Sunday, November 27, 2016

Canada a step closer to cancelling F-35 fighter deal

The F-35 fighter jet has been beset by problems over the past few years, from numerous delays to issues with target tracking and weapon firing.
In fact, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly vowed to cancel the purchase of the controversial fighter jet.
Now, the country has announced plans to purchase 18 older Super Hornet fighter jets as an “interim measure”, CBC reports, putting the country closer to officially cancelling the order.
The country’s defence ministry has also called for an “open and transparent” competition to select a replacement for the CF-18 jets. According to Popular Mechanics, the replacement won’t be the F-35.

The F-35 fighter jet has experienced a ton of problems, with Canada pushing hard for an exit

The new competition will result in the CF-18’s retirement being pushed from the original 2025 date, ostensibly forcing the government to acquire the Super Hornet to augment the CF-18s.
“That means we must continue to fly the legacy CF-18s throughout the 2020s, no matter what,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was quoted as saying by CBC.
The Super Hornet offers a host of improvements over the CF-18 and standard F/A-18 design, including a better radar system, compatibility with helmet-mounted cueing systems (allowing the pilot to essentially look at a target to lock onto it) and larger displays.
Nevertheless, Lockheed-Martin insists that the F-35 is the best plane for the job.
“Although disappointed with this decision, we remain confident the F-35 is the best solution to meet Canada’s operational requirements at the most affordable price, and the F-35 has proven in all competitions to be lower in cost than fourth-generation competitors,” the company was quoted as saying by the Canadian publication.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The F-35 Just Aced a Big Test -- and Became Much More Dangerous

The F-35 now packs more punch: specifically, the 20-foot Standard Missile, or SM-6, complete with a 140-pound warhead. But not fired from under the wing — rather from a nearby Aegis destroyer.
In September, the Marines completed a proof-of-concept test in which a Marine Corps F-35B  detected a cruise-missile decoy (a drone), passed targeting information to a remote sensor, and set up a shot by an Aegis combat system of the sort you’ll find on modern destroyers. A battery controlled by the Aegis fired a live SM-6 missile, which took down the drone.

“It was a metal-on-metal engagement from a significant range. I would say more than a tactically significant range. It was a very, very impressive shot to see,” Lt. Col. Richard “BC” Rusnok told reporters aboard the amphibious assault ship America, where the Marines are conducting tests with the vertical-lift F-35B. The test took place at White Sands, New Mexico, aboard the USS Desert Ship facility that the Navy uses for missile tests there.
The process of selecting the target and then launching a missile to take it out was virtually automatic, said Rusnok.
“It’s super simple,” he said. “It’s targeting the way we target our own ship weapons [aboard the F-35]. There’s really no difference. It becomes a battle management issue as to who is going to engage, but the physical pushing of data is transparent to the pilot because the picture is a common picture.” 
That pushing takes place over the Ku-band multi-function advanced datalink, or MADL: basically, the same encrypted datalink that stealth aircraft use to speak to one another while maintaining apparent radio silence. 
The test shows that the F-35 has effectively become a lot more dangerous (so long as the datalinks are working.) Imagine you’re a radar operator in a country that has just declared war on the United States. Your country has been moving missiles and radars around on the ground, hoping to dodge American satellite cameras before you can get your shots off. You hear a whoosh overhead, a squadron of F-35s electronically surveying the landscape for appropriate targets to take out, and behind them, huge SM-6 missiles are flying at supersonic speeds to hit those targets. The F-35 has become a sort of fighter bomber hybrid.
“Aegis cruisers bring a weapons payload that you just couldn’t fit on an airplane. We’re talking about dozens and dozens of Standard Missiles, SM-6s, that can be targeted by airborne platforms at a much longer distance,” said Col. George “Sack” Rowell.
“Nothing else can do that,” said Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation.
Davis said the Marines are on track to deploy the F-35B to Marine Corps Air Station on Iwakuni, Japan, in January. Japan’s air self-defense forces are also going to acquire 42 F-35s.
The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system is present on 33 ships, 16 of which are deployed to the Pacific.
This article originally appeared on Defense One

F-35 readiness concerns persist: Pentagon weapons tester

The Chief Pentagon weapons tester has againsignalled his concerns over the progress and readiness of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter for initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E).
In a memo sent to US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall (who spoke at this year’s ADM Congress), the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) J Michael Gilmore was critical of continued schedule delays, insufficient testing progress and other major systems challenges.
Gilmore has concluded that the program will not be able to deliver the full combat capability within the planned System Development and Demonstration (SDD) period, citing delays in delivery of the Block 3F missions systems software, inadequate aircraft availability, shortfalls in the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), inadequate preparations for IOT&E, and the need to complete all planned and agreed-to developmental testing, to name but a few.

