A video is making its way around the net right now that featuring an interview with F-16 co-designer and king of the 1970's era "Fighter Mafia," Pierre Sprey. In it he slams the F-35 in almost every way possible. Sadly, about half of what he says is totally relevant, the other half is totally bullshit.
I am not fond of the F-35 program. I don't hate the aircraft itself, in fact I hate no airplane, and I do not hate the jet's manufacturer Lockheed Martin either, but I do hate the asinine philosophy behind the whole Joint Strike Fighter initiative in the first place. That said, the F-35 "question" is not a simple one, especially at this point in its seemingly never-ending development process.
The point of this article is to go through some of the largely superficial things Mr. Sprey says in regards to the F-35, not in an effort to support the F-35 program, but to at least continue in my quest to clear away the gallons of bullshit that persistently block a clear vision into what has become the most expensive weapons acquisition in the history of mankind.
Mr. Sprey's opinions on the F-22, F-35 and many other weapons platforms that came before them have been passed around for years, if not decades within the aerospace and defense community. There is no doubt about it, Mr. Sprey is a controversial figure, and I do enjoy listening to him largely for entertainment purposes. I do agree with some of what he says, at least at face value, but he quickly loses credibility because by and large he is like a used car salesman, he only shows you what he wants you to see.
With this prologue in mind, below are the points in the video that I find very misleading in what is an already overtly broad, light on facts, and highly anecdotal interview.
1:10- The F-15 Is Loaded Up With A Bunch Of Junk... A Bunch Of Electronic Stuff That Has No Relevance To Combat
The F-15 is the most successful modern air-to-air fighter in existence and it has remained relevant and in production longer than the F-16 has. Sprey's idea that the F-15 Eagle is a big turkey stuffed with frivolous things like a "big radar" and two engines is laughable. The Eagle's massive radar aperture allows for it to detect, and in some cases to engage enemy fighters well before they can detect and engage the Eagle. This is a very big deal when it comes winning in beyond visual range air-to-air combat, and with the recent upgrade to the APG-63V3 AESA radar the F-15 packs the most powerful and capable fighter radar in operational service anywhere on the globe.
Regardless of its size, F-15's high thrust-to-weight ratio allows for it to compete with lighter fighters in the within-visual-range fight. This is especially true when tailored tactics are employed by the Eagle's pilots that exploit the big jet's (about the size of a tennis court) unique attributes when opposing fighters that were designed for high-g sustained turns in the lateral plane at lower altitudes, or low-speed high-alpha maneuvers. Additionally, the F-15's large size allows it to stay in the fight long after an F-16 or F/A-18 has hit bingo fuel state and returned to base. The F-15 also commonly carries double the payload of air-to-air missiles and ammunition than any light or medium weight fighter in US inventory.
Then there is the undeniable combat record of the Eagle, yet Mr. Sprey seems to think that the F-15 is a loser even after four decades of incredible success, not to mention the fact that it has never been bested in air-to-air combat and retains a kill ration of 105.5 to 0. This denial of clear historical reality is a startling indication that Mr. Sprey may be living in the 1970s when it comes to air-combat doctrine, or maybe he simply does not want to admit that his stripped down, all super-maneuverable light-weight visual fighters or nothing initiative was not the right path for America's air combat forces after all.
The fact is that the F-16, the same aircraft that Mr. Sprey is said to have had such a great input into during its genesis, has gained thousands of pounds in avionics, targeting pods, fuel tanks and other "frivolous junk" continuously since its introduction into service and some see this as a testament to how inaccurate his light-weight fighter prophesies of the 1970s were.
Mr. Sprey's views are questionable considering that the F-15 remains more deadly than ever even after forty years of continuous service in the USAF, not to mention that its even more complicated and heavy brother, the F-15E Strike Eagle, is the most all-around useful machine that the USAF has in its inventory. Additionally, the F-15 Strike Eagle derivatives are still thought of as one of the top-of-the-line fighter aircraft available on the world market today.
