Category Archives: Air Force

About that F-35 vs. F-16 dogfight…

The interwebs and Facebook exploded this week with the latest revelation that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a dog that can’t dogfight.

David Axe’s post has set off a firestorm of criticism over the inability of the F-35 to outperform the 40 year old F-16. Everyone who has access to the internet is up in arms over this horrible failure.

But here’s the thing. The JSF is not really a fighter. Or rather, the emphasis is on strike, more than on fighter. It’s a bomb truck. It does also have a robust air to air capability, but that role is somewhat secondary to its ability to attack ground targets.

The F-16 was conceived during the last years of the Vietnam war, and designed immediately following it. COL John Boyd’s Energy/Maneuverability Theory had a very large impact on its configuration. The ability of outmaneuver potential Soviet threat aircraft was the paramount concern of the design. And the aircraft had to be able to outmaneuver because of the limitations of the armament of the day. To wit, the plane John Boyd and the Fighter Mafia wanted was to be dirt simple, with only the most crude radar for cueing weapons, and armed only with a pair of AIM-9P Sidewinder short range missiles, and the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon.

The other jet fighter the Air Force was buying at that time, the F-15 Eagle, took a completely different approach, with the biggest radar they could stuff into a fighter sized jet, and a whopping 8 air to air missiles, four of the big AIM-7 Sparrows (the primary armament) and four Sidewinders, as well as a gun.  The Eagle also was built with the E/M theory very much in mind, but primarily saw itself as a beyond visual range fighter, picking off Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-23s before they could even return fire.

The anti-F-35 camp (the loudest members of which are probably David Axe, Eric L. Palmer, and Pierre Sprey*) insist that any fighter simply must follow the E/M theory, or it is utterly worthless.

The problem is, E/M theory isn’t applicable to just airplanes. Turns out, it applies pretty well to air to air missiles also. And whereas a manned airplane can’t really go much above 9G without harming the meatware, missiles have no problem pulling 60G or more.  Building agility (high G capability) into an airplane involves tradeoffs. The structure has to weigh more or it will crack sooner, and conversely, intense efforts at weight reduction have to be implemented, as weight factors strongly into the equation. Having reached an effective plateau of about 9Gs, it simply makes more sense to concentrate on enhancing the maneuverability of the weapon, not the airplane.

Furthermore, it should be noted, there’s quite a few people pushing back against Axe’s sensationalistic piece. Far from being the true test that shows once and for all the F-35 is a POS, it was in fact, a first look, aimed at finding out not so much how well the F-35 performed against the F-16, but rather at what parts of the flight control software could be improved to give the F-35 more maneuverability, particularly at high Angles of Attack (AoA).  It appears the F-35 used in the test, AF-2 the second build “A” model for the Air Force, was also using flight control software that restricted certain portions of the envelope. And my sources also tell me the test took place during a time when there were restrictions on the engine performance. While the pilot might have no restrictions on throttle movement, the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) was programmed in a manner that would restrict some of the output.

From Aviation Week:

“…The operational maneuver tests were conducted to see “how it would look like against an F-16 in the airspace,” says Col. Rod “Trash” Cregier, F-35 program director. “It was an early look at any control laws that may need to be tweaked to enable it to fly better in future. You can definitely tweak it—that’s the option.”

Emphasis mine.  The F-35 has already demonstrated a 9 G capability. It’s cleared through a flight envelope up to 50,000 feet, and a speed of Mach 1. 6. It was a deliberate decision to accept a considerably lower top speed than the Mach 2.0 of the F-16, particularly since most air to air engagements take place in the transonic regime, from about Mach 0.8 to maybe Mach 1.1.

Incidentally, the F/A-18 Hornet is really a 7.5G fighter, and yet fought the way it was intended to be fought, it has an excellent reputation against the US Navy’s Aggressor F-16s.

The gang at f-16.net aren’t exactly impressed with Axe’s article.

Nor is SMSgt. Mac at Elements of Power

UK Defense Journal points out that in other exercises more representative of real operations than a canned BFM scenario, the F-35 has performed quite well against the F-16.

Over the last few years there have been occasions where a flight of F-35s have engaged a flight of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios, the F-35s reportedly won each of those encounters because of its sensors and low visibility.

C.W. Lemoine, who has flown both the F/A-18 and the F-16, points out a few reasons why the Axe article is, in his words, garbage.

There are a great number of valid reasons to criticize the F-35 program, from its very inception envisioning one jet operating as a vertical jump jet, a carrier jet, and a conventional runway jet. The costs associated with the avionics and computer programming have been astonishing.  The deliberate spread of subcontracts across every possible Congressional district as a defense against cancellation is another issue worthy of debate.

But taking one small canned scenario, one intended not to see if the F-35 could out fight the F-16, but rather explore the flight envelope, and proclaiming that it invalidates the entire development program, is the type of sensationalistic clickbait reporting that does little to inform the public on the actual state of the program.

