Warplanes: The F-35 Was Too Much and Not Enough


June 1, 2024: Out of 4,500 22-ton F-16 jet fighters built during the last fifty years, about 2,100 are still in service in 25 countries. About a third of these F-16s are in the U.S. Air Force. All these F-16s are not being replaced by the new F-35, which is a 31-ton single engine, single-seat aircraft that entered service in different versions between 2015 and 2019.

The two aircraft are similar in size but the F-35 is much heavier and can carry eight tons of weapons compared to seven tons on the F-16. The F-35 also carries three times as much fuel but the lighter F-16 can travel 4,200 kilometers on internal fuel while the heavier F-35 can only go 2,700 kilometers. Both are single engine, single seat aircraft but the F-35 engine generates 48 percent more power than the one on the F-16. Despite this, the F-16 can carry seven tons of weapons compared to eight tons on the F-35. The F-16 can obtain most of the fire control system advantages of the F-35 by carrying a 241 kg targeting pod and a 207 kg navigation pod. That means nearly half a ton less for weapons on the F-16. Many F-16 users find that the targeting and navigation pods do what is needed as well as the built-in targeting capabilities of the F-16. This is why many current users of F-16s are keeping their aircraft. Price is a major factor. The average cost of an F-16 is about $33 million while an F-35 costs $83 million. Another major difference is operational costs per flight hour. It is $19,000-$25,000 for the F-16 but $44,000 or more for the F-35.

The first F-35s were built in 2006 for development purposes. The aircraft has stealth characteristics and is equipped with all the most modern avionics (aircraft electronics), sensors and capabilities. The F-35 has a max range of 2,800 kilometers for repositioning missions to a different country. For destinations more than 2,500 kilometers distant, the F-35 must land for refueling along the way. Combat range for ground attack missions is 1,200 kilometers while carrying eight tons of missiles and bombs. Combat range for combat with other aircraft is 1,400 kilometers. The F-35 can carry 2,600 kg of weapons internally and 6,800 kg externally. Max speed is Mach 1.6 and max altitude is 15,000 meters.

The F-35B is a STOVAL (short takeoff and landing) version that carries a third less fuel because of the STOVAL modifications. There is an F-35C aircraft carrier version that is like the F-35A but equipped with a tail hook and more rugged landing gear. The wings have larger control surfaces, and the outer portions of the wing can be folded so the aircraft takes up less space on the hanger deck.

Missiles and bombs that the F-35 is equipped to carry include all current American air-to-air missiles as well as all air-to-surface missiles. Pilots benefit from several features that make their job easier and much more effective. The cockpit where the pilot sits features a bubble canopy providing excellent views of what is outside the aircraft. Cockpit controls have been reduced and made easier to see and use. This is done by using a 50 by 20 cm touch display that shows flight instruments, stores management, CNI (Communications, Navigation, and Identification) information, and integrated caution and warnings. Pilots can customize the arrangement of the information. Below the main display is a smaller stand-by display. Pilots also have a helmet-mounted visor, a display that enables the pilot to look at an enemy aircraft and fire a missile at it. This point and shoot capability is an enormous advantage in air-to-air combat. The F-35 electronics also provide a better view of ground targets and the ability to quickly select the most suitable ground attack weapon carried and use it.

The cockpit has a speech-recognition system but does not have a heads-up display. Instead, flight and combat information is displayed on the visor of the pilot’s helmet using a helmet-mounted display system. The one-piece tinted canopy is hinged at the front and has an internal frame for structural strength. The Martin-Baker ejection seat is launched by a twin-catapult system housed on side rails. There is a right-hand side hands-on throttle-and-stick system. For life support, an OBOGS, or onboard oxygen-generation system is fitted and powered by the Integrated Power Package, with an auxiliary oxygen bottle and backup oxygen system for emergencies.

The radars and electronic countermeasures provide the pilot with an integrated view of the surrounding air space. This degree of situational awareness gives the pilot an enormous advantage in combat because the F-35 pilot can see, either with his eyes or via his sensors, more about what is in the area and in much greater detail than any enemy pilot. About 1,200 F-35s have been built so far and eventually, by 2044, at least 2,456 will be built. Production numbers will increase as more export customers order aircraft. So far F-35s have been exported to Britain, Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway, and the Netherlands.

