Free Markets, Free People

Michael Auslin

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.

~McQ

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