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F-35 Scores Impressive 15:1 Kill Ratio at Red Flag War Games (popularmechanics.com)
37 points by jonbaer on Feb 10, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 66 comments

Readers of Blink might remember the "Millenium Challenge" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Challenge_2002) war games. In short, General Van Riper- commanding the simulated insurgent forces- decisively defeated and humiliated the simulated US forces in 24 hours... until the DOD decided to roll back the exercise and deliver instead a completely scripted (and useless) version where America won handily.

I don't trust this outcome one bit and suspect something very similar happened here. I'm guessing the Pentagon is getting very sensitive to the increasing volume of accusations that the F-35 is a trillion-dollar garbage fire, and wanted to do anything to try and save its reputation. This result seems very suspicious in light of the previous evidence that the F-35 loses to both current- and even previous-generation fighters. Not buying it.

EDIT: Thanks to jljljl for correcting my faulty memory about the book. I get my pop-sci insight porn confused sometimes :)

It's very simple to let the F-35 look good - stick to BVR combat. The scenarios in which it looked poor was in WVR combat where the F-35 has no benefit of stealth and an excellent radar, but all the drawbacks of stealth (fewer weapons etc)

I don't doubt the F-35 can dominate in simulations where there either is no WVR engagements or there are other aircraft to take care of those.

Also, aggressor aircraft were presumably 4th gen aircraft which leaves the question open how it would perform against other craft.

The F-16 aggressor jets were likely flying with IR Search & Tracking (IRST/ATFLIR) pods [0] that somewhat negate the stealth advantage of the F-35. They also had external fuel tanks that would negate the kinematic advantage over the F-35. F-35 has the benefit of not requiring external tanks for combat missions.

On the flip side, the F-35 would have a Situational Awareness advantage and exploited this for both WVR and BVR engagements. The F-35 pilots won fairly by flying to their jets advantages.

[0] http://aviationintel.com/exclusive-usaf-aggressors-fly-with-...

No aircraft looks good BVR against live targets. There have only been perhaps one or two air-to-air missile kills bvr against aware/equiped targets in the last 40 years (targets with trained pilots and realistic countermeasures). Most pilots assume a 10-15% hit chance in a realworld bvr situation. No aircraft looks good when launching all your bvr weapons (4?) will likely not score a single hit.

It looks like the historic kill rate with radar-guided weapons has been quite low, but the technology has advanced significantly since it's early deployments around and before the Vietnam war.[1] I would suggest that weapons like the AMRAAM would have a high probability of kill in real large scale conflicts if and when IFF issues are not present.

[1] http://pogoarchives.org/labyrinth/11/09.pdf

In Yugoslavia war, all(6) air-to-air kills were performed by AMRAAM according to wiki.

But against what target? A poorly-equiped fighter with no EW capability, one that doesnt move becausr it doesnt see the threat? Lets see how the amraam handles a 4th or 5th generation fighter. There are stories of f22s having trouble downing f4 drones.

Against mig-29, modern enough for that time.

theaviationist.com article: Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot writes from Arizona his experiences with the F-35 and compares it to his F-16 experience. Possibly a PR piece. He concludes the F-35 is more maneuverable at low speed and high angle of attack.

scout.com article: Matt Hayden, US Air Force, also says he likes the F-35.

The F-35 loses to previous generation fighters in dogfighting. But that's not the point of the plane. If you want a plane that will win in that scenario deploy the F-22.

The F-35 is designed to fly into contested areas ahead other planes, use the sensors to get the lay of the land, relay that information to the fighters behind and optionally destroy any relevant ground targets. In the future the F-35 will also be capable of deploying and controlling a swarm of drones.

Not an expert by any means, but what information can you get from the F-35 that you can't get from having an AWACS in the region?

Or drones for that matter, even stealth drones.

If the F-35 is designed for BVR shouldn't it be behind the fighters, not in front? Similarly to how an aircraft carrier is always grouped up with destroyers.

