The F-35 Just Keeps Getting Worse
by David Archibald
28 April 2020
The term “fifth-generation” used to describe fighter aircraft was a marketing term created by Lockheed Martin. Anything not fifth-generation was considered antediluvian and useless. One of the characteristics of fifth-generation fighters was stealth. Only Lockheed Martin had stealth aircraft, so that is why they created the term.
Another supposed characteristic of fifth-generation aircraft is the ability to supercruise — that is, to maintain supersonic flight without using the afterburner. This is not a new capability. The first production aircraft to supercruise was the English Electric Lightning, on 11th August, 1954. So some aircraft have been capable of supercruise for nigh on 70 years. Both the F-22 and the Su-35 can supercruise at Mach 1.6, which is the highest speed achievable by the F-35.
Supercruising since 1954: the English Electric Lightning F53
The ability to supercruise has been dropped as a term defining fifth-generation aircraft because the F-35 can’t exceed Mach1 without using afterburner and thus tripling its fuel burn rate. And now we are told that the F-35 can’t go supersonic for a minute or so without damaging its airframe, stealth coating and “also the myriad antennas located on the back of the plane that are currently vulnerable to damage.”
So if an F-35 goes supersonic in order to escape being shot down, and survives, then it will have either degraded rear aspect stealth or have to have its empennage rebuilt at great cost. The Russians and Chinese have traditionally not worried greatly about rear aspect stealth because the engine is a big beacon in the infrared anyway.
The deficiencies of the F-35 keep getting announced as the plane keeps failing to meet its original specifications. There is one major deficiency of the F-35 that won’t be announced by the F-35 program office, because it was built into the aircraft in the first place. It is one that no one but pilots complain about. In the words of a pilot:
The F-35 is so limited in the rate at which it sucks in air-to-air refueling that it takes a flight of four almost 30 minutes to finish completely refueling each one from a KC-135, KC-10 or a KC-46.
The pilots say that to fully refuel your flight of four, send No 4 home before you start. Why? Because the F-35 has 11 internal fuel tanks (!) with a computer-controlled ultra-complex pumping system for transferring fuel among the 11 to keep the F-35’s very tight center-of-gravity limits within safe controllability specs.
That Rube Goldberg plumbing makes it impossible to transfer fuel at a rate faster than 6 to 7 minutes to fully fuel the F-35, far slower than F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and F-22s.
This is problem is unfixable. The operators work around the problem by limiting the refueling to half-full tanks. Not a great solution for range or loiter time in combat. The F-35B and C are not quite so limited when tanking from KC-130’s, since two at a time can tank using the Navy’s far more sensible probe-and-drogue system.
But when the ludicrous MQ-25 drone tanker replaces the KC-130 in the Navy, F-35Cs still won’t be able to operate flights of four because the little MQ-25 will, at best, fill one F-35C to three quarters of a tankful.
In combat, enemy fighter pilots will preferentially hunt for F-35s because downing them will be their fastest route to ace status. As an analysis by the Rand Corporation in 2008 stated, the F-35 is double-inferior and “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run”. F-35s will be clubbed like baby seals.
David Archibald is the author of The Anticancer Garden in Australia
He is also the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare.