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F-35 as air defence interceptor? F-35 as underrated all-rounder?

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  • judgefortescue
    Rank 1 Registered User
    • Dec 2018
    • 2

    F-35 as air defence interceptor? F-35 as underrated all-rounder?

    Long time lurker, first-time poster. I've had some thoughts about the F-35 and was interested in what others believe.

    Has the F-35 been considered in terms of its characteristics as an air defence interceptor? A precedent I'm thinking of is the air defence variant of the Tornado. It was not considered a necessity that the aircraft be an exceptional dogfighter; the important characteristics were that it had a good fuel load, a high-speed supersonic dash, a powerful radar, advanced digital avionics with Link 16 datalink and IFF.

    Thinking about, for example, the Canadian air defence environment, the F-35A could provide these sort of capabilities. It has a genuine 1.6 mach capability flying clean (while 4th gens have lower speeds due to drag created by targeting pods, fuel tanks, etc). It has a very powerful radar and superb datalink / MADL / fusion capabilities. The ability for an F-35 to dash quickly to an unidentified target and use its DAS and EOTS to identify it at long-range could be very useful. It can fuse that optical / visual information with its radar data to provide a long-range identification, or to provide visual information for analysts on the ground (for example if an aircraft were damaged in a way that was externally apparent, the F-35 might be able to detect this at distance and so provide that information earlier in the process and speed up the OODA loop). So I think the F-35 could be a good air defence interceptor; the mix of its high-speed in clean configuration and excellent sensors really make it well-suited to the role. And looking at the $85 million price tag, it seems like a bargain for the Canadians.

    What about as a strike fighter / SEAD? I don't think anyone denies that it could be very good in that role. Its ability to penetrate an air defence networks, the data fusion capability, the ability for a group of fighters to move as a sort-of wolf pack communicating using the stealthy MADL datalink, the ability to carry up to eight SDB-II / Spear 3 class weapons to launch at range 100km range. A wolf-pack of eight F-35s could approach an air defence site like an S-400 and launch 64 SDB-II, at a total cost of around $7.5 million for the munitions (approx $120,000 each); a very favourable exchange rate given the most advanced Russian interceptor missiles like 48N6E2 cost around $1 million+. The S-400 can either choose to engage the incoming SDB-II with its longer range, expensive interceptors costing around 10 times as much as each SDB, or save their more expensive interceptors and wait until the targets are closer, but then take a much greater risk of leakage. In addition, the Spear 3 is a powered weapon so engagement with long-range interceptor missiles may not be an option as the small, stealthy Spear 3s coming flying in low to the ground. Assume every single one of those incoming gets shot down. The F-35 can return to base, load up and fly out and release another 64 weapons, another $7.5 million. For $30 million expenditure in munitions, they can launch 256 guided weapons, they can essentially afford to keep firing until the S-400 runs out of ammunition. Consider that an S-400 regiment costs over $1 billion US dollars. It seems like the traditional asymmetric Russian cost advantage is actually reversed when you're looking at these expensive Russian SAM versus F-35.

    What about close air support? While it is far from the best aircraft in the CAS domain, it could certainly provide serviceable CAS in the same way any aircraft with targeting pods (including B-1 bombers) can provide CAS using GPS/laser-guided bombs. No question it could step into the CAS work currently undertaken by F-15 and F-16.

    The F-35 will also have an excellent career ahead of it as a reconaissance aircraft; its ability to "sniff" out electronic and radar emissions, to get electro-optical imagery at a long slant-range, its capacity to capture SAR imagery with short blasts of its powerful radar and not least its ability to infiltrate into airspace and much closer / into the enemy area, make it a very good intelligence-gathering platform.

    What is the only drawback area? Some would argue air-to-air combat. I personally think there are strong arguments why it would be very good in the modern air-to-air combat arena. In an era of data fusion and the ability to positively ID targets at long-range, in an age of long-range, ramjet-powered air-to-air missiles like Meteor, and all-aspect, HOBS, HMD-aimed missiles, the idea that manoeuvrability is even in the top three most important characteristics of a counter-air fighter seems somewhat anachronistic. What primarily makes the F-22 an extremely formidable fighter is its first-look, first-shot, first-kill capabilities. Its mix of all-aspect stealth with high use of sensitive passive sensors, the advanced computing algorithms and software that allows it to put together a picture of the airspace with sparing use of the LPI radar, these are what allow it in the first instance to be so successful. And those are things that the F-35 can do well too. Its stealth may not be as good as the F-22s, but its radar and passive sensors (both in ability to process and fuse, and also in the vintage and sophistication of its ESM and electro-optical systems) are far superior to F-22.

