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The Future of Air Defense

July 11, 2009
F-22 Raptor fires AIM-9M

F-22 Raptor fires AIM-9M

I just can’t imagine we will always get away with sending our few and pricey stealth fighters into high risk areas when there seems to be so many other alternatives, such as UAVs, cruise missiles, and legacy fighters equipped with HARM and jamming devises. Via Danger Room, David Axe provides another excuse to dump the F-22 Raptor:

In a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of Joints Chief of Staff, defended Gates’ position — and whipped out a new argument for why Raptor-making should end. Faced with shutting down either Lockheed Martin’s F-22 production line, or Boeing’s competing F/A-18E/F  fighter, for cost reasons, Cartwright said he asked the military’s regional commanders what air capabilities they needed most. They chose “electronic warfare,” a.k.a. “radar jamming,” Cartwright said. That meant keeping the Boeing jet, for only it has a dedicated jammer version, the EA-18G Growler…

But the F-22’s electronic-attack skills have remained dormant, while the Air Force focuses on honing the jet’s air-to-air prowess, and improving vexing maintenance problems. The Raptor won’t be able to jam enemy radars, until 2011 — and then, only half the fleet will have that capability. The Raptor suffers other, serious limitations, that haven’t been widely reported. As many as half of the jets already paid for, lack modern dogfighting systems, such as helmet-mounted sights.

So apparently then, the F-22 isn’t even “all that” in its primary role of dogfighting. But much is touted about how stealthy the plane is, and how such technology is required to penetrate modern air defenses, even if enemy fighter encounters with Western planes are few and far between. The problem is, no nation has really faced a modern air defense system, as detailed in this related article from David A. Fulghum at the Ares Blog:

Early analysis of the air war between Georgia and Russia made it obvious that Russian forces had not planned or training for a coordinated attack against Georgia’s relatively modern air defenses.
It signaled a new era in that it was the first time that the Russian Air Force, or for that matter anyone else, has battled a modern air-defense system illustrated by use of the Buk M1, a product of the 1980s. Through the invasion of Iraq in 2003, forces around the world have been pitted against weapons designed in the 1950-60s, although often upgraded with digital components. The exception may be new-generation Manpads like the SA-16 which has been used against U.S. helicopters in Iraq and the SA-18. The latter is supposed to be confined to use by Russian Forces, but a number of them have already found their way into U.S. test laboratories via the black market.

In retrospect, we see the US justifying some very costly aircraft which are taking precious funds from essential warfighting equipment like helicopters, transport planes, close support planes, new UAVs, and even tanker aircraft, over some one-sided victories against an extremely low tech enemy. Without any real evidence, there is no proof that the few stealth fighters and bombers we can afford are any more survivable than older legacy fighters using the tactics and stand-off weapons mentioned above. It’s no way to run an Air Force.

More-If the Raptor didn’t have enough troubles with doubts about its mission and effectiveness, the Washington Post reveals “Premier U.S. Fighter Jet Has Major Shortcomings

While most aircraft fleets become easier and less costly to repair as they mature, key maintenance trends for the F-22 have been negative in recent years, and on average from October last year to this May, just 55 percent of the deployed F-22 fleet has been available to fulfill missions guarding U.S. airspace, the Defense Department acknowledged this week. The F-22 has never been flown over Iraq or Afghanistan…
“It is a disgrace that you can fly a plane [an average of] only 1.7 hours before it gets a critical failure” that jeopardizes success of the aircraft’s mission, said a Defense Department critic of the plane who is not authorized to speak on the record. Other skeptics inside the Pentagon note that the planes, designed 30 years ago to combat a Cold War adversary, have cost an average of $350 million apiece and say they are not a priority in the age of small wars and terrorist threats.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Heretic permalink
    July 13, 2009 10:14 am

    Mike, I have to say that I’m … amused … by the argument that manned fighters (et al.) must needs give way before the threat of missiles and guided munitions.

    It’s essentially the same argument that the british defence white paper had to say back in the day (late 50s, early 60s), which claimed that in future Britain would no longer need fighter aircraft … because missiles would do the job of air defence instead. This particular viewpoint has persisted for at least the last 50 years, in one form or another … and is a part of the legacy of the P1127 –> FRS2 Sea Harrier evolution.

