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What the Raptor Cancellation Means for the Navy

July 30, 2009
An F/A-18E Super Hornet, an F-22A Raptor, an F-15C Eagle, and an F/A-18C Hornet fly in formation above USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, an F-22A Raptor, an F-15C Eagle, and an F/A-18C Hornet fly in formation above USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).

With what some may consider the “premature” ending of the F-22 Raptor fighter (after 30 years in development!), formerly known as the advanced tactical fighter or ATF Program, there are bound to be repercussions affecting the other military services. While the Army seems well on its way to a leaner mean force, after one expensive programs cancellation after another (Crusader artillery system, Comanche stealth chopper,Future Combat System), the Navy with having less to do than all the services in this War on Terror, having lost only a giant destroyer program, might now bear greater scrutiny from budget cutters.  

The Navy as currently configured should be a smörgåsbord for the waste cutter. Huge amphibious ships costing up to $3 billion each are bought despite the fact the Marines haven’t conducted  a major beach assault since 1950, and are more commonly used to fight alongside the Army. Then there are the $2-$3 billion each nuclear submarines designed to fight a Soviet Fleet now rusting in harbor or rarely venturing to sea, plus giant missile destroyers whose primary purpose of late has been chasing pirates in speedboats for Navy SEALS to deal with. Yet, at the root if this obsession with the high tech and overkill is the large deck nuclear carrier.

If one considers the F-22 as the core of the Air Force’s future hopes and dreams, then for the Navy it’s version of the Raptor would be its giant fleet of aircraft carriers. The continued focus of the USN on large-deck mobile airbases is the principle reason it is struggling to come to terms with threats in littoral waters, and why it steadily shrinks in ship numbers. Since the Fall of the Iron Curtian in the 1990’s, future force structure goals have fallen from a 600 ship Navy, to 450, 375, and finally today’s plan to deploy 313 ships in the future. Some experts believe even this lackluster goal is “sheer fantasy“. At this rate, with dwindling shipbuilding budgets and rising ship prices, we will never again be able to increase fleet size, especially with a continued dependence on the brute force of conventional carriers.

Such a mindset was affecting the USAF for the past 30 years with the F-22 program. A single minded strategy that the superb dog-fighting skills was what was required for future conflicts has meant the thousands of F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, fighter bombers, plus essential tankers and cargo planes continue to soldier on in current conflicts against low tech enemies. In other words, the service has focused precious funds on building a tiny force of planes for some obscure future conflict, it was having to deal with a totally new kind of warfare with an antiquated force structure. While the F-22 can do many wonderful things, this must be viewed in the context of what was lost in order to field what Secretary Gates dubbed a “niche” capability.

With it becoming increasingly unlikely the Raptor would be available in the numbers required, the service was reluctantly forced to depend on the rising numbers of unmanned vehicles, the killer UCAVs now widely available and extremely capable. This is only logical since UCAVs are far cheaper than manned jets, and are easier to develop and deploy (considering the 7000 currently in use to the less than 200 new jets bought for the USAF in a decade!). Thanks to the new precision guided weapons, they are equally as capable in strike missions as the conventional planes. Being much smaller, they are naturally stealthy, and are able to loiter over a battlefield up to 10 times as longer than the F-22 Raptor.

In the context of the aircraft carrier, it is certain they can do many wonderful things. We know their 90 plane airwing is very effective against very-minor Third World powers like North Korea, Iraq, or even land-locked Afghanistan, but the question must be is this the appropriate use of such a very costly platform? The next justification might be China, but then you return to the F-22 and its “niche” ability which can be applied to the carrier as well. Also with almost every warship currently built to support the carriers, will there be anything left to defend the sealanes from mines, submarines, small attack craft, or for guarding our ports?

Yet, even a small aircraft carrier force, a silver bullet if you will, armed with precision bombers gives a nation an enormous capability. Further, such less costly assets wouldn’t drain essential funds from other naval functions, as we see currently ongoing in the British and American navies who are unable to stem their rapid decline in numbers or deal with even the simplest of nautical threats of piracy. The recent proposal to reduce carrier numbers down to 7 should be enacted without delay, to increase the operating forces and balance capabilities, but also as a recognition that all the Navy’s fighting strength is no longer centered on a handful of Big Decks.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 23, 2009 6:17 am

    Anonymous-With precision guided munitions, you need less armament to take out a target. Of course, no one is suggesting we need to get rid of all our manned planes yet, but this capability without the need to risk a pilot, where aircraft less expensive than a superfighter can remain on station longer and be equally effective.