    The ability of, say, four F-22s to work together in a stealthy wolfpack, communicating quietly with their MADL datalink, with maybe flying in the front door using its radar to recon the enemy airspace while two others, flying below radar horizon and operating passively, to creep up and then smash into the side of enemy fighters with Meteor / AMRAAM missile shots... it's a much more tactical approach, much more about stealth, ambushes and surprise attacks, information asymmetry, where the first moment an enemy aircraft realises it is being engaged is when its Missile Approach Warning sensor goes off. In such a situation, an Su-35 might be able to dodge one or even two inbound Meteor / AMRAAM, but as it progressively loses (E-M) energy, the third or fourth incoming shots become deadly.

    So with the above you have a good air defence fighter, a good strike fighter / interdictor, a serviceable CAS platform, an excellent intelligence-gathering platform, and what could be a very good counter-air platform if well-trained pilots and battle managers are playing to its strengths, does that not seem like a pretty damn good all-rounder? When you consider what the average, middle power nation like Canada, or Belgium, needs out of their air force and the fact they can't afford to purchase more than one type of fast jet, doesn't that actually seem like an amazing deal if coming in at $85 million (what you'd spend anyway for a legacy 4th gen like Super Hornet, and considerably less than a Rafale)? You get an aircraft that allows you, as a nation like Canada or Australia or Belgium, to contribute to almost all aspects of coalition air operations, whether flying clean / stealthy on the first day of war or flying with externally-mounted weapons on hardpoints for interdiction or CAS missions on the 7th or 8th day.

    The only area in which it might not be excellent (air-to-air combat... and that is very much debateable), is the area in which a Canada or a Belgium will not be engaging unless it were part of a coalition anyway. Belgium will never be fighting Russia alone. Canada will never be fighting China alone. The F-35 seems like the Swiss Army Knife or aircraft, and an excellent contribution if need be to coalition operations.

    With all that in mind, I find it mind-boggling that people would propose that Canada get anything other than the F-35. 10 years ago, when all of the mainstream information about F-35 was mindlessly positive and there were all sorts of problems in the development programme, it was definitely ahead of the curve for someone to be aware of the issues with the aircraft. Now every mainstream media outlet attacks the F-35, its challenges are well-known but there is also significant information out there about its capabilities, people seem like they think bashing the F-35 means they're "woke" when in fact the people who actually know what they're talking about are saying it's shaping up to be a pretty good aircraft.

    Apologies again for the long post, if you got this far thanks so much for reading.
  • SpudmanWP
    Rank 5 Registered User
    • Jan 2009
    • 5292

    #2
    Just like any other "multirole fighter" in use today, "interception" is one of it's duties. Obviously as a multirole fighter, compromises were made so that it could do many missions. However, this does not mean that it will not do it's job well.

    To date, the F-35 has done very well in LFEs (Large Force Exercises) such as Red Flag, Northern Edge, etc where it has put up better than a 20:1 "kill" ratio. Keep in mind all of thoise LFEs were with pre Block 3F software like 2B and 3i so what is coming off the line today is even better. One of the most overlooked features of the F-35 that contributed to this was it's ability to identify a contact/threat. In Australian Parliamentary testimony years ago it was stated that a typical 4th gen fighter uses a dozen or so methods to ID a contact, the F-22 uses about 200 and the F-35 uses about 600. This ability to gather & share information it ID a contact is vital in the A2A role as it gives the pilot more time to make decisions.

    Obviously this 12:200:600 was a generalization and newer 4.5 Gen fighters like Rafale, Eurofighter, etc will do better than a dozen.

    Another feature that you touched on that is vital in the A2A role is MADL. It's ability to automatically and "stealthily" share information is key to any intercept if you want to ID the contact as soon as possible.

