America’s latest and the most expensive fighter jet, the F-35 is slated to join fighter squadrons next year. But, the plane is missing its software which makes its 25mm cannon useless.
The Pentagon’s $400 billion stealth jet won’t be able to fire its gun during operational missions until 2019. The Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, is expected to join frontline U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadrons in 2015 and Air Force units in 2016. The incumbent software package does not yet have the ability to shoot its 25mm cannon. But even when the software will be able to operate the gun, the F-35 barely carries enough ammunition to make the weapon useful for any attack.
Till then, the JSF will carry a pair of Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM long-range air-to-air missiles and a pair of bombs. In the initial phase, the plane will be able to carry 1,000-pound satellite-guided bombs or 500-pound laser-guided weapons. Those weapons will be of limited utility, especially during close-in fights. But, then again this plane was never designed for dog fights which have become thing of the past.
“There will be no gun until [the Joint Strike Fighter’s Block] 3F [software], there is no software to support it now or for the next four-ish years,” said one Air Force official affiliated with the F-35 program. “Block 3F is slated for release in 2019, but who knows how much that will slip?”
The tri-service F-35 is really critical for the Pentagon as it plans to modernize America’s tactical fighter fleet for the times to come. The Defense Department is likely to purchase 2,443 units of the new stealth jets in three different versions—one for the Air Force, one for the Navy, and one for the Marines.
These three versions of the plane will replace everything from the air arm’s A-10 Warthog ground attack plane and Lockheed F-16 multirole fighter, to the Navy’s Boeing F/A-18 Hornet carrier-based fighter, to the Marines’ Boeing AV-8B Harrier II jump-jet. But the plane has been plagued with frequent and massive delays. Cost overruns is another matter which is mostly due to design defects and software issues. Some issues were also reported for the jet’s engine. An F-35 was destroyed on takeoff earlier in the year when a design flaw in its Pratt & Whitney F135 engine sparked a fire.
The aircraft is to carry the latest GAU-22/A four-barreled rotary cannon. This gun was developed from the U.S. Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier II jump-jet’s GAU-12/U cannon. It has one fewer barrel to make it weightless. The new gun is supposed to be more accurate. The gun is capable of shooting 3,300 rounds per minute. The Air Force’s F-35A version can carry just 180 rounds though.
The lack of cannon is a matter of concern, as the F-35 is being counted on to help out infantrymen under fire. One of the purposes of the plane is to offer close air support (CAS). The F-35 will lack the ability to mark a target or attack enemy forces in “danger close” situations, said one highly experienced Air Force fighter pilot.
“Lack of forward firing ordnance in a CAS supporting aircraft is a major handicap,” he added. “CAS fights are more fluid than air interdiction, friendlies and targets move… Oftentimes quickly. The ability to mark the target with rockets and attack the same target 10 seconds later is crucial.”
Typically, aircraft will work in pairs where the flight lead will make an initial pass to mark a target with rockets. A second aircraft will then attack with its guns. Incidentally, the F-35 won’t be armed with rockets, either, sources told The Daily Beast.
There is a reason why fighter pilots would like to use guns over a bomb or a missile is simple because a pilot might not want to drop a bomb near ground troops in situations where the enemy has gotten in very close to those friendly forces. Even a relatively small 250-pound bomb could kill or injure friendly troops who are within 650 feet of the explosion.
By contrast, a gun will allow a pilot to attack hostile forces that are less than 300 feet away friendly ground forces.
Proponents of the F-35 within the Air Force leadership argue that the jet’s sensors and ability to display information intuitively will allow the stealthy new fighter to do the close air-support mission from high altitudes using satellite-guided weapons. But there are situations where that won’t work.
“GPS-guided munitions with long times of fall are useless when the ground commander doesn’t know exactly where the fire is coming from, or is withdrawing and the enemy is pursuing,” said another Air Force fighter pilot. “GPS munitions are equally useless when dropped from an aircraft when the pilot has near zero ability to track the battle with his own eyes.”
The lack of a gun is not likely to be a major problem for close-in air-to-air dogfights against other jets. Part of the problem is that the F-35—which is less maneuverable than contemporary enemy fighters like the Russian Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker—is not likely to survive such a close-in skirmish. “The jet can’t really turn anyway, so that is a bit of a moot point,” said one Air Force fighter pilot.
“The JSF is so heavy, it won’t accelerate fast enough to get back up to fighting speed,” said another Air Force fighter pilot. “Bottom line is that it will only be a BVR [beyond visual range] airplane.”
That means the F-35 will be almost entirely reliant on long-range air-to-air missiles. It doesn’t carry any short-range, dogfighting missiles like the Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder when it’s in a stealthy configuration. One pilot familiar with the F-35 added that “they will not have a large enough air-to-air [missile] load to be on the leading edge” of an air battle in any case.
Another senior Air Force official with stealth fighter experience agreed. “From an air-to-air standpoint, an argument could be made that the F-35A not having a functional gun—or any gun, for that matter—will have little to no impact. Heck, it only has 180 rounds anyway,” he said. “I would be lying if I said there exists any plausible tactical air-to-air scenario where the F-35 will need to employ the gun. Personally, I just don’t see it ever happening and think they should have saved the weight [by getting rid of the gun altogether].”
However, the Air Force official said that very fact the F-35 will not have a functional gun when it becomes operational is symptomatic of a deeply troubled program. “To me, the more disturbing aspect of this delay is that it represents yet another clear indication that the program is in serious trouble,” the official said. F-35 maker “Lockheed Martin is clearly in a situation where they are scrambling to keep their collective noses above the waterline, and they are looking to push non-critical systems to the right in a moment of desperation.”
Source: The Daily Beast