“Gilmore has concluded that the program will not be able to deliver the full combat capability within the planned SDD period.”


As a result, DOT&E stated the program will not be able to commence IOT&E in August 2017 and the Block 3F final warfighting software load will not be available before May 2018.
 “The F-35 program clearly lacks sufficient time and resources to deliver full combat capability and be ready for operational testing and deployment to combat if it is unwisely constrained to operate within its currently planned budget and schedule,” Gilmore said.
He called for additional resources to deliver the full Block 3F warfighting capability and warned that failure to adequately finish SDD, “will result in far greater risks and costs than completing it now”.
Joint Program Office (JPO) spokesperson Joe DellaVedova told Aviation Week the JPO estimates the program will need an additional $US530 million to complete the $US57 billion SDD program, primarily to pay for new requirements and unforeseen delays. He said most of the funding would come from other F-35 JPO funding sources to minimise the impact on the US Services and US DOD overall budget requirements and that no additional funding would be required from international partners, such as Australia.

Producing, Operating and Supporting a 5th Generation Fighter

Production Costs

The F-35 Lightning II was designed to be an affordable 5th Generation fighter, taking advantage of economies of scale and commonalities between the three variants. Since we built the first F-35, production costs have dropped 55 percent.
The most recently contracted unit costs for Low Rate Initial Production lot 7 (not including the engine) are:
  • F-35A: $98 million
  • F-35B: $104 million
  • F-35C: $116 million
An F-35A purchased in 2018 and delivered in 2020 will be $85 million, which is the equivalent of $75 million in today’s dollars.

The U.S. Government and F-35 industrial team continue to collaborate to further reduce F-35 costs for future production lots. Since the F-35 program Technical Baseline Review in 2011, the team has studied and successfully implemented numerous affordability measures to drive costs out of the program.


The F-35 program, like many fighter programs, includes an overlap of flight test and initial production known as concurrency. Concurrency allows for a steady production and supply chain pace and faster delivery of the F-35 to the warfighter.
Because of concurrency, early production aircraft require some retrofits to implement changes based on flight test discoveries. As the flight test program matures, the risk of new discoveries declines. As risk declines, fewer retrofits are required in later production lots. In June 2013, Department of Defense concurrency cost estimates dropped by $500 million for the first five production lots due to more accurate estimating methods and proactive efforts to make updates more efficient. 
Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Joint Program Office share concurrency costs through the first four production lots. Beginning with Low Rate Initial Production Lot 5, Lockheed Martin took on a greater share of known concurrency costs.

Operating and Support Costs

Just as program maturity has led to more reliable concurrency estimates, increased knowledge of F-35 operations have resulted in more reliable operating and support costs. In August 2013, the F-35 Joint Program Office reported a 22 percent decrease in operating cost estimates across the 55-year life of the Lightning II. Estimates include expenses like spare parts, repairs and fuel. We expect cost estimates to continue to decline as the program matures further and operating and support affordability initiatives are implemented. 


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

F-35 crisis as Pentagon’s top weapon testing official warns plan to put unfinished $400bn fighters into service puts pilots at 'significant risk'

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been hailed as the 'most expensive weapon in history, costing $400bn. 
Now, it is finally set for its first mission - despite a last ditch warning from the Pentagon’s top weapon testing official that it is not ready and could put pilot's lives at risk.
In a memo obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, Michael Gilmore, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, warns that the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office is simply cut short the plane's development phase in order to pretend that schedule and cost goals are being met.