FYI, the book for this anecdote was Blink by Malcom Gladwell, not Freakonomics, in case anyone is trying to follow the reference.

That is so frustrating to read about the Millenium Challenge. I had never heard of that idiocy before.

Wikipedia has a misleading description. Red side had completely unrealistic technologies, things like motorcycle messengers that could travel at the speed of light and fishing boats that could launch missiles as large as the boat. The Day 2 changes basically forced Red side to act reasonably.

Also considering lower frequency Russian radar which almost negates most stealth technologies, preponderance of advancements in remotely-controlled drones, hypervelocity missiles and other technological changes, the F-35 program tries too hard to jedi mind trick consent about the enormous waste of treasure promulgated by the incessantly-obscene >50% US federal budget transfer of wealth to the commercial side of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned.

If there's that much political showmanship in the military, how effective is the US military against a real threat? I'm aware that no system is perfect and obviously the US military is highly tied to politics, but I didn't realize they would neuter themselves even from learning exercises.

Generals are usually very pragmatic people. The successful ones understand both political posturing and actual preparedness. One assumes they have non-publicized events where the actual work gets done.

Don't believe military wargames anymore. They have become a mechanism to bolster the procurement status quo. A Trillion dollar industry has developed around military procurement--they resist disruption using political means. Military procurement is not a free market. Its a network of old boys.


That's pretty much the way it has always been. You can go back at least to the Civil War and find politics has had more to do with procurement than performance of the weapon systems in question.

If you read between the lines you may see something. The F-35 still sucks at air-air combat. Period. But if you use its radar and software systems to feed tactical data to the "real fighters" the team becomes extremely lethal. So it's still a giant money sink and they should probably just retrofit some of the older planes with those more advanced info systems.

Within visual range air-air combat. It's designed for BVR combat (although it's suffering from a lack of very long range weapons like the Meteor at this point).

Older planes are always retrofitted with more systems, that's what the su-30/35 is (on the Su 27 platform) and similarly for super hornet, late block F-16s etc. The problem is that those airframes are decades old and there comes a point when the power and cooling requirements just don't fit in the old frame any more.

The old airframes are also not stealthy, which is a pretty important perk for BVR combat. Getting better missiles isn't much help if you don't know where to put them.

I'm pretty sceptical about the value of stealth apart from being able to operate in contested airspace (read: attack). It's an advantage in BVR because of detection ranges etc but I'm not sure the stealth design is the most cost effective one for all those countries (probably) buying the F-35 without ever having to do "power projection" and instead will do territorial defense. Japan, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Canada(?) I think would probably have been better off with a non stealth design.

> Canada(?)

We're buying Super Hornets as an "interim measure" for reasons passing understanding.

An invasion force attacking Japan will have seaborne and mobile anti-air capabilities which will need to be neutralized before using aircraft to attack the force. Ideally for Japan their islands aren't even touched.

Actually, the Super Hornet has quite low frontal RCS. If it was configured with low-RCS pylons and carefully selected weapons load it would be close to "stealth". The jet isn't operated that way by the USN who fly them loaded with large bombs.

>The F-35 still sucks at air-air combat

It was never going to be good at air-to-air. It's a strike fighter by name, which means it's intended to be basically an A-10 that can also do some air-to-air in a pinch.

There's a reason they operate the F-22 in the air superiority role.

>basically an A-10 that can also do some air-to-air in a pinch

With four seconds of bullets? https://defensetech.org/2015/01/02/a-tale-of-two-gatling-gun...

It's designed to engage from well beyond the ranges at which guns are effective. I'm not necessarily saying I agree with the choice of gun armament, but... yeah.

No, it was meant to replace everything else.

