Friday, August 15, 2014

Fighter Jet Fight Club: F-35 vs Typhoon!


Given the mixed reaction to last week's installment of FJFC, this week I forgo the culinary references.  Given that the Eurofighter is the product of Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy, this is probably for the best.  Fish n' chips, paella, and bratwurst, smothered in marinara sauce would probably result in a terrible case of heartburn.

Instead, this episode of FJFC will look at how both of these controversial aircrafts' development has been shaped by world events.  Less than 10 years separate these two aircraft's development cycles, yet those 10 years resulted in a massive shift geopolitically.

The idea for the Eurofighter Typhoon came about in the early 1980s.  The Cold War was still in full swing, and military budgets were high.  European nations were concerned with the recently discovered MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker.  These two aircraft looked to be equal to, if not superior than, NATO fighters like the F-16 and F-15.  The USA met this new threat with its Advanced Tactical Fighter program, resulting in the F-22 Raptor.  Britain, Spain, Germany, and Italy embarked on a mission to counter these new Soviet fighters with their own Eurofighter.

The Eurofighter's goal was envisioned as a medium-sized fighter with full-sized capabilities.  Using modern design and construction techniques, it would cram F-15 levels of lethality into a F/A-18 sized package.

Something happened during at the tail-end of the Eurofighter's development however...  The Berlin Wall was knocked down, and the Soviet Union crumbled.  Thus ended the Cold War.  While most would agree that this was a good thing, it threw a monkey wrench into military development.  Defense budgets dropped as part of a "peace dividend".  A reunified Germany was so cash-strapped it wanted out of the Eurofighter program altogether.  What was the point of the Eurofighter, now that there was no immediate threat?  Development of the Eurofighter slowed to a crawl.

It was around this time that the U.S. Defense department decided to amalgamate several different programs into what is now known as the Joint Strike Fighter program.  The CALF (Common Affordable Lightweight Figher) was joined with JAST (Joint Affordable Strike Technology).  In theory, this would reduce overall costs.

In the early 1990s, the first Gulf War had proven that western air power was well beyond that of any potential enemy.  At the time, Iraq's air force was one of the largest in the world, yet it was quickly overwhelmed by the coalition's superior technology, training, and numbers.  The first gulf war also demonstrated the usefulness of stealth, as F-117s proved.

In the Clinton era, defense spending was reigned in.  Development of both the JSF and the Typhoon continued, but at a much slower pace.  The first Eurofighter Typhoon prototype flew in 1994.  By 2000, two JSF demonstrators, the Boeing X-32 and Lockheed Martin X-35 were built.  The X-35 was chosen to be the basis for the production JSF.

On September 11th, 2001,  four commercial airliners were hijacked.  Two were flown into the World Trade Center, one flown into the Pentagon, and the third crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  Shortly after this day, U.S. president George W. Bush declared a War on Terror.

While the War on Terror's effectiveness is a topic of some debate, its financial cost is not.  American military spending has been constantly on the rise since.  Even the global economic meltdown of 2008 did little to curb spending.

The same cannot be said for Europe.  Austerity measures have been widespread.  The UK's decision to join the USA in Iraq and Afghanistan has drained the military budget.  Spain and Italy are no better off.

The Eurofighter Typhoon started out as a high-end fighter, meant to take on the world's best.  Events conspired to starve it of funding whilst its partner nations reel from austerity measures.   The F-35 Lightning II on the other hand, started out as a basic, affordable platform.  In the years since, it has been "gold plated" with near unlimited funding as US military spending has increased following 9/11.

With the history lesson out of the way, let us see how the two fighters measure up.  Just don't forget the rules.

Air-to-Ground:

Interdiction/Penetration:  Following the F-117's success during the Gulf War, stealth was very much seen as the latest and greatest thing.  Stealth's ability to provide "Shock and awe" by destroying enemy defenses on the first day of war made it a "must have" for the JSF.  

Stealth was still very much in its infancy during the Typhoon's development.  While the USAF was flying the F-117 as early as 1982, its very existence was denied until 1988.  The Typhoon does take measures to reduce its RCS, but it was designed when only a handful of people knew what a stealth fighter even looked like.  

Being a genuine stealth fighter gives the F-35 a win here.  Advantage:  F-35

Deep Strike:  While the F-35 was always envisioned as a strike fighter, it was never meant to replace larger platforms like the F-15E or B-1B.  With a combat radius of just over 1,100km, the F-35's range could be considered adequate.  What hurts the JSF here is the lack of external tanks.  Even if the F-35 carries the AGM-158 JAASM-ER, its effective reach is no more than 2,100km without tanker support.

The Eurofighter Typhoon boasts an impressive combat radius of almost 1,400km.  Utilizing the 500km Storm Shadow missile, this already approaches the F-35's reach.  If drop tanks are added, that gap quickly disappears.  In the future, CFTs will provide even further range without significant penalty to performance.  

