PARIS --- Boeing’s success in getting additional EA-18G Growlers added to the Pentagon’s FY2015 budget has disconcerted backers of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning, who see the Growler’s credible-sounding broad jamming capabilities as a threat to the more focused and selective jamming claimed for the F-35.
The two aircraft’s competitive jamming capabilities were the subject of two recent stories by the Breaking Defense blog, one of which quoted in its title Gen. Mike Hostage as saying that “No Growlers Needed When War Starts.”
Gen. Hostage, head of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, gained some fame earlier this year when he said that “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant [as] the F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22.”
Hostage was defending the F-35, but saying it could not function without F-22s flying top cover was widely seen as a rare admission of the F-35’s shortcomings by a senior military figure. Hostage made his comments in a Feb 2 interview with Air force Times.
Again, although intended to underline the F-35’s qualities, some of Hostage’s most recent published quotes are decidedly ambiguous and, taken out of the stories’ carefully drafted context, can sound pretty damning for the Lockheed fighter. Here are some of Hostage’s quotes:
The F-35′s cross section is much smaller than the F-22′s, but that does not mean, Hostage concedes, that the F-35 is necessarily superior to the F-22 when we go to war. In fact, Hostage says that it takes eight F-35s to do what two F-22s can handle.
F-35’s combat capabilities
“The F-35 is geared to go out and take down the surface targets,” says Hostage, leaning forward. “The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed< [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth.” But stealth — the ability to elude or greatly complicate an enemy’s ability to find and destroy an aircraft using a combination of design, tactics and technology — is not a magic pill, Hostage reminds us.
F-35 in air-to-ground and air-to-air roles
“The F-35 was fundamentally designed to go do that sort of thing [take out advanced IADS]. The problem is, with the lack of F-22s, I’m going to have to use F-35s in the air superiority role in the early phases as well, which is another reason why I need all 1,763. I’m going to have some F-35s doing air superiority, some doing those early phases of persistent attack, opening the holes, and again, the F-35 is not compelling unless it’s there in numbers,” the general says.
“Because it can’t turn and run away, it’s got to have support from other F-35s. So I’m going to need eight F-35s to go after a target that I might only need two Raptors to go after. But the F-35s can be equally or more effective against that site than the Raptor can because of the synergistic effects of the platform.”
Click here for the full story, on the Breaking Defense website.
Aviation Week’s Ares blog has found other aspects of this story to be more questionable. Read its June 9 article here.
In a second, companion story titled ‘A God’s Eye View of the Battlefield’, Hostage is also quoted as saying that:
“If you can get in close, you don’t need Growler-type power [for jamming.] If you’re stealthy enough that they can’t do anything about it and you can get in close, it doesn’t take a huge amount of power to have the effect you need to have,” he says.
But more remarkable are some of the claims the story makes in support of the F-35:
-- “What makes an AESA radar special is the fact that it beams energy in digital zeroes and ones — and the beam can be focused. This allows the radar to function as both a scanning radar, a cyber weapon and an electronic warfare tool.”
This is no doubt true, but it also true of all other AESA radars as well, including the one that will be fitted to the Growler.
-- “I’ve been told by two sources that the DAS spotted a missile launch from 1,200 miles away during a Red Flag exercise in Alaska.”
This claim implies that the F-35 has been secretly sent to Red Flag without anyone finding out, which is improbable to say the least. Also, the claim that it detected “a missile launch” at a range of 1,200 miles begs a few questions:
-- what kind of missile did it detect?
Was it an Atlas 5 or an Amraam? There’s a big difference;
-- Is it nautical or statute miles?
Aviation parlance is nautical miles, and 1,200 nautical miles is in fact 1,380 statute miles. That is a fair distance at which to detect a missile launch. For example, it means that an F-35 circling above Wichita, Kansas, would be able to detect a missile launch anywhere in the area from San Francisco to Washington, DC, and from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to Canada’s Hudson Bay.
-- what’s the value of detecting a launch at 1,200 nautical miles, when no sensor can identify the launcher and the launchee at such distances?
Such a distance also far exceeds the range of most air-launched weapons.
There is reason to doubt both parts of this claim (F-35 at Red Flag, and missile launch detection at 1,200 miles), but even if true this would -– counter-intuitively – be a huge disadvantage for the F-35 in combat.
In such a combat zone covering millions of square miles, hundreds if not thousands of missiles would be launched -- air-to-air, air-to-ground, surface-to-air, anti-ship, surface-to-surface, as well as self-propelled submunitions.
Such a volume of launches would in all likelihood saturate and overwhelm the F-35’s missile launch detection sensor, and thus render it effectively useless. And, if its vaunted data-sharing capabilities work as claimed, it also would saturate Link 16 communications, since all F-35s would be detecting thousands of missiles, and rushing to tell all other Link 16-equipped aircraft about each one.
This would thus generate hundreds of thousands of Link 16 messages at the same time, and would quite probably swamp the network.
The F-35 “cyber-weapon” could well end up generating denial of service attacks on its own Link 16 network, and on other friendly aircraft using it, which would do the enemy’s job of disrupting communications in his place.
This is probably not what these stories set out to prove, but it certainly is the logical conclusion of their surprising assertions.
Click here for the story, on the Breaking Defense website.
-- This story was originally published on June 10 under the headline “USAF’s Gen Hostage Speaks Again On F-35” and has been edited for clarity.