    To be fair, the argument that missiles have “won” the battle for air deterrence is stronger today than it ever has been … but it also hasn’t been tested in *sustained* combat over months (stretching on to years). Quick … *short* … limited wars (Georgia, Bosnia, other places), sure … but not over the long(er) haul, like any sort of battle for airspace in the Russian or Chinese theaters would necessarily call for (ie. fantasy-land).

  2. solomon permalink
    July 12, 2009 8:56 am

    It is ready to perform the mission of a bomb truck…its a true multi-mission airplane. Its just that the idea that it can’t do air superiority missions needs to be shot down. But your alternative is not the panacea that you might want to believe. The Predator UAV has a horrible loss rate. If it was a manned fighter it would have been scrapped by now. And with the systems it carries its not cheap anymore. Additionally we’ve been using these UAVs in benign environments. There is more to an anti-air effort than missiles and fighters. We still don’t know what an effort against an even moderately professional armed force could mount against these vehicles. Certainly, since they’re now carrying missiles, they won’t be allowed to roam around the battlefield against a competent enemy. The jury is still out on UAVs, they’re far from proven technology and a real doctrine for their use in anything but a counter insurgency campaign hasn’t been thought out.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 12, 2009 8:11 am

    Solomon, most of the attributes you mentioned are concerning the capabilities of the plane. Sounds like it is ready to dogfight over the Western Front, but what we really need are bomb trucks and missile platforms. These days it is less about the platform, and more about what type of weapon it carries. What kind of plane can outmaneuver an AMRAAM or a hypersonic SAM? Just give me more cost-effective planes than can carry the new smart bombs and missiles, platforms which can be easily replaced as needed, rather than ones patched up for each new war, decade after decade.

    As for capabilities, consider the Predators and Reaper UCAVs which are currently conducting a strategic bombing campaign on Pakistan. They are doing more for the war effort than the yet to be used F-22 Stealth planes or the B-2 bombers ever did. And these are prop planes almost out of another era, aside from the fact they are unmanned!

  4. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 12, 2009 8:02 am

    Robert, about the SAMs you listed, no one is pretending they aren’t there, but consider this, if only $150-$300 million each stealth plans can penetrate such defenses, which can be in the hands of Third World nations or even rogue terrorists groups, then we are in trouble. It is absurd to try get in an arms race with a Third World country, matching off the shelf arms which those which take decades to build, then we get only a handful of planes no good for COIN warfare. This strategy has given us a smaller older air force with no relief in sight.

    You also said “Missiles and drones will never replace a pilot in a plane in a modern battle field environment. With jamming and cyber-hacking of drone systems, it will take a person on the scene to make the ultimate decision if a target needs to taken out.”

    This is just an opinion, which hasn’t happened yet. If this ever will happen, wouldn’t there be counter-measures? Can sensitive guidance system be hardened? Clearly the use of UAVs launched against defended targets is the wave of the future. It just makes sense.

  5. July 12, 2009 4:38 am

    Another misnomer. The F-35 will be a much better airplane than those it will replace. F-16s, 18 and Harriers will not match its speed, acceleration or carriage. Remember max speed etc…for those aircraft is listed with half empty tanks and no stores, with the F-35 it carries weapons, a heavy fuel load, all sensors internally. That makes all the difference. In the Harriers case its faster, carries more and will be able to conduct twice the strike rate (or more depending on the distance)…as far as the F-16 and 18 are concerned it accelerates faster, goes as fast and has equal maneuverability. The anti-F35 people have done a good job but they’re all wet and reports like this one are explaining why two SecDefs tried to kill the F-22. Besides if this plane was the dog that many are trying to make it out to be then you’d have more than Eric and the APA trying to kill it, you’d have governments pulling out of the program and that hasn’t happened…as a matter of fact many other countries look poised to join.