'The purpose of this memorandum is to document my continuing concerns regarding progress in the -35 JSF program as you prepare to conduct the upcoming Defense Acquisition Board review,' the note says, according to War is boring.
It calls for the entire programme to be restructured so enough testing can be completed. 
'The primary concerns were that the program appeared to be prematurely ending System Development and Demonstration (SDD) and was not taking the necessary steps to be ready for which will be conducted using realistic combat missions fully consistent with our war plans and threat assessments.' 
It lists the problems faced, including everything from a lack of testing on guns to issues with the head mounted displays pilots will use in combat.
Taking incompletely developed F-35s into combat will, Gilmore says, place pilots at 'significant risk.' 

 'If the program continues with plans to close out SDD prematurely, it will carry the high risk of failing and having to repeat the approximately $300-million operational test, and failing for many years to provide the full combat capability Block 3F has long been meant and claimed to provide.
'Finally, the combination of unfnished SDD work and the likely follow-on Operational test would significantly delay, and increase the cost of, achieving the important capabilities which are urgently needed to counter current and emerging threats.
'I therefore recommend very strongly that the program be restructured now and provided the additional resources it clearly requires to deliver its long-planned and sorely needed full Block 3F combat capability.'

The Marines will begin moving 16 F-35Bs to Iwakuni Air Station in Japan early next year, it has been revealed. 
The Marines will be the first force to deploy the Lockheed Martin jet aboard the USS Wasp next year, and will deploy a second contingent soon after, aboard the USS Essex.
'We will learn from that, and see what capabilities we need to further develop,' said Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the commanding general of the Marines' Combat Development Command, according toDefense One.
'A lot of it's going to be the school of hard knocks.'
The jets will deploy as part of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 in early 2017, a Marine spokeswoman said. 

At year's end, six of that squadron's planes will attach to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
Following over a decade of de and with a price tag of $400 billion for 2,457 planes, the fifth-generation fighter has been plagued with issues.
But it appeared the tide had finally turned earlier this year when the U.S. Air Force has declared an initial squadron of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35A fighter jets ready for combat.
Now,  the Pentagon's director of operational testing has poured cold water on the announcement, slamming the planes readiness. 
Michael Gilmore, stated the F-35 is 'actually not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver' the plane's full combat capabilities on time, according to Bloomberg.
Gilmore also said the plane is 'running out of time and money' to address deficiencies
'Achieving full combat capability with the Joint Strike Fighter is at substantial risk' of not occurring before development is supposed to end and realistic combat testing begins, he said of the F-35.

The U.S. Air Force has declared an initial squadron of Lockheed Martin Corp F-35A fighter jets ready for combat, marking a major milestone for a program that has faced cost overruns and delays.
However, the most complex software capabilities 'are just being added' and new problems requiring fixes and verification testing 'continue to be discovered at a substantial rate,' Gilmore wrote to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James; General David Goldfein, the service's chief of staff; and Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's acquisitions chief. 
The action is another achievement for the $379 billion program, the Pentagon's largest weapons project. 
The Air Force's decision follows one by the U.S. Marine Corps in July 2015 declaring a first squadron of F-35s ready for combat.
'The U.S. Air Force decision to make the 15 F-35As ... combat ready sends a simple and powerful message to America's friends and foes alike - the F-35 can do its mission,' the program's chief, Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, said in a statement.
Dan Grazier, a fellow of the Project On Government Oversight, said, however, 'This is nothing but a public relations stunt.' 
He added that it would not be possible to know if the F-35 jets were ready for combat until after initial operational testing.

'The program is not doing everything they wanted it to do ... But they're at a point now where it is stabilizing and so it is progress,' said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Officials say the F-35 will give the U.S. military the ability to detect enemy aircraft and other threats far beyond current ranges, allowing the jets to strike targets and disappear long before they are detected.
The U.S. Air Force plans to buy a total of 1,763 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing jets in coming years and will operate the largest F-35 fleet in the world.
Air Force General Herbert Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command, said work to upgrade the jet would continue in areas such as software, making the displays more intuitive and boosting the ability to share information between aircraft.
The aircraft could provide basic air support at this point but did not have everything the final version would, such as an infrared pointer, Carlisle said, adding that he would try to get the jets deployed to Europe and the Pacific within 18 months.
Lockheed is building three models of the F-35 Lightning II for the U.S. military and 10 countries that have already ordered the jets: Britain, Australia, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel, South Korea and Japan.
The Pentagon's F-35 program office said it remained in negotiations with Lockheed over long-delayed contracts for the next two batches of F-35 jets, deals worth about $15 billion.
'We're seeking a fair deal for the F-35 enterprise and industry,' said F-35 program spokesman Joe DellaVedova.
The program, launched in 2001, has made strides in recent years after huge cost overruns and technical problems that sent the project's cost up nearly 70 percent.
Problems with the fighter jet included issues with the radar software and increased risk of neck injury to lower-weight pilots when they ejected from the aircraft.