 

 

*Pierre Sprey is a statistician and a music producer. He also still contends to this day that the F-15 is a failure, in spite of a combat record of something like 105-0 in air to air combat. Take his words with that thought in mind.

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Last M117 750# Bomb from Guam

The M117 GP 750 pound bomb was the only non-Mk80 series bomb to see widespread service. 

M117

Barksdale’s 20th Bomb Squadron is scheduled to drop the last M117 bomb in storage at Andersen AFB, Guam later this week. The M117s are surplus from Vietnam and once numbered in the tens of thousands there. Bomber crews, most recently those rotating in to support the Continuous Bomber Presence mission, have been chipping away at the stockpile for decades. Anyone have any good stories to share about loading or dropping them?

If you watch old footage of Arc Light strikes during the Vietnam war, you’ll often see the B-52Ds carrying a full internal load of Mk82 500 pound bombs, and M117s on the external racks. The ballistics were close enough to drop a mixed load simultaneously.

Interestingly, the very first laser guided bombs were built up from the M117.

Thanks to Spill.

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US ICBM Minuteman III attack on the Western Pacific.

Finding launch footage of Minuteman III ICBMs is easy. Finding Re-entry Vehicle footage is a bit harder.

I knew P-3s observed the reentry, but I didn’t know they were specially configured.

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The Air Force Helicopter Fleet-With a bonus look at how the sausage gets made.

I’m always delighted when I get emails from people. A lurker saw Pave Low John’s comment of a recent post, and mentioned that his brother was a Pave Low gunner for many years. I figured that since it’s such a small community, PLJ would almost certainly know him. Turns out, he did. And while putting people in touch with each other, I also asked PLJ for his thoughts on the rotary wing fleet in the Air Force.  I’m going to share a bit of our exchange.*

XBradTC:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the travesty that has been the Air Force’s inability to buy a decent helicopter, both as regards a MH-53M replacement, and more spectacularly the whole CSAR-X fiasco. I understand there are differences in the Special Operations and CSAR missions, but for the life of me I can’t grasp why the MH-47G wouldn’t be a pretty good fit for the Air Force, and capitalize of the economies of scale of buying an in production platform. Instead, now, after somewhere around 15 years of bidding, protesting, suing and whatnot, the Air Force is going to end up buying Sikorsky S-92s. Mind you, this is at a time when their argument is that they must reduce the numbers of types they operate to retire the A-10, and yet they want to introduce a platform virtually no one else in the world operates!

For that matter, the obvious answer for the UH-1N replacement is to simply piggyback on the Army’s UH-60 buy, but they can’t even figure out a way to do that! These aren’t complicated issues. Why is it there is no common sense anymore? Please, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to share them as a guest post on the blog.

Pave Low John:

Yeah, CSAR-X and the missile site support helicopter replacement are a mess and if it makes you feel better, I agree with you 100% on the MH-47G and the Blackhawk option for the missile fields.  Here is my .02 cents, but it may take a while, I got some strong opinions when it comes to these issues.

       Here’s the deal when it comes to CSAR – to really do it right, you need at least three difference kind/sizes of airframes.  Kind of like playing golf, you need the right club for the situation.  You need a long-range heavy-lift platform for high-altitude/vehicles/CRRC/long-range overwater rescues (some version of the H-47 is the best bird for this role, hands down); you need a small platform that can do urban rescues (MH-6s are, and have been, the best at this mission, obviously); finally, you need a medium-sized helo that can fill the gaps between the MH-47 and the MH-6 (lots of possibilities, including newer MH-60s, NH-90s, Super Pumas, S-92s, etc…) 

    Now, that is a perfect world scenario.  With all the usual budget and organizational restrictions, the USAF is going to want to pick just one platform for Rescue.  Which is stupid, but there it is.  So the MH-47G is the best pick, because it covers the most bases (that is also why the MH-53J was originally designed to be a rescue asset until USSOCOM snatched to away from ARS back in the 1980s, thanks mostly to the failed operation at Desert One).  The Army already flies the MH-47E/F, so training, simulator support, etc… is already there, the USAF just has to pull it’s head out of its ass and just buy HH-47s.  I was working in AFSOC HQ back in 2004 and 2005 when AFSOC owned the rescue mission, and if AFSOC hadn’t lost the mission back to ACC in late 2005, I’m absolutely convinced the MH-47G (called the HH-47G at the time) would have been selected.  But the fighter guys got Rescue back and screwed it all up, and it is still screwed up to this day.

    As for the replacement for the UH-1N replacement, the Air Force has neglected the missile security mission for decades and they just don’t want to spend money on the problem.  UH-60s could fill the role of both gunships and security team transport but again, the Air Force has screwed it all up.  They know that they need something to support the missile convoys and launch sites, but they don’t want to spend more money than they are right now (and UH-60s do cost more to fix and fly than UH-1s, but you get more for your dollars, obviously).