1. Since He threated the F-35 program with closure, I guess we will see more of these. The US$399,792zn that's been spent so far must have left at least some spare for PR

2. There was an unofficial war hardware porn series on HN a while ago, front page full of Boy's Own stuff, one of them being an article by a pilot who sounded pretty positive about the F-35's capabilities. So this is either a long-running PR drive or the plane actually doesn't suck

3. For US$401,722zn (since it's now a minute or two after I wrote point 1) I'd like to think that we can expect the plane to be, at the very least, OK

The question isn't really whether it's ok it's whether M F-35's are better than N alternative fighters at some task, for M<N.

A problem is that it needs to replace a lot of different planes (a-10, f-18, f-16, harrier...) and those have different roles. It's likely to suck royally at replacing the A-10 for example, or to act as an interceptor for defending the airspace Norway and Denmark which have no alternative fighters to back it up - but if a decision is made to e.f extend A-10 life, or buy a light attack plane for that role, then F-35 numbers go down, and unit price up.

Basically the F-35 has to be bought to do things it doesn't do very well or very cost effectively because otherwise not enough will be sold for it to be economical

Good points, but also consider the question of survivability in a world with increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft threats. One F-35 might be inferior to four F-16s militarily speaking, and more expensive to boot, but are you willing to lose pilots in the latter scenario to accomplish the mission?

Additionally, are you factoring in the cost in training, maintenance and fuel for the larger force?

The iPhone 7 is obviously inferior to the 3GS. For one thing it's larger, which is ridiculous, I mean I thought the whole point was to make phones smaller. And, can you believe it, it doesn't even have a headphone jack! Obviously worthless, throw that thing in the trash!

That's what I hear when people bandwagon bash the F35 without reference to avionics, comms, sensor systems, or low observability features.

In part, people are discontented that for the cost it's not as clearly superior in every way to the 4th generation as the 4th was to the 3rd. That's really because the manned jet fighter, like the smartphone or main battle tank, is a maturing technology.

The real frontiers of military innovation are in autonomous weapon systems and space warfare. So be careful what you wish for, I guess.

> "It's stellar performance"

Am I the only one deeply troubled by Popular Mechanics articles making this ugly it's/its confusion in 2017. Is this really going to become a thing now?

I'm not sure what it being 2017 has to do with it

But how would this compare if you had upgraded, let's say the F16 and F18, to have the same avionics and weapons systems capabilities as the F35? Or is that impossible without an entirely new triple-gold-plated air frame design?

Aerospace engineer here: You're talking about an upgrade of such scope that it's probably of comparable cost to just buying a new jet.

F-16s and -18s aren't without their flaws either, and aren't stealthy at all.

Next-gen fighters are moving in the direction of quadruple-gold-plating

You probably love Norm Augustine's writings...

I hadn't heard of these before, the one you're referencing probably is:

"In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day."

but Law Number XI might apply to this audience the best:

"If the Earth could be made to rotate twice as fast, managers would get twice as much done. If the Earth could be made to rotate twenty times as fast, everyone else would get twice as much done since all the managers would fly off."

Yes, and he wrote a really good article recently for Aviation Week's 100 year theme number that expands on that [1]. Basically, how could aircraft cost increase, when it's at the level of the aircraft's weight in gold? You can't add hardware that would increase cost... unless you invent something that uses no space and has no mass. It's software.

x: http://aviationweek.com/defense/next-100-years-norm-augustin... (paywall)

The weight-in-gold metric was first passed by the B-58 in 1956. So 60 years on and we're now at weight-in-platinum I think.

Not sure that would've been possible or probable.

You are talking about replacing basically everything except the aircraft frame. A frame which is using decades old technology and lacks any form of stealth. And given that the entire point of the F-35 is the deployment of sensors within a contested environment not sure what the point would be.

The fly-away cost difference between a F-35A(USAF) ($95m-$105m) and a top-of-the-line F/A-18F(RAAF) ($80m + FMS costs) is less than 30%, and not "half" like some people are claiming.

F-16C Block 70 Viper II is about $80m each, so not much under a F-35A

The whole point of the F-35 is stealth which is determined by the shape and materials used on the fuselage. You cannot simply retrofit stealth.