Bottom-line, the idea that Mr. Sprey still thinks the F-15 is a dog when every metric and battle has proven him otherwise is more indicative of a character flaw than an argumentative one.
Once again, what decade is this man living in? Wildly successful fighter aircraft are capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, including his own baby, the F-16 Viper, along with the Hornet Series and what became the F-15 Strike Eagle, just to name some American examples. Even the F-14 Tomcat ended up being as good of an attack aircraft as it was an interceptor even though it was never originally designed to do the precision bombing mission. Also, some of Europe's best fighter aircraft were purpose built to be multi-role aircraft, and they also retain incredible speed and maneuverability for the air-to-air role. Specifically, the Dassault Rafale and the Swedish Gripen come to mind.
Sure, having key purpose-built aircraft like the A-10 for the uniquely challenging job of precision close air support, or stealthy aircraft such as the F-117 for deep strike missions makes great sense, but for the vast majority of missions an air force will face a multi-role fighter gets the job done just fine. Also, having robust multi-mission capabilities designed into a single aircraft is certainly highly relevant on today's economically cash-strapped battlefield, especially for smaller air arms who cannot afford an A-10 or a dedicated low-observable strike aircraft.
So justifying saving the A-10 from a premature retirement is one thing, but trying to straight-face tell the world that multi-role fighter aircraft are crap is denying the historical successes of these aircraft. Also, the advent of smart munitions has enabled even purpose-built air-to-air fighters to become unbelievably good attack aircraft. And smart munitions, especially the GPS guided variety, has really made this debate irrelevant in the first place as often successful strikes are about the capability of the munition being employed, not the weapons platform that it is being deployed from.
Like most things air combat related, the question of an all purpose-built or all multi-role force is not that simple, or even relevant for that matter. These decisions depend on many factors, one of which is the volatility and unique challenges of each mission set, and another is what types of successful aircraft has an air arm already invested into to satisfy said mission. So just because the US, with its large standing army and commitments abroad should keep its A-10s flying for a nominal cost, it does not mean another nation needs to develop a similar attack aircraft at great cost. Instead, their dollars maybe better used investing in greater numbers of multi-role fighters.
Decades of highly successful multi-role fighter aircraft operations, of which many different designs have been put into service, have proven Mr. Sprey's statements against multi-role fighter aircraft wrong. We can indeed field excellent fighter aircraft that have both air-to-ground and air-to-air combat in mind, not to mention many other missions, especially considering the advancements of precision air-to-ground munitions and modular sensor systems.
All that being said, we should have drawn the line at including virtually every mission and capability into a single airframe, and especially that of the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) requirement that has horribly dogged the other two, and more numerous versions of the Joint Strike Fighter's overall design, those being the F-35A and F-35C. Without this damning requirement, the F-35 would probably have been the best fighter ever built, not just in its avionics and sensor fusion abilities, but also in its raw kinematic performance. Still, Sprey's statement that all multi-role fighter designs are dead end is overly dramatic and borders on totally ridiculous.
Is Pierre Sprey really Doc Brown who traded in his Delorean for a time traveling F-16 that runs on banana peels and flux capacitors?
FACT: The USMC introduced the AV-8A Harrier in 1971 and it has been a mainstay of their air arm ever since.
Much of the Marine's combined arms combat doctrine is built around a STOVL capable fixed-wing attack platform. So the Marine's STOVL requirement is not something that is going to go away anytime soon, nor should it, regardless of the F-35 debate.
3:55- 'The Airplane Is Astonishingly Unmaneuverable... In Dog-fighting It's Hopeless. You Can Guarantee That A 1950's design MiG-21 Or French Mirage Would Hopelessly Whip The F-35"
Really Mr. Sprey, the F-35 is "astonishingly unmaneuverable?" Some metrics are available regarding the F-35's raw performance and by and large most everyone agrees that the F-35 is as maneuverable as an F-16 with a comparable stores load-out, and in many ways the F-35A actually exceeds the F-16's nimbleness under real world operational circumstances. Most sources, including the test pilot corps flying the F-35 to the extremes of its envelope today, say that the aircraft most closely matches the F/A-18 Hornet in performance, which is no slouch.