    Canada's F-35 issues have been messy from day one with a combination of good intentions (but bad policies) at the start & bitter politics at the present. Hopefully they can get their krap straight during the "next" eval.
    "The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese."

    Comment

    • bring_it_on
      2005-year of the RAPTOR!!
      • Jun 2004
      • 12480

      #3
      Mods - Can we please merge this with the F-35 discussion thread?
      Old radar types never die; they just phased array

      Comment

      • Marcellogo
        Rank 5 Registered User
        • Jun 2014
        • 1840

        #4
        F-35 was not designed with interception missions as a requisite given that both Usaf than the major partners involved i.e. Italy and Uk already have (or thought to have) this role covered respectively by F-22 and Typhoon.
        And yes F-35 is not just a good all rounder: it is an excellent A2G plane having capablity in this role akin to past generations specialized heavy strike planes like Su-24, F-111 or Tornado being in the same time capable of act as a true multirole fighter.
        Interception and air superiority roles are a completely different scenario and would require a whole different plane layout
        F-35 has an excellent engine and it is said to have a superb subsonic acceleration so it would not be hapless also in those arena but it is definitively its own playground.

        Comment

        • SpudmanWP
          Rank 5 Registered User
          • Jan 2009
          • 5292

          #5
          Interception and air superiority roles are a completely different scenario and would require a whole different plane layout
          Correct, sometimes I conflate the two when replying. Thanks for pointing that out.
          "The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese."

          Comment

          • judgefortescue
            Rank 1 Registered User
            • Dec 2018
            • 2

            #6
            @marcellogo

            F-35 was not designed with interception missions ... Interception and air superiority roles are a completely different scenario and would require a whole different plane layout
            Of course, I'm well aware that it wasn't designed for interceptor / air sovereignty missions. The point was that it nonetheless would carry out the role superbly, better than any other fighter on the market. It's for two reasons;

            (1) The ability to reach a genuine (not theoretical) mach 1.6 on clean load-out, and a sustained 1.2 mach on dry thrust for 250km. Very much unlike fourth-gen aircraft that are weighed down badly by hardpoints and external weapons / tanks

            (2) Its exceptional AESA radar that can quickly de-conflict crowded air corridors, working in conjunction with DAS and EOTS to classify aircraft and perhaps even provide details intel (for example, if a plane has gone off course due to damaged aileron; the F-35 will be able to see that from 30 or 40 miles out using optical / IR). DAS and EOTS will also be able to provide high-quality IMINT to analysts back on the ground, for example if it's an air sov mission over Estonia and the F-35 are intercepting Su-27 or Su-35; the DAS and EOTS will be running continuously hoovering up that IMINT for later consumption by hungry analysts at National Air and Space Intelligence Centre, painstakingly inspecting every rivet, every scratch, squeezing out every last droplet out of the rind. And of course the superb ESM system will allow it to efficiently "sniff" any radar the Su-27/35 emits if they are silly enough to turn it on.

            (3) Communications technology. MADL really is the future, and it will allow those hungry NASIC analysts on the ground back at Wright-Patterson to receive the high quality IMINT / ELINT data extremely quickly after the event, perhaps even during the event (although I understand that's not in the current block).

            I wrote a little scenario that I believe shows off the versatility of the F-35 in the interceptor / air sov mission, but really it's a demonstration of the extraordinary adaptability of the F-35. Those in the aviation field really need to be thinking about the future uses of aircraft, how the technology can be used in novel and unexpected ways. This is where the Russian air acquisition programme fails; they lack the technology to put this sort-of true next generation sensor fusion, content agnostic (Is it an AESA radar? Is it a comms transceiver array? Is it it a jammer? Could it be all three?), flexible network-centric model. Hence their obsession with thrust to weight ratios and maneuverability. Maneuverability means nothing if you get three Meteor missiles slam into left side, one after the other, because you didn't realise that the faint emitter and erratic target you thought you were detecting in front of you (the LPI radar and F-35) was actually just baiting you and getting targeting data while he vectored his mates in on your flank using the MADL datalink. F-35s potential is only barely now being understood, so too the nature of modern warfare

            ------------------------------

            When I mentioned "interceptor", I was using it in the sense most air forces use the designation (essentially officially tasked as air interceptor units, but in practice carrying out air sovereignty missions). For a country like Canada, the F-35 seems like the perfect all-rounder to contribute to any coalition, in any role (some better than others, in fairness), along with air sov missions at home where a clean config F-35, armed with maybe 2 x AIM-9X internal. One squadron in the east, one in the west.