    The new warfare means lesson bombers and less sorties. The best weapon to take advantage of this are the new drones.

    Also the new MQ-9 Reaper can carry up to 14 Hellfire missiles or numerous smart bombs on 6 hardpoints. We are losing no capability with this transition.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    October 22, 2009 10:25 pm

    You all still dont seem to understand that a drone can only carry a few weapons. what happens when we need a drone to take out, say 8 or 10 targets. Then we are in big trouble. We need bigger aircraft like the F/A 22 raptor, because it ha percision and it holds many weapons to take out dozens of targets. And also what about air to air combat. A drone cant take down an enemy jet fighter yet. I’m not trying to say that unmaned aircraft are to far into the future for no. what im saying is that we need to develope both new jet fighters and unmand aircraft.

  3. Paul V. Patty permalink
    August 4, 2009 4:34 am

    “Observing literature wrote immediately after the [Falklands] battle, we see that the idea of small V’STOL carriers was justified, [and] that large numbers of general purpose escorts are essential.”

    I would contend that the particular utility of small V/STOL carriers was not justified by the Falklands. Rather, the utility of aircraft carriers in general was. This is an important distinction. The Invincible and Hermes performed admirably, but larger, more capable carriers with larger, catapult launched (catapult = heavier = greater loadout + more fuel) aircraft would have performed much better. With them, it is unlikely that the Argentines would have contemplated an attack at all. Flight operations are made much easier on larger decks. More space is available for stores and fuel. Bigger though does not necessarily mean more expensive – the commonly used phrase is that ‘steel is cheap and air is free’ – physical size is perhaps of greater use to carriers than a sophisticated avionics or weapon suite.

    While it is true that the Falklands validated the argument that large numbers of general purpose escorts are essential, the British tendency was to produce larger warships after the war. One has only to look to the example of the Type 22 frigates, which were significantly lengthened and modernized in Batch III form, to recognize this.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 31, 2009 6:20 am

    “Not one, has the weapons load of any attack fighter in the U.S inventory.”

    Nice try Dana, but the bulk of your arguments show a distinct bent toward last-century warfare, something I often accuse the Navy of focusing too much on. Thanks for proving my point.
    For instance, the weapons load on a fighter isn’t so important as its ability to hit a target. With precision weapons now so accurate these tiny little Davids in single strikes are doing aerial campaigns once required of giant airwings. It is a distinct revolution in air support that can make planes smaller, and ships more affordable, but we continue to cling to last century platforms that are no longer needed, and too costly to afford in any numbers.
    This is why then we have aging force structures, weapons programs consistently delayed and over budget, and when they do get into to service, their numbers are far fewer that the previous class of weapons.
    You seem certain that the UAVs won’t replace manned planes eventually, but you predict they will fail when it faces real countermeasures. So who is jumping the gun now? I suspect they will adapt. They have to because where old-style airpower is headed, we can no longer afford.
    And just because “everybody is doing it” isn’t an excuse in itself to continue building large-deck carriers while equally essential Navy missions are neglected, especially the littoral mission. By focusing continually on the same type of naval warfare we fought over Korea, Vietnam and Saddam’s Iraq, we are neglecting the essential sea control mission, perhaps in denial that in a future war we might actually have to take casualties. Our ships are not built to fight, but deter, as the Navy itself has frequently admitted, and usually in wartime, we are always lacking small warships to defend our coasts and commerce. Normally, everything we thought we know about future war is wrong, and a fleet geared exclusively for the decisive battle is an inadequate one.
    I still stand by the idea that the Gator Navy is woefully top heavy for the type of missions we perform. Amphibious warfare is always essential in warfare throughout history. I just take issue though with the type of Gators we deploy, such as the giant helcicopter carriers and landing ships which we spend so many billions on, then use then as troops transports, or to evacuate embassies. In other words, they are over-engineered for the high tech while being used exclusively for low tech functions. These are more wasteful assets ripe for cutting. For the type of functions we use these budget-draining dinosaurs, we could very well use WW 2 era LST and LSI’s, or converted merchant ships with a make-shift helicopter deck.
    And you are right that the corvettes will need support just like the Bigger Ships, but for $1 billion you could deploy an Influence Squadron to perform most of the same functions of a $25 billion carrier battle group, which really has no business in shallow waters, historically speaking. Its alright when all we fight are poorly equipped Third World nations, but I don’t think we will do the same with these rising Asian powers who might also be a threat in a future conflict.
    I don’t think the Navy can continue to deploy giant warships built to fight a Soviet Navy that no longer exists, or the Air Force their high tech fighters dramtically increasing in costs, while ignoring the lessons of the past decade. Today they are accusing Gates of wanting to fight the last war (meaning Iraq and Afghanistan), while they want to fight the last before the last war! We hare in an age of tiny missile weapons that have firepower and lethality far beyond their size, and we should be using these to make aircraft, ships, and vehicles, more affordable, and plentiful, rather than patching up old Cold War era stocks from war to war, putting our troops at greater risk, while lining the pockets of politicians and Industry, for no real military reason.

