The last week has seen a flurry of media reporting about the inadequacies of the Joint Strike Fighter, a project foisted upon the Government by its predecessors, and the main advocates of this lame aircraft, our Defence bureaucrats. What is clear from minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s statements is that the Defence bureaucrats have not told him the whole story.

Obviously, apart from the importance of aerodynamic and manoeuvring performance, what Defence is not telling our Defence Minister is that aircraft range and payload matter — the greater these are, the better, and the same goes for missiles (i.e. the aircraft’s payload) and their ranges.

The Block 3 Joint Strike Fighter, under current plans, will only be able to carry two Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air to air missiles of the AMRAAM (AIM-120) variety. By Block 5 or 6 — sometime after 2017 — the JSF should be able to internally carry and fire four AMRAAM missiles. Some people are claiming they will eventually be able to carry six AMRAAMs, though there has been no data presented to support this assertion and this will likely require modifications to the missiles or the design of completely new and smaller missiles.

The F-22 can carry six AMRAAM missiles now, internally, in its two main weapon bays plus a pair of AIM-9 Within Visual Range (WVR) or “dogfight” missiles, again internally, in its side weapon bays. By the 2015-2020 timeframe, the use of wing mounted stealthy missile carrier pods is on the cards. The F-22 has the performance and growth margins for this, the JSF will not. An F-22 carrying two such pods would have a payload of 10 to 12 AMRAAMs plus its two “dogfight missiles” or even more of the next generation BVR missile.

Each Russian designed Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft in the region today can carry 10 of the long ranging AA-12/PL-12 BVR missiles plus a pair of AA-11 WVR missiles and still, aerodynamically and kinematically, outperform a similarly loaded Joint Strike Fighter or, for that matter, a Super Hornet in Combat Air Patrol configuration with only half this missile payload.

The Sukhoi Su-35-1, which will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) around 2010, can carry up to 14 BVR missiles and has even greater range due to its greater internal fuel load, as much as 25,000 lbs, as well as greater aerodynamic and kinematic performance to dodge and evade incoming missiles. After all, at BVR, pilots in high performance jets with the sensor and counter measure systems of the Sukhois have around 80 seconds or more warning of incoming missiles. This is a “very long” time in any form of air combat. In WVR air combat, pilots dodge and evade missiles in far less time with far less warning.

Once a fighter runs out of missiles it becomes, effectively, a sitting duck, unless it has the performance to disengage and run away to fight another day. In the case of the Joint Strike Fighter, if it turns to run away, that big hot engine exhaust nozzle presents the infrared seeker enemy missiles with a huge homing beacon (a.k.a. target) while attempts to mask this hot exhaust will likely leave a visible contrail that leads straight to the aircraft’s rear end. And, by the way, the Joint Strike Fighter will be much slower than the Russian Sukhois.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey