How Stealthy Is Your F-35?

F-35B

2011 PARIS AIR SHOW -- One of the most interesting parts of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter press conference on Tuesday had to do with the degree of stealthiness possessed by export versions of the JSF. Namely, is the company watering down the low-observable characteristics of planes bound for non-DoD buyers?

The question was raised toward the end of the presser by an Italian journalist who referenced an “Australian source” postulating online that JSF partner nations are getting F-35s that aren’t as stealthy as the American fleet. At first, it seemed like he was asking a ridiculous question, that is, until USAF and Lockheed officials offered answers that didn’t exactly swat down the question.

Here’s what they said when the journalist asked if this source’s writings are true:

“The partners are all in the process of defining the requirements on the airplane don’t know who the source on the Australian internet is but I don’t think he’s inside the program office so I don’t believe he probably has visibility into everything that’s going on with this airplane,” said Lockheed’s Tom Burbage (TITLE) in his most obvious attempt to shoot down the question. From here, things got vague. “But I can tell you that the airplane is highly capable and it’s being built by a consortium of nine nations and they all have equal access to all the information on the program.”

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, the Pentagon’s deputy JSF program manager then chimed in saying:

“I would only add that the core requirements, the technical requirements that have been laid out in the program and our ability to meet those requirements…the low very observable characteristics, the low radar cross section, we’re achieving that; so when we think about lethality, survivability with the weapons with the very low observable capability, with the agility, maneuverability the sensor suit, it’s a combination of things that makes a weapons system effective. SO, instead of trying to speculate about what someone said about the weapons system in the press, all I can tell you is we have every intent of meeting the key performance parameters of the aircraft designated by our partners and the U.S. services and they’ve determined what capabilities are necessary for future war fighting needs.”

At this point, Aviation Week’s Amy Butler called both out on the vague answers saying it didn’t sound like either had “unequivocally said no.”

To which Moore responded:

“It’s certainly a hypothetical and speculative question until you understand the context of the question,” said Moore in response to Butler. “All I can tell you, Amy, is that based on the capabilities we’ve determined technically that are required to make this a formidable weapon system over the next 50 years, we’re going to deliver those capabilities. Anything like that that would have been conjectured b y somebody outside of the program as making one of our capabilities less than what it needs to be is purely speculative, and when we establish the requirements we don’t do that in a vacuum so we understand technically what the system needs to do from our vantage point and we believe that we’re going to meet all of those and we expect it will be a formidable weapon system to meet all of our needs.”

So, there you have it. Moore kinda, sorta tried to say the Aussie report was bunk but didn’t really. Saying the plane is going to meet everyone’s needs doesn’t exactly give the definitive yes, export jets will be less stealthy than American ones or no, all JSFs have the same degree of low-observable tech aboard.

Now, it could be that the airframe itself is as stealthy for all customers. However, things like avionics, sensor and communications emissions controls and IR signature reduction tech may be different for American F-35s than they are for foreign jets. However, with interoperability being one of the main selling points for the jet, wouldn’t it make sense for everyone to be using the same avionics, sensors and comms gear?

I'll try to post the audio of this exchange later.

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