In 2023 Israel ordered another 25 F-35s. Israel already has fifty, organized into two squadrons. With the new aircraft there will be three squadrons. Israel was the first export customer to receive F-35s because it was the only export customer that was regularly involved in combat, including airstrikes. Israel was also the only export customer allowed to modify and upgrade their F-35s. For this reason, the Israeli aircraft is known as the F-35I. The United States initially opposed Israeli requests to carry out modifications and upgrades, but the Israelis had a record of doing this with F-16s and F-15s obtained from the United States, so F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin agreed to cooperate by making some modifications to the F-35Is before Israel received them. These included changes in command, control, and communications systems, including computers, and the thorough integration of intelligence collection, electronic warfare, and weapons systems. Israel agreed to not change anything inside the aircraft but was free to add capabilities on top of the existing infrastructure. Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, was already working on such systems for the F-35I. The F-35I was designed to allow software updates to electronic warfare and weapons systems. F-35I power and cooling systems were modified to allow incorporation of Israeli developed weapons. Israel has developed its own air-to-air missiles and GPS guided bombs.

Since 2021 there have been a lot more joint exercises involving Israeli and foreign F-35s. Details of these exercises have not been publicized but it apparently involves testing current and new F-35 capabilities and sharing that knowledge with other F-35 users. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 a lot of European nations sought to obtain F-35s while canceling plans to buy older models of American and European combat aircraft. F-35s are meant to eventually replace all F-16, F-15s (currently 450), and F-18 (600) aircraft.

Russia and China have not yet produced a stealth aircraft as capable as the F-35, and now NATO nations with F-35s realize they have a substantial edge and have shared that knowledge with other NATO countries. Israel demonstrated what the F-35 was capable of in when their F-35I fighters and some had been operational for over a year. These F-35Is flew training missions near the Syrian border and then operational missions over Lebanon and Syria. This came after years of overcoming opposition from the United States to allowing Israel to modify the F-35A to use Israeli electronic warfare equipment and software, and also to handle Israeli-made missiles and smart bombs as well as a smart helmet, which was something Israel pioneered. This led to the Israeli aircraft being designated the F-35I, which have been in the air since 2018, often armed and within range of hostile radars and anti-aircraft missiles as well as the latest Russian electronic warfare equipment.

Israeli engineers also confirmed fears that the F-35 is eminently hackable. Other foreign users who have received their first F-35s agree that the heart of the F-35’s superior capabilities are its software and digital communications with other aircraft and troops on the ground. Users are pointing out all manner of potential network vulnerabilities, and all are actively seeking which of these vulnerabilities are actual and fixable rather than potential and unlikely. F-35 software was designed over a decade ago when much less was known about how combat aircraft software could be hacked, and already some basic changes in F-35 software architecture are underway to deal with that.

The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. It’s a major effort to carry out and test any changes. Some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential, as otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most. Foreign users have also provided useful advice on penetration or red team testing and this has become another major effort that was not anticipated.

The U.S. and other foreign users of the F-35 noted Israel’s F-35I experience, and the Israelis have increasingly been sharing it with allies.

Israel got priority on deliveries because they are literally a combat zone. Initial reactions of Israeli F-35I pilots and air force commanders were positive. What the Israeli pilots and all others who have flown the F-35 agree on is that its software and degree of automation is spectacular, easy to use and very effective. The F-35 has a large number of sensors, as in receivers for electronic signals, as well as six cameras and a very capable radar. The fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive and makes the F-35 much easier to fly than any other fighter, despite all the additional capabilities it has.

Israel has become something of an unofficial member of NATO and is sharing a lot of its F-35I knowledge with NATO nations. Israel not only has to deal with Russian aircraft and electronic systems in Syria, but an even more dangerous threat from Iran. Israel has established diplomatic and defense relationships with Arab countries who are also threatened by Iran. That made it possible for Israel to establish diplomatic relations with some Arab Gulf States and that led to American willingness to sell F-35s to the UAE (United Arab Emirates).

