Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Even if the F-35 works (and it won't) the AIM-120D will let it down....

Yesterday I did a post about a retired USMC Major defending the F-35's dogfighting ability.  In short he stated that if the plane got into a dogfight then they're doing it wrong.  A tidbit from that blog post.
"If you try to fight it like a fighter, it isn’t. You’re going to have terrible results," Flatley said of the F-35. Like any new weapons system, the F-35 takes some getting used to. In 2015, F-35 pilots were pulled from other fighters and introduced to a plane that fundamentally reimagined aerial warfare. A learning curve had to be covered.

Unlike dogfighters from World War II, the F-35 mainly focuses on flying undetected while using its array of fused sensors to paint a clear picture of the threat environment for miles out and to engage with targets before they're ever seen.
The Major's talking point has turned into a plea from the Program Office.  Those marvelous sensors they're bragging about?  Simply AESA radar setups that almost everyone has.

But ignoring the usual F-35 furball, the conversation quickly turned to the F-35's long sword...the AIM-120D.

Supposedly the F-35 would use its stealth to remain undetected and launch its AIM-120D's at distance.  But the AIM-120D is already seen as lacking and because of the long delay/tremendous cost of the F-35, planners doesn't have a follow on missile in the pipeline.  Check this out from National Interest, May 16, 2016...
The Navy is currently working on software upgrades to enhance the missile’s resistance to enemy jamming, Stoneman said. The service has also added a home-on-jam capability to help deal with some of the advance jamming capability that is being fielded by potential adversaries, Stoneman said.

Those potential foes include Russia and China, whose jammers pose a huge challenge for the AMRAAM. Stoneman said it would take more than one missile to counter the new Russian and Chinese jammers—instead it would take a system-of-systems approach.

Meanwhile, an industry source told me that the United States needs a new air-to-air missile to take full advantage of the range of the new Active Electronically Scanned Array radars found onboard aircraft like F-22, F-35 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The radars can track targets far before they are in missile range—and moreover—American missiles are grossly outraged by new Chinese weapons like the PL-15. Even some of the newest U.S. industry developments don’t match the estimated range of the Chinese weapon. However, the source did note that American estimates of the last alleged Chinese super weapons, the PL-12, were grossly overblown.
How long has this problem been known?  How about since 2014...or at least publicly discussed since then!  Check this out from Defense Tech Feb 18, 2014....
 The AIM-120 is an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile and America’s premiere air-to-air weapon in the fleet. The latest model, the D-model, can fly Mach 4 with a range of about 180 kilometers or about 97 nautical miles. William Gigliotti, Lockheed Martin’s lead test pilot at the Fort Worth site, said he wants to see that range extended to take advantage of the advanced radars inside the F-22 and F-35.

He highlighted the recent advances made by the Chinese and the range of their missile defenses and fighter aircraft.

“When we war game it out, that’s the Achilles heel of the U.S. fighter fleet,” Gigliotti said referring to the AIM-120 at a F-35 panel session at a Navy conference here. Two other Navy F-35 pilots and one Marine Corps F-35 aviator, who also sat on the panel, agreed with Gigliotti.

Gigliotti didn’t challenge the U.S. military to develop an improved variant. He instead challenged the defense industry to start developing one now.

Of course, the Air Force and Navy are in the last stages of operational testing for the AIM-120 D model. Most aircraft are equipped with the AIM-120C3-C7 variants.

Operational testing on the D-model was delayed when the Pentagon halted the program in 2009 to allow Raytheon, the lead contractor, to address four performance and reliability deficiencies. The program was restarted in 2012, but was then again delayed because of sequestration funding levels.

Besides the F-35 and the F-22, the AIM-120 is also carried by the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 along with other fighters.
Why are they hollering for more range for the AIM-120 when it's being carried by a stealth fighter that they're saying shouldn't get involved in dog fighting?

Is it because the current range of the AIM-120 is insufficient?

I could be wrong but from what I've been able to piece together (and I am so far from being an expert on this corrections are welcomed) it's because of the operating altitude of the F-35.
On an air-to-air mission with a radius of 200 n miles, no external fuel tanks but the same missile load and a requirement to accelerate from Mach 0.8 to Mach 1.8 at 30,000 ft, the F-35 was shown coming second last. With a requirement involving the same acceleration and the aircraft tasked for a 600 n mile 'out and back' mission, Mazanowski said the F-35 was "nothing stellar but certainly not an underperformer in this category".
The specs on this plane keep changing and this quote is from Live Science 2009.  I searched for additional articles but couldn't find any.  The point I'm trying to make is that everything I've read indicates that the optimized operating altitude for the F-35 is about 35K feet.  The same altitude as most airliners.  Its optimized speed is about the same as a 777 high subsonic.

What does this have to do with the AIM-120D?  Below is an image from

What are you seeing? The fact that the lower you are at missile launch the shorter the range of your missile.  If you give the AIM-120D a rough range of 100 miles but you're launching at 30 to 35K feet then you're probably gonna knock off a 1/3rd of that range.  The super high flying, super cruising F-22 will get every ounce of that distance but not the F-35 at its optimized cruise height/speed.

So long story short?

Even if the F-35 works (and it won't) then the AIM-120D will let it down. The only real answer is to bite the bullet and buy Meteor missiles while we develop a follow on...not for the F-35 but for our legacy jets.

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