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More F-22s at the expense of the F35? No thanks

I’m sympathetic with the argument – even in this era of austerity – that DoD made a mistake by stopping the production of the F-22 Raptor.  It is the premier air superiority fighter in the world (5th generation stealth).  It was designed to keep our edge in air superiority/air dominance that we’ve enjoyed for 56 years or since the Korean war (no soldier or Marine on the ground has been killed in that time frame by enemy air).

But in a recent WSJ article (subscription), Michael Auslin attempts to make the case that F-22 production ought to be revived (I agree) and paid for by cutting F-35s (I disagree).  Yes,  I think we need more F-22s.  We’ve manufactured about 180 to replace a fleet of 4th generation air superiority fighters than number 800.  Not exactly a number that is able to give us the flexibility we need to do all the missions those 800 allowed us.

So Auslin’s arguments that we need more F-22s make sense.

What doesn’t make sense are his arguments that F-35s should be cut to do so.  He gives three reasons why the F-22 should be funded via cuts in F-35s:

• The emergence of foreign challengers. Russia and China are steadily developing heavy, twin- engine aircraft with stealth capabilities. Based on their size and potential capabilities, the smaller, single-engine F-35 probably will not have the speed or power to compete.

The Chinese ostentatiously first test-flew their J-20 prototype last month during Mr. Gates’s visit to Beijing. Western analysts are still debating the plane’s capabilities. Some believe it will serve as a supersonic fighter-bomber, given its large size (more than 20% bigger than the F-22 itself). Whatever the ultimate capabilities of the J-20 or the Russian PAK-FA turn out to be, we can expect more surprises in their development. The U.S. government apparently did not know about two new Chinese nuclear submarine models until they were revealed on the Internet several years ago.

Here’s a dirty little secret – speed and power aren’t what will determine who wins future battles between 5th generation fighters. As missile and radar technology have advanced over the years, those type fights have taken place at longer and longer range – to include over the horizon attacks. What will determine who will win those type fights is the range, reliability and speed of the missiles and the ability of the radar systems on board to detect the enemy before he detects you.

It really doesn’t matter how many engines an aircraft has or how fast it can go, a manned aircraft cannot outrun a missile. If the F-35 has the better missiles and the better and longer range detection capability, it should do just fine.

• Sophisticated air defenses are a growing threat to American fighters. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, among others, are developing and fielding integrated air-defense systems, including interlinked radar sites and advanced surface-to-air missiles such as the S-400. The lower operational ceiling of the F-35 (around 40,000 feet) and its subsonic cruising speed means it will be at much higher risk in attempting to penetrate such heavily defended airspace.

The F-22 was designed precisely to fight and survive in such environments—as attested by its 60,000-foot operational ceiling and supercruise (cruising at plus-mach speeds without afterburners) ability.

This is simply not accurate. Air superiority fighters do not take out enemy air defenses and the operational ceiling or speed has little if anything to do with any ability to accomplish that mission. The military has a doctrine which is called Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) which requires strikes on enemy air defense sites before we introduce air superiority platforms such as the F-22 into the conflicted air space.

Aircraft of choice? Multi-role fighters. Presently the Airforce uses the F-16, a multi-role single engine fighter with HARM missiles. The Navy and Marine Corps use the F/A 18, a multi-role fighter. The F-35 is perfect for the role … not the F-22.

• F-35 delays and cost overruns. The JSF program has run into numerous delays and cost increases, with the unit price of each plane nearing $100 million. In early January, Mr. Gates put the F-35B program on hold for two years, as its vertical take-off-and-landing capabilities ran into significant development problems. Many industry observers question whether the F-35 will reach initial operating capability before the end of this decade. And given the rising costs of the plane, the likelihood of further procurement cuts is very real, putting the F-35 potentially on the same death-spiral as the F-22.

Again, not really accurate. The F-35 is well on its way to reaching "initial operating capability" before the end of the decade. The A and C variants (The Airforce and Navy) are on target and ahead in their flight testing programs. The B variant (the STVOL Marine Corps version) is the one that has given the most problems, but it appears the problems are known, understood and not show stoppers.

Look, the F-35 is a developmental aircraft. That means they’re taking something from concept to reality based on capabilities the customer (in this case DoD) has asked for. That means you design, test, refine, retest, fix and finally deploy the product. It’s a long and laborious process that, as you might imagine, costs money. However, the F-35 cost model is based on consistent and predictable increases in production rates to maintain program affordability. If the current production projections are maintained, the average unit cost of the Conventional Take Off and Landing variant (the Airforce model) will be about $65M (in 2010 dollars). That’s about the same cost as a fully mission equipped 4th generation F-16 costs today.