The U.S. Air Force had to refurbish several hundred of its 22-ton F-16 fighters, because their replacement, the 31-ton F-35, did not arrive on time. Most existing F-16s are old, and by 2016, many were too old to operate. Back then the average age of F-16s was over 20 years, and the average aircraft has over 5,000 flight hours on it. In 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models, Block 25 F-16s, passed 7,000 hours. While older F-16s are being retired for their age, they tend to have at least twice as many flight hours as their Russian counterparts. Because of greater durability and ease of maintenance, the seemingly more expensive Western fighters are actually cheaper in the lifetime of an aircraft because they last longer and are easier to maintain than equivalent Russian designs.

The F-16V was introduced in 2012 as the last model of the F-16 but production of the F-16 did not end as planned in 2016 because further sales of the F-16V were certain and it was possible to upgrade some or all of the older F-16s to the Block 7o standard. These Block 7o upgrades are not always possible, or practical, for the oldest models of the F-16. These upgrades include replacing many structural elements as well as installing more powerful engines and the most modern electronics and fire control systems available.

F-16s continue to be upgraded and refurbished. Production of the new F-16V continues because of buyer demand. The changes in the V model are considerable. The airframe is upgraded and strengthened to enable 12,000 flight hours per aircraft. The electronics undergo an even more extensive upgrade which involves replacing the mechanical radar with an AESA phased array radar, an upgraded cockpit, a Sniper targeting pod, a Link 16 digital data link and upgraded navigation gear. The newly redesigned cockpit is all digital and flat screen touch displays that replace dozens of gauges and switches and make it much easier to fly. AESA and the new fire control system make it possible to track multiple aircraft at once as well as track vehicles on land or vessels at sea. The targeting pod enables the pilot to confirm visually what is on the surface and promptly attack it with smart bombs or missiles. Manufacturer LockMart (Lockheed Martin) initially expected to get orders for at least 700 newly built F-16V or less expensive upgrades. An upgrade brings in as little as $10 million per aircraft while five or ten of these upgrades equals the price of one new

F-16V. But when you have orders for hundreds of F-16V upgrades you have a lot of F-16 work. The F-16 thus follows the path of previous best selling fighters. During the 1947-1991 Cold War Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s. After 1991 warplane manufacturing plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong into the 2020s. The U.S. still has about 1,200 F-16s in service, with about half with reserve units. F-16s built so far went to 27 countries before Ukraine requested them. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used airplane market. The end of the Cold War led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons.

Moreover, the new F-35 is on its way to replacing all U.S. F-16s by the late 2020s. The U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, while many allies need low cost jet fighters. Many current F-16 users planned to replace the F-16 with the F-35 but that aircraft costs more than twice as much as a new F-16V so air forces are seeking to operate a mixed force of F-35s and late model F-16s. A current example of this is Poland, which is sending its older MiG-29s to Ukraine. These have a few good years left, which is all Ukraine needs.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and some cost as much as $70 million each, like the F-16I for Israel. Some nations, like South Korea, built over a hundred F-16s under license. The 16 ton F-16 also has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is an effective bomber. Since first entering service some 4,600 F-16s have flown over 12 million hours. Despite fears that a single engine fighter would be less safe, F-16s have, in the 21st century, suffered an accident rate, which is loss or major damage, of 2.4 per 100,000 flight hours.

The F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually seven major mods, identified by block number like 32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60, 70 and 72, plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. The F-16D is a two seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components and can choose from five different engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare gear, five radars and many other mechanical, software, cockpit, and electrical mods.

Until Block 70 came along the most advanced F-16 was the F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 Desert Falcons, the F-16Es which are optimized for air combat. It is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, which the KF-16 was originally, but with an AESA radar and lots of other additional useful accessories. Block 70 goes beyond Block 60, especially in terms of electronics and airframe enhancement to extend flight life.

The most successful F-16 user is Israel which set a number of combat records with its F-16s. Israel plans to keep some of its late model F-16s flying until 2030 as it retires the oldest ones. At the end of 2016, Israel retired the last of its 125 F-16A fighters. The first 70 were acquired in 1980 and 1981 and included 8 two-seater F-16B trainers. One of the F-16As achieved a record by being the single F-16 with the most air-to-air kills, 6.5, all achieved in 1982 using three different pilots. Israel received 50 used F-16As in 1994 including 14 B models and used these mainly as trainers.




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