All planes do the same job all the time

Or: They do if you’re a “journalist”.

ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook takes the time to lambaste the F-22 and its supporters in his annual TMQ Bad Predictions Review.  Makes for a funny read, but it’s absolutely, factually incorrect on almost everything it mentions about the embattled fighter.

Air Force top brass desperately want to buy more F-22 fighter planes; Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a George W. Bush appointee who is staying on in the Obama administration, wants to end F-22 production. The Raptor is the best fighter any nation has ever built, but it was designed for a mission that no longer exists — Cold War air superiority against top Soviet interceptors.

— Gregg Easterbook, “TMQ’s annual Bad Predictions Review“, ESPN Page 2, February 10th, 2009.

Yes, the Raptor was designed to fight and win against top-notch Soviet air superiority fighters.  It was also designed to penetrate modern integrated air defence systems and deliver a knockout punch to C4ISR and AAA systems, which is why it carries ground attack weapons as well as air-to-air missiles.  It was designed to be a “Day One” fighter, meaning it is the bird you send against the enemy force on the very first day of the conflict, when the OPFOR is well-prepared and has the fullest range of countering forces available.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, but are there any other nations on earth with air superiority fighters and modern intergated air defence systems?  Why yes.  Almost all of them.  Including such possible sparring partners as China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.  And why do they have them?  To compromise the effectiveness of the enemy’s air forces.  “Vega 31” is proof that even the vaunted F-117 could be tracked and bagged by modern-day air defence systems, yet we are supposed to believe that no other adversary the US will face off against in the next 30-40 years will bother to upgrade their air defences, because… well just because.

There is no other aircraft in the current US inventory that possesses the F-22’s first-day stealthy air-air, air-ground mix.  None.

But although the aircraft has been operational for three years, the Raptor has never been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, suggesting F-22s lack utility in the low-intensity conflicts expected to characterize future warfare.

You don’t use a laser scalpel to open a bottle of wine, either.  The F-22 is first a stealthy air dominance fighter, second a stealthy ground-attack aircraft.  How many aircraft do the Taliban field?  How many SAM sites ring their HQs and major logistics centres?  Oh, right.  Maybe you want to deploy the F-22 to deter opponents who actually have that stuff.  Like say, China.  Not coincidentally, F-22s go on frequent rotation to Guam and Japan.  Go figure.

At any rate, the Air Force already has 180 F-22s. That seems plenty, considering no other nation is even attempting to build a fighter matching the Raptor’s characteristics.

Those “no other nations” being India, developing the MCA; South Korea, developing the KFX; China, developing the Shenyang J-XX; Russia, developing the Sukhoi PAK-FA and (with India) the derivative FGFA.  Clearly, the Raptor has the field all to itself.  Contrary to thousands of years of human history, in the 21st century, no other nation will ever attempt to develop the military capabilities the United States has right now.

Gates wants to stop production because the F-22 is very expensive and, as a nearly 20-year-old design, is in some ways already obsolete compared with the upcoming F-35 fighter, which costs less.

The F-35 has benefited from F-22 development and production, notably in integration of mission systems and avionics.  Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for both aircraft, is on record as trying to commonize the complex electronic systems aboard each aircraft (this Military & Aerospace Electronics post provides several good examples).  F-35 technologies are cheaper because they were first developed for the F-22.  Innovations in the F-35 will be back-fitted to the F-22 fleet, as time and funding priorities allow.  The Air Force does plan for its assets to be upgraded over the course of their lifetimes.  That’s why there are still Eisenhower-vintage KC-135s and Kennedy-vintage B-52s still flying today.

The F-35 is purpose-built to be a cheaper multi-role (but primarily ground attack) fighter, a replacement for the F-16 and F/A-18.  I am sure it will be a stellar combat system, like its predecessors.  But it is not built to tackle the same challenges as the F-22, any more than a Formula One car and a World Rally Car are built to tackle the same course.  The F-35 is a good compromise between stealth, air dominance, ground attack and ELINT—but it will never be as capable in any single role as an aircraft excusively designed to fulfil that role.  That is the tradeoff inherent in multi-role birds; always has been, always will be.

I cannot think of a single F-22 system that has been completely obsoleted by the F-35.  Unless, of course, we are comparing apples (like the V/STOL or carrier version of the F-35) to oranges (the F-22 that was never intended to be V/STOL or carrier-based).

But Air Force leadership is not excited by drones. If anything, Air Force leadership is worried that drone aircraft will soon put flyboys out of business. (Look up the X-47 in Wikipedia; not only is it pilot-less but it’s a Navy idea.)

The Air Force has more than doubled the number of UCAS CAPs it can fly over Afghanistan and Iraq, and it continues to increase that number.  It is committed to the joint fight, make no mistake.

The X-47, incidentally, is not a tool to put airmen out of business; someone with naval aviator skills still needs to fly it.  These UAV things don’t fly themselves, you know.  Furthermore, the stealthy X-47 will never obsolete the F-22; the drone is designed for ground attack, not air dominance.  In “I-didn’t-do-my-homework” journalism-speak, that means the X-47 cannot turn and burn with enemy aircraft and hope to win.  It will get splashed.

What the Air Force is not excited about is focusing on today’s small conflicts and ignoring the possibility of conflict with bigger adversaries due to the United States’ global security guarantees.  To be blunt, there is no UCAS extant today that can fight its way through enemy air combat air patrols.  Drones are a wonderful thing for men on the ground, but they need the assurance of free airspace overhead.  If they have to fly and fight in contested airspace, they are slow-moving, ungainly and uh.. unarmed meat.

UCAS needs a permissive environment (i.e. free of enemy aircraft), and the F-22 is a tool for attaining that air dominance.

Now, what’s the tool for journalistic fact-checking?  Oh yeah—Google.  Hopefully Mr. Easterbrook will learn to use it.

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