Can the F-16 outperform the F-35A flying totally clean? Most likely, but how many times has an F-16 gone into battle in this configuration? In the last 30 years, never, which makes the while conversation irrelevant and Mr. Sprey's comments highly inaccurate. Usually the Viper is laden with bombs, missiles, electronic warfare pods, and most importantly, external fuel tanks. Under such conditions the F-35 with same weapons load would skewer a Viper because the F-35 can carry its payload internally.
None of this really matters anyway as the F-35's helmet mounted sight, sensor fusion and especially its Distributed Aperture System, when paired with the AIM-9X block II, will make drawn out hard maneuvering dogfights largely a thing of the past. Even today, with helmet mounted sights such as the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System (JHMCS) paired with high-off-bore-sight short ranged air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, IRIS-T and Python 4, not to mention the grand daddy of them all, Russia's AA-11 Archer, combat after "the merge" has changed. Advanced avionics and highly maneuverable missiles have become as important, if not more important, than an aircraft's pure maneuverability, and pilot training is still more important than all of these technological factors combined. Still, in an age when all you have do really do is see your opponent in your forward hemisphere in order to kill them, building super hot fighters, or even fighters at all, is suspect.
Finally, Mr. Spey's talk of wing-loading as if it were the only factor that dictates an aircraft's maneuverability is a great simplification of aerodynamics, propulsion and flight control systems, but I will save you the long technical spiel here. The F-35 does have higher wing loading than many other fighter aircraft, but the story is so much more complicated than just that, and Mr. Sprey's lack of disclosing this reality is an issue.
5:30- 'It's A Terrible Bomber... You can put two big bombs inside this thing, which is a ridiculous payload"
I don't think many people are looking at the F-35 and saying, boy that is one shitty attack aircraft! The fact that it can hold a pair of 2,000lb class weapons and a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs internally is one of the F-35A & C models best attributes, along with its unbelievably capable avionics suite and sensor fusion.
Once again, I think Mr. Sprey is living in a totally different era, as a pair of 2,000lb class guided air-to-ground weapons means potentially two massive targets destroyed with close to 100% accuracy, day, night, cloudy or clear.
It is not 1968 anymore, an era where we had to send the better part of an entire Carrier Air Wing after a single strategic target, such as a bridge, in order to hopefully score a direct gravity bomb hit. Guided munitions mean that even a relatively small attack aircraft can obliterate multiple strategic targets on a single mission with great certainty. A pair of 2,000lb class bombs, the heaviest general purpose bombs in the USAF's inventory which includes the BLU-109 penetrator, is a highly relevant payload for a tactical strike aircraft and was the same as the purpose-built and legendary F-117 Nighthawk.
Although 2,000lb bombs can take down an entire multi-story buildings, smaller munitions that pack a serious punch are the future, and the F-35 can carry many more than two inside of its weapons bays. Even the GBU-39/53 Small Diemeter Bomb has a penetrator version that can take out hardened aircraft shelters and other well armored structures. The F-35 can carry eight of these internally, potentially 12 in the future, which means that it can hit that many targets with great accuracy on a single sortie, all from close to 50 miles away from its target.
The SDB is by no means the only small munition that the F-35 could benefit from, and many others that are even smaller are in the works. By mixing SDBs, JDAMs and even smaller micro-munitions, just a small force of the F-35s, can theoretically take down an entire airfield. Such a scenario was described in my recent piece 7 Things The Marines Have To Do To Make The F-35B's Worth The Huge Cost:
Loading a dozen or so small GPS guided munitions onto a limited force of F-35Bs, and programming each munition individually with a target located around an enemy airfield, could potentially allow for wholesale destruction of the entire airfield on one single pass by that small force.
