Slated as Australia’s New Air Combat Capability, the troubled Joint Strike Fighter program is beyond overdue. Service entry is expected at the very minimum to be six years later than anticipated and far too expensive.
To add insult to injury, the indispensable question concerning the aircraft’s credibility as an effective air combat fighter in the expected time it seeks to be operating in, still remains un-answered.
The Defence Sub-Committee hearing pertaining to the Defence Annual Report held on 16th March was a staggering event for those with familiarity of this subject. First, was the admission by Air Vice Marshall Kym Osley that in terms of aerodynamic performance, the JSF was designed to have similar performance to a “legacy” F-16 or F-18 with air to air missile and external fuel tanks. He stated that this was representative of how a legacy aircraft would be loaded for combat. While this is true, when legacy fighters enter combat, external fuel tanks are dropped resulting in a significant reduction in drag. This means, by AVM Osley’s own admission, legacy fighters are superior in performance when compared to aircraft supposed to replace them.
The JSF will mark the first time in Australia’s air combat history that a fighter jet replacing an older one will have inferior aerodynamic capability.
ADF still contend that the overall capability of the JSF is superior and that it will defeat all discernible threats. Upon my inquiry of what threats were evaluated and what models apart from the man in the loop flight simulators were run, AVM Osley refused to specify on both accounts. To get a handle on the assertions made by Defence, I worked through a step by step process of an 8 versus 8 combat. It was evident that this process was not going to end well for the JSF, so the “we are getting into classified areas” get out of jail free card was pulled.
I can confirm that we were not even close to classified data.
We were discussing actual combat firings of the JSF’s main air to air weapon, information in the public domain. Tests demonstrate in a “permissive” environment it has a probability of kill of approximately 0.5, meaning that the missile hits its target half the time. In reality, with like on like, the missile will only likely “kill” the enemy one time in five. Perhaps because the JSF is a lousy air combat fighter is the actual reason for the classified red flag.
The trade “bible”, Aviation Week and Space Technology had a report called “Raptor’s Edge” in 2009. In this article both Lockheed Martin, the company making both the F-22 Raptor and the JSF and USAF analysts stated that against Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters the Raptor had a kill ration of 30 to 1 and the JSF 3 to 1. Sounds reasonable at first impression, except when you realise that the Su-25 and MiG-29 fighters are nearly 30 years old already. Against aircraft 30 years newer, such as Su-35S, PAK-FA and the Chinese J-20, and you can imagine the results are likely to be very different.
I made the point about the vulnerability of the JSF against these aircraft during the hearings.
AVM Osley advised that the JSF has some 650 ways to detect and avoid such threats.
Put another way, if a JSF has to leave airspace because it detects the presence of Su-35Ss, PAK-FAs or J-20s that it cannot defeat, then the enemy wins airspace-dominance without firing a shot.
Hardly the outcome Australia needs in dominating its Regional airspace.
CEO of the Defence Materiel Division, Warren King, also indicated that there were no thresholds in place in terms of either schedule or cost which would lead to the JSF decision being rescinded.
This is staggering as it amounts to an open chequebook, where we are going to aggressively purchase the JSF, come hell or high water and whatever date the aircraft becomes available.
Let it be understood, I acknowledge the JSF does possess some good systems, but good systems do not make a fighter, otherwise we would fit out something like a Boeing 737.
The simple fact is, the fighter pilots’ Holy Grail is the ability to engage, destroy the enemy and disengage at will.
With the JSF, the terms of the engagement will have to be accepted, even if highly disadvantageous.
This does not bode well for the most important military capability of all, air combat.