tier' exists to deter or defeat nation state threats, and in which a 'lower tier' exists to defeat non-state actors and other 'irregular' threats.

In a sense this reflects the Tofflerian paradigm of information age societies confronting industrial age and agrarian age opponents. Two categories of opponent each requiring unique capabilities to defeat inevitably results in a two tier force structure model.

This is the context in which we must consider the future, and possible decisions which US force structure planners and their leadership must make.

Nation state players of strategic interest to the US over coming decades will have access to a wide range of military technologies, and adaptations of commercial technologies widely used in the West. Post 1991 Russia has progressively abandoned all earlier constraints on the export of high technology weapons. As a result we see late Soviet era analogues of equivalent US systems proliferating widely, and in the instance of China, being absorbed by the domestic technology base and locally manufactured. Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker fighters - analogues to the F-15, A-50 AWACS - analogues to the E-3 AWACS, Il-78 Midas tankers - analogues to the KC-135, Almaz S-300 Grumble Surface to Air Missiles - analogues to the MIM-104 Patriot, Kh-55/RKV-500 Kent cruise missiles - analogues to the BGM-109 Tomahawk, KAB-500/1500 smart bombs - analogues to the Paveway and GBU-15 series, and a host of other such technologies have proliferated since 1991.

While China has been the leading buyer of these technologies, the global footprint is much greater. In dealing with any non-trivial nation state conflict over coming decades, US forces will confront essentially the same technologies which comprise most of the current US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army inventories.

In terms of equipment types, the purchasing patterns observed have also shifted considerably, especially in Asia. The focus has been and remains on acquiring those technologies which the US has used to such effect since the end of the Cold War. In practical terms air power has been the core of large scale acquisitions of advanced equipment, followed by submarines and anti-shipping cruise missiles.

To remain competitive in nation state conflicts the US must have a decisive advantage in upper tier assets, especially air power. If the US attempts to achieve this advantage by using legacy Cold War technologies, it becomes a game of fielding numbers much superior to potential opponents. In the instance of China, this is unachievable given current PLA plans to field a force comparable in numbers of Sukhoi/J-11 and Chengu J-10 numbers to the current US inventory of F-15s and F-16s. As a result the US must match China's numbers but using assets a generation ahead technologically - such as the F/A-22A and MC-2A.

These 'sharp end' pressures are significant, and contrast enormously with the 'lower tier' demands of conflict in the domain of failed states and non state actors. Counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations, peace enforcement and peace-keeping are most intensive in several areas - rapidly deployable, highly mobile and sustainable ground forces, and supporting, airlift, ISR and networking capabilities. In these conflicts the only threat to air power are small arms, RPGs and MANPADS - air space is effectively uncontested.

The defeat of the Taliban in 2001 and OIF in 2003, and subsequent efforts to root out regime remnants and terrorists, set the benchmark for this type of conflict. Numbers of ground troops and the ability to sustain them in theatre for long periods of time become critical to success.

A force structure which is heavily optimised for this environment will be well equipped with amphibious ships, airlifters, light and medium ground force divisions, helicopters and special forces troops, operating under an umbrella of advanced ISR capabilities.

This is the future the US - and other Western nations - will confront over coming decades. This reality is a direct and unavoidable byproduct of the collapse of US and Soviet post-colonial era allegiance purchasing in the Third World, and the ongoing industrialisation of Asia.

If the US cuts down its upper tier forces, it loses key capabilities required to provide a decisive assymetric advantage in 'lower tier' conflicts, and loses the game of global dominance in 'upper tier' conflicts.

Yet the US is also under significant pressures to recapitalise and transform its ground forces to perform more effectively in 'lower tier' conflicts.

The inevitable result of these pressures will be selective culling of capabilities which fall into the gap between the two styles of conflict.

This is why the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is highly exposed in the currently developing strategic environment.

Joint Strike Fighter vs Evolving Force Structure Needs

The JSF was designed with a core role of Battlefield Interdiction and Close Air Support in high intensity threat environments. It is intended to replace US Air Force strike tasked F-16Cs and A-10As, US Marine Corps and Royal Navy Harriers, and US Navy F/A-18A-D, while filling the gap left by the loss of the A-6E, A-7E, A-4 and A-12A.