  6. Defiant permalink
    July 12, 2009 4:15 am

    “The USMC intends it to replace the AV-8B, the F/A-18C/D…that means an air superiority role too. Same goes for our allies. ”

    Only because it is to replace something, it doesn’T mean it’s better suited for the job. Procurement won’t always give you the thing you need. Allies like UK and Italy also have EF Typhoon for (homeland) air dominance.
    I do not know how much of an issue in air to air fight the relatively low thrust/weight ratio and top speed are, but those characteristics are certainly below competitors.
    I think you somehow misunderstood me with the fly away/system price thing, as this was solely a to remark upon the prices thrown around in the comments and I’m not so sure wheather all of them are for the same aquisition type. It would be stupid to compare a fly away price to an system price.
    I’m also not a fan of the f-22, but neither of the f-35 (in it’s proposed role to replace everything, you cannot build the jack of all traits).

  7. July 12, 2009 3:10 am

    Sorry Defiant, that characterization has always infuriated me. The “F-22 is for air dominance and the F-35 is a ground attack” ditty that’s always spouted by many is just a falsehood put forth by the USAF to justify more F-22s. The F-35 has from the outset been designed to be a first day of war fighter! The USMC intends it to replace the AV-8B, the F/A-18C/D…that means an air superiority role too. Same goes for our allies. The clinging to the F-22 is a doctrinal miss alignment fostered by the USAF who has switched its focus from winning wars through strategic bombing to the winning of wars through air superiority/air dominance. Its a misalignment that has been in vogue since WW2. With each iteration of the USAF being able to win wars by itself, that is who runs the service. Currently its the fighter mafia. Before 1950 it was bomber boys. Oh and if you’re quoting fly away price then its even more startling…the F-22’s price balloons to an incredible 350 mil per plane. WHO CAN AFFORD THAT!

  8. Defiant permalink
    July 12, 2009 2:54 am

    I always troubled with prices for fighters as I’m never sure wheather it’s the fly-away or system price.
    The f-35 is more focused on ground attack, there are various fighters which are more suittable for air combat, that’s why there’s a lot of clinging to the f-22 even with its price tag

  9. July 12, 2009 2:19 am

    Yeah I read that but you must remember that the cost of these supposed 4.5 gen fighters are all in the 100 million dollar neighborhood. The proposed F-16 block 70/80 will cost over a 100mil and the F-15S already is 115mil. If you read my post on the press release pdf that Lockheed Martin put out the costs should be around 80 mil and that blows their estimates out the water by at 20 mil for the B and C model and adds a whopping 50% increase over their estimates for the A model. You can’t beat volume production when it comes to lowering the cost of aircraft. Additionally if you take into account customers that aren’t yet aboard the program but are definitely interested…if they actually buy then this will be an additional savings. Lastly the F-35’s greatest strength isn’t its stealth characteristics but its avionics suite. Add to that the capability to carry an UnGodly amount of fuel while having weapons carried internally make it aerodynamically superior to 4.5 gen fighters. Its just a better airplane. Plus factor in the CRAZINESS of improving airframes that were designed in the early 70’s and you have a group of aircraft who’s time has come and gone.

  10. Joe permalink
    July 12, 2009 2:00 am

    In your post that preceeded mine you predicted that stealth’s bubble would be burst, eventually. If you accept that, then why commit ours & our allies Air Forces wholly to a stealth-based platform? When you discount its stealth characteristics, 4.0-4.5 Gen aircraft can be produced that fly some combination of faster, farther, or with more munitions than the JSF.

    I read the LM link. I note with interest that while virtually all of the data provided is updated to show 2008/2009 occurrences with the program, the cost figures date from 2002 assumptions.

    As such, you may be interested to read: 6/29/09 from which I take the following quote:

    In its last annual review of the F-35 program, the GAO highlighted the fact that “three defense organizations independent of the JSF program office have all concluded that the program office’s cost estimate is significantly understated and the current schedule unlikely to be achieved.”

    This led the GAO to determine that “the current JSF cost and schedule reported to Congress are not reliable for decision making.”

  11. July 12, 2009 12:34 am

    latest from LM on cost estimates of the different versions of the F-35. PG4 of the pdf….suffice it to say much lower than the F-22

  12. July 11, 2009 11:23 pm

    Because of the very numbers of airframes being bought by the US services AND our allies, it will certainly be more cost effective than the F-22. At least 4000 F-35’s vs. 250 max F-22’s??? Easy choice.

  13. Joe permalink
    July 11, 2009 10:20 pm

    In pursuing the F-22, we have foregone advancements that could/would have followed with our F-15 & F-16 airframes. No doubt advanced versions of our air-to-air missiles as well. I know I’d certainly like to see an AF that contained planes such as the F-15SE/F-15U Plus and the F-16XL.

