However, one Pentagon source familiar with the cyber and electronic warfare capabilities of the F-35, EA-6B and the Growler was more sympathetic to the other planes’ EW capabilities.
“The F-35 complements the EA-6B and EA-18G — not replaces. That may change in some long range plans but in the near future they complement each other,” the source said in an email. “Right now we need them both.” And so the discussion goes. But Gen. Hostage was crystal clear in his assessment.
Stealth Is Not Invisibility
“But in the first moments of a conflict I’m not sending Growlers or F-16s or F-15Es anywhere close to that environment, so now I’m going to have to put my fifth gen in there and that’s where that radar cross-section and the exchange of the kill chain is so critical. You’re not going to get a Growler close up to help in the first hours and days of the conflict, so I’m going to be relying on that stealth to open the door,” Hostage says.
But stealth is not invisibility, especially for fighters that must have tails for maneuverability (rather than the B-2 stealth bomber’s tailless “flying wing” design). Both F-22s and F-35s will be spotted at range by low frequency radar. The F-35’s cross section is much smaller than the F-22’s, but that does not mean, Hostage concedes, that the F-35 is necessarily superior to the F-22 when we go to war. In fact, Hostage says that it takes eight F-35s to do what two F-22s can handle.
“The F-35 is geared to go out and take down the surface targets,” says Hostage, leaning forward. “The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth.” But stealth — the ability to elude or greatly complicate an enemy’s ability to find and destroy an aircraft using a combination of design, tactics and technology — is not a magic pill, Hostage reminds us.
F-35 First Designed To Kill Advanced Surface to Air Systems
Bear in mind that the F-35 is the first US aircraft designed to the requirement that it be highly effective at neutralizing S-400 systems and their cousins.
“The F-35 was fundamentally designed to go do that sort of thing [take out advanced IADS]. The problem is, with the lack of F-22s, I’m going to have to use F-35s in the air superiority role in the early phases as well, which is another reason why I need all 1,763. I’m going to have some F-35s doing air superiority, some doing those early phases of persistent attack, opening the holes, and again, the F-35 is not compelling unless it’s there in numbers,” the general says. “Because it can’t turn and run away, it’s got to have support from other F-35s. So I’m going to need eight F-35s to go after a target that I might only need two Raptors to go after. But the F-35s can be equally or more effective against that site than the Raptor can because of the synergistic effects of the platform.”
The F-35, critics say, can be spotted by low frequency radar (as can almost any aircraft, no matter how stealthy) and isn’t as good at dogfighting as is the F-22. But Hostage says, as do other senior Air Force and Marine officers, that an F-35 pilot who engages in a dogfight has probably made a mistake or has already broken through those IADS lanes and is facing a second wave of enemy aircraft. The F-35, he says, has “at least” the maneuverability and thrust and weight of the F-16. The F-35 is to the F-22 as the F-16 is to the F-15. The latter aircraft are the kings of air to air combat. The F-35 and the F-16 are the mainstay of the air fleet, designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks.