Boeing has been loudly criticising Lockheed Martin’s F-35 in hopes that the Navy and other clients will buy more of its EA-18G Growlers for support and F/A-18 Super Hornets as contingency.
Developed in a Joint Strike Fighter contract that Lockheed won over Boeing in 2001, the F-35 is wildly over budget and has run into various design problems. Chief among them, according to Boeing, is the weakness of its stealth technology.
Last week, Australia committed to buying 58 of the jets at a cost of $24 billion over their lifetime.
In a presentation earlier this month called “The Perishability of Stealth,” Boeing argued that the F-35’s stealth and radar jamming systems won’t work against some new radar technology. Boeing claims that stealth fighters need support from electromagnetic spectrum warfare aircraft, such as Boeing’s EA-18G Growler, which can disrupt enemy sensors, interrupt command and control systems, and jam weapons’ homing across all bands within the electromagnetic threat spectrum.
“Today is kind of a paradigm shift, not unlike the shift in the early part of the 20th century when they were unsure of the need to control the skies,” Mike Gibbons, the vice president for Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler programs, told Business Insider. “Today, the need to control the EM spectrum is much the same.”
“Stealth technology was never by itself sufficient to protect any of our own forces,” Gibbons said.
Lockheed, for its part, insists that the F-35 is fully capable of blocking signals itself. Lockheed also questions the wisdom of flying the two aircraft in tandem, since the Growler is not a stealth aircraft and its presence could alert enemies.
Boeing counters that the F-35 needs support from an aircraft that can block signals across the electromagnetic threat spectrum and which can also block signals while moving away from targets, as the Growler can.
Here’s an image from Boeing’s presentation of the Growler’s effectiveness across the electromagnetic spectrum:
Here’s another slide showing the full spectrum jamming capability of the Growler, illustrated by different colours representing different wavelengths, versus the F-35’s X-band only jammer. The circles represent overlapping layers of an enemy’s EM spectrum:
Now even Boeing will admit that the F-35 has its value. Designed to replace a range of fighter, strike, and ground attack aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter can take on various missions that the Growler could not handle on its own.
Still, Boeing wants the Growler, which is heavily armed in its own right, to provide additional support.
“The Growler today protects stealth aircraft from EM warfare,” Gibbons told Business Insider. “It protects Super Hornets, it will protect the F-35 when it is operational, it even protects B-2 bombers.”
The Navy recently placed 22 Growlers on its unfunded priorities list, signaling a belief that the F-35 may need the additional support. Gibbons estimates that the Navy will eventually push for between 50 to 100 more Growlers once the first 22 are funded.
Boeing is also pushing for the Navy to buy more Super Hornets. The Super Hornet is a multirole fighter that can be equipped with a range of surface-to-air and surface-to-ground missiles and a variety of bombs, though it is ultimately less flexible than the F-35 and has a smaller range.
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