    But on the F-22 we need to remember: We have many 10’s of billions of sunk costs on the F-22 program that can never be recovered & shouldn’t be used as a proactive decision-making variable, imo. They can indeed be used as a lesson in what “procurement cancer” looks like and how to avoid it for future needs, but we’re in the here and now. The primary questions per that airframe are 1. What’s needed to make the copies we have battle-viable and 2. Given the cost of #1, should we produce more than 187 given what it can/can’t accomplish?

    Either way, we’re somewhere between 187 – 250 (at most) F-22’s, and the marginal cost to that is a rounding error as compared to what the question of the hour really is…the F-35…if we actually purchase 2,300+ copies of it over the coming years. Given that costs of that airframe keep increasing (GAO said forecasts based on cost are unreliable) and it keeps getting delayed, does anyone really think an all-stealth, all F-35 Air Force is going to be a bargain as we move forward in time?

  14. RSF permalink
    July 11, 2009 9:35 pm

    The SAM missile systems that I mentioned are well documented by many sources that have no affiliation to building Raptors. You can see for yourself at the following links:

    Pretending that these weapons don’t exist won’t make them go away.

    The comment that for 10 years they have been saying that there will be 5th generation fighters from Russia and China is telling. That’s about how long it takes to implement a 5th generation fighter from beginning to IOC (as evidenced by the Raptor, and now the F-35).

    Missiles and drones will never replace a pilot in a plane in a modern battle field environment. With jamming and cyber-hacking of drone systems, it will take a person on the scene to make the ultimate decision if a target needs to taken out.

    5th generation fighters are the technological genie in the bottle. Wither you like them or hate them, their development can’t be taken back. Once the F-22 went into production it became the benchmark for fighter development to be met and exceeded by others.

    As a superpower we have to be able to fight ALL WARS, not just the ones we are involved with now. There is room to balance the needs of the present with weapons that we may need for future conflicts.

  15. July 11, 2009 7:57 pm

    Additionally, when the stealth bubble is burst and I believe it will be in a matter of time then we’ll at least have a technologically advanced jamming airplane flying in the form of the F/A-18 Growler. Not many have stated it but the USAF is getting a smack down from the other services in the form of procurement. They have allowed traditional missions to wither on the vine in order to bankrupt their service in order to procure more F-22’s. I don’t think the cost was worth it and if it was a one off event then I could forgive it but these costs have plagued them with aircraft all the way back to the B-2. By rights the only airplanes that really need replacing are the AV-8B’s and F/A-18C/D’s operating off of carriers (large and small). If stealth wasn’t a siren song then the F-22 just off its performance value would be a world beater, add super stealth and its costs make it a nonstarter. But you say what does the F-35 do? Well it makes the air arms of several of the world’s navies deadlier because the underperforming (but well serving) Harrier is just plain old…S. Korea, Japan, USMC, RN, Italy and perhaps the RAN all might need a Harrier replacement or a new airplane to operate off new LHD’s. The argument I think is for more joint programs not necessarily less technologically advanced ones. But that leads to…the F-22 was not designed for export…and even or best allies, Japan, UK and Israel all have had troubling incidents regarding the safeguarding of state secrets (think about the top secret documents left on the train in the UK, infiltrators from N. Korea and China in Japan and the sell of the LAVI to China by Israel which was based on US tech)

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 11, 2009 6:43 pm

    Recalling also the “A” that was briefly tagged on the name for a while, then mysteriously vanished! Amazing they are so afraid of losing the plane that had done so much to create the hollow air force, with decades old warplanes fighting all our battles.

    Some would say “this is why we need the new Raptor”. I would say, the Raptor has put us in this desperate position, such weapons which take decades to produce, that rarely work or cost as promised, which we can only afford a handful and are stuck with for decades more.

    Forgive my rant but a pox on their high tech wonder weapons which are making us weaker not stronger!

