Can the Fighter Force Hold Its Edge?

Jan. 1, 2000

The Air Force’s ability to guarantee control of the skies over any present or future battlefield is becoming precarious. The long defense procurement “holiday” of the 1990s has produced an Air Force of aging fighters that are coming up against a new and advanced foreign fighter and missile threat. Further delay in modernizing the fleet could have painful consequences and directly affect the ability of the US to act militarily when and where it chooses.

USAF is having to conduct a kind of programmatic triage, patching up the most fatigued elements of its aging fighter force as well as it can until replacements start reaching squadron service. Technological Band-Aids are being applied to the frequently deployed fighters, which have been called on so often this decade that the Air Force has had to restructure itself into expeditionary groups to manage the strain. Recent Congressional action challenging the expense of-and need for-replacement fighters has only complicated the problem.

Under Joint Vision 2010, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s current operational template, the Air Force’s first job is to clear the skies of enemy aircraft, making it possible to use theater ports, assemble air, ground, and naval forces, and halt an enemy advance. The concept depends on sensor platforms like the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to provide a comprehensive view of the battlespace and relies on the Air Force to protect those key assets with its fighters. If the Air Force failed in those crucial first steps of any future war, US forces would be hard-pressed to make much headway against a determined foe, let alone achieve the lopsided victories seen in the Gulf or the Balkans.

Wearing Out

The Air Force’s fighters, however-all of which were designed in the 1970s or earlier-are of a vintage now being eclipsed in performance by first-class warplanes being built by a European consortium and in Russia, France, and elsewhere. Perhaps even more critical, sophisticated new air-to-air and Surface-to-Air Missiles are proliferating and available to any country with the cash to pay. US fighters are either losing their technical edge or simply wearing out.

Though the fighter fleet is expected to be able-with new weapons and upgrades-to handle any adversary for the next decade, literal as well as metaphorical cracks are beginning to show in the air dominance the nation has come to expect.

Gen. (sel.) Gregory S. Martin, principal deputy to the Air Force’s acquisition executive, said in a Pentagon press conference last summer that USAF could still probably prevail in an air war a decade hence. However, the risks faced by US troops would have expanded considerably.

With only today’s fighters in the force, Martin said, “I don’t think we’re going to lose the air war in 2010. I just think we’re going to see more people come home in body bags.”

Maj. Gen. Claude M. Bolton Jr., USAF program executive officer for fighters and bombers, said that, if the Air Force is not allowed to expeditiously replace its airplanes with the next generation of fighters, combat losses can be expected.

Noting that the F-15-the premier US fighter since the mid-1970s-is already at parity with the performance of the Russian MiG-29 and Su-27/35, Eurofighter Typhoon, and French Rafale, Bolton said that “right now, the way I see the threat, if we don’t make some changes in the equipment that we provide to the warfighter, we will have F-15s shot out of the sky.”

Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said it was only a matter of “incredibly good fortune” that NATO did not lose any aircrews in the recent Balkans conflict. Still, two aircraft–an F-16 and a stealthy F-117–were brought down by Serb SAMs. Operation Allied Force would have been a “very different war” if Serb forces had possessed late-model Russian fighters or SAMs, Jumper said.

Lt. Gen. (sel.) Bruce A. Carlson, then director of operational requirements for the Air Force, said bluntly that “if we run the F-15 against the Rafale, or Typhoon, or Su-35, we would probably lose those fights.” Moreover, since the Air Force fights not on its own turf but at the enemy’s doorstep, “we don’t fight with our entire force against theirs at one time. So the first squadron [sent against an enemy] may have to fight three wings–200 to 300 airplanes.” The F-15 would not be up to such a task unless the adversary was a “third-rate nation” without much of an air force to speak of, he said.

The US can’t expect that a future enemy will follow the example of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and “give us six months to get ready” for war, Carlson observed.

In terms of F-15s, “we consider ourselves limited in certain respects now,” said Col. Doug Lincoln, Air Combat Command mission area requirements chief. He noted, “We never flew F-15s over downtown Baghdad [in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm], and I think we avoided some places even in Kosovo because of the threat” of air defenses.

