Stealth jet in class of its own

The F-35 will go places other jet fighters cannot go safely and it will shoot down the enemy before it knows it is there.

That is what a "fifth generation" fighter will deliver, according to US Lt-Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who heads the Pentagon's F-35 program.

And that is why Australia last week committed to 72 F-35s at a total capital cost of $12.4 billion, including associated facilities, weapons and training.

Speaking to US Hill Air Force Base public affairs, Lt-Gen. Bogdan said "the F-35 will be able to shoot things down before the enemy ever knows it's there, making it a very formidable weapon system". He said the F-35 had stealth capability and high-tech sensors, giving the pilot 360-degree awareness of the battlefield and the ability to communicate and share information with other battlefield systems and platforms.

This combination puts the F-35 in a class of its own.

That view is shared by one of Australia's most respected military analysts Andrew McLaughlin, who previously worked as a senior communications adviser to Australia's F-35 project office.

"The most important part of modern air warfare is to see the enemy before he sees you and kill him before he knows you're there," Mr McLaughlin said.

In fact, the only aircraft that can come close to the F-35's capability is the F-22 Raptor and that jet is in service with the US Air Force only.

"There is no question that it (the F-35) is the best plane for Australia for the next decade and possibly for the decades to come," Mr McLaughlin said.

But Lt-Gen. Bogdan, who has a track record of criticising the program, was quick to acknowledge the F-35's problems.

"Let's clearly, unequivocally say this plane has had a tragic past and I do not disagree that we have spent a lot of money on this plane … it wasn't a good past."

F-35 maker Lockheed Martin Aeronautics argues the great value to Australia is that the warplane is six times more effective in air-to-air combat and eight times more effective in air-to-ground missions than planes it will replace, though this is yet to be proved in operational tests and evaluation.

For Australia, the F-35 becomes a force "multiplier".

And how does it achieve that?

A suite of electronics and stealth design, including the world's most advanced radar the Northrop Grumman APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, and a 360-degree helmet tied to the plane's Distributed Aperture System.

The AESA radar gives the pilot air and ground targets at the same time and in one test detected and tracked 19 of 23 targets in three seconds and all 23 in nine seconds.

The pilot's helmet has been called a piece of Star Wars wizardry. It projects the outside world inside the pilot's visor by combining six advanced infrared digital cameras on the jet and other sensors - such as radar - into a seamless 360-degree spherical panorama, all in real time.

In a first, it makes the F-35 invisible to the pilot. If the pilot looks down, he will only see the ground - not his legs.

The pilot can look in any direction and get a perfect view day or night and overlaid on the view is information from the weapons and flight control systems.

Though some technology on the F-35 can be refitted to older planes, most cannot.

And you can't transform a conventional fighter into a stealth plane because most of the stealth capability is in the design.

The West Australian

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