Who Needs the F-22?

April 1, 1995

Cruising at Mach 1.5 over a virtual landscape, a simulated F-22 fighter spots a flight of four Su-27 “Flankers.” Beyond them lies the target–a command-and-control bunker–further defended by several batteries of surface-to-air missile sites.

Inside the cockpit, a color display shows the SAM sites as small red circles. Their diameter represents their approximate detection range against the F-22. The Flankers are small red triangles, now off to the right. So far, none of the defenders seems aware of the intruder.

As the target comes into range, a small ellipse appears in front of the F-22 on the pilot’s display. As the ellipse overtakes the bunker, the pilot presses a button on his sidestick controller, and two Joint Direct Attack Munitions fall through cyberspace toward earth. Still undetected, the F-22 begins a gentle turn away, making for a path between the circles. It looks like a clean getaway.

The spell is broken as the instructor leans into the cockpit. “OK, now toggle the switch and see what happens if you’re an F-15,” he directs.

The pilot fingers a sliding switch on the side controller which turns the simulated F-22, with all its stealth capabilities, into a nonstealthy, simulated F-15.

Suddenly, the displays all go red. The small circles have ballooned and overlapped, with the F-15 in the middle.

There is a piercing tone. “Multiple missile launch,” says an insistent female voice in the headset. Red arrows are rising toward the F-15 icon. Off to the right, the Flankers have turned, and red arcs representing the detection range of their radars wash over the F-15. They fire missiles as well.

“Now,” says the instructor, “do you still want to be an F-15, or do you want to live?”

The scenario above–played out in a Lockheed simulator at the company’s Marietta, Ga., facility–illustrates not only the realities of a future air battle but also the validity of the Air Force’s claim that the requirement for the stealthy F-22 is as great as ever.

“The F-22 is needed more now than it was five years ago,” asserted Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of Air Combat Command. “It is vital to implement the Bottom-Up Review strategy.”

Without the F-22, General Loh said, the Air Force will gradually lose its ability to guarantee control of the skies in any conflict. That, he said, would bring down the national military strategy of fighting two near-simultaneous major regional conflicts like a house of cards.

“Air superiority is not an optional mission,” he said.

Going for the Slam-Dunk

“It’s not the kind of mission where you want to take a chance on only winning 100 to ninety-nine in double overtime. It’s a mission you want to win 100 to zero; slam-dunk, do it efficiently and effectively, and with few casualties.”

He shakes his head at the argument that the F-15 is “good enough” for the foreseeable future.

“That’s the last thing you want,” he said. “Being ‘just as good’ means you lose.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” General Loh said. “The F-15 is a great airplane, a magnificent airplane. But it lacks stealth. And we’re not going to send our pilots and crews into combat with an unstealthy airplane if we can avoid it. We learned that lesson well in the Gulf War.”

The F-15 scored a dramatic no-losses victory in the Persian Gulf War, against one of the most formidable integrated air defense systems in the world. The US Air Force outnumbers all of its potential adversaries. The next generation of foreign fighters has been delayed, and most of these fighters are being developed by allies or friendly nations anyway. In the face of all this, ask some critics, why spend some $53 billion on the F-22

The argument that the Air Force will outnumber any potential adversary–or that the F-15 of today can hold its own against fighters of a decade from now–misses the fact that the US military has become a purely expeditionary force and not a forward-deployed force, said Lt. Gen. Richard E. Hawley, principal deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition.

“When we are asked to go engage in combat in support of US national interests, it is going to be on someone else’s turf,” General Hawley explained.

Under the two-MRC strategy, the Air Force’s job will be to arrive quickly and halt an aggression until US naval and ground forces can arrive in the theater.

“We are going to have to move our forces there, perhaps in the face of hostile airpower,” he said. Any enemies “will have their entire force structure available as we build up,” so the prime US fighter “needs to have a much-superior technical capability.” Initially, at least, “we will be outnumbered.”

To beat those numerically superior forces quickly, said General Hawley, the F-22 will need “cosmic” capabilities, such as stealth, the ability to cruise supersonically without afterburner, and highly sophisticated avionics.