Residual Edge

“We hold a little bit of an edge [against potential threat aircraft] still because we can sustain our fleet a little bit better, and we have better training than the people we’re facing,” Lincoln said. However, he added, “We consider those to be perishable items [if an adversary were to] get serious” about building up a credible air force.

The USAF fighter fleet has been streamlined from eight types in the early 1990s to just five now: the A-10, F-15, F-15E, F-16, and F-117. According to Carlson, the fighter force breaks down to “about 25 percent [dedicated to] air dominance–that’s the F-15s–50 percent multirole F-16s, and 25 percent interdictors, which is the F-15Es and F-117.” The A-10 is a close air support attack aircraft.

The Air Force hopes to consolidate the types it operates even further, to only two: the F-22–which will replace the F-15 as the dedicated air dominance fighter–and the Joint Strike Fighter, which will replace the multirole F-16 and the A-10. A decision on what will replace the deep-strike F-15E and F-117 has not been made, but it will likely be a variant of either the F-22 or JSF.

The F-22 incorporates a number of capabilities never before achieved in a true maneuvering fighter airplane. It will be as much as 80 times less visible on radar than the F-15, allowing it to spot and shoot at an enemy airplane before the opponent could see it and shoot. Its stealth will allow it to get close enough to a ground target to release a Joint Direct Attack Munition and start to leave the target area before the bombs even hit.

With an operating altitude of more than 50,000 feet, the F-22 can fly above the envelopes of even many of the newest SAMs, and its ability to supercruise–fly at Mach 1.5 without using afterburner–means it can vault over enemy air defenses and be out of range before it could be spotted and fired on. Should the F-22 have to engage in a dogfight, its agility is comparable to the F-16, and it can safely recover from an attitude of 60 degrees angle of attack.

The F-22 is supposed to require far less maintenance and deployment gear than the F-15 and can accommodate new capabilities through software upgrades or even new kinds of microprocessors. Its onboard computing power will be able to take information from a host of offboard sensors-satellites, AWACS, Joint STARS, other fighters–and present the pilot with a clear, unambiguous display explaining who is in the battlespace, what side they’re on, and who poses the most immediate threat.

Fighters High and Low

The F-22 and JSF would be the new version of the Air Force’s high-low mix-reflecting a philosophy of using a smaller number of expensive, highly capable airplanes backed up by a larger number of less costly, multimission aircraft. The concept follows the template set by the F-15 and the F-16, which has proved highly successful, Carlson asserted.

The F-22 is due to achieve Initial Operational Capability with one squadron in December 2005. The Air Force plans to acquire 36 F-22s a year at peak, concluding a planned buy of 339 airplanes by 2011. The JSF is to be bought beginning in 2008 and achieve IOC with the Air Force in 2010, and the service plans to acquire 1,763 of them. The US Navy, Marine Corps, and UK Royal Navy are also partners on the JSF.

The buy of 339 F-22s is the latest benchmark in a long line of reductions taken since the program got its initial go-ahead in the early 1980s, when 750 of the aircraft were anticipated. Through three subsequent strategy reviews, the F-22 fleet was whittled down to the 339 figure-roughly three wings’ worth-a number that does not match with the four wings of F-15s considered essential to fulfilling the national military strategy of being able to win two overlapping Major Theater Wars.

The latest figure is a product of several factors, Carlson said.

One is “pressure from a declining force structure.” From a high of nearly 39 wings in the mid-1980s, the Air Force has been reduced to about 20 fighter wings, which obliged USAF to “get rid of some of our specialized airplanes, such as the F-4G, EF-111, and F-111,” Carlson reported.

Another reason, though, he said, is the “significantly greater capability” in the F-22. As currently envisioned, two F-22 wings would deploy to the MTW where their advanced technologies would be most needed, while the other wing, supplemented by newer F-15s and even late-model F-16s, would take on the lesser threat in the second MTW. After the tougher adversary was beaten, some F-22s would swing to the second war.

Bolton said that the decision to build only 339 F-22s was a Department of Defense-wide choice.

“That was … the department getting together and [deciding] … what the military should look like. … When it came to fighter planes, our compromise was 339. But a compromise is what it implies. … You win a bit, you lose a bit.”

However, Carlson noted that the Quadrennial Defense Review left the door open for purchase of up to two more wings of F-22s.

In the 1997 document, which laid the groundwork for service budget choices, Carlson said, “The Secretary of Defense allowed a statement … that said the Air Force could evaluate the requirement for two air-to-ground wings of missionized F-22s,” meaning F-22s configured to do the job now performed by the F-15E and F-117. Both aircraft types will need replacement starting at about the time the F-22 line is winding down, circa 2011-15. The idea is to extend the F-22 production-by that point, running at peak efficiency and lowest cost-to generate the required interdictor replacements.

Significant Advance

The F-22’s radar cross section is considered to be at least on a par with the F-117, and certainly far less than the F-15E. Given its supercruise and stealth capability, it would be a significant advance over the F-15E and F-117 in the strike role. The F-22 as now configured will be able to carry two 1,000-pound JDAMs, but weapons of 10 to 20 years hence are expected to be more precise and carry greater explosive yield in a smaller round.

The F-15 fleet was bought mainly in the early 1980s. The average age of the F-15s is nearly 20 years; by the time the F-22 reaches IOC, the average age of the F-15 fleet will be 26 years. The type has a design life of 8,000 hours and most of the fleet has already passed the 5,000-hour mark, meaning it has roughly seven to 10 years of normal operations left.

If the F-22 was further delayed, “there would be a requirement to SLEP [Service Life Extension Program] the F-15 force … to bridge the gap [between] when they were supposed to phase out and when the F-22 was supposed to take their place,” Martin said.

Such an effort would require whatever reductions in radar cross section that could be obtained through coatings and other techniques, as well as improved electronic countermeasures and structural strengthening of the airplane, Martin said. When all that was done, there would only be a modest improvement in the F-15’s survivability and life expectancy-but at a cost “of almost what you would be spending on a brand-new F-22,” Air Force Global Power Programs chief Maj. Gen. Raymond P. Huot said at an Air Force Association press conference in September.

Carlson noted that even a “reduced-signature” F-15X “is at a severe disadvantage in the near term.”

He expects that the youngest F-15s could be safely used as air superiority fighters in some parts of the world against a very small number of low-capability airplanes for 10 or 12 years, especially performing duties like cruise missile interception, “on our side of the fence, where the threat environment is fairly benign.”

The F-15’s radar-the heart of the weapon system-suffers from a chronic maintenance problem: Many of the parts needed to keep it running are simply no longer available and must be rebuilt rather than replaced when they break; an update to the radar is expected to alleviate the problem. A large number of F-15s lack digital engine controls and diagnostic systems, requiring manpower-intensive maintenance; but to fix it, the service would have to get a waiver from a law that mandates that no major modifications can be made to an airplane that is within five years of being retired. By the time the upgrade is designed and approved, the F-15 would be within the prohibited window.


“In about 2006 the airplane begins to disintegrate because it runs out of its 8,000-hour service life,” Carlson asserted. “What will happen [after that] is hard to predict, but if it’s anything like the F-16, we will have some significant structural problems.” Other F-15s, more benignly used, “will fly fine.”

Early F-16s were designed to a 4,000-hour service life and later models to 8,000 hours, but the F-16 fleet has been flown more often than anticipated and often beyond the design limits of the airplane, causing cracking in bulkheads and wings. Much of the F-16 fleet has passed the 5,000-hour mark, and if no modifications are performed, most will run out of service life before the JSF arrives.

“The F-16 fleet needs a major mod well prior to the arrival of the JSF,” an Air Staff official observed. A modification called Falcon Star is being readied for the next five-year budget plan and is intended to shore up the structural elements of the F-16.

As Congress debated the Fiscal 2000 defense spending plan this fall, it threatened to pause the F-22 program, preferring to spend the money on readiness accounts instead. The Air Force was able to make the case that a pause in the F-22 program would kill it.