Industry and U.S. defense officials say they are working hard to continue driving down the cost of the new warplanes to $85 million per plane by 2019, as well as the cost of operating them.
Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he welcomed the announcement but made clear he intended to keep a close eye on the hugely expensive program.

'The Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to exercise rigorous oversight of the Joint Strike Fighter program's long-delayed System Development and Demonstration phase as well as the start of the operational test and evaluation phase,' McCain said in a statement. 
To become battle ready, at least a dozen individual F-35 must demonstrate their ability to drop bombs and shoot down other planes.
Each jet must be upgraded to a specific software package, and plugged into the complex logistics cloud that manages maintenance.

The F-35 project office had previously set an Aug. 1 target date. 
The project has been plagued with delays. 
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's record on cost, schedule and performance has been a scandal and a tragedy, Senator John McCain told senior Pentagon officials earlier this year.
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the aircraft's development schedule has stretched to 15 years, deliveries of the F-35 have been delayed, and costs have skyrocketed.
'It's been a scandal and the cost overruns have been disgraceful,' McCain said. 
Most recently, problems with its logistics software system grounded the entire fleet. 
The issue is with what the Department of Defense officials call the 'brains' of plane, also known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).
A Government Accountability Office report says a failure 'could take the entire fleet offline' because there is no backup system.
The report also says a lack of testing done of the software will mean it's not ready for its deployment by the Air Force in August and the Navy in 2018.
The 'brains' of the F35 are one of three major components, with the other two being the engine and airframe.
CNN points out that the software runs on ground computers rather than operating on the plane itself.

It is designed to support operations, mission planning and to spot any maintenance issues with the vehicle.
'Program officials said that if ALIS is not fully functional, the F-35 could not be operated as frequently as intended,' the report said.
'But a DoD commissioned plan found that schedule slippage and functionality problems with ALIS could lead to $20-100 billion in additional costs.' 
 So far, the software has been so flawed that maintenance crews have had to resort labour-intensive alternatives. 
According to National Interest, in one instance maintainers had to manually burn data onto CDs and to send the massive files across a civilian WiFi network.
One major problem, the report said, is that the F-35 data produced goes through a single main operating unit which has no back up.

'The F-35 is still in development, and this is the time when technical challenges are expected,' Lt. Genernal Chris Bogdon told CNN.
'However, we believe the combined government and industry team will resolve current issues and future discoveries,' he said.
Lead defense contractor for the plane, Lockheed Martin, insists development of the logistics software is on schedule.

'As ALIS development continues, our focus is on the warfighter and delivering the most effective, efficient fleet management system to sustain the F-35 over the next five decades of operations,' said Sharon Parsley, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin.
'The recommendations by the GAO are in line with the actions already underway in preparation for full-rate production and worldwide sustainment.'