The F-22 will be “extremely important to the viability of surface forces in the twenty-first century,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman. “It will deny the other guy the opportunity to operate in your airspace. More importantly, because of its stealth capabilities, it will allow us to penetrate deeply into that guy’s airspace and take on fighter aircraft [and] cruise missile launchers and to negate the effect of relatively cheap but increasingly lethal surface-to-air missile launchers.”

Without control of the air, “nothing else works,” General Hawley insisted. “You can’t get your forces in place, you can’t deploy them in combat, they can’t fight effectively because they are suffering from attack, and you can’t gain the knowledge of the battlefield you need to fight the war.”

Silver Bullets Are Not Enough

General Hawley thinks the lack of “unquestioned air supremacy” would have a chilling effect on national leaders fretting over a military operation. “In our view, it will be very difficult for the US to use a military option to further its interests if we cannot assure the leadership” of air superiority, he said.

The Bottom-Up Review also drove the F-22 buy down to 442 aircraft, the General said.

“Our force structure is not out of a hat,” he said. “We have looked at this long and hard . . . and concluded that twenty-five percent of our fighter force,” or four of USAF’s twenty fighter wings, “needs to be dedicated” to air superiority.

That adds up to “two wings to each of two major regional contingencies . . . and that’s not a lot.”

Buying only a handful of F-22s as a “silver bullet” weapon “would give you essentially a one-wing capability,” General Hawley said. “That’s not enough to do the job on anybody’s calculator.”

At 200 aircraft per contingency, the F-22 is “already a ‘silver bullet,’ ” General Loh argued.

In addition, there are concerns that even 442 may not be enough.

Lt. Col. Jeff Brown, an F-15 pilot with the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Va., last served as Air Combat Command’s F-22 requirements chief. During that tour, the Air Staff asked him “what was the very least we could get away with” in terms of buying F-22s, he said.

“After we gamed it out, . . . the number we came up with was 5.5 fighter wing equivalents,” he said. That was considered unaffordable, so Colonel Brown’s shop cut down or cut out the F-22s needed for noncombat functions, such as testing or training. They also, reluctantly, calculated a higher combat survivability rate against the plausible threat.

The number offered to the Air Staff was still higher than 442. “Clearly . . . we’d be a lot more comfortable with more” than four wings, Colonel Brown said.

Assuming no more schedule slips, the first F-22 squadron will be ready for action in 2005. Last year, the General Accounting Office issued a report claiming that USAF could save $12 billion by delaying the F-22 ten years while stretching the F-15 with some minor enhancements.

However, “we’ve already delayed [the F-22] a decade” from its original planned service date of 1995, General Hawley said. The F-15, now a twenty-five-year-old design, wouldn’t benefit much from even expansive modifications, he argued.

General Hawley went on to say that the Air Force has “very carefully, as you might expect,” looked at whether some sort of “bolt-on stealth” for the F-15 could be developed that would prolong its usefulness, but “there are severe limits on how much stealth you can retrofit in an airplane. You cannot add enough stealth to an existing aircraft like the F-15 to get above the break-even point. . . . It costs a lot of money and produces an airplane that is very close to the F-22 in cost and far deficient in terms of performance.”

Airframe Life vs. Obsolescence

GAO also pointed out that the F-15 would still have a lot of airframe life left ten years from now, but airframe life and usefulness aren’t synonymous, General Hawley said.

An aircraft designed to withstand nine-G forces has “good, strong bones in it,” he continued. “If that were all you were worried about, we could fly it a good, long time. In that regard, we could still be flying the F-4; it was built like a truck.”

The Air Force, General Hawley maintained, “has never retired a fighter because it ran out of airframe life. We’ve retired our fighters because they became obsolescent against the threats they faced.”

In ten years, the F-15 will become “very expensive” to maintain, said General Hawley. GAO failed to take into account all the extra costs of keeping the F-15 capable–such as a reengining or the installation of a more sophisticated jamming suite, he added.

Some have suggested that all the delays in the F-22 program mean it’s already obsolete and that the Air Force should skip it and go on to the next step in air combat technology, but “there is no ‘next thing,’ ” General Loh said. “If we were to cancel the F-22, we’d sit down and write a requirement for the F-22. Because those capabilities, in those combinations, are what we need in the time frame of 2005 and beyond.”

In fact, “the economics will almost never favor giving up on the current airplane to start a new one,” General Hawley said.