A secondary aim of the JSF program was to displace the Eurocanards in the global fighter replacement market, as older fleets of F-16s, MiG-29s and F/A-18A/B aircraft ran out of fatigue life. This market was largely centred in the EU, and JSF SDD marketing was heavily targeted at NATO nations. A tertiary aim of the JSF program was to put production engineering funds into finding cheaper ways of manufacturing key technologies pioneered in the F/A-22A, such as low signature active phased array radars, supercooled engines and stealth materials. In effect, a feature of the JSF program has been its use as a cash cow to fund cost reduction technologies common to the F/A-22A.

The JSF design was sized around the model of conflict envisaged during the early 1990s - typically former Soviet client states choosing to fight large scale armour intensive land campaigns - in an environment where basing would be available in the 400 NMI to 600 NMI combat radius to target bracket. The result of these constraints has been an aircraft which is nearly identical in size and weight to the highly successful Cold War era Republic F-105 Thunderchief. Inevitably similar geographical and threat assumptions result in similar airframe sizing and payload.

Many key design features and capabilities of the JSF reflect late 1980s US Air Force research in enhancing battlefield interdiction and strike aircraft capabilities against Warpac forces, and the now unique experience of Desert Storm, where Saddam opted to pit Warpac style ground forces against US led air power. Tested against its target design scenario, the JSF is apt to be a very effective asset.

What is not well understood is that the JSF has been defined around assumptions and thinking which are characteristic of scenarios dating to the Fulda Gap era, thus making it a true artifact of the Cold War.

The question which QDR planners have to face, however, is that the 'JSF centric' style of combat is a narrow niche scenario sandwiched in between the 21st century 'upper tier' and 'lower tier' threat environments.

In dealing with 'lower tier' conflicts such as failed states, militias, terrorist movements, and insurgents, the costly and unique survivability features of the JSF, such as the spherical coverage DAS (Distributed Aperture [InfraRed] System) and radar stealth are of no value at all. In such environments the existing F-16E/F and F/A-18E/F are more than adequate, and extended loiter time demands often make larger types like the F-15E and B-52H more suitable for supporting ground troops than the JSF would be. In practical terms the JSF is overkill for lower tier conflicts, with the exception of the STOVL variant which offers tremendous basing flexibility.

At the other end of the spectrum the JSF is also in difficulty. The benchmark 'nation state conflict scenario' for the US will be some form of conflict with China, probably over Taiwan.

Given the size of China's air force, and an environment where attacks on the mainland could result in escalation to a nuclear exchange, the US will have to fight a constrained air war aimed at defeating the PLA-AF in the air, and destroying PLA-N surface assets invading Taiwan.

In this environment combat aircraft will have to operate in contested airspace possibly for the duration of the campaign, and fly from bases such as Kadena, and critically Guam or other sites outside the reach of the PLA-AF.

If we test the JSF design unrefuelled combat radius against this environment it becomes evident very quickly that the aircraft's sizing is not well adapted to the environment. Plots 1 and 2 depict, respectively, histograms of great circle distances between PLA runways in mainland China, and Guam and Okinawa. The plots are important for two reasons - the unrefuelled combat radius of the PLA's Su-27/30 fighters is 650-750 NMI and the unrefuelled combat radius of the JSF is similar or lesser.

While basing in Okinawa is viable for the JSF in terms of reach, it is also exposed to the full brunt of any counterforce operations by the PLA. Basing in Guam, or other 'safe' sites, does not suffer this problem, but has single engine JSFs towed by tanker to targets beyond 1,500 NMI, with long legs over water, an environment not unlike that experienced by USAAF P-47s and P-51s during the bombing of Japan in 1945. As the JSF will require F/A-22A escorts in this type of environment, the cost of each bomb delivered by JSF is magnified by the cost of tankers and escorts, and the cost of CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) assets to cover the routes from Guam.

The limitations of the JSF in this 'upper tier' scenario become more pronounced once the roles and missions package is considered. Most such operations would involve air superiority sorties to defeat PLA strike sorties against Taiwan, US basing in the region and maritime targets in the area, fighter escort sorties for ISR assets and LRMP ASW assets, and anti-shipping strikes against the upper tier of the PLA-N surface fleet. In all of these roles the JSF is of marginal utility compared to the F/A-22A.

The inevitable reality is that the JSF is of little practical value in the benchmark 'nation state conflict scenario' when compared to the F/A-22A. Its optimisation for the mid 1990s perception of future conflicts is what constrains its utility.