            Scenario: An unknown aircraft has flown into Canadian airspace, it is neither responding to ATC radio calls nor is it transmitting Mode C. The ATC radars are only getting intermittent locks. The commanding general orders an intercept and the F-35, on a 5 minute alert, roars off the runway. Within 90 seconds, it has climbed to 55,000 feet. It is receiving datalink information from ground radars and Canadian ATC providing a very clear air picture on the F-35 pilot's screens, including identified civilian aircraft. The F-35 pilot is vectored into the last known location, about 100 miles north of the airport. He switches on his AN/APG-81 momentarily, on an LPI settting, as the F-35 fuses the radar data with the ground data, Mode C. The non-transmitting unknown aircraft now sticks out like a saw thumb and the pilot can use the flexibility of the F-35 cockpit interface to de-emphasise all confirmed civilian aircraft so he can concentrate on the unknown.

            The brief burst of radar from the AN/APG-81 provided airspeed, altitude and heading information, permitting the DAS to note and mark the large infrared signature coming from the unknown aircraft, even if it's only a blob of pixels right now. As the pilot doesn't know what he's dealing with, he proceeds cautiously as if it could have been a hostile fighter. The pilot uses the DAS data to fly a direct, rather than lead, intercept course. He would like to identify it but is still too far away. He descends to 32,000 feet, slows slightly and now at around 65 nautical miles out, he slaves the EOTS to the DAS-marked aircraft. With the high-fidelity IR camera in the EOTS, he gets a superb view of the unknown aircraft. It's a Learjet, and he can see a stream of warm jet fuel trailing from one of its nacelles. This obviously being a civilian aircraft, he reports back to base and is ordered to proceed at full mach 1.6 to the aircraft.

            When he arrives, he can see passengers in the window but they don't seem to be responding. He moves up to the cockpit and waves but no response. As it's getting darker / evening the pilot can't rely on visual sight, and uses the EOTS to zoom in on the passengers faces. This is also being beamed back to the analysts working under the commanding general. The people look quite clearly dead. The conclusion from the analysts is that there was some kind of depressurisation, that the plane will crash soon when it runs out of fuel but that it can be brought down safely now in this very remote region the aircraft is flying over.

            The order is given, but not before additional intelligence is gathered. Using remote control capabilities, one of the Defence Intelligence CNE experts at air headquarters takes control of the MADL antenna array on the F-35 and uses it to scan for Wi-Fi signals from the plane. He can see that the aircraft's wireless network is still active and onboard local network is still intact. They manage to get access to the WiFi system, router and IP logs. The officer, using the MADL as effectively a router in the air talking to the plane's router, wirelessly downloads all data available on the network as it will include internet searches made by the passengers in their last moments, it may be useful and give clues during the investigation. Once completed, the F-35 is given the order and he moves back four or five miles. He then squeezes the trigger and an AIM-9X is loosed. It hits the back end of the plane, tearing off the tail and one of the nacelles entirely. The aircraft goes into a death spiral.

            The DAS is maintaining visual contact on each of the major pieces (the fuselage, ripped off tail and nacelle). He follows the fuselage down until it hits the ground. He then uses his EOTS to record information about the crash site, and transmits the GPS co-ordinates back to base for the S&R helicopters to come. He then flies out to the other two pieces of wreckage, similarly using the EOTS to take imagery in the immediate aftermath of the crash, for later analysis, then providing the GPS co-ordinates.


            ------------------------------

            Comment

            • eagle
              Rank 5 Registered User
              • Jan 2000
              • 2382

              #7
              ...and a sustained 1.2 mach on dry thrust for 250km.
              No, the F-35 can't sustain supersonic speeds on dry thrust aka supercruise.

              Very much unlike fourth-gen aircraft that are weighed down badly by hardpoints and external weapons / tanks
              Weapons and fuel weigh exactly the same whether carried externally or internally. Same goes for hardpoints actually.
              Pylons true, but they're not that heavy.