“The new effort is not going to take any less time than the one you just gave up on . . . unless somebody comes up with magic technology that we don’t see.” With each “nibble” at the program’s funding and schedule, “you just gulp a little harder because it costs so much more.”

Though there is a new fighter program on the books–the Joint Advanced Strike Technology project–it won’t yield an F-22-class aircraft, General Loh said. Instead, JAST will focus on an F-16/F-18/AV-8B replacement around 2010. Planned to be built in very large quantities, JAST aircraft “have to be low-cost” and will, as the “low end . . . of the high-low mix,” lack the power of the F-22, he said.

Moreover, General Loh said, postponing the F-22 would put it into direct funding conflict with the F-16 replacement, dubbed the Next-Generation Fighter. The Air Force can’t afford to buy both at the same time. “You get the bow wave effect . . . around 2012,” he pointed out.

General Loh has put forward plans to adapt the technologies in the F-22-if not the airframe design itself-into variants for deep attack and even carrier aviation.

“The $19 billion of development funding that we will spend on the F-22 . . . has ushered in a family of technologies-in engines, avionics, flight controls, and stealth-that clearly have more application than a single air-superiority fighter,” he said.

He still can’t say how such variants can be afforded on the current spending plan. Derivatives would have to be either built alongside the F-22A fighter or “tacked on” at the end of the program–again worsening the funding “bow wave.”

Though he agreed with GAO and others who contend that many of the “threat” aircraft the F-22 was designed to counter have been delayed or reduced in scope, General Hawley noted that “we will have less, too. We were going to buy 750 F-22s; now we’re down to 442. Not only have we slipped the airplane ten years, we are going to buy one-third less. We think that is an adequate adjustment to the realities of the post­Cold War era.”

General Loh pointed out that there’s nothing “gold plated” on the F-22.

“We have taken out” or deferred installing such capabilities as an infrared search-and-track system, he noted. Everything else on the F-22 “earned its way” onto the airplane.

Maintaining the Edge

All the Air Force’s arguments for the F-22 work if it’s true that the F-15 will be outclassed in the coming decade. Does the F-22 really need to be, as General Hawley called it, a “cosmic” airplane

When conceived in the early 1980s, the F-22 was to do two things: provide a sharp advantage over the Soviet Su-27 and MiG-29, then on the verge of deployment, and hold at least some edge over the Advanced Soviet Fighter (ASF), which intelligence painted as a stealthy successor to the Flanker.

The Su-27 and MiG-29 both are now deployed in significant numbers in Russia and client nations and should be respected as equivalents to the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, General Fogleman said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to fly both aircraft,” he reported, and “my judgment was that the F-15 and Su-27–in terms of engine/airframe interface–are comparable airplanes. I think in the near term we have an advantage in avionics, but that advantage . . . could be offset rather rapidly if the other side were to make a quantum leap forward in its air-to-air missiles.”

In the case of the F-16 and MiG-29, he found the airframes “very comparable.”

General Loh is less sanguine about a potential F-15 vs. Su-27 contest.

While the F-15 “is quite good today,” the Flanker’s larger radar can detect the F-15 first, “and it can launch a missile before the F-15 does,” he said. “So, from a purely kinematic standpoint, the Russian fighters outperform the F-15 in the beyond-visual-range fight.”

In the within-visual-range fight, the Russian AA-11 “Archer” missile, with its off-boresight capability, “is better than the best American IR [infrared] missile,” meaning the F-15 is outperformed at close range as well.

Already at a disadvantage, then, the F-15 will have to be kept respectable “with smarter tactics, smarter and better-trained crews, and countermeasures,” General Loh conceded.

The ASF fell by the wayside in the turmoil of the second Russian revolution, but it has been replaced on the drawing board by a still-formidable successor called the Multirole Fighter-Interceptor. The MFI, now in development in Russia, “will have some stealth,” General Hawley reported. “Not as good as the F-22, but far more stealthy than any front-line fighters that are operating today,” he said. “It will have very powerful and capable radar.” The MFI’s missiles are expected to be “equivalent to AMRAAM” and will probably have “long-burn variants,” giving them more range.

“We think it will have very good maneuverability–comparable to the MiG-29–so it will be a very worthy adversary.”

Despite Russia’s economic problems, “the best estimates say that they will field an advanced fighter somewhere between 2005 and 2010,” or just about the same window in which the F-22 will reach the tarmac, General Hawley continued.