The F-35Bs, loaded with their targeting information before the mission is launched, would automatically release each small bomb or missile in a specified order as the jet passes over the target area, allowing for the aircraft's weapons bay doors to be opened the minimal amount of time possible. So instead of say two, or even four targets being destroyed per aircraft assigned to the mission, with small scale air-to-ground weapons a dozen or more may be struck by each aircraft. In other words, no longer do you need to prioritize just the most pressing "primary" targets for an attack, and then send multiple waves of aircraft to hit each individual aircraft or armored personnel carrier scattered around the target area. Instead, a relatively small force of stealthy aircraft can not only hit the base's runways and hardened structures with heavier munitions, but every other thing of military value sitting around the field could be destroyed efficiently as well.
When combined with cruise missile attacks on known surface-to-air missile sites surrounding the hypothetical enemy airfield, just a half-dozen or so F-35Bs could not only crater the airbase's runway, but also take out 16 hardened structures, and 32 small structures, aircraft or vehicles, all on a single sneak attack run (2X F-35B with 2X 1000lb penetrating JDAMs each, 2X F-35B with 8 SDB each, 2X F-35B with 16 small guided munitions each). Not only could those six aircraft provide that much destruction over a single strategic target, but they could also escort themselves in and out of the target area as well as they would still retain a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs each.
You simply do not need a massive bomb load like we once did when dumb gravity bombs were our primary form of aerial destruction, and as munitions continue to shrink and the amount of targets that a single F-35 can hit on a single sortie will be outstanding. Even the F-35's SDB carrying capabilities is already enticing, as is the F-22's. Also, the F-35 can carry many more thousands of pounds of munitions and fuel tanks if it does so like Mr. Sprey's F-16 does, and just slings them under its wings, so there is really no value to Mr. Sprey's "ridiculous payload" argument at all.
Where do I start with this one? Apparently Mr. Sprey tuned out the last 25 years of air combat activities including Desert Storm, Allied Force, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Neptune Spear and Operation Odyssey Dawn, or he just chose not to accept the fact low-observable aircraft performed brilliantly during all those operations and most likely many more that we do not know about.
During Operation Allied Force, a single F-117 was lost due to multiple circumstances, yet this single and uniquely isolated event is in no way some sort of perfect invalidation of low observable technologies. The fact that Sprey would use this example almost singularly for his argument against stealth capabilities is troubling as it is either a sign of a lack of understanding of the technology and its history or it is clear evidence that he is willing to dumb down a very complex issue in order to act as if his views are undebatable and everyone who believes otherwise is silly or a is a scam artist.
The concept of stealth and its closely associated and evolutionary operational doctrine is not just about an aircraft's shape or what its surfaces are coated with, it is about building a detailed picture of the enemy's electronic order of battle, then using that information, along with many other types of intelligence, to craft a mission plan and flight path that makes the aircraft as unsusceptible to enemy detection as possible.
Even with an aircraft that has a very low radar cross-section and a fantastic mission plan that is tailored to its particular low-observable strengths and the enemy's air defense weaknesses, it does not mean that the aircraft will be inherently invisible to enemy radar and other sensors. What it does mean is that the stealth aircraft may only be detectable at much shorter ranges and from a limited number of angles, and just because the jet may be detected momentarily by the enemy, that does not mean that it can be successfully engaged.
So although stealth aircraft are not invisible, they can work far closer to many enemy sensor sites and anti-aircraft emplacements than traditional non-stealthy aircraft can. Thus allowing them to exploit areas where the enemy's sensor systems have enough reduced detection range that their "threat rings" do not overlap, which could allow the stealthy aircraft in question to safely fly though these gaps. This is precisely why building a very clear and up-to-date picture of the enemy's electronic order of battle is very important for successful stealth operations.
Modern and highly sensitive electronic service measures (ESM) and radar warning homing and warning receivers (RHWR), such as the ALR-94 on the F-22 Raptor, can actually build this electronic threat picture in real time for aircrews to utilize. This allows for better survivability against "pop up" threats, such as mobile SAM sites and fighter aircraft, as well as allowing mission plans and routes of travel to be safely changed in flight as needed.