With China growing in strategic importance by the day, it is inevitable that US planners will be exploring a range of China related scenarios. The JSF will not be able to contribute significantly in this style of conflict.

If the current QDR is not subjected to overwhelming political interference, one of its likely conclusions is that the number of JSFs built should be reduced, and the number of F/A-22As built should be increased.

Recent reports emerging in the US and UK media indicate this is likely to be the case, and the reasons behind this will almost certainly be those presented previously.

If JSF numbers are reduced, what options then exist for the US?

Fighter Options for the US

The only future operators which cannot live without the JSF are the US Marine Corps and Royal Navy both of whom are committed to small STOVL carriers. Intended expeditionary STOVL JSF units of the US Air Force also depend on the JSF.

The US Air Force is presented with the reality that 50% of the current JSF production budget would buy around 1,000 F/A-22As, with the assumption of unit costs below US$100M after 200 aircraft are built. Therefore chopping down the US Air Force JSF buy to fund a block of several hundred STOVL JSFs and 1,000 F/A-22As makes for a more flexible and useful future air/land dominance fighter fleet.

It is worth observing that even if the JSF collapsed today, the US Air Force has already extracted many of the key technologies it wanted for the F/A-22A, such as cheaper transmit-receive modules for the radar, cheaper COTS computer processors, a second generation supercooled turbine and advances in other manufacturing techniques.

Extending production of the F-16 and F-15, and further evolution of these designs, to cover future Battlefield Air Interdiction and Close Air Support roles remains an option. Insertion of key JSF technologies such as the F135/F136 engines, integrated avionics, DAS, EOTS and the APQ-81 radar would significantly alter the long term life cycle costs of both designs, and their capabilities in these specific roles.

The utility of the naval CV JSF is an open question. While incrementally more capable and stealthier than the F/A-18E/F, it is a single engine design which is not a favoured configuration for CV ops. Moreover, delays in JSF delivery put the Navy under pressure to buy more F/A-18E/Fs to cover life expiry of the F-14D and older F/A-18C-D. The Navy is expected to buy the JSF when it faces major budgetary pressures in surface fleet replacements, and replacement of the P-3C fleet with the P-8A MMA. Given that the JSF offers only incremental gains against the F/A-18E/F, the Navy will have a very low pain threshold to JSF delays and cost blowouts. We should not be surprised if the Navy is the first to bail out of JSF.

The prospective export market for the JSF has also been problematic. Only a modest number of nations signed up and, with the exception of the UK, all contributing only token amounts to the SDD. Most EU participants have been decidedly unhappy with the level of technology access and industrial participation offered, expecting a program similar to EU porkbarrels where industrial issues dominate others. Delays and cost creep in the program present additional costs for most EU players, requiring life extension of their existing legacy fleets. Many EU operators have been unilaterally downsizing as the collapse of the Soviet Empire has removed strategic pressures of substance. The US Congress has not been very agreeable with the idea of technology transfer to the EU, seeing this as yet another means of the US indirectly subsidising EU manufacturers to compete against US manufacturers  at a future date.

While JSF marketing literature suggests that JSF exports will be largely one for one replacements of F-16s, there is no evidence to support the viability of this proposition, given the ongoing slide in EU defence investments and concomitant force structure size reductions.

Moreover, unlike the highly successful 1970s F-16 export program, cited extensively in the early marketing of the JSF program in the US and globally, and from which the notion of one-for-one replacements of export F-16s emerged, the JSF has to contend with a multiplicity of competitors. The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the SAAB Gripen, the Sukhoi Su-27/30/35, the MiG-29 and the Dassault Mirage 2000 series are all on offer with often attractive industrial or licencing deals. In the days of the F-16 export successes, there was no such competition.

The future of the JSF in the evolving strategic environment, and evolving US budgetary and force structure debate, is likely to be largely determined by the political clout of the US Marine Corps, and the lobbying power of industrial vested interests. Without these champions the JSF will be fighting for survival.

Air Power Australia Analyses  ISSN   1832-2433
Australia's First Online Journal Covering Air Power Issues

People's Liberation Army Air Power Index Page [Click for more ...]
Military Ethics, Culture, Education and Training Index Page [Click for more ...]
Russian / Soviet Weapon Systems Index Page [Click for more ...]

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