The JSF's lack of external fuel carriage limits its average range.  The Typhoon's ability to increase with additional fuel carriage brings it far ahead here.  Advantage:  Typhoon

Payload:  The F-35 was meant as a replacement for both the F-16 and F/A-18.  As such, it exceeds their payload with the ability to carry up to 18,000lbs worth of ordinance.  Internal hard points carry two AMRAAMs and two other weapons without adding to the F-35's RCS.

Contrary to what some believe, the Eurofighter Typhoon was always meant to be a multirole fighter.  Early version concentrated on air-superiority because the strike role was already handled by the Panavia Tornado.  A total of 13 hard points can carry up to 16,500lbs worth of weapons with 4 BVR AMRAAMs or Meteors tucked in conformally, reducing their RCS.  

While both aircraft are close, the F-35 does have an advantage here.  Advantage:  F-35

Close air support:  While the F-35 is slated to replace the legendary A-10 in the close air support role, many are unconvinced.  Weight reduction methods have led to an aircraft that is far more vulnerable to weapons fire.  

While the F-35 looks to be worse than expected for the CAS role, the Typhoon is looking better than ever.  Integration of the successful Brimstone missile, combined with the usual smart bombs should make the Eurofighter an impressive CAS machine.  

The JSF is vulnerable to ground fire.  The Typhoon's more robust twin-engine design, combined with similar precision weapons, gives it the nod here.  Advantage:  Typhoon

Air-to-ground winner:  The F-35 has the advantages of payload and stealth, while the Typhoon has a better range and a more robust design to handle ground fire.  This makes both fighters just about equal, but different, for the ground attack role.  Winner:  Tie

Air-to-Air:

First look, first kill:  At some point during its development, it was decided that the F-35 would become a "net-centric" fighter.  Each F-35 would act as the part of whole, providing a picture of the entire battlefield.  For this, the F-35 was provided the most cutting edge sensors, all of which were "built in" to the aircraft's design.  The JSF's entire design philosophy boils down to "I can see you, but you can't see me".  

For the Typhoon, quality was more important than quantity.  A bubble cockpit gives the pilot excellent views.  An IRST was included to compete with those found on Soviet fighters.  Most importantly, the Eurofighter team made sure that the nose cone was large enough to fit a F-15 sized radar into a F/A-18 sized aircraft.  This ended up being a prescient move.  Now that the Typhoon's radar is being upgraded to AESA, there is enough room to match the radar found in the F-22 Raptor.  Instead, engineers for the Typhoon will attempt to leave the Raptor's radar far behind by introducing gallium arsenide components to boost power and a repositioner to increase the radar's viewing angle.  

While the F-35's stealthy design gives is a slight advantage against most aircraft, the Typhoon's radar looks to be an absolute beast.  A F-35 pilot attempting to get the drop on a Typhoon pilot will have to exercise extreme caution.  Even then, it seems unlikely that a JSF will be able to get close enough to successfully launch an AMRAAM before the Typhoon's radar or IRST detects it.  Advantage:  Tie (this is being generous to the F-35)

Beyond visual range:  The JSF's specifications called for the ability to carry 2 AMRAAMs and 2 2000lb JDAMs internally.  For some reason, when Lockheed Martin engineers were designing the F-35's internal weapon bays, they did not consider the need to provide any more space for future weapons.  As such, the ramjet powered MBDA Meteor does not fit in its current form.  Plans for a "clipped" version of the missile have been put on hold.  Instead, the USAF has requested funding to build its own AMRAAM replacement.  

By utilizing conformal storage instead of internal, the Typhoon easily accepts four Meteors.  Even with AMRAAMs the Eurofighter has a distinct advantage over the slower F-35.  Bigger radar, a faster time-to-climb, higher maximum altitude, plus the ability to supercruise allows the Typhoon to give its missiles a greater amount of kinetic energy.  As a missile's kinetic energy increases, so does its probability of kill (pK).

This one goes to the Eurofighter.  Advantage:  Typhoon

Within visual range:  All those fancy sensors in the F-35 give its pilot the ability to see and target just about anything around the aircraft.  This is good, as the F-35 has been criticized for not matching the turning performance of 4th generation aircraft.  With the ability to fire LOAL (lock on after launch) missiles, the JSF can let its missiles do the turning and burning.  The big caveat being that the AIM-9 Sidewinder, the predominant WVR missile, has to be carried on an unstealthy pylon.  

With a HMD, IRST, and LOAL capability, the Typhoon also has the ability to shoot down something not directly in front of it.  This is not the preferred way of doing things, however, as a missile that needs to make a complete 180° loses a lot of kinetic energy.  IR guided WVR missiles will always work best when pointed at the hottest aspect of an enemy, the engine nozzle.  Doing this requires getting on your opponents "six".  Outmaneuvering agile fighters like the MiG-29 and Su-27 is what the Typhoon was designed to do.  Even the F-22 has trouble keeping up. 

When an aircraft is capable of having "Raptor Salad" for lunch, how do you think slower, clumsier fighter will fare?  Advantage:  Typhoon (not even close)

Dogfight:  The F-35 is slower and does not turn as fast.  Its cockpit has been criticized for its massive blind spot.  It also has that aforementioned problem of being vulnerable to enemy fire.  B and C version do not even house an internal gun.  

The Typhoon was built to be a dogfighter.  The F-35 repeats the same mistakes made with the F-4 and other gunless aircraft.  Hubris has once again deemed the cannon to be a bygone relic.  Time may tell if this is history repeating itself.  Advantage:  Typhoon

Air-to-air winner:  Air superiority has always been the Typhoon's primary focus.  For much of Europe, it was to be the first line of defense against Soviet bombers and fighters.  It will continue in the air-superiority role well into the 21st century.

By contrast, the F-35 was never meant to be king of the skies.  That job was meant for the F-22.  During JSF development, there was likely some pressure to make sure that the F-35 was not "too good" as to threaten F-22 production.  After all, Lockheed Martin did produce both, and had no wish to see Raptor production end prematurely (it did anyway).  If anything, there was likely a desire to see the F-35 steal thunder away from Boeing's Super Hornet and Strike Eagle.  

No surprise here, the air-superiority focused Typhoon solidly trounces the F-35 strike fighter.   Winner:  Typhoon

Versatility/Logistics:

Versatility:  When the CALF and JAST programs were amalgamated into the JSF program, the desired outcome was to produce an aircraft capable of replacing the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog).  While aircraft like the F-22 and F-14 may sell more toys and movie tickets, it is the smaller, multirole fighters that do most of the lifting.  With a carrier version, CTOL version, or a STOVL version available, the F-35 truly is a "jack of all trades".  Weapon compatibility is slightly limited, with American made ordinance on most of the menu.  

The Eurofighter Typhoon is not as well rounded.  Its ground attack capability has only just recently been expanded, and there are no carrier or STOVL version.  It does have a rather extensive weapon compatibility list, however.  Unless you buy your missiles from Russia, there is a pretty good chance the Typhoon can mount it.  

For a nation that needs STOVL fighters, the F-35 is pretty much the only game in town.  There are other options for CTOL and carrier operations, but the JSF is the only aircraft that can handle all three.  It is also the only stealth fighter available for sale outside of the USA.  Advantage:  F-35

Logistics:  If all goes as planned, F-35 production will number into the the thousands.  Parts will be manufactured all over the world, with final assembly happening in the USA, Italy, and Japan.  Moreover, the F-35 will be in use by the largest air force in the world (the USAF) and the second largest air force (the USN).  Unfortunately, the JSF has gotten a reputation as being a bit of a "hanger queen", requiring additional maintenance for its stealthy skin and high tech systems.  

Being the predominant European fighter, there are plenty of Typhoons to go around.  Over 400 have been built with over 570 planned in total.  There have been concerns about the Typhoon's availability, but much of this is due to government cutbacks, not mechanical issues.  

Both aircraft have their logistic pitfalls.  The F-35's challenges seem to be more technical while the Typhoon's seem more bureaucratic.  Neither is ideal, but the Eurofighter's issues may be more easily fixed.  Advantage:  Tie (until one of them gets their act together)

Versatility/Logistics winner:  If you need a "do anything" fighter, than the F-35 certainly fits the bill...  Just be ready to pay for it.  Winner:  F-35


Final Score: 

Air to ground:  F-35=2  -  Typhoon=2
Air to air:  F-35=1  -  Typhoon=4
Versatility/Logistics:  F-35=2  -  Typhoon=1

Final Result:  F-35=5  -  Typhoon=7

In its attempt to be all things to all people, the F-35 loses focus on what a multirole fighter should be. Too many compromises for stealth and STOVL capability prevent it matching the performance of a fighter that took to the skies 12 years prior to its introduction.  Instead, the JSF relies on unproven technology and a hope that its stealth will remain relevant in the years to come.

The Typhoon has been dealt some hard knocks over the years.  Starved of funding, it lacked the juggernaut-like momentum of the JSF.  Despite this, it still stands out as a world class fighter aircraft. It does this by focusing on the basics:  Speed, maneuverability, sensors, and weapons.  

In the end, the Typhoon is an expensive fighter that had its budget slashed.  Contrarily, the F-35 started out as a cheap fighter that given a near endless line-of-credit. 

What would you rather have:  A base model BMW 3-series or a loaded Chevrolet Malibu with built in WiFi?

Yeah.  Me to.

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