Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Comanche and the Albatross: A voice of reason from the USAF.

The RAH-66 Comanche
With the all-or-nothing attitude toward the F-35A, combined with the insistence that the A-10 is no longer a useful platform, one wonders if the USAF still has its head on right.  Surely, with all the JSF's issues and controversy, not to mention the threat of budget cuts, they would at least be considering a "plan C", wouldn't they?

Well, thankfully for the USAF, it would appear as though someone is questioning General Mark Welsh's insistence that "there is no other choice" for the USAF but to acquire over 1,700 F-35As in order to replace the bulk of its fighter fleet.

Colonel Micheal W. Pietrucha of the USAF has written a well thought out piece on the F-35, some of its more glaring tactical issues, as well as proposals for viable alternatives.

The piece can be read in its entirety here.

Pietrucha compares the JSF to another ill-fated stealth aircraft program, the RAH-66 Comanche.  The result of the Light Helicopter Experimental (LHX), the Comanche was to take a predominant role in the U.S. Army, performing a strike reconnaissance role.  The Comanche was cancelled abruptly in 2004, however.  It was felt that the aircraft would not be cost effective, nor would it be survivable given the threat environment.  Funding for the Comanche was instead diverted to existing platforms, like the AH-64 Apache, as well as UAVs.

Part of the issue with the RAH-66 was the ever-expanding list of requirements, leading to increased cost and weight.  It was said that a fully equipped Comanche would be incapable of lifting its own weight.  While the LHX program started with a great amount of promise and potential, the resulting aircraft was unquestionably a dud.

F-35A (center)
Is the F-35 a dud?

Some would say yes.  Others wax poetic about its heretofore untested superiority over current and emerging threats.  Whatever the case, there are several factors about the F-35 that are impossible to ignore:

  1. Its development has taken far longer than expected, and it still has a way to go.
  2. It is dangerously over budget.
  3. Its performance is lackluster.
  4. It may be partially obsolete before it enters service.
  5. Its very existence is threatened by budget cuts.
With any other military procurement program, this would seem to be enough to discontinue funding, or, at the very least, make significant cuts.  The JSF program is a juggernaut of momentum however.  Its very nature assured a great deal of commitment by all parties before a single aircraft took to the air.  The "all-or-nothing" commitment to the JSF means that the only true alternatives to the F-35 are aircraft designed during the Cold War.

Pietrucha argues that these alternatives may still be more desirable.

F-15E Strike Eagle
While Pietrucha does not go so far as to suggest killing the JSF outright, as it would be a near impossibility at this stage, he does suggest greatly reducing the F-35A fleet to an amount sufficient to replace the now defunct F-117.  He also suggests recovering some of the "sunk cost" by using some of the F-35's advanced systems to upgrade existing aircraft like the F-15 and F-16.  This would include restoring the USAF's suppression of enemy air defense / electronic warfare (SEAD/EW) capability by the development of a F-15G "Strike Weasel".

In the long term, Pietrucha suggests taking advantage of the T-X program to develop a low cost "light combat aircraft", dubbed the "FT-X".  (Wait...  That sounds familiar...)  This aircraft would be "good enough" for most threats, and make up the majority of the Air National Guard's fighter fleet.

Boeing's T-X concept.  will we see a FT-X?

Instead of adopting a "one size fits all" mentality, Pietrucha makes an argument for a more more flexible USAF, consisting of more varied and specialized aircraft types.  Doing so, he envisions a modern USAF that is just as comfortable engaging low-end enemies as it is much greater threats.

It's a great read, and one that it is very hard to disagree with.  Colonel Pietrucha may just be sticking his neck out a bit, given the current USAF's infatuation with the F-35, but I wish him the best of luck.





1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, many points on pp. 137-139 could be met by the Gripen. Particularly, points 3 and 5 perfectly correspond to what the Gripen is meant to be. And it could also be an answer to points 2-7-8. But, no matter what, I don't think we'll see the USAF fly swedish aircrafts any time soon!

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.