              ...armed with maybe 2 x AIM-9X internal.
              AIM-9X is external only.
              How can less be more? It's impossible. More is more.
              Yngwie Malmsteen

              Comment

              • blackwood
                Rank 5 Registered User
                • Dec 2011
                • 314

                #8
                Hi Judgefortescue, you paint a very simple picture regards the S-400 battery.
                First of all the S-400 battery is protected by Panstairs, latest ones with asea radars, the newer systems have up to 18-24 missiles, plus there is normally 6 to 8 of these protecting S-400s.
                Then you have S-350 entering service this year, range up to 60km or more, they would also be around S-400s. Each carrys 12 missiles per launcher.
                Then you have Electronic counter measures vehicles, which try to fry the electronics of incoming missiles, plus a host of other vehicles of this like.
                Then your assuming no fighter jets in the air to counter F-35s.
                The world is not so simple
                Yes you have the other side trying to launch uavs that are decoys also, plus jamming decoys.

                Comment

                • LMFS
                  Rank 4 Registered User
                  • Feb 2018
                  • 561

                  #9
                  Would not think the interceptor role is the one at which F-35 would excel, even when its avionics are very advanced other characteristics, mainly of the airframe, are limiting it and putting it below the F-22 IMHO. Load / range / speed of the carried missiles is relatively low. Speed of the platform is low and transonic acceleration not brilliant. Flight altitude average at best. Range is pretty decent but not great and will suffer especially in supersonic speed due to the plane's aero design.

                  As interceptor you want to reach the point of interception before an enemy carrier has released its missile payload and in case needed to shot them down, hence acceleration and speed, missile type, missile load, flight altitude and range are vital. How a 1.6 M F-35 would intercept a 2 M Tu-160 carrying 12 x Kh-101/102 is not that clear to me.

                  Comment

                  • TomcatViP
                    Rank 5 Registered User
                    • Nov 2011
                    • 6122

                    #10
                    Well, if your target can't track or even see you, that's a huge bonus for the mission.

                    Last but not least, with no external drag penalty you can fly for real as fast and as long as it was marketed to you.

                    Comment

                    • Levsha
                      Rank 5 Registered User
                      • Jan 2006
                      • 2856

                      #11
                      No, the F-35 can't sustain supersonic speeds on dry thrust aka supercruise.
                      I always thought it could. Supercruise speed here would be no more than mach 1.2 of course - and the F-35 may need to use afterburner to reach this speed. But really the F-35 was never designed to be a supercruiseer - none of its mission profiles specify supercruise - but it's just a fact though that most combat jets today can supercruise if they carry little or no external stores, the F-35 is no exception.

                      Comment

                      • Levsha
                        Rank 5 Registered User
                        • Jan 2006
                        • 2856

                        #12
                        How a 1.6 M F-35 would intercept a 2 M Tu-160 carrying 12 x Kh-101/102 is not that clear to me.
                        It wouldn't. The Tu-160 is a stand-off bomber and would launch its cruise missiles well outside the F-35's, or any other interceptor's zone of operation. The F-35 would be tasked with shooting down the cruise missiles, not the bomber.

                        Comment

                        • halloweene
                          Rank 5 Registered User
                          • Jan 2012
                          • 4351

                          #13
                          while 4th gens have lower speeds due to drag created by targeting pods, fuel tanks, etc
                          Targeting pod for interception? And Rafale is able to fly M1.7 (reportedly) with three "supersonic" 1250L tanks. I guess typhoon can go even faster.

                          Comment

                          • FBW
                            FBW
                            Rank 5 Registered User
                            • Dec 2011
                            • 3294

                            #14
                            As interceptor you want to reach the point of interception before an enemy carrier has released its missile payload and in case needed to shot them down, hence acceleration and speed, missile type, missile load, flight altitude and range are vital. How a 1.6 M F-35 would intercept a 2 M Tu-160 carrying 12 x Kh-101/102 is not that clear to me.
                            well, because the closing speed would be upwards of 1,500 knots at altitude (not a very successful intercept if it turns into a tail chase).

                            There are different intercept missions-
                            point defense intercept (QRA)- requires quick scramble, climb, acceleration. Examples: F-104, EE Lightning, Su-11.
                            Area intercept- long range, persistence. Examples- MiG-31, F-106, Su-15
                            Except for Russia, most nations dont have any interest in a design optimized for the interception mission. Point defense interceptor tended to have poor range and utility in other mission sets, area defense interceptors tended to be large, expensive, and limited in other mission sets.