Agreed on the stealth aspect. But it seems a reasonable data point to consider. Granted, it would be fairer to analyze how much of the program cost is tied to the air frame and stealth vs the avionics and weapons systems. When I hear figures of over $1 trillion in program cost, I think "Wow, you could get 10,000 new F18s for that price! What would 10,000 F18s do against a couple hundred F35s!" I do think we would got more for our money if we took more iterative approached to military technology to continuously improve air frame and avionics technology rather than making large risky step wise projects like the F35.

>When I hear figures of over $1 trillion in program cost

Bear in mind that that's not the same type of price you're quoted when buying a car.

The weapon system program includes the cost of training technicians to maintain and fix it, training pilots to fly it, the projected cost of expected mid-life upgrades, and most often overlooked is the cost of disposing the airframes when they are to be replaced in the future. You can't just put it in a landfill, it's loaded with highly classified military equipment.

I'm not really sure how you do iterative development of jet aircraft without spending unholy amounts of money.

>> But

But, but, but...!!1 Now that they are in the field producing results the haters begin retreating to ever smaller and more qualified hypotheticals. I'm pleased with myself for not having participated in the stupid F-35 flame wars that have been raging for years with these people.

Seems like the whole concept is outdated. Humans are a bottleneck that needs to be mitigated. Each F-35 should probably have a thousand drone missiles flying behind it, ready to swarm-attack any threat. Not just a few F-22s...

Send 20 missle drones at any fighter or 100 into any deep bunker. It shouldn't be hard or expensive to fly missiles around the world anymore. An aluminum tube, some fuel, and a computer.

The F-35 could be the swarm leader and have the big computer capable of serving its 1000 drones without any outside support.

China or Russia could build this today and the technology is only advancing.

If you wanted to go this route, there are probably better control aircraft than the F-35, or a fighter for that matter. The primary benefit of the fighters is their ability to get in and out of situations quickly, and the F-35 stealthily, keeping close proximity (mitigating some electronic countermeasure threats) for command and control.

An AWACS, C-130 refueler, or a long-range bomber is probably a more credible C&C platform for the mission, setting aside the preference for proximity. Longer times airborne, more space for controls and controllers, meaning more missions can be managed simultaneously, more power (mitigating the electronic countermeasure threat by power in transmitters rather than proximity), and the potential capability of carrying many of these flying missiles within range of their target mission, reducing the range needs of the missiles themselves.

The refueler has the added bonus of literally being able to refuel them while loitering over a target area.

The downside, of course, are all the present downsides of drone weaponry (largely moral/ethical concerns). Cheaper to build, deploy, and use means a potential (I'd say probable) increase in their utilization (moral hazards here), without regard to potential casualties (rationalized locally as, "not our citizens/troops dying").

Ultimately, though, this is probably the endgame for weapon systems. It is financially the better option, it does reduce the risk to that side's citizens and soldiers (at least in the short term, long term political and economic fallout may be different), and practically anyone can already make a miniature airborne missile fleet now, though with poor range and precision at present.

If distance was acceptable you could use satellites. I think you need to escort your drone swarm into hostile territory using something like an F-35 so the whole package can penetrate as a unit.

You might even want the drones to fly behind using a wire-guided system so they can't be jammed.

Imagine the F-35 trailing a cable that spreads out to 1000 wires. It's basically just a way of giving one F-35 a thousand smart missiles that it could never fly itself.

The basic idea is used by MIRV ICBMS. You get the whole thing into enemy territory quickly and then launch more attacks than the defense can hope to counter.

1. Fly to the edge of enemy territory.

2. Launch your F-35 towards the enemy.

3. Launch 1000 drone missiles following the F-35 (maybe from a C-130)

4. Split off drone missiles in variable sized chunks according each target detected.

Just imagine an F-35 with a dozen F-22s vs an F-35 with 1,000 flying missiles behind it.