What Auslin wants to do is cut the production rate of F-35s (in favor of more F-22s) which would make the cost problem he quotes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I think Auslin is right about needing more F-22s. I don’t disagree in the least.  Even in these days of austerity, I think closing down the production line for these aircraft is a strategic mistake. We many not need 800 of them, but we need more than the number we’ve now produced.

However, I think doing so at the expense of the F-35 would be a bigger mistake. Both aircraft are vital to our ability to dominate the battlefield of the future, both in the air and on the ground. Like it or not, our potential enemies are going to build and field 5th generation fighters that we may meet someday in combat. Both of these aircraft will be vital to our effort then. What we don’t need is cannibalizing capability on one side to pay for it on the other. We can be sure those building rival 5th generation fighter aircraft certainly won’t.



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21 Responses to More F-22s at the expense of the F35? No thanks

  • “As missile and radar technology have advanced over the years, those type fights have taken place at longer and longer range – to include over the horizon attacks.”
    Not really.  Every ten years or so someone trots out this old saw.  Hey we don’t need to see the target to fire missiles or drop bombs on it!  We press buttons and they die before they even see us!  Then an airliner is where it shouldn’t be and gets blown up with huge loss of life.  Or we drop bombs on blind coordinates only to find someone fat-fingered the coords or a guidance malfunction dumb-dropped them into the good guys.  Then we go back to the old rules requiring visually verifying what the computers are telling us.
    Just about every aircraft designed from the 4th generation on has been designed for medium to close range air combat.  Lots of maneuverability through big lifting surfaces and vectored thrust.

    • That suggests a stupid over-reaction to a regrettable (terrible) reality of war (people die…some of them innocent), not a fundamental problem with 1) technology, or 2) the doctrine that optimizes the technology.
      PC kills.

    • Yeah really … we’re seeing huge changes is radar technology such that in the time envelope these fighters may meet, it will indeed be the deciding factor – how easily you can spot him and how far away. Rarely will there ever be line-of-sight engagements, and if there are, that’s what the F-22 is for.

  • Gotta say, I’ve seen the Raptor do it’s paces for an audience up close, it does some things I’ve only seen stunt aircraft do, and a couple I’ve never seen anything else do.   The thing practically seethes power.

    I wish the stills I took had been videos instead, better yet, I wish Dale had been there with some of HIS cameras!

    I’m not sure I have a complete appreciation for the F-35, it’s a nice concept, but I’m afraid it’ll be like other aircraft we’ve developed over the years, kinda good at a couple things, but not outstanding.  I’d love to be wrong though, son #2’s job sorta depends on the success of the F-35.

    • It is a multi-role strike fighter. Think E6B, F-16, F/A 18, F-15 strike eagle, A/V8B. That’s the role it has and some of the aircraft it will replace. It will also have a sensor array that will make it much more survivable in combat than 4th gen strike fighters.

    • From what I understand, the development of the F-35 wasn’t to design a plane that was excellent at any one thing, but reasonably good at many things.  For example, the A-10 is excellent at close air support, but it would never survive a dog fight.  The F-4 was fast, but not good at close-range engagements (at least at first).  The F-35 is meant to be good at most roles.  Also, the joint development is meant to spread the design and development cost amongst the services, something practically required with tight DoD budgets and high costs of development.  So, yes, it’s not outstanding, but that wasn’t the point.

      • Yeah … that’s the definition of a “multi-role” fighter, Justin. We’ve been building them for years. They do lots of things. They do recon, intel gathering, (close air support), it does SEAD, it does BAI (Battlefield Air Interdiction), and more. That’s it’s job. That is not the job of an F22. That’s why we have to have both. One to keep the air clear and the other to do all the multitude of jobs a multi-role fighter is tasked to do.

        • I admit, when you check the load out – using internal only bays, on the F-22, it’s obvious what it’s intended for.  

        • Sort of by definition, an air superiority fighter is a UNI-TASKER.  I has to be the baddest thing in the sky…or close enough so that the tactical edge is won by…you know…tactics
          I think it will be fun when we send clouds of nanobots to seek out air intakes…

        • I totally agree with you.  I was simply addressing looker’s lament that the F-35 wouldn’t be outstanding at any one thing.  I don’t think the services really want or need a dozen different aircraft that specialize at just one job.  I also agree that the F-22 is a critical piece of the puzzle because it does a role that the F-35 can’t.  We need both and we need them in sufficient numbers.  The cost per plane really isn’t the question to me.  The question should be “What are we willing to spend to ensure that our troops, bases, and ships are safe from enemy attacks?”  That gets a very different response.

  • “Just about every aircraft designed from the 4th generation on has been designed for medium to close range air combat.”

    But the reason for this has been a compromise between technical capability, operational requirements, and rules of engagement.  If you have a definitive capability to determine the origin of a target beyond visual range (BVR) then to shoot without visual identifiction is authorized if that action is consistent with the current rules of engagement (ROE).  The F-15 has this capability but rarely employs it becasue of ROE.

    The weapons suite employed by the F-22 and its super-cruise capability give it a huge BVR capability, one that effectively removes the need for the enhanced maneuverability given it by vectored thrust.  It has the vectored thrust because of potential ROE restictions which woyuld force it into a visual and therefore a turning fight.  ROEs are as much political in nature as they are reflections of operational constraints.  (Note: Even the old F-4 Phantom had a BVR capability.)

    The F-35, while optimized for the multi-role fighter, does not have super-cruise and will lose an engagement with an opponent that employs that capability.  So, as such it epitomizes the mult-role mission but with a considerable air-to-air bite similar to the aircraft it replaces, the F-16.

  • I’m hoping that UPVs (sorry if that’s not the cool term for pilotless) will leap-frog a lot of these decisions.  We may always need human brains in a cockpit, but I’m hoping we can minimize them in favor of aircraft that are not limited by physiology.

  • Unfortunately, the F-22 is a dog. It represents old technology, developed to counter the threat of cold-war Russian planes which never materialized. It may be a joy to fly, but it’s a hangar queen.

    It has consistently failed to meet readiness tests. According to the Washington Post, “at the plane’s first operational flight test in September 2004, it fully met two of 22 key requirements and had a total of 351 deficiencies; in 2006, it fully met five; in 2008, when squadrons were deployed at six U.S. bases, it fully met seven.”

    For every hour it spends in the air, it requires more than 30 hours of maintenance. This is a trend which is getting worse, not better, the reverse of the usual scenario for a new technology.

    The radar absorbing skin is vulnerable to rain and abrasion: “Skin problems — often requiring re-gluing small surfaces that can take more than a day to dry — helped force more frequent and time-consuming repairs, according to the confidential data drawn from tests conducted by the Pentagon’s independent Office of Operational Test and Evaluation between 2004 and 2008.”

    “The plane’s million-dollar radar-absorbing canopy has also caused problems, with a stuck hatch imprisoning a pilot for hours in 2006 and engineers unable to extend the canopy’s lifespan beyond about 18 months of flying time.”

    Lastly, the cost was knowingly underestimated: “John Hamre, the Pentagon’s comptroller from 1993 to 1997, says the department approved the plane with a budget it knew was too low because projecting the real costs would have been politically unpalatable on Capitol Hill.”

    The result of going back into production with this plane will be a cannibalization of other Air Force programs, and an overall decrease in readiness. Given the choice between a pretty, fast, expensive plane like the F-22 or F-117 versus an ugly, slow, cheap plane like the A-10, the Air Force always goes with the flashy option, regardless of performance.

    • Wow, I’m surprised someone like you would write that.  An A-10 is like a bone saw.  The F-22 like a arthroscope.  Both very useful tools in COMPLETELY different settings.

  • The real world has a way of changing how aircraft are used. The F-4 was designed to be a long-range interceptor to protect their aircraft carrier, missiles only, no gun. The F-16 was designed as a lightweight air superiority fighter. The B-52 as a high altitude nuclear bomber. Etc.

    As for long-distance engagements, stealth technology is not restricted to our side, and SShiell is correct about ROE. For a number of reasons, range of engagement restrictions are imposed.  

  • ya they said that in nam, we dont need guns anymore we have missles… , and looked what happened…. there are ways to counter missile guidance systems….while we will only have 187 f-22 the chinese,russians and indians will pump out thousands of their 5 th gen fighters sell them to everyone and simply overwhelm us. they have higher loss tolerances then we do. stalin said quantity has a quality of its own. and about the f-35 all it is a glofied f16 with stealth ,its frontal radar signature is low but its left and right are higher. overall the taxpayer is getting screwed by lockmart, and for someone that constantly taking about government accountability this program is a overpriced much killing this repeating failing program that is 1/3 over budget. i guess waste is ok as long as it keeps jobs in certain districts. all in the name of defense. in the end we will pay for these poor decisions with american lives.