Canada’s F-35 procurement saga could end today

November 21, 2016

by Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA—Industry sources expect the Liberal government to decide as early as Tuesday whether to purchase a new fighter jet without a competition.
Federal cabinet ministers are reportedly considering three options for replacing Canada’s CF-18s, one of which they are expected to pick during their weekly closed-door meeting on Parliament Hill.
The options include holding a competition, buying a new warplane without a competition, or purchasing an “interim” aircraft as a stop-gap measure until a future competition.
The government was eyeing the third option in the spring, with the intention of buying Boeing Super Hornets, until an outcry from industry and the opposition forced them back to the drawing board.
But while Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan held consultations with different industry players in the summer, industry sources say the interim option is back as the preferred choice.
Sajjan’s office refused to comment on Nov. 21, with a spokeswoman saying only that a decision still has not been made.
In the House of Commons, Conservative defence critic James Bezan called for an open competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s.
Purchasing Super Hornets without a competition would “be foolishly putting billions of taxpayer money at risk,” he said.
Sajjan would only say that the government had done “a considerable amount of work” on the file.
“We will make a decision on replacing the fighters and will pick a process that will meet the needs of Canada.”
Anything short of an open competition, which the Liberals promised during last year’s election, is sure to stoke anger from industry players as well as the opposition.
Part of the problem for the Liberals is that while they promised an open competition, they also promised not to buy the F-35 stealth fighter.
But the government has been struggling with how to fulfil that promise for fear any attempt to exclude the stealth fighter from a competition would result in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nonetheless made his views of the F-35 known in June, when he panned the stealth fighter as a plane that “does not work and is far from working.”
Recent memos and reports within the U.S. military appear to back up that assessment, with the Pentagon’s top weapons tester warned last month that the aircraft was being rushed too fast through testing.
There is precedent for buying Super Hornets on an interim basis. Australia paid $2.5 billion for 24 of the aircraft to replace antiquated F-111 jets until newer F-35s were ready.
However, the idea of Canada needing to follow suit was largely dismissed by a government-appointed expert panel and the military’s research branch as too expensive, since the air force would be operating two types of aircraft, demanding different training, infrastructure and supporting equipment.
Rival companies have argued that purchasing Super Hornets on an “interim” basis would stack the deck in its favour in any future competition.
There are also concerns that Canada would fall behind the rest of its allies _ as well as potential foes Russia and China _ by purchasing the older Super Hornet rather than the state-of-the-art F-35.
The Liberals have emphasized the need for speed since Sajjan warned in the spring that Canada did not have enough CF-18s to meet its commitments to NATO and North American defence.
Critics, however, accused the Liberals of manufacturing a crisis to justify buying a new fighter jet other than the F-35 stealth fighter without a competition.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Will Stealth Survive As Sensors Improve? F-35, Jammers At Stake

Published: November 27, 2012
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Is stealth still America's silver bullet? Or are potential adversaries' radars getting too smart for US aircraft to keep hiding from them?

That's literally the trillion-dollar question, because the US military is investing massively in new stealth aircraft. At stake in this debate are not just budgets but America's continued ability to project power around the world.

With the B-2 bomber, the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and a future bomber system known as Long Range Strike, the Air Force has bet its future on an all-stealth combat fleet. After the Navy's troubled A-12 stealth plane program was cancelled in 1991, by contrast, the sea service kept buying conventional aircraft, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

Now the Navy is gingerly getting back in the game with its experimental X-47 UCAS attack drone and the carrier-borne version of the F-35 -- but it still harbors doubts about stealth. Meanwhile the Air Force worries its non-stealthy Navy partners will get shot down on day one of the next big war. So while the two services are ostensibly joined at the hip in an emerging combat doctrine known as AirSea Battle, they have radically different approaches to a fundamental question of how their airplanes can survive.

"There are not just the issues of technology involved but there are political issues, acquisition process issues, as well as budget and institutional issues that are all in play," said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a member of AOL Defense's Board of Contributors and the first man to serve as the Air Force's head of Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance. The Navy F/A-18 is "fine in the kind of threat environments that we've been used to operating in over the last 20 years," he said, against relatively backward foes like the Taliban or even Saddam Hussein, "but [non-stealthy] fourth generation aircraft -- F-15s, F-16s, F-18s -- are not survivable in a modern double digit surface-to-air missile environment."

Others are more cynical about stealth. Argued Norman Friedman, a noted analyst who's worked for the Navy, "the Air Force went hot on stealth because it was a way of showing that pilots could survive" in the face of improving anti-aircraft defenses known as "dougle-digit SAMs," the highly capable air defense systems that the Soviet Union began developing in the 1980s.

"A lot of this is about whether pilots stay in business," Friedman went on. Especially outside the Air Force, he said, "I would suspect that people worry about stealth not being nearly as good as people claimed it was. The CNO in Proceedings said as much."

No less a figure than the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, a submariner, wrote in the nation's most prestigious naval publication, the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute that "sensors will start to circumvent stealth" in the future.

"The rapid expansion of computing power also ushers in new sensors and methods that will make stealth and its advantages increasingly difficult to maintain," Adm. Greenert wrote in July. "It is time to consider shifting our focus from platforms that rely solely on stealth."

So while the Air Force has bet on stealth to hide its planes from hostile radar, the Navy is still buying electronic-warfare aircraftto neutralize radar the old-fashioned way, by jamming it. Those Navy jammers also support Air Force operations and are even crewed, on occasion, by Air Force personnel – but the Air Force has no jamming aircraft of its own.

Performance specs for stealth versus radar remain a carefully kept secret, for obvious reasons. But AOL Defense did speak to (among others) two of the leading experts on the subject: F-35 booster Deptula, a retired three-star general with decades of experience planning and flying combat missions; and long-time stealth skeptic Friedman, an award-winning military analyst and author with a degree in theoretical physics. The two men have very different takes on the future viability of stealth – but both agreed, to start with, that it's not the magic inivisibility cloak from Harry Potter.

"People need to understand stealth is not invisibility," Deptula told AOL Defense. As current sensor technology improves, he said, "you're going to be able to detect aircraft with current levels of low-observability at further distances." That said, non-stealth planes are much bigger targets, he said: "It's a piece of cake for an adversary with a sophisticated air defense system to engage and kill a 4th generation aircraft; it's very difficult for them to do that with a 5th gen aircraft. Will it get easier in the future? Possibly."

"You can't make something disappear, all right?" echoed Friedman. "What you can do is reduce the signature you get back [on the enemy's sensor screens]. More powerful processors buy you back part of the signal" – and thanks to Moore's Law, the processing power available to do that doubles every 18 months. The more powerful the processors and the more sophisticated their algorithms, the more effectively they can sift meaningful data out of the static. And no matter how stealthy an aircraft is, it still makes some noise, it still emits some heat as infra-red radiation, and – most critically – it still reflects back some portion of an incoming radar beam.

Not that all radars are created equal. Even back in the 1980s,author Andrew Cockburn warned that, ironically, the Soviet Union's oldest, crudest radars might detect stealth bombers that newer systems missed. Stealth aircraft rely on carefully designed shapes and thin surface coatings to baffle incoming radar beams. But the lower the frequency of the incoming radar, the longer the wavelength, which means the less it reflects such subtleties at all: It's essentially too stupid to be tricked.

The upside is such relatively crude radars may detect a stealth aircraft is out there somewhere, but not accurately enough to shoot it down. The low-frequency, long-wavelength radars that are most likely to see through stealth are, for the same reasons of physics, the least precise. They're also too big to fit in anything but a ship or a fixed ground installation, where they are typically used to give warning that aircraft are in the general area. Actually tracking and hitting a target depends on smaller, shorter-wavelength radars which can fit in, say, an interceptor aircraft or surface-to-air missile and which offer more precision but are also more easily baffled by stealth technologies.

"Just because you can see someone now doesn't mean you can kill them," said Deptula. "Acquisition radars, which are what people generally tend to focus on, are only one element in an adversary's air defense equation." After a target is initially "acquired," he went on, "you need to be able to track the asset to then get to a firing solution; then you need to transfer that tracking data to the missile, which then needs to be able to acquire and track the aircraft [after it launches]. Presuming that the missile can track... now the fuse needs to be able to detect the aircraft" in order to detonate at the right time.

Break any link in that "kill chain," and the stealth aircraft survives, even if it's seen. So while stealth can't defeat all the radars all the time, it doesn't need to.

The problem is what happens when all the radars are working together in parallel instead of in a series. Rapid advances in computing technology don't just improve the individual radars. They also make it easier to share data among multiple sensors of multiple types – radar, infra-red, visual, acoustic – and thus put together scattered clues into a picture that's clear enough to kill.

"If you have a lot of radars working together, then you add up all of those very momentary detections and you get a track," said Friedman. With a command-detonated or time-fused missile instead of a radar-homing one, he went on, you can then fire at the predicted position of the target, without needing a radar lock on its precise location. This technique is less precise – the equivalent of shooting at a strange noise in the dark instead of having the target in your sights – but it can be effective. It may, for example, have been how the Serbians shot down an F-117 stealth fighter during the Kosovo air war in 1999.