Martin said that a pause would release crucial subcontractors from the program and that to get them back would cost as much as $6.5 billion.

In discussing the F-22, Congressman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and others have suggested that perhaps the JSF could be reworked to take on the F-22’s role, since in Lewis’s view, the tactical aviation modernization plan as a whole is unaffordable.

Such an adaptation of the JSF would not work, Carlson said.

The JSF assumes the F-22, he said. The JSF was not designed to be a pure air superiority machine but one designed to take advantage of the freedom of maneuver the F-22 would provide, just as the F-16 was intended as a complement to the F-15, rather than a substitute.

The JSF would not be as fast as the F-22 and would be unable to reach the same altitudes as the F-22. For adequate acceleration, it would need a second engine, something that would force a major redesign. It could not carry as many air-to-air missiles as the F-22 and would lack much of the onboard avionics that will make the F-22 so powerful a gatherer of information.

“We don’t think you can tweak the JSF to do the F-22 mission,” Carlson said. “We would want to just start over.” Given that the F-22 has taken nearly 17 years to get to flight test, the delay in getting a new fighter to the field before the existing fleet wears out or loses its capability against the threat would be too long, Carlson said.

The True Cost

When introducing his plan to divert F-22 production money to other military accounts last summer, Lewis suggested that the F-22 would cost as much as $200 million apiece. Bolton, however, said that in current dollars, the cost “out the door” of an F-22 will be $84.7 million.

Because of improvements in the manufacturing learning curve, streamlined procedures, and other cost savings, “the last one only costs me $64 million,” Bolton added.

The Air Force denied reports circulated last fall that the service would be willing to give up the JSF to keep the F-22.

“When we looked at … airplanes that have a lot less stealth” than the JSF, Carlson said, “they don’t fare nearly as well as an all-aspect stealth design like the JSF.” The survivability of an F-16 is far less than that of a JSF, he explained, and while the JSF is expected to cost about $33 million apiece for the Air Force, a top-drawer version of the F-16 would cost nearly as much but have far less capability.

Asked whether the F-16 force could simply go on without being replaced by the JSF, Lincoln replied, “Absolutely not. … We could probably continue to Band-Aid fix the thing, but it’s the law of diminishing returns: You’re spending more to keep the F-16 up and running than it would cost to buy the JSF.”

Because replacing the F-16s is a priority–they are wearing out faster than the A-10s and provide additional air-to-air backup for the F-15–the A-10s are at the back of the line for replacement in the Air Force fighter inventory.

However, the A-10s “provide a visible signal to the Army that we are taking the close air support mission seriously,” said one ACC official. “There is nothing else like it for its punch and ability to get low and take damage,” he added.

The Air Force will perform a SLEP of the A-10 that will strengthen and thicken its wings and double its structural life from 8,000 to 16,000 hours, meaning the aircraft will be able to stay in business well into the 2020s. Also to be added will be the Link 16 digital data-sharing system and new munitions like JDAM.

The Air Force wants to add LANTIRN night-targeting pods to the A-10 but lacks funding for this. A more ambitious upgrade would involve a new engine, but ACC officials do not expect such a project to win funding in the coming five-year budget plan.

The Air Force will have to have stealth to be credible in future air combat, according to Col. Greg Shaka, ACC’s JSF monitor.

“Stealth is the enabler,” he said. “JSF is improving on known deficiencies in our current fighter fleet in terms of lethality, survivability, and supportability.” Stealth, he said, offers surprise, which is one area where the F-16 falls short.

In calculating the number of fighters the Air Force needs to carry out its two-MTW responsibilities, it has not taken into account the future potential role of Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles, according to Lincoln.

“I don’t think it’s been determined exactly how we play UCAVs and by what amount you can leverage their unique advantages,” Lincoln said. Since it isn’t known yet what capabilities UCAVs will have-an Advanced Technology Demonstration is only now getting under way-it’s too soon to tell if they could offset some of the need for JSFs, he said.

Bolton said Congress is right to hold the Air Force accountable on the F-22’s cost and rightfully controls the power of the purse. However, each time the F-22 program was restructured–four times in the last decade–all Congress succeeded in doing by demanding delays was to add cost to the program.

