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.
"There has not been a single soldier or Marine who lost his life in combat due to a threat from the air in over 56 years."
Let that statement sink in for a minute. The reason we’ve not lost a single soldier or Marine to enemy air is we’ve maintained such a dominant edge in both technology, ability and numbers that no enemy has been able to challenge our dominance of the air over any battlefield on which we’ve fought since Korea.
The military defines air superiority as "that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”
But that dominance and superiority in the air are in serious jeopardy. In our drive to cut budgets, we are about to cut capability instead of costs. And that could result in a serious threat to the war fighting ability of our military and eventually threaten our national security. There is a developing fighter gap and if it continues as it is presently proceeding, it may be unrecoverable.
A short digression to make a point. There are two basic types of fighter aircraft in our inventory today. One is the air superiority fighter. Its job is to establish and maintain air superiority so that opposing aircraft don’t pose a threat to other air operations and our ground forces. Imagine how difficult the use of attack helicopters would be in support of ground operations if the enemy was the superior force in the air. So that air superiority fighter works to keep the skies clear of enemy fighters to allow the second type of fighter to work under that umbrella. That’s something we’ve successfully done for 56 years.
That second type of fighters is the strike fighter which is usually a multirole fighter with a mission of support for ground operations. They can deliver close air support or go deep and hit key targets that will help cripple the enemy’s ability to fight.
At the moment, we have a fleet of 4th generation air superiority fighters (F15’s, etc.) that numbers about 800. Those fighters have reached the end of their service life and technology has advanced such that their effectiveness has been badly degraded. The F-22 Raptor, a 5th generation air superiority fighter, was developed to replace the aging 4th generation fleet, and the original plan was to buy 700 of them.
The aircraft is expensive at over $300 million a copy, but it is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world and maintains our edge over would be competitors/enemies. But with cuts in the budget becoming a priority, the Defense Department made the decision to limit the number of F-22’s it would buy to 187 and then shut down production. 187 5th generation air superiority fighters doesn’t even begin to replace the 800 4th generation fighters we have. In fact, the Air Force has conducted over 30 studies which all agree the bare minimum that the Air Force needs to maintain a minimal air superiority capability is 260 F-22s. But the last F-22 has been made, the production line is shutting down and the high paying jobs it created going away.
We’re seeing much the same scenario played out with the other critical player in our fighter future – the F-35. Designed as a multi-role joint strike fighter, the F-35 brings advanced stealth and other technology to the strike fighter role. As with any developmental aircraft it has had its share of problems, but now seems to be on course to fulfill the promise it holds to deliver an aircraft superior to all the other strike aircraft in the world.
But again, we see talk about cutting capability in the name of cutting cost. The promised number to be purchased both by the US and it’s 7 partners continues to shrink. We’re being told we can’t "afford" the F-35. The real question, given the possible ramifications of having too few survivable air superiority or strike fighters is can we afford not to buy them?
Certainly we can "upgrade" the non-stealthy and aged 4th generation fighters. But the emergence of competitive 5th generation fighters in Russia (T-50) and China (J-20) mean that as soon as the competitive aircraft are fielded, our pilots flying those old fighters are essentially cannon fodder and our ground troops become vulnerable.
While it is certain cutbacks in defense spending are necessary, they must not jeopardize our military’s survival or our national security. 5th generation air superiority and strike fighters are critical to both.
Those making the hard budget decisions to come must remember the opening line above. Air superiority and the ability to deliver ordnance and survive are critical tasks that cannot be "cut" for austerity’s sake. And we must ensure our military not only has the best fighters we can produce, but enough of them to do their mission of keeping our nation secure.
[First published in the Washington Examiner]