Air Combat Command Chief Gen. Carlisle Defends F-35 Stealth Advantage
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The F-35 pit against any fourth-generation aircraft is going to have an advantage, except when placed in a close maneuvering fight, the commander of Air Combat Command said Sept. 15.
The F-35's “ability, stealth-wise, to penetrate contested airspace unobserved gives it an advantage over everybody else,” said Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle at the Air Force Association’s 2015 Air and Space Conference.
The aircraft is not a maneuverability airplane. That’s not what it was designed for, he said. “It’s a multi-role airplane that has an incredibly comprehensive, powerful, integrated avionics and sensor suite. It has incredible electronic warfare in both [electronic countermeasure] and [electronic counter-countermeasure] capability.”
The first two operational F-35A joint strike fighters arrived at Hill Air Force Base, Utah earlier this month. The aircraft is still in development but it is ahead of where the F-22 was at the same stage of development, Carlisle said. The F-35 is even more advanced than the F-22 with its “passive capability to determine who’s out there [and] its ability to manage its own signature."
He noted that the F-35 will have a smaller weapons load, but to compensate for that, the aircraft was designed with the ability to add pylons to increase load.
In the future, Carlisle said he envisions that the F-22 and F-35 will work in conjunction with each other. He noted that the F-22 is doing better than expected.
“So far in the Middle East, they’ve flown hundreds of sorties, flown thousands of hours and dropped hundreds of bombs with incredible accuracy,” he said.
Carlisle said production of the aircraft was halted prematurely. “We don’t have enough F-22s, that’s a fact of life. We didn’t buy enough; we don’t have enough.” However, the Air Force is going to make do with the Raptors it does have, Carlisle said.
“You’re going to need the Raptors" for a high-end fight, he said. “So you’re still going to have to do that and we’re going to do it with the 180 or so F-22s we have.”
In terms of close-air support, Carlisle said the F-35 will be highly capable once it finishes its Block 4 software update, and the next-generation electro-optical targeting system has been fully fleshed out. “When you look at what Block 4 is going to be when we get to that in the F-35, then we’re getting to a no kidding CAS platform.”
During the Red Flag exercise this summer at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, the service tested the plane in a close-air support role. “It did exceedingly well in that it could penetrate airspace that other airplanes couldn’t, and it could use electronic warfare to defeat adversaries and defeat surface-to-air capability while at the same time protecting its own sensor suite,” Carlisle said.
When it comes to close-air support legacy aircraft like the A-10 Warthog, the discussion should not revolve around which aircraft the joint strike fighter will replace, he said. “We should talk about taking technology and figuring out a better way to” use it.
He said the A-10 has done fantastic work overseas, especially in personnel recovery. The service will continue to use the aircraft — which it hopes to schedule for retirement over the next five years — because it does not have the ability to take combat-capable airplanes out of the fight, he said. However, “We will retire airplanes … and we will move to new and modern technology.” The Air Force needs to look at how it can improve close-air support in the 2020s as the war fighting environment changes, he added.
“The A-10 — it’s more difficult for that airplane to operate in a contested environment,” he said. “We would lose … a good portion of those airplanes, potentially, in a contested environment.”
The stated requirement for the number of F-35s the Air Force needs is 1,763 and that number has not changed, Carlisle said. There had been discussion that, as the plane neared maturity, the service would begin to buy 80 aircraft a year, but in the current budgetary environment, that looks unlikely, he noted. He stressed the importance of reaching at least 60 aircraft a year after the turn of the decade.