The ALR-94, for instance, is so sensitive that it has a much longer range than the jet's incredibly advanced APG-77 AESA radar system, and it conducts its surveillance passively, by just listening. This allows the Raptor to fight emissions silent and almost totally undetectable, only using its powerful radar for short, hard to detect bursts as needed. Remember, you don't have to even use your radar to detect a flight of incoming SU-27s if your ESM/RHWR has already detected and triangulated their radar emissions first, and provided a target quality track of their flight so that a missile launch is doable without even turning on the radar.
A powerful on-board ESM/RHWR also allows stealthy jets to become incredible destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) aircraft, as their sensitive radar sniffing avionics can produce coordinates for which they can lob Small Diameter Bombs or even a JDAM at. Those coordinates could be a SAM site or maybe a integrated air defense system microwave data-exchange tower. Once again, it can do all this while remaining almost totally undetectable, or at very least unengageable.
Beyond a stealth aircraft's design, the intelligence gathering that supports it, as well as detailed mission and route planning, stealth greatly benefits, or even requires other support features to exploit its unique attributes even further. These namely being electronic attack, jamming and even hacking of an enemy's air defense system. When paired with stealth technology, these tactics make the enemy's already reduced detection capabilities even more pronounced, allowing for stealth aircraft to interdict deeper into enemy territory with a much higher probability of completing their missions unmolested.
When it comes to airframe design, yes, Mr. Sprey has a point about long wave length radar systems being able to detect stealthy fighters that were originally designed to primarily defeat the popular X-band used by many aerial and ground-based tactical radar systems. Large flying wing designs, which do not have small appendages such as fore tail surfaces, are much better suited for broad-band stealth than traditional fighter format low observable aircraft such as the F-35. Unmanned air combat systems of the future will surely also leverage tailless design concepts, along with the Air Force's next stealth bomber, so that they can better penetrate areas where multiple bandwidths of radar are being used by the enemy.
I have argued that America does not need another stealth fighter at all as we already have the F-22, and the F-35 should have been a manned or unmanned wide-band stealth flying wing design with persistence at the price of decreased maneuverability. If this were to have happened there would not have been an F-35 at all, but I digress, the point is that Mr. Sprey acts like stealth is a failed air combat concept and it certainly is not, both in the present sense and historical sense.
So really, stealth is not just an aircraft's design it is a concept of air warfare that depends on a cocktail of integrated and scalable capabilities to make it work. Although enemy radars have gotten better at detecting some stealth aircraft, so has this "cocktail" of stealth's enabling capabilities, and a stealthy airframe remains a main component of this cocktail. With continued investment into evolving and refining this so called cocktail, we will ensure our access to our enemy's airspace so that we can dismantle their command and control capabilities and air defense network quickly if need be. At which time Pierre Sprey's F-16s can operate over enemy territory without being blasted out of the sky by an S400 SAM.
So no Mr. Sprey, the F-35 may not be the right aircraft for America, but stealth is not a scam, and people who watched your video interview should be told that, as those powerful words sure came out of your mouth with an immense sense of certainty.
Pierre Sprey provides and interesting perspective on combat aircraft procurement, and his thoughts on the A-10 and other highly specialized platforms remain relevant on a case-by-case basis. Even many of his views on the F-35 I agree with, including its airframe being handicapped by the STOVL requirement and the absurd costs involved with the jet that obliterates a true high-low capability mix. Yet his inflexible, almost laser like obsession with stripped down, single role light fighters is where his arguments all comes apart.
It is also clear that his decades old arguments have not aged well as the technologies and aircraft configurations he so easily disregards have proven to be fantastic investments for America and our allies. Even his very own F-16 has happily grown into an almost unrecognizable medium-weight multi-role fighter compared to the one he envisioned so many years ago.
Sure, the F-35 may not be a good investment for America, and many would argue that the whole concept bit off way more than its manufacturer, or the US Government for that matter, could chew. But many of Mr. Sprey's views are built around very generous and convenient assumptions that just don't hold up. In the end he is an aerospace and defense extremist, and a colorful one at that, but he needs a new bag of tricks to woo over a well informed crowd as the decades old ones he keeps using just aren't believable or even historically accurate anymore.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com