F-35 Stealth Questions Bring Back B-2 Memories

Over the PacificBoeing’s recent strategy to question the effectiveness of the F-35’s stealth capabilities against the latest air defense radars brings to mind similar questions that were raised about another expensive next generation stealth aircraft about 13 years ago.

In 1991, Pentagon tests found that Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit was less capable of evading radars with its stealth bat wing design than initially expected. These problems along with cost overruns cut the B-2 program by more than 70 percent.

The Air Force had planned to field 75 of the B-2 bombers, but Congress ended the program at 21 aircraft as costs skyrocketed. If you include all procurement costs, the B-2 cost $929 million per aircraft. It almost makes the F-35 sound like a steal with its procurement costs at $162 million per aircraft.

However, the current debate deals with the F-35 and doubling down on more EA-18 Growlers to increase the Navy’s electronic attack capabilities. Boeing has pushed the Navy to buy more Growlers. The Navy has requested 22 Growlers in its unfunded priorities lists with the possibility of buying up to 50 more.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said its a  top Navy priority to increase the number of Growlers aboard each carrier from five to seven. The logic had been that with F-35Cs, the Navy’s need for electronic attack aircraft would diminish, not increase. But that’s assuming the Navy stays on board with the  Joint Strike Fighter Program.

Plenty of questions were asked about the Navy’s commitment to the program when the service  cut its F-35C five-year acquisition plan from 69 to 36 aircraft. More questions were asked when Greenert added the Growlers to the unfunded priority list.

Greenert has repeatedly said the Navy is committed to the F-35 program, but he did hedge in regards to the value of stealth in his recent Congressional testimony.

“[Stealth] is needed for what we have in the future for at least 10 years out there and there is nothing magic about that decade,” Greenert told Congress. “But I think we need to look beyond that. So to me, I think it’s a combination of having aircraft that have stealth but also aircraft that can suppress other forms of radio frequency electromagnetic emissions so that we can get in.”

That comment sounds an awful lot like a few of the lines offered in the presentation given by Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s vice president for Super Hornet and Growler programs, at the Navy’s annual conference earlier this month.

“The density of the threat is getting more complex and more difficult. The electromagnetic spectrum is getting more complex and more difficult and requires more of what the Growler provides in electronic attack and electronic awareness. Only the Growler has this capability,” Gibbons said in an interview with Military.com.

24 Comments on "F-35 Stealth Questions Bring Back B-2 Memories"

  1. The B-2 is a heavy stealth bomber with a 7,000 mile range. We expected it to be expensive. The F-35 is an F-16/F-18 replacement. It is supposed to be cheap because the whole point of the program was the save money by reusing the airframe across three branches and in multiple countries. Unfortunately the F-35 isn't saving anyone any money, and it cannot even fulfill the most basic of mission requirements.

  2. Well, if the F-117 could be shot down by a bunch of ragtags Serbs way way back in 1999 then one ask to ask the obvious. Is stealth overrated? Yes it is.

    It time to move away from the thinking that stealth is everything. When you put all of your chips on a single bet then most of the time you will lose because the "house" always controls the odds

  3. BlackOwl18E | April 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm |

    The Navy has been way ahead of the competition when it comes to thinking forward. Our enemies know we are enamored by stealth and they've already developed a lot of systems that can see it in theory. However, countering effective electronic jamming will be more difficult than countering stealth as technology develops. The Super Hornet and Growler combination can handle anything our enemies could muster up for a long time and remain more effective over a longer period of time than the F-35 ever will.

    The CNO knows this too.

  4. It's probably a good time to think about a replacement to the F/A-18 Super Hornet in terms of two-engined heavy designs. If Northrop still has any Grumman guys…

    There's a good chance that such a competition will lead to another joint competition as they chase a replacement to the F-22 (which is frozen at ~187 units).

  5. This is how big government works. Get used to it. Why we would want big government to do anything beyond defense and a very few other things is beyond me. 900 million dollar non-working web site anyone? Built in Canada so no Americans got hired in these hard times. Sounds right as rain to me.

  6. Does any military project, contract or equipment ever cost and work as intens, it seems that it either cost more than thought or does not work as intended or both.

  7. conradswims | April 25, 2014 at 6:16 pm |

    If I can see it with my eyes and hear it with my ears it ain't stealth nothing!

  8. Lockheed has done a good job convincing the services to accept the reduced capabilities of their Jedi Starfighter. USSR could not compete with the US military expenditures, the US is in the same position as the old USSR with the F35.

  9. The main drawback with the F-35 is trying to do everything in one airplane. Having one plane that does it all has never worked before, and it won't work this time.

    $100 million dollar flying turd.

  10. The irony of the F-35 is that its design sacrifice maximum stealth for better performance. The better performance never arrived but they still have the degraded stealth.

  11. Not being the stealthiest guy in the sky isn't the end of the world, as long as you understand the conditions and limitations of your stealth. The worst tradeoff that has been made for the F-35, IMO, is cost. If it were cheaper then we could buy lots and lots of them, numbers having a quality all their own and all that.

  12. William_C1 | April 26, 2014 at 4:28 pm |

    By nature of its size and tailless configuration the B-2 is harder to detect with any of the VHF radars people are concerned about. So what were its supposed failings? Did they expect to fly within a dozen kilometers of a state-of-the-art radar set without being detected? The goal for the B-2 was for a level of stealth that would greatly reduce the radar coverage area of the enemy's air defense systems so it could slip past them. It seems to have achieved that.