The Wages of Delay

“Time is money,” he said. “A lot of money has been taken away, nothing’s been returned, and now we’re living under a cost cap [of $20.8 billion]. Yet the product is supposed to be the same.”

While some in Congress have argued that the stretches of the F-22 have allowed technology to mature and reduce risk, Bolton disagrees.

“We bought nothing with the delays,” he asserted.

While much has been made over how the F-22 will consume an inordinate amount of the Air Force’s–even DoD’s–budget, Bolton said this is neither unusual nor undesirable.

The F-22 program, he noted, is “less than 1 percent of the DoD budget. Now, for that … I will continue to provide the air dominance that we’ve enjoyed for decades.” During that time, “we have not lost any soldier, sailor, or Marine to enemy air in 40 years.” The F-22, he said, “allows my colleagues in the other services to do their jobs.”

Behind the Worries About SAMs

New Surface-to-Air Missiles are faster, fly higher and farther, and are less susceptible to jamming and countermeasures than their predecessors, and they are available to anyone able to pay. For US fighters, they pose a challenge as tough as-if not tougher than-the best competitor aircraft.

Lt. Gen. (sel.) Bruce A. Carlson, then USAF’s director of operational requirements, warned that large-area coverage with state-of-the-art SAMs can be acquired by “anyone out there with any kind of [military] budget.” Carlson noted, “For $65 million to $75 million, … someone can buy a dozen launchers” of modern design and cover an area as large as Yugoslavia.

These new missiles can engage an airborne target at altitudes as low as 75 feet or as high as 45,000 feet. They have twice the maneuverability of previous generation SAMs and the ability to simultaneously engage six times as many targets.

Such a capability, if used skillfully, could give an enemy the ability to knock down 40 to 50 aircraft of the same vintage as most US fighters.

The Air Force reports that more than 14 countries already have weapons equivalent to the Russian-made double-digit SAMs–the SA-10 and SA-12. It estimates that, by 2005, 24 countries will have such weapons.

Early Soviet-designed SAMs required large and permanent, or at least heavily prepared, launch sites. The new ones, however, are highly mobile, enabling them to pop up in unexpected locations and severely complicate mission routing. The two NATO aircraft lost in Operation Allied Force likely were brought down by such pop-up surprises.

NATO lost no aircrews to enemy fire in Yugoslavia, but alliance aircraft did take damage from some of the 600 to 700 SAMs launched by the Serbs.

The US has yet to face the new generation of SAMs in battle. The presence of double-digit SAMs was suspected but never detected in the Yugoslavian air campaign, and Iraq is not known to have acquired any. However, in both theaters, the new missiles present a nightmarish prospect.

Gen. John P. Jumper, commander, US Air Forces in Europe, said that he worries about the new SAMs “every day.”

In an Eaker Institute Symposium on Allied Force conducted last August, Jumper said he was constantly concerned during the Balkan air campaign that “somehow, Mr. Milosevic would find a way to float an SA-10 or SA-12 up the Danube River, put it together, and bring it to bear as a part of this conflict. If that had happened, it would have profoundly changed the balance of the threat and our ability to maintain air superiority.”

Allied pilots, instead of being able to thread their way between–or fly over–the range and altitude limits of SAMs, would have had to fly directly through their overlapping arcs of engagement, inviting missile shots from many directions at once.

The shortage of escort jamming aircraft and suppression of enemy air defenses jets to beat down this threat would have drawn out the pace and sharply increased the risks of the air war, potentially leading to an entirely different outcome.

The new SAMs, unless countered, undoubtedly will constrain future air access to the battlespace. However, one major partial solution will be provided by the stealthy, supercruising F-22 fighter. Take, for example, the air defense situation in Iraq. According to the Air Force, an F-22 flying at subsonic speeds and at medium altitude can safely traverse five times as much Iraqi territory as would be true with a nonstealthy F-15. If the F-22 were to fly at high altitude and in supercruise, the advantage grows to a factor of eight.