  17. July 11, 2009 5:46 pm

    I’m just amazed at how the reason for being for the F-22 keeps changing with the wind…first it was to be used because the Russians were about to field a 5th gen fighter (that was 10 years ago on those claims), then it was it’s an integral part of the strike force able to hit high value targets…when they were called on its inability to launch air to ground missiles the SDB was hurried along…once it was realized that it was cheaper to use UAV’s or cruise missiles with out the potential loss of aircrew it became its the only thing that can take out triple digit Russian anti air missiles…now with it being a maintenance hog who knows what will be next….

  18. Defiant permalink
    July 11, 2009 5:15 pm

    Let’s not forget that ground radar detection range is a function enemy aircraft altitude (and geographical obstacles) , and HARM has a range of 150km. I’ not an expert in radar tech but physically a radar “ping” should be easily recognizable at a range beyond the detection range.
    And while the ground radar might not be jammable, the sm300 missile uses radar homing as well, so i think the missiles resistance is more important.
    Still, i hope there will never be a symmetrical conflict in the future.

  19. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 11, 2009 4:42 pm

    Robert, my money is still betting on the drones and missiles. Those figures you mentioned on the F-22 and B-2 seem to emanate from the people interested in seeing these programs go ahead, in the industry and the military.I have heared conflicting facts, some of which was posted in this article, so I’ll believe it when I see it!

  20. solomon permalink
    July 11, 2009 2:53 pm

    I doubt if the F/A-18G will be the last manned fighter but I bet it will lead to a new paradigm in aerial warfare. If these AESA radar’s work as advertised and the next generation jammer lives up to its billing then missiles might become irrelevant…our new fighters might become sized up to F-111 standard in order to handle the added electronics etc…I don’t know what the future holds but the F-22 has been seriously mismanaged by the Air Force. They definitely have a cultural problem over in that service.

  21. RSF permalink
    July 11, 2009 2:52 pm

    I would first like to state that I love your blog Mike, please keep up the good work.

    OK, lets get down to business. Let’s start with the current SAM threats. The Russians and the Chinese used both gulf wars in Iraq to study and build responses to American air power. The issue with the F-18/Growler is that the modern SAM systems, S-300/S-400 can track and destroy the Growler before it can ever turn on it’s jamming systems (S-300PMU-1 = 121 mile detection range). These systems use channel skipping large phased array radar that is very difficult to jam. The kill vehicle is a hypersonic Mach 6 missile the size of a telephone pole, and a single launcher can fire one of these every 3 seconds. There are presently only two all aspect aircraft in the US arsenal that can penetrate these SAM systems, the B-2 and the F-22. I have purposely omitted the F-35 as it does not have true VLO stealth.

    Drones/UCAV’s are great tools for tracking and destroying insurgents in our present ground wars. They however are next to useless in fighting technological opponents such as the Chinese or the Russians. There are countless ways to jam and confuse Drones/UCAV’s (I could talk about all day on this).

    I should also mention that both the Russians and possibly Chinese will be releasing 5th generation fighters this year. The Russians fully intend to sell the PAK-FA to many nations and is already contracted to due so with India.

    It is easy to get sucked into the political dumping on the F-22 that is popular under Mr. Gates.

    We need to equally invest in our efforts to support our ground troops in the present conflicts (drones/UCAV’s), and continue to also at a lower level refine and develop our 5th generation fighters. Only with a balanced and proactive approach to developing American air power can we truly fight all potential future conflicts.

  22. Mike Burleson permalink
    July 11, 2009 10:20 am

    So will the F-18 be the “last manned fighter”?Interesting.

  23. Heretic permalink
    July 11, 2009 9:21 am

    An F-22 can only “clear the skies” of opposition, and only then if it remains undetected/unilluminated by hostile forces.

    An F-18G can “clear the way” for almost everything in the arsenal that works on the surface and in the air. You don’t *need* stealth “everything” if the enemy’s sensors and networks are blind and dumb.

    Silver bullet vs volley fire fusillade.

    If I was running a FORCE of platforms and weapons, rather than just worrying about my own {censored} in my own damn ride … I’d pick the F-18G too.

    Electronic Warfare opens a heck of a lot more doors than Stealth does, and EW is a lot better at pinpointing the enemy (so you can attack them) than Stealth is. The only difference is that Stealth is more optimized around a First Strike principle … while EW is more of an Every Day Of The War kind of resource that you’re going to “need” essentially FOREVER.

    No surprise then, that the USAF … the original “we’ve won, now let