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Export concerns for the F-35

November 1, 2007 (by Eric L. Palmer) - For years the U.S. has spent billions on low observable "stealth" technology. The U.S. has also spent large amounts of money for research and development and fielding of net-centric warfare technologies.

The U.S. has also invested a lot into modern avionics development such as the new AESA radars and passive sensors such as the AN/ALR-94 found in the F-22. These and similar technologies are a large part of the crown jewels of U.S. combat advantage in warfare. Security of these technologies should be paramount to any F-35 export decision.

The kind of sensitive technology to export with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and to what countries is no small task. Each country on the F-35 team and potential future team members bring different concerns of sensitive export technology risk to the table.

The F-35 was crafted to have the best, safely exportable technology the U.S. can put into a combat aircraft. "Safely exportable", should be the key concerns for any U.S. leader that makes policy for F-35 export.

The concerns that make F-22 export technology such a sensitive issue should be very similar to those for the F-35. It would take only one compromise of a classified radar signature profile of the F-35 to make the aircraft significantly weaker to any number of surface-to-air or air-to-air threats. All of the calculations that go into creating this signature profile for the F-35 are pointed at making one very important product. That product is in the form of the various displays F-35 pilots look at to make them aware when the aircraft is at risk of being detected by certain threat sensors. If that data was to be compromised, it would mean potential loss of life of the pilot, mission failure and disaster for the whole F-35 program and existing fleet.

Numerous people will have to have access to the aircraft's capabilities. Example; a battle planner has to have knowledge of the aircraft’s combat abilities to use it properly in a battle plan. A maintainer puts hands on the aircraft and so on. When you look at all of the technology that is going into the F-35 program, the topic of exporting sensitive technologies is no small matter. How many personnel in a flying squadron and associated maintenance and support organizations, have to have additional security clearance to be involved with supporting the aircraft?

When you take a look at all of the current and potential F-35 team members, one comes up with a long list of concerns that have not been made public and should not be brushed aside with the casual wave of the hand so that industry can make a buck. While the F-35 will have some anti-tampering appliances, how effective will these be if a variety of stealth profiles for the F-35 are set up for different export customers?

The ABC’s : Australia, Britain and Canada; more on Britain below. These are the most "low risk" of all of the F-35 non-U.S. team members. Today there exists strong export agreements on a wide variety of sensitive technologies with these countries.

While Israel is a strong U.S. friend, it is also a military industrial competitor. Israel is also a nuclear power. Some of the political baggage including past claims of technology bleed to China, just won’t go away no matter how much lobbying is done in Washington. Part of the help the U.S. will offer Israel in F-35 integration is to assist with adaptation of Israeli air-to-ground weapons. Will this help give Israel the extra know-how to certify nuclear weapons with their F-35s? Would F-35 be offered to Egypt someday by a future U.S. policy as a sign of arms balance? Would an Egyptian F-35 have a reduced stealth signature compared to that of an Israeli one? Egypt being a large F-16 user: Would the U.S. look at Egypt as a way to increase F-35 sales? Would this also be used to help out U.S.- Turkey relations who’s aerospace industry has assisted in the sustainment and production of the Egyptian F-16 fleet?

Greece and Turkey: Unfortunately no one will ever be able to say they won’t go to war again. What kind of reduced stealth ability JSF do you offer here? They would both have to be equal least one side tries to find an edge on the other through espionage. Not doing this invites risk of compromising higher quality stealth signatures throughout the F-35 community.

Japan, Korea, India: Japan at one time was asked to look at F-35. Korea is looking at F-35. While not as serious, read some of the concerns of the above Greek-Turkey scenario. Unfortunately today, Korea is still suspicious of Japan. Not long ago, a salesman for Lockheed Martin trying to sweeten the deal for the F-16 as part of the Indian fighter selection process, offered the F-35 as an upgrade acquisition down the road. Japan, Korea, and Britain are involved in home grown stealth aircraft projects. India signed with Russia to develop stealth technology aircraft. No amount of administrative security firewalls are going to make up for the idea that exporting the F-35 to these countries that currently have stealth projects of their own offers risk to loosing the keys to the kingdom on the technologically sensitive portions this aircraft.

The U.S. views of sensitive technology export are many. There are various government departments that raise different concerns. There have also been failures of proper vetting of some sensitive technology in the past. Example in one case, one government commerce organization approved the export of low observable coating to one country and another government organization discovered this before it was shipped and raised notification to get the order cancelled, which it was.

Theater commanders want one kind of F-35 to go to war for a coalition so that battle planning is made easier. Having three different stealth profile F-35s in a coalition war environment limits the kind of high threat targets that a mixed bag of F-35 stealth signatures can go against and reduces the combat effect of the force. Some engineers and political officials back home disagree and claim sensitive technology must be protected in spite of combat inconvenience. Sensitive technology that will be a part of F-35 has other applications for warships, land combat, C4ISR and other aerospace platforms.

Marketing and the ability to sell the aircraft also comes into play. How much is an export customer willing to pay for an aircraft with a reduced stealth signature capability vs. the marking hype? In cases where the technology in the aircraft is limited to great extent, how much is a customer willing to pay for an aircraft that has a greater risk of getting shot down because it can’t stand up to a growing threat? Will that stealth signature be reduced so much that it will need a traditional on-board self-protection jammer? Most importantly, how many different "export" version F-35s crafted around reducing risk to technology compromise will there be?

The F-35 program may have some technical hurdles to jump over to deliver a flyable aircraft that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Of equal concern though is: How much risk of technology compromise, is the U.S. willing to sustain in order to make the sale?

Some sources used:
  • GAO report, Concerns over stealth related exports, GAO NSIAD 95-140 May 1995
  • Matthew H Molloy, Lt Col, USAF, Crafting a policy for F-22 export, School of Advanced Airpower Studies, Maxwell Air Force Base Alabama, June 2000
  • Bill Sweetman, JSF faces stealth export barrier, Interavia Business & Technology, March 1, 2001
  • James Fallows,Uncle SAM Buys an Airplane, Atlantic Monthy, June 2002
  • Andrew Feickert, Missile technology export controls, Congressional testimony, March 9, 2004
  • Ian F. Furgusson, The export administration act, CRS RL31832 Report to congress, May 5 , 2005
  • Barbara Opall-Rome, New Tech-Transfer Rules Will Allow First FMS Contract, Defense News, October 29, 2007, pg. 1

Opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the policy or point of view of any company or government organization.