PARIS --- An online report lauding the data fusion of the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter, and detailing the advantages it brings by reducing pilot workload, has exposed for the first time that the F-35’s claimed “game-changing” capabilities have, in fact, been in service for over a decade in European fighters.
A website called SLDinfo on Nov. 26 posted a report titled “The F-35 and Data Fusion: A Perspective from the International Fighter Conference 2018,” based on a single interview in which an F-35 pilot describes what he thinks are the combat advantages provided by the aircraft’s data fusion.
Superior data fusion is one of the few remaining advantages claimed for the F-35, whose “stealth” capabilities are challenged by new radar technologies; whose dogfighting capabilities have been shown to be inferior to those of early F-16s; and whose limited internal payload is a major handicap.
Clearly, if the F-35’s data fusion is shown to be no better than what the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen have already achieved, albeit to different extents, the case for buying the F-35, with its unaffordable operating costs, becomes much less compelling than it is made out to be by its manufacturer.
We have long suspected that pilots transitioning to the F-35 are only impressed by its data fusion capabilities because, coming from 1980s-vintage fighters like F-16, F-15 or Tornado, they were a decade or two behind the state of the art.
We have not been able to confirm this suspicion because F-35 pilots never engage in factual debate, but now SLDinfo’s report provides a useful benchmark for comparisons.
Touting the F-35’s Data Fusion
Interestingly, we found that some of the capabilities described by an F-35 to SLDinfo are very similar to those described by French Air Force Rafale pilots back in May 2011, when we reported from Solenzara air base, in Corsica, during the allied air strikes in Libya.
To compare the capabilities claimed for both aircraft by their pilots, we have reproduced below selected capabilities described by the F-35 pilot and, immediately below (in italics), corresponding statements made by Rafale pilots seven years ago.
In the interest of fairness, it must be noted that the F-35 was designed in the mid-1990s but only completed its development phase earlier this year, so while its data fusion may have appeared very advanced at a quarter century ago, it has become more common.
At the time our report was posted, we had also asked the Italian and German air forces, which took part in the operations against Libya, to visit their fighter units and interview the Typhoon pilots involved in the strikes. Both declined, which explains why Typhoon’s capabilities, extensive though they may be, are not mentioned here, while Sweden’s Gripen E is not yet operational.
Direct comparison of data fusion capabilities
-- F-35: “with the integrated sensor system built into the F-35, the role of data fusion is to provide situational awareness as a service to the pilot and the MADL linked combat force.”
Rafale: “if you receive a track from an AWACS, from your SPECTRA self-protection suite, or from your ‘winger’ at the same time, the system will analyze all the inputs and show you only one track…..Rafales work in a truly networked environment, and are fed targeting and other tactical data from a wide range of coalition sources through the Link 16 datalink.”
-- On an F-16, “The radar will be on one display; the targeting data on another. Perhaps a picture generated from the Link-16 network on another. The human brain is where the information on those separate displays are being fused and translated so that pilot is able to execute the mission.”
On Rafale, “Data from all on-board and off-board sensors are combined into a single tactical picture presented to the pilot on the cockpit’s central color display or, if desired, on one of the lateral displays.
-- The F-16 pilot “might also be working his radio to coordinate the mission as well…. A lot of what’s done in side a fourth-generation aircraft is done over the radio.”
The Rafale pilot “can select the data he wants, combine it with other data, and pass it on to his wingman or to other allied aircraft, ships or ground troops through the Link 16, without speaking a single word on the radio and, if not using the radar, without any transmission whatsoever.”
-- “With the F-35 you have automation via fusion going on….. almost all of a notional ten-minute engagement time to build a good picture, is being done automatically for the pilot in F-35 fusion.”
“To avoid overloading the pilot, the [Rafale’s] central computer prioritizes targets according to the threat they represent, and there are also modes to de-clutter the radar scope. The pilot can also decide to concentrate on a given aspect of the mission, and come back to others aspects.
-- With the F-35, “we have the capacity to third-party target and to distribute the effects desired in the battlespace.”
Rafale’s “Link 16 can also be used to de-conflict assignments with other aircraft without using radios…..The idea that a single aircraft can be re-tasked in flight from reconnaissance to strike to interception during the same sortie is truly revolutionary.
Having read the words of its pilot, the F-35 is far from the extraordinary and futuristic “5th-Generation Fighter” that Lockheed claims it is, and instead looks little more a bunch of middling data-fusion capabilities enclosed in a heavy and bulky airframe covered with low-observable coatings.