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Legacy Fighters as “gap fillers”

April 30, 2009

Tom Gunn, a Boeing Corp. adviser explains why putting all our future aerial eggs in a single untried basket with the F-35 JSF is a mistake, and offers alternatives:

The F-35 probably will be an important asset some day. However, the Department of Defense is proposing to buy 241 F-35 fighters, at perhaps $150 million a copy, before the first fully integrated, mission-capable aircraft even begins flight testing. That decision makes some troubling assumptions. The F-18s would cost about $50 million a copy…

The St. Louis-produced F/A-18 and F-15 Strike Eagle are the perfect gap fillers, meeting requirements until the F-35 has fully been proven. The latest variant of the F-15, a stealth version dubbed the “Silent Eagle” and unveiled last month, is designed specifically as a near-term alternative to the F-35. And the Boeing F/A-18 radar is the type selected for use in the F-35. The capabilities of the latest model Super Hornet, which joined the fleet only eight years ago, are state of the art. Why not fill current needs with proven state-of-the-art fighters at about half the probable unit price of the unproven F-35? Use the savings to support the ongoing and rising development costs. And by keeping the Boeing fighter aircraft business in St. Louis open, we would acknowledge the truth of the eggs-and-basket wisdom.

050419-F-2295B-024Perhaps its time to acknowledged that airframes have probably reached the end of their development. The late-Cold War military aircraft such as the F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-10s, AV-8s, and so on are the end of the line and the climax of an era. Proof of this can be seen in that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most are still on the frontlines, and replacing them seems as far away as ever.

The so called “next leap” in airpower, stealth aircraft has become a roadblock in that few nations ( with one so armed and counting) can afford such high tech wonders, and even that power has so far purchased them in handfuls, with development and procurement lasting for decades, and little to show for it. Stealth seems of little use in wartime save for silver bullet strikes, and in the Kosovo campaign we found our legacy aircraft could operate against heavily defended airspace just by flying above it, sending in JDAMs and other smart weapons into harm’s way.

060305-F-3177P-082The key to future airpower is not in airframes (except for having enough of them), but in weapons, electronics and sensors. So, if we add these advancements in technology to the very adequate and affordable frames already in production, we get an advanced superfighter at an affordable price. Or we can just keep developing exotic and ever fewer superjets to face modern threats, and eventually end up with the one military plane shared by all the services, which Augustine warned us about!

16 Comments leave one →
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  8. Mars permalink
    November 5, 2009 3:54 pm

    The way i see it, the US Air force is going down the same road they went in ‘Nam. They relied too much on one technology and had their butts handed on a silver platter as a result. I don’t oppose stealth, but i hate how hyped up everyone is about the F-35. This article says most of the things i hate about the F-35, but there’s one more i want to add, and its that it promotes laziness. Supposedly that thing has some sort of supercomputer that makes “maneuvering irrelevant.” The way i see it, that feature alone makes its pilots rely less on their own skills and more on a computer, something that can be easily jammed or fried by the enemy.

    Another I hate about stealth is how much maintenance it needs. If you want more proof, look at the B-2A incident a few years back. “Heavy, lashing rains” brought it down. Enough said.

  9. Heretic permalink
    May 1, 2009 8:26 pm

    Hence why in my first comment in this thread, I said at the end “If the USAF was really really really serious about buying a gap filler aircraft …”

    It’s not as if I’m unaware of the “BUY AMERICAN!” sentiment/lobbying that would be thrown at any aircraft tasked with the Air Sovereignity mission for CONUS/49th and 50th States.

    Btw, it may interest you to read this article by Bill Sweetman concerning the AESA radar that’s going to be in the JAS 39 NG. As usual, ELP’s comment is absolutely spot on … while Solomon reveals his- er, lack of understanding for what makes a STOL-based air force that doesn’t just defacto assume there will always be 5000ft of perfectly serviceable concrete runway anywhere you need it available in wartime that uses conscripts for ground crews does to the requirements for fielding an aircraft.

    Not the most brilliant of observations there Solomon …

  10. Mike Burleson permalink
    May 1, 2009 6:26 pm

    “Is recapitalizing the fighter inventory a “Jobs Program””

    C’mon Heretic. I rail against this practice all the time, of politicians who put votes and jobs ahead of National Security. But in a democracy, you have to factor this sort of thing in, and occasionally even the politicos get it right.

    As for the Gripen, I am all for it, but you also have to consider the unlikelihood, again in a democracy where Washington is going to insist on Buy American first. And as a choice, the F-16 is not bad. But if you can get the petition going I will be the first to sign it!

  11. NTV permalink
    April 30, 2009 10:18 pm

    There is no comparison between the chanllenges of integrating the Grippen into the ANG fleet and integrating the F-22 and or the F-35. NONE. The F-22 is, obviously currently in the USAF iventory and thus there is a large amount of institutional knowledge that will easily be passed do to AF personal moving to the ANG. The samewill soon be true of the F-35. Also, The Virginia ANG already has transitioned to the F-22 and the Hawaii ANG will be transitioning within the next year.

    And yes, there is something to be said for buying a more modern aircraft than the F-16, but The F-16 block 60 is bad machine and in the same price range of the Gripen.

    Hoenstly there is a better chance of F-18’s sitting in ANG hangers than there is of Gripens sitting in them

  12. Heretic permalink
    April 30, 2009 9:19 pm

    While the Gripen is a nice bird, Dont you think that the costs of integrating a totally different airframe into the force structure might be a tad expensive?

    Considering that the ANG’s F-16s are slated for retirement en masse within the next 10 years, you have to ask yourself how long you’d be maintaining parallel logistics for anyway. Furthermore, the same argument (as you’re making) can be levelled against giving any F-22s *or* F-35As to the ANG, since both of those would be … as you say … “totally different airframe”(s) than F-16s and A-10s and whatever else the ANG is already flying.

    If we want to get more planes to the ANG, then new build F-16’s should do the trick.

    That depends on whether you merely want to continue using the same baseline airframe, or modernize to something developed after the 1970/80s. Don’t get me wrong here, there is something to be said for the “ease” of simply buying (and supporting) new build F-16s for the ANG. The thing is though, at this juncture, there’s an opportunity to modernize to something “better” than a (mere) F-16 … since there’s going to be such a large retirement from the fighter inventory in such a short span of time, due to airframe age (and rising maintenance costs for those airframes). The question is … do you exploit that opportunity … or merely let it pass you by due primarily to institutional inertia?

    But i still say our own legacy fighters especially the Super Hornet and F-16 are good enough, and we’d be helping our own industry. Talk about stimulus!

    Is recapitalizing the fighter inventory a “Jobs Program” or a “let’s get the best Bang For Buck” opportunity? I know that there’s a strong “Buy American!” impulse to any fighter recapitalization prospect … but you have to ask the all important question … is this about “jobs” in congressional districts MORE THAN it’s about equipping the ANG to be able to credibly and most competently perform the Air Sovreignity mission?

    Is it about the $$$ … or is it about the quality of the weapons being acquired?

    The F/A-18E/F/G is *NOT* going to be going into the ANG inventory … Boeing’s fevered wishes to the contrary. For one thing, that’s a Navy bird … and for another, it is (as ELP likes to say) the Patron Saint of Mediocrity (especially for land-based operations). Likewise, the F-15S Silent Eagle (at $100 million a pop!) is not going to be acquired for the ANG … Boeing’s feverish wet dreams to the contrary.

    Take a look at the kinds of industrial offsets that Saab is ALREADY offering, and has offered, to places like Norway … The Netherlands … Switzerland … India … Brazil … and then ask yourself if the US might have … oh, I dunno … any leverage whatsoever in the industrial offset/liscencing category if the USAF brass tells Sweden/Saab that, “Hi, we’d like to buy 768 JAS 39 NG off the shelf from you to recapitalize the ANG starting in 5 years. Can we get a ‘special package deal’ on that by any chance?”

    Anyone want to guess how fast Swedish lawmakers and Saab executives would start falling all over themselves for a foreign sale like that … even if we built nearly all the planes here in the states under liscence?

  13. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 30, 2009 2:50 pm

    Gripen, eh? Never thought of that. But i still say our own legacy fighters especially the Super Hornet and F-16 are good enough, and we’d be helping our own industry. Talk about stimulus!

  14. NTV permalink
    April 30, 2009 1:07 pm

    While the Gripen is a nice bird, Dont you think that the costs of integrating a totally different airframe into the force structure might be a tad expensive? If we want to get more planes to the ANG, then new build F-16’s should do the trick.

  15. west_rhino permalink
    April 30, 2009 9:49 am

    Neat to see mention of the A-117 Nighthawk that still benefits from not flying under the old WW2 “Bomber’s moon”. Mk. I eyeball with good optics (wasn’t that IJN approach to night actions?) has maybe the best ability to detect stealth/low observable, though perhaps the cousin of a flashbang then finds its way into being a counter-counter measure.

  16. Heretic permalink
    April 30, 2009 9:02 am

    The simple fact is, you don’t NEED stealth/low observable for EVERY sortie … ever. But despite that fact, the USAF is so … starry eyed … about stealth/low observable and its potential that they essentially decided that NOTHING ELSE was worth their time (ie. $$) developing or thinking about. In the process, they essentially neglected everything else to pursue echoes and shadows, in the vain hope that stealth would make the USAF “invincible” in the air.

    As the Night Hog pilots said of their planes in Desert Stomping Ground ’91 … they were flying a “stealth” aircraft too. Sure, the A-10 had a RCS the size of Mount Rushmore, anemic engines that wanted to have window sized air conditioning units put in front of them to “convince” the engines it was cold outside, the pilots felt like going on oxygen at anything over 500ft AGL, the airspeed indicator was a calendar and they were constantly worried about birdstrike from the rear and their FLIR capability was a “soda straw” courtesy of a missile hanging on the wing … but none of that mattered. Above 5000ft AGL, you couldn’t HEAR the A-10’s engines on the ground … and at night, you couldn’t SEE the aircraft when using a Mk 1 Eyeball … which is all the Iraqis had left to them to try and find the Night Hogs.

    A-10s flying in the daytime took ground fire, many were damaged, some were lost to enemy action.

    A-10s flying at night took ZERO damage from enemy action or ground fire. Not even a single bullet hole. They were just as “invisible” to Iraqi forces as the *A*-117A Nighthawks were the first day of the campaign.

    If the USAF was really really really serious about buying a gap filler aircraft … they’d be negotiating with Saab for JAS 39 Gripen NG to equip the ANG with … and wanting to buy those planes by the hundreds (like, maybe 768 of them … enough for 64 squadrons of 12 planes each). Of course, if we did that, the Republican Party would throw a complete hissy fit and complain that such a move proves that we’re turning into Sweden!

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