Since apart from economics I have a long-lived interest in defence and geopolitical issues I will be posting from time to time on these subjects as well. In this post I would like to focus on specific aspects of a deep (first) strike scenario against the Greek air force by Turkey utilizing its F-35 (which are scheduled to start to be delivered this year).

In my view, the most important aspect of the F-35 stealth fighter is not its strike capabilities. Due to a small internal weapons bay it has a limited capacity to carry air-to-ground weapons, especially stand-off cruise missiles designed for heavily armoured and defended targets. Unless the F-35 is available in large numbers, something quite difficult due to its large costs, it does not constitute a significant direct threat as a strike fighter. Nevertheless, it will most definitely be the weapon of choice in order to hit high value targets. At this point in time Turkey has ordered 30 F-35 (with an overall target of 100 total).

What distinguishes the F-35 is its enhanced sensor fusion combined with some fairly advanced sensors (as well as its VLO characteristics). Its APG-81 AESA radar is capable of detecting a target with an RCS of 1m² (roughly the RCS of the F-16) at a range of 82NM (150km). The APG-68(v)9 radar which is the most advanced version of the APG-68 radar on board the F-16 is only able to detect the same target at half the distance. Apart from its radar, the F-35 will also use IR and radar warning sensors in order to create a 360º view of its surrounding environment.

This image can then be transmitted to other fighters and air force elements, either through a special datalink used by the F-35s or through the standard NATO Link-16. As a result, the F-35 can fly deep inside enemy territory, remain undetected (due to its VLO capabilities) and transmit data on the tactical situation to other aircraft such as the F-16.

Given their radar capabilities, roughly 10 F-35s (flying in pairs) could provide significant coverage of the Greek territory. In my proposed scenario, these F-35s will penetrate Greek airspace while flying at high altitudes (to maximize radar horizon) and carry 4 AMRAAM internally in an air-to-air configuration.

They will use Link-16 to transmit data to F-16 packets which will fly «on the deck» at low altitudes with sensor silence. These F-16s will carry stand-off deep strike weapons such as SOM, SLAM-ER cruise missiles and JSOW glide weapons. At a distance of around 200km the first wave of F-16 will release their cruise missile payload against high value targets such the main radars used by the Greek air force, air bases, Patriot batteries and C&C centres. At around the time that the first wave of cruise missiles hits its targets, a second packet of F-16s will fire a much larger payload of JSOW at a distance of 100km (this will require that the F-16s ascend at high altitude and reveal themselves on Greek radars).

The F-35s will be used to provide air coverage to the attacking F-16s by shooting down any Greek fighter jets already in the air as well as the Erieye airborne radar used by the Greek air force. A force of 10 F-35s will be able to carry 40 AMRAAM missiles which is a considerable payload on its own.

The main advantage of this scenario is that the use of the F-35s will allow the Turkish air force to use its large fleet of F-16s on a low altitude strike profile while maintaining awareness of the tactical situation, something that would not be possible without the F-35 stealth capabilities.

A radar at an altitude of 4000 feet (roughly the altitude of the Greek air force main radars) has a radar horizon of less than 200km (regardless of the radar’s specific characteristics) against a target flying at an altitude of 500 feet. This means that Turkish jets will be able to fire their cruise missiles without being detected by most Greek radars.

Apart from the above, a deep strike mission will most probably also be supported by Turkish E-7 flying radar as well as electronic warfare aircraft. It is also quite possible that the Turkish ballistic missile arsenal (with operational ranges of more than 200km) will also be used against targets that can be fired upon from launchers in Turkey.

One can easily reach the conclusion that such a scenario carries the element of surprise with little or no warning for Greek defences, a formidable air-to-air force (consisting mainly of the AMRAAMs carried internally by the F-35s) while constantly providing Turkish forces with up to date information on the tactical situation through the use of the F-35 and E-7 sensors. The fact that less than 10 F-35 will be necessary to execute such a scenario means that it will become plausible as soon as the first batch of Turkish F-35s becomes operational (Turkish F-16s have already been upgraded to the Advanced configuration and are all equipped with the (V)9 variant of the APG-68 radar and Link-16 datalink).

Greek Response

I am a huge fan of the Viper upgrade program for the Greek F-16 fleet and the reason is that the only way to counter the F-35 threat is by creating a «sensor data net» in the Greek airspace. The Viper program will include the SABR AESA radar (which can detect 1m² RCS targets at a range of 72NM/130km) and Link-16 on all F-16s. As a result of the program, each F-16 will be transformed into a small «AWACS» and provide similar situation awareness to the F-35 with the use of only a few F-16 on air.

Interconnecting all ground based radars while also keeping the Erieye on air along with a few F-16s can provide early warning against threats such as the scenario described above, at least regarding the F-16 attack packets. Unfortunately, the F-35 low radar signature means that even the SABR radar will have a hard time tracking it at long distances with the former having a clear advantage in engaging enemy F-16s at BVR range . Low frequency radars (such as the MEADS UHF radar) might provide a solution to the problem yet I believe that the F-35 will remain an issue in the upcoming years with no clear solution.