     It all boils down to one factor really:  The Air Force, as an organization, does not understand rotary-wing issues and dislikes anything rotary-wing related on a general basis.  It smacks too much of the Army and the Marine Corps and the “fighter mafia”-types that really run the Air Force has let their parochialism cloud their judgment when it comes to Rescue and Missile Site Support.  I was a helicopter pilot my entire career in the Air Force (with the exception of my first year of pilot training flying T-37s and T-38s) and there was no doubt that I was a red-headed stepchild compared to even the tanker toads flying KC-135s and KC-10s.  No matter how many deployments I made overseas or how many hours I logged in combat, I was never treated as a “real” aviator by the fixed-wing crowd that makes up the leadership of the Air Force.  They would say a few nice words now and again, but when it came down to money and where to spend it, helicopters were always at the bottom of the priority list.  Hell, the Air Force even got rid of the rotary-wing half of the only Combat Aviation Advisor squadron in the DoD — just to fund some improvements to the AC-130!  The AFSOC three-star told us right to our face that the five million dollars a year he was spending on Mi-17s and UH-1Ns and UH-1Hs in order to train foreign aviators was simply too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AC-130, those guys do great work, but that was a really stupid move.  The U.S. Army is still having trouble picking up that mission, which they didn’t want in the first place (due to a number of factors, but that is a post for another time) and all that experience was scattered to the wind, never to return.  So when you watch the news and see a story about the U.S. having trouble training Iraqis or Afghans or whoever to defend their own country, just remember that the Air Force deliberately closed down the only part of the entire U.S. military focused on training foreign units in rotary-wing operations.    Just to save 5 million dollars a year. 

    So there you have it.  The USAF doesn’t like helicopters, it doesn’t understand their missions, and just wishes the whole debacle would just go away so they could get back to important issues like the F-35 and….the F-35, I guess.   I could go on but I think that is the simplest way to look at it.  It all comes down to culture and the Air Force “culture” doesn’t include helicopters.  Since no one outside the Air Force is going to make them address this blind spot until something really bad happens, it could be a while before things improve for Air Force rotor-heads. 

Most of this is the Air Force’s fault. Some, however, is Congress and the DoD’s fault.  We’ve set up an insanely complex system to assure that major systems procurement is fair and that the systems bought fulfill the mission the best way possible. Unfortunately, the process has fallen to regulatory capture, wherein the process has become more important than the product. For instance, the missile security mission- every time the Air Force moves a nuclear warhead for a Minuteman missile (for maintenance or what have you) security forces in a UH-1N Huey escort the weapon. But the UH-1N is terribly old. The obvious answer is to replace it with the UH-60M, currently in production for the Army. But even if the Air Force didn’t want that big of a helicopter, it shouldn’t take years to simply decide to buy another utility lift helicopter. There are any number of suitable helicopters currently in production, including Huey variants that would do nicely. You and I, being normal people, say, look, the Huey is getting kinda old, let’s buy some new helicopters, maybe the Bell 412. Maybe have a bidding war or competitive fly-off between the UH-60M and the Bell 412, where the contractors compete for our business. Instead, the Air Force pays contractors to study the issue. It’s insane.

 

*With John’s permission. I treat commenter private information such as email addresses with discretion.

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Crash- Or, sometimes, the Air Force is pretty badass.

Not often. But the PJs and rescue helicopter crews are some tough, brave folks. Back in 2002, called to assist with the recovery of dead and injured climbers on Mt. Hood, OR, an Air Force Reserve Pavehawk helicopter crashed and rolled 1000 feet down the mountain.

Incredibly, none of the helicopter crew were killed. Two crewmen were ejected and actually had the helicopter roll over them, but the soft snow meant they survived.

**waves to PaveLow John.**

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Titusville Warbird Museum

The really cool thing about this blog is that I can share my vacation photos, and no one seems to mind too much.

The official name of the museum is Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum, and the docent was kind and indulgent to the nerds in our little group. (Engineers can’t help it.)
DSCN0116
We got to stick our heads in the bomb bay of this B-25.
DSCN0064 crop
Continue reading

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Filed under Air Force, history, marines, navy, Personal, planes, World War II

Friday Flyby- Part 1

So, I’m stealing the title from OAFS, but I think he’ll forgive me. I get to see quite a few H-60 helicopters overhead here, normally MH-60R or MH-60S from NAS North Island (there’s no way I can see well enough to tell a Romeo from a Sierra from the ground), but today I looked up and saw what is almost certainly an Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk. I suppose it’s just possible it is an MH-60M from the Army, but really, I think it’s more likely the Air Force out of Holloman AFB.

HH-60

It’s the In Flight Refueling Probe on the side that tells us it is a special operations bird.

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