F-35 Promises Revolution In NATO Air Operations

The current Libyan air operation may be the last of its kind. What I mean by this is an operation involving fourth-generation aircraft against Soviet-era defenses or single-digit surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). To date, the campaign has been as much an air show as combat operation with an array of fourth-generation fighters including the Rafale, Mirage 2000, Tornado, Typhoon, Harrier, F-16 and F-15E making an appearance. In some cases, such as the Tornado and Harrier, this is likely their victory lap before being retired.

In essence, the Libyan operation was a replay of that which occurred at the start of Desert Storm, the Balkans conflict and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In each case, the first move was to establish control of the air by means of large-scale attacks on radars, missile sites, airfields and command and control facilities. These air operations involved massed cruise missile strikes, the use of long-range bombers with precision munitions and then employment of large numbers of aircraft not only to control hostile airspace but also to provide airborne jamming, suppression of air defenses and ISR in support of the aircraft actually patrolling the skies.

Libya possessed an antiquated Soviet-era air defense system. Even then, the operation began with a volley of more than 100 cruise missiles coupled with strikes by stealthy B-2 bombers. Only when dominance of Libyan airspace was achieved could U.S. and coalition forces conduct significant attacks on Libyan government ground targets. Now that the Libyan air defenses have been eliminated, the responsibility for the rest of the operation can be turned over to NATO.

The challenge of establishing air superiority over Libya would have been much more difficult if the Ghadaffi regime had possessed modern double-digit SAMs and advanced fighter aircraft, both of which are proliferating around the world. The coalition would have had to expend a lot more cruise missiles and expand the number and types of aircraft employed to counter these advanced threats. Both the costs and risks of establishing a no-fly zone would have increased.

The Libyan operation would have been entirely different if the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) had been available. With its stealthy characteristics, advanced AESA radar, unique sensors and modern avionics, the fifth-generation F-35 would have allowed the coalition to establish a no-fly zone without having first to entirely suppress Libyan air defenses. In addition, the F-35 could have conducted combat air patrols with a reduced need for supporting aircraft. This would lower both the cost and risks associated with the air operation. For example, the U.S. Navy could have imposed a no-fly zone with a single aircraft carrier; today, with fourth-generation aircraft, such an operation would require as many as three carriers. F-35Bs would have replaced Harriers in supporting the MV-22 Osprey when it rescued the downed U.S. pilot. As a consequence of the reduced need for unique air assets that only the U.S. deploys, NATO allies operating their own fleets of F-35s could have implemented the no-fly zone by themselves.

Against modern air defenses, the F-35 could make the difference between success and failure in future air operations. The F-35 would not only conduct both combat air patrols and ground strikes but electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses and ISR. The ability of the F-35 to share data will also lead to entirely new combat tactics. In combination with the F-22, the F-35 promises to revolutionize air warfare. U.S. allies and F-35 partner countries recognize that the F-35 is their only chance to retain a capability for modern air operations.

[Source: By Daniel Goure, Early Warning Blog, Lexington Institute, Defense professionals, Bonn, Ger, 01Apr11]

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