                            And Rafale is able to fly M1.7 (reportedly) with three supersonic 1250L tanks.
                            Sure can. Not sure of your point though. The Rafale is limited to 750kts/Mach 1.8 and the F-35 to 700kts/Mach 1.6. Ill never understand the obsession with top speeds for some on here (which enforce the false narrative of the F-35 being too slow for intercepts). Most fighters can maintain these speeds for only a short time before going bingo. If some think that a 50 knots CAS (70ish knots TAS) at 30+ thousand feet speed differential between these aircraft (especially considering fuel burn at those speeds) is a significant factor, your living in a video game reality of fighter performance.

                            I certainly wouldnt consider the F-35 to be a particularly hot point defense interceptor ala EE Lightning, its transonic acceleration is comparable to competitors loaded (multiple missiles, pylons, EFT) but suffers when compared to a slicked off Typhoon/Rafale et al. But with its considerable range, fuel fraction, and demonstrated supersonic persistence, it will be suitable in the area intercept mission (such a Canada would need).
                            Last edited by FBW; 11th January 2019, 20:31.

                            Comment

                            • SpudmanWP
                              Rank 5 Registered User
                              • Jan 2009
                              • 5292

                              #15
                              If it's a standoff bomber then it will never be a tail-chase as they launched long before you could get there.

                              If it's a standard bomber/fighter intercept then it won't be a tail-chase till after they detect you.. which will be long after you launch your missiles.
                              "The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese."

                              Comment

                              • garryA
                                Rank 5 Registered User
                                • Dec 2015
                                • 1120

                                #16
                                Load / range / speed of the carried missiles is relatively low.
                                I don't think range/speed of something like Meteor or JNAAM gonna be low.
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                                Load out is depend on mission requirement, not necessary low
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                                How a 1.6 M F-35 would intercept a 2 M Tu-160 carrying 12 x Kh-101/102 is not that clear to me.
                                Not even Mig-31 gonna intercept these bombers since Kh-102 range was advertised to be around 3000-5000 km
                                Last edited by garryA; 12th January 2019, 02:40.

                                Comment

                                • eagle
                                  Rank 5 Registered User
                                  • Jan 2000
                                  • 2382

                                  #17
                                  I always thought it could. Supercruise speed here would be no more than mach 1.2 of course - and the F-35 may need to use afterburner to reach this speed. But really the F-35 was never designed to be a supercruiseer - none of its mission profiles specify supercruise - but it's just a fact though that most combat jets today can supercruise if they carry little or no external stores, the F-35 is no exception.
                                  The F-35 can't. It has been discussed ad nauseam so I can't be bothered to search for a source.
                                  Maybe things will chance with more powerful engines.
                                  How can less be more? It's impossible. More is more.
                                  Yngwie Malmsteen

                                  Comment

                                  • Siddar
                                    Rank 5 Registered User
                                    • Feb 2013
                                    • 263

                                    #18
                                    Your incorrect here initial claim was 250 km of sustained flight without after burners. That claim is from official brochures of the F35. Those list the initial super cruise was acheaved using after burner to go transonic then they were cut out. Still I will take 1000 km range subsonic over 250 km super cruising on all but the edge case of use.

                                    Comment

                                    • TomcatViP
                                      Rank 5 Registered User
                                      • Nov 2011
                                      • 6122

                                      #19
                                      Don't forget the capability to cruise at high mach for long range (~0.95+) and the inherent saving of fuel for not having to lit the burner (as much) before firing a missile (higher, faster cruise).

                                      Comment

                                      • Levsha
                                        Rank 5 Registered User
                                        • Jan 2006
                                        • 2856

                                        #20
                                        Don't forget the capability to cruise at high mach for long range (~0.95+) and the inherent saving of fuel for not having to lit the burner (as much) before firing a missile (higher, faster cruise).
                                        I don't think high subsonic speeds are really relevant in an air-intercept mission? In any case I think all the euro-canards are capable of cruising at 0.9 mach, with lots of external stores too?

                                        Comment

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