    Concerning the Falklands campaign, the British have actually gone the opposite from these lessons, and America has chosen consistently to ignore them. Observing literature wrote immediately after the battle, we see that the idea of small V’STOL carriers was justified, that large numbers of general purpose escorts are essential, that the submarine is a major threat to major warships, and you still need sufficient numbers of well-trained boots on the ground. Can you seriously look at the current RN plans, where they dramatically cut submarines, destroyers, and frigates, to pay for 2 large deck carriers, and deny essential helicopters and boots for their soldiers on the frontlines, planning for some future obscure conflict, and say they have learned the right lessons?

  5. Dana permalink
    July 31, 2009 2:50 am

    Mike, unlike the overly obliging Sadam Hussein, most wars are come as you are. Those who show up poorly prepared soon have regrets. This has been proven time and again.

    The F-22 is very much a “niche” aircraft. It was designed for air superiority and nothing else. The Air Force did not order the craft that they needed. They need a proper replacement for the F-15E, not the standard F-15. The attack capability is far more needed to be updated.

    Drones, while useful, must be considered as not just what we wish they are capable of, but what we really have. First, there are relatively only a few attack capable drones. Not one, has the weapons load of any attack fighter in the U.S inventory. The dedicated UCAV’s are not yet ready to replace our fighter force. So far all attack capable UAV’s are based a considerable distance from any potential war zone that they are launched without an actual target and need to get one after they get on station (by the way, this was a problem the Air Force had at the beginning of the Korean War). And while it has yet to happen, I’m still waiting for one of our Predators to get “hacked” into.

    Has the surface fleet evolved? Yes. Thanks to electronics the capabilities of the various duties (ASW, SUW, AW) can be performed by a single hull platform. Unfortunately for you, too small and anything you might save in cost is lost in capabilities. Your Corvettes need a mothership to make up for their lost range and stores. Unfortunately, if it is to much a support vessel, it will need the protection of its brood.

    Yes, the Carrier is a large and expensive ship. However, despite your arguments, every attempt to render then to the history books has proven a failure. And while the reality of a Chinese Carrier may be up for question, maybe you have missed that they have contracted with Brazil to receive Carrier ops training . . . including flight training.

    You may also note that growing ship sizes are not only the domain of the US and UK. Italy now has a carrier. France, Spain, Australia and South Korea are all involved in building up their Amphibs. Japan has also seen the need to build a larger class of Destroyers and true Helicopter Carrier. Even the Israelis are planning larger classes then they have.

    The fact that the USMC has not made a major amphibious assault in decades does not support your argument against the gator fleet. These are set up for Expeditionary Operations. This capability allows for operations at short notice anywhere in the world. A fact proven time and again over the past 50 years. And there is no suitable replacement for the capability. You will note how many nations I have previously mentioned trying to get a fraction of this capability.

    Previously, you had written your opinion regarding the lessons of the Falklands War. Your conclusions are the opposite of what the British concluded. In fact, most nations have.

    While it is true that the USN needs to make changes, you are advocating too far in the other direction. The fleet needs greater balance. But we can never forget that our abilities must reach across the oceans, not simply our neighbors.

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