“Aerospace is one of [Russia’s] singular strengths,” he noted. “I think they will continue to put priority on that” for funding, and Russian leaders frequently declare “their interest in maintaining a competitive aerospace” capability.

As for the current crop of fighters in Europe, such as the EFA 2000, the French Rafale, and the Swedish Gripen, all have a degree of stealth greater than the F-15’s plus superior avionics.

Though GAO complained last year that these aircraft aren’t legitimate “threats” because the US is unlikely to get into a war with the nations developing them, General Hawley noted that all will be for sale to third parties.

“Maybe there won’t be as many of them, and maybe they won’t come along as quickly as we once thought, but they’re still coming along,” he said, adding that “we have never been very good at forecasting” where, when, or with whom the US would get into a fight.

Top-line fighters aside, General Hawley said upgraded older planes are starting to cause concern.

Beware of SAMs

“Something seemingly as ‘innocent’ as a MiG-21 that has been upgraded with a BVR [beyond-visual-range] missile . . . can complicate your problem,” he said. “You have to respect that threat, too. . . . There are a number of upgrades available from the Russians, the Israelis, and even US companies that are selling that kind of capability.”

General Loh pointed out, though, that adversary fighter aircraft are only one part of the F-22 equation.

Air superiority is no longer “one-on-one, aircraft vs. aircraft,” General Loh said. “It’s defeating an integrated air defense system that consists of early warning radars, surface-to-air missiles and their acquisition and tracking radars, and interceptors.”

It is probably SAMs that will pose the worst threat as time goes on. They will proliferate, General Hawley said, because “while not cheap, . . . they are cheaper than airplanes” and require far less sophistication to operate than does a modern air force.

Last fall, the F-22 survived the most stringent top-level scrutiny yet, emerging as one of a handful of programs officially “blessed” by Pentagon leaders as a critically needed program. But the debate continues.

“The nation . . . has lost sight of how valuable air superiority is, and for some reason there are large numbers of people who think air superiority is a God-given right of Americans,” General Fogleman observed. Such a notion is “absolutely not true,” he said.

One of USAF’s toughest jobs in the years ahead, he predicts, will be overcoming the nation’s complacency about its military prowess. Control of the skies “has to be earned . . . over many years of training and investing in your technology,” he said.

General Loh thinks the F-22 will survive because he feels Congress has been convinced that “without air superiority, you can’t do anything” in battle.

“The more expensive a system is, the more you have to fight for it, naturally,” he said. “We have to get up every morning and fight for the F-22. I don’t mind. That’s the nature of this business. Taxpayer dollars are scarce. We want to spend them in a responsible way. And so we have to make our case.”

F-22: General Characteristics

Primary function: Fighter, air-superiority

Airframe builder: Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co., Boeing Military Airplanes Division, and Lockheed Fort Worth Co.

Power plant: Two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofans with afterburners and two-dimensional thrust-vectoring nozzles

Thrust (each engine): 35,000 pound class

Length: 62 feet, 1 inch

Height: 16 feet, 5 inches

Wingspan: 44 feet, 6 inches

Speed: Mach 2 class (approximately 1,500 miles per hour at sea level)

Ceiling: Above 50,000 feet

Empty weight: 40,000 pound class

Range: More than 2,000 miles

Armament: One M61A2 20-mm multibarrel cannon; internal stations can carry AIM-9 infrared (heat-seeking) air-to-air missiles and AIM-120 radar-guided air-to-air missiles or 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions; external stations can carry additional stores

Crew: F-22A: one; F-22B: two

Initial operational capability: 2005

Projected inventory: Active: 442

Cost of the F-22 Program

Base-year = FY 1996 dollars, Then-year = actual dollars

Demonstration and validation

(Dem/val was completed in FY 1991 at $ 3.8 billion)

4.5 billion base-year

Engineering and manufacturing development

(of which about $ 12 billion has already been spent)

$ 15.6 billion base-year

Production (442 aircraft)

$ 38.7 billion base-year

($ 52.5 billion then-year)

Total program cost

$ 58.8 billion base-year

($ 71.6 billion then-year)

Unit flyaway

$ 72.7 million base-year

($ 98.7 million then-year)