  13. Michael_AF_Ret | April 27, 2014 at 12:35 am |

    If you look behind the "green curtain" you will find the Navy doing what it does best during procurement – stalling. It's classic. 1970's two fighters were built to compete against one another. The one that won would be the fighter the Navy and Air Force would purchase. Enter the YF-16 and the YF-17(Identical to the first generation F-18). The YF-16 won the fly off in all categories. Time to commit – the Navy doesn't want the winner; they want the loser because they "need" two engines on their aircraft. Navy had helped the YF-17 contractor to improve the flight characteristics. The Navy thought the FY-17 would win the contest. Instead, it fell flat. It was out climbed, turned, and was far less effective for the mission tests. The YF-17, soon to be the F-18 was heavier which makes catapulting off the deck of a carrier more difficult. Every NATO country purchased the F-16. The Navy gave the YF-17 a different designation of YF-18.
    The new F-18s developed cracks in their vertical stabilizers grounding every F-18 in service including the Canadian Forces squadrons. The CAF eventually purchased F-16s. The Navy purchased single engine Harriers for the Marines.
    If the Navy would just say out front what they need; that, alone, would save 100s of millions of dollars. I think that they are stuck with an antiquated mind set. The F-4 and the F-14 were the only two engine aircraft the Navy actually said they needed two engines. They continued to fly single engine A-4s and A-6s until the F-18 came on line. But, they were building super carriers; and, the F-4s needed the super carriers to be forward deployed safely. And, they up-sized to the Super Hornet – an F-18 on steroids. Another heavy weight. So, the Navy''s solution to procurement is tell Congress what they will save by just upgrading the F-18 with a lot of help from the contractor. So, if you figure that the Navy spent money that should have gone to Gen 5 aircraft, all approved by Congress and the Joint Chiefs, it puts a new light on the Pentagon's procurement policies. Too many fingers in the pie. I hope in the future the Admirals will think ahead and fully spec out the aircraft they actually need. And, as for the future of the F-35. If you believe the F-35's radar cross section is inadequate, take a closer look at what the Admirals went out and spent our money on – a 40 year old design and made it bigger. How big is the radar cross section of the YF-17, excuse me, F-18 Super Hornet? It is only a matter of time before the Navy procurement plan includes the F-36, a twin engine version of the F-35 only bigger and heavier. And, for those speaking out against the F-117, first gen stealth, it was Air Force pilots flying those missions on a regular schedule. It was more a matter of taking the same route to target than the stealth abilities of the aircraft. Final word. Everything cost more today than it did 35 years ago. Put everything in perspective. What is needed may require more money than estimated ten years ago. But, that doesn't change the need.

  14. If you have a good radar operator on duty, they can find them. You see, once you know that they are in the air, it is not always looking for the aircraft, but looking for what is not correct on your screen.

  15. I wonder if the most updated version of the russian S-300 and the S-400 could detect the F-35 at useful ranges. For sure I wouldnt trust the F-35 against the S-500 when it is finally deployed.

  16. 1991 was 23 years ago, not 13

  17. Wow. Just Wow.
    Hoffman managed to get every stinking point in his B-2 narrative wrong, creating an epic allegorical fail. But it does tend to obfuscate the fawning delivery of 'Boeing Koolaid" that followed.

  18. chaos0xomega | April 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm |

    I'm loathe to compliment the Navy on much, particularly when it comes to the aviation field, but I think they're the only ones thinking sensibly about aircraft acquisitions at the moment. Its sad that they, moreso than the Air Warfare branch that is supposed to be the Air Force, are seemingly solely in recognition of the fact that stealth is not the be-all-end-all that its made out to be and electronic warfare is just as important (if not moreso) in the survivability of both stealth and non-stealth air assets in a contested air environment, as well as the fact that it is a more 'future-proof' technology than stealth.

  19. http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Pages/

    Reading this, I begin to think that Tacit Blue (the stealthy forward air controller prototype) might be the wave of the future.

    As for the F-35, if we cancel now it'll cost more than the B-2 when amortized over the airframes already purchased.

    We had 100 aircraft in 2013 with costs close to 400B.

  20. Alva Maynor | April 30, 2014 at 9:33 am |

    Many of these comments focus on the F-117 and almost try to give complete success to the mission in Bosnia/Yugoslavia to the F-117. There were other platforms equally engaged if not more so. The F-16 flew many missions and so did the A-10. I haven't heard but I'm pretty sure the F-4 wild weasel was also used over there. The A-10 took out a lot of the hand held rocket people with superior tactics using the capabilities of the A-10. So Stealth was not the entire picture. As many of the comments suggest, it requires sound tactics and appropriate use of all your different platforms. That will win out before technology will. This fits into the discussion between using Growlers and F-35 aircraft. The discussions over the radars miss MTI or moving target indicators, which help you pick out a small target in bacground noise that is moving. The digital signal processing capabilites are probably more important than what frequency radar you are using. With the Aegis weapon system, we back migrated the digital signal processing capabilites and technology into the rest of the fleet. I started my career on Aegis and now support old aircraft for the Air Force.

  21. I'm still trying to figure out why we even need this plane.
    Because we don't.

  22. StrumPanzer | May 5, 2014 at 5:38 pm |

    The government should have seen the writing on the wall when LM was developing the X-35 and already was over budget by 100 million dollars. Accounting error my ass.

  23. Nobody seems to mention one of the best fighters of all time, the F-15 Eagle. It maybe old and big, but I'll take it. It's proven. Maybe we are asking too much of all this "new" stuff. The F-22 seems to be very good but too costly.
    I still don't know what to make of the F-35. Yea or nea?

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