To be maneuverable enough to hit an aircraft puts upper bounds on your missile's size, which in turn limits the amount of fuel it can carry.

stealth drone like X-47B (especially if cheaply mass produced) carrying several fast maneuverable air-to-air (or any other types) missiles gives you the best of both worlds - range and maneuverability. F-35 is just an attempt to get the same using outdated approach of using human to control the plane.

Interesting note from here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MQ-25_Stingray :

"Rear Adm. Michael Manazir has suggested that three of these UCAVs could fly with a F-35 for refueling and sensor operation."

The idea that drones carrying missiles will always defeat humans carrying missiles is yet to be conclusively proven.

Yes, a drone has its advantages, but there are certain other undeniable advantages to using a human pilot for military operations where decentralized decision-making is valued.

>military operations where decentralized decision-making is valued

exactly. As high speed trading already shows humans just can't compete with computers in making decisions and acting upon them fast enough. Presented with 3d battlespace densely populated with thousands of various drones (and few planes) moving at all speeds/directions and possessing and using all kinds of weapons (guns, lasers, missiles of various ranges/types) the human brain (without implanted computer chip of course) would just lose to computers.

> the human brain (without implanted computer chip of course) would just lose to computers.

Your conjecture is compelling but: As I previously stated, this has yet to be conclusively demonstrated on any realistic scenario I'm aware of.

HFT and air combat are hardly similar problem spaces.

"Against the ramped-up threats, the F-35A only lost one aircraft for every 15 aggressors killed"

Wait does that mean like one aircraft for 15 aggressor PEOPLE and sites on the ground? They mention SAMs and things that sound like ground forces. That sounds like an awful ratio. You lose 120 million dollars for every 15 aggressors killed? A hostile state can cheaply churn out aggressors 15 at a time all day long.

If you read the full article this is comprehensive exercise where the F35 is shielded from airborne threats by the much more vaunted F22s, and the fourth gen aircrafts were used for most of the actual striker roles.

I have no doubt the F35 is a capable platform, but this does not represent its standalone performance. If anything, the enemy forces will be primarily targeting the F22 and other strike crafts.

Ho! A wargame situation.

What about a real situation?

Insurrection in a city, and a budget of 10M$ for the defenders.

Cheap old schools baloons (like WWII), drones maybe, 1000 persons paid to watch and use high EM beams to direct at planes, maybe 2-3 hackers asked to read the papers on how iranians where able to spoof GPS signals to steal drone ....

I don't know, but war is assymetric. It has never been about who has the best weapons, but who can take with an inferior budget the expensive weapon of the opponents, using any trick possible.

The allies attacked the nazis on their weapon's greatest vulnerability: resources and energy.

That's the reason why the dam in Germany were bombed, and africa was invaded to cut access to oil/lubrificants.

Having complex weapons to fight in situation you don't know is stupid.

IED for instance are costing 100$, AK47 way less then USA guns. Still, Iraki & Afghanistan have proven they are efficient... against a better doted army.

Vietnam with cheap radars and missile batteries was a pain for USAF. And aerial domination did not helped win the war.

And well, given how it is a mess in middle east and how USA may not have the most solid allies there, what would happen if someone attacked the oil tankers or ridge?

F35 would still fly, but what about the economical situation? How long can USA debts inflates and still stays sustainable for USA's economy?

Remember Reagan triggered an arm race that resulted in USSR fall, not a military win. But, USSR army after that was way less of a threat.

So, yes, cool F35 can export and if you buy it you probably have a super weapon. Will it be a good cost/benefits investment though?

Since when have our political leadership allowed for BVR kills? The F-4 didn't have a gun as it was supposed to be the age of the missile, and the maneuverability was built into the missiles. Then the pilots were required to close up and identify the targets before shooting. I can think of one missile kill BVR and they already knew the opfor was hostile. As long as there is ambiguity in the conflict there will be no BVR kills.

In my opinion we should scrap the whole manned fighter thing, as sad as that thought is, and create an army of expendable maneuverable drones that are affordable enough to throw them into combat.

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