The issue is not just technology but tactics. Stealth aircraft still need to aim for the weak points in an enemy air defense system to fly through the gaps in radar coverage; it's just that those gaps will be larger for them than for conventional planes, because the enemy radars can only detect them at shorter ranges. Conversely, non-stealthy aircraft can still penetrate sophisticated air defenses -- if there are enough of them to take losses and still complete the mission, and if they're accompanied by enough jamming aircraft to blind and baffle the enemy radars. The question then becomes whether a small number of stealth planes gives you more bang for the buck – and fewer US casualties – than a larger force of non-stealth ones.

Sure, said Deptula, "it's less expensive on a per-unit cost basis to buy more F/A-18E/Fs or new F-15s or new F-16s than to buy F-35s or F-22s -- but when you get all of those fourth-generation aircraft shot down the first day, what's your cost-effectiveness now?"

While a large enough armada of non-stealth strike planes and escorting jammers can batter their way through enemy air defenses, Deptula said, "you'd have to put together a significant force package with many aircraft to do the same job as a handful of fifth-generation jets [like] F-22s and F-35s." In the future, as enemy sensors keep improving, the 5th gen stealth planes might eventually need some jammer support themselves, he acknowledged, "but they're going to use a hell of a lot less."

In fact, while jamming has been done usually by special-purpose aircraft like the Air Force EF-111 Raven (retired in 1998) or the Navy EA-6B Prowler and its replacement, the EA-18 Growler, fans of the F-22 and F-35 argue the new planes can scramble enemy radar on their own. Thanks to the same increases in processing power than make radars more sensitive, electronic warfare systems that once took up an entire airplane can now be miniaturized and fit aboard a fighter-bomber as just one weapon among many. For example, the F-35 possesses powerful jammers and highly classified electronic warfare capabilities, as well as boasting layers of designed-in low observability (aka stealth). Exact capabilities are highly classified, but proponents say the latest systems can not only tell where an radar beam is coming from but can also feed back subtly scrambled signals, misleading enemy sensor operators who may never even realize they're being jammed.

"We have to get beyond the notion that 5th generation aircraft are single-role aircraft," said Deptula. "They're actually flying sensor nodes; they can collect ELINT [electronic intelligence], SIGINT [signals intelligence]; they can launch anti-radiation missiles" to home in on enemy radars and destroy them. "They can carry a panoply of different weapons," he said. "They give us the potential to create a networked airborne ISR strike complex that has significantly more capability than operating concepts of the last century." New technologies require new tactics.

Of course, this multi-functional flying network still requires the individual aircraft to transmit radio messages and, at least to some extent, to send out radar beams and other "electronic emissions" – all of which can be detected. A technology known as "low probability of intercept" is designed to make a stealth plane's radar and radio emissions harder to detect by minimizing power, hopping frequencies and scrambling signals, but the enemy can improve his sensors in turn.

"The way LPI usually works is you send out a signal that looks like noise and somehow you reassemble that signal when it comes back," said Friedman. That depends on massive processing power and sophisticated algorithms – which are becoming more available to everyone. Are you so much smarter in your processing than the other guy?"

But Friedman believes stealthy aircraft should not emit. "The more stealthy you want to be, the less you want to emit." Therefore it's better to have dedicated, non-stealthy electronic warfare aircraft as backup – presumably at a safe distance from enemy missile launchers – or, better yet, expendable decoy drones that emit enough to draw attention and draw fire away from the actual manned planes. (Of course, at this point, grumbles Friedman, why not make all the aircraft unmanned?)

So while stealth is no longer a silver bullet – if it ever was – it is still useful. It just needs to be used in conjunction with smart tactics and with other technologies. The challenge is not to let the increasingly expensive airplanes crowd all the essential supporting systems out of the budget.

It was budget pressures -- and top brass's desire to prioritize the F-22 and F-35 -- that led the Air Force to retire its last electronic warfare aircraft, the EF-111, and later to abort an effort to convert B-52 bombers into jammers. Cost considerations even led the Air Force to skimp on buying secure datalinks essential to the "flying network" tactics Deptula advocates. Now, as money gets tighter and sequestration looms, budgeteers need to save their top priority programs and do it without slashing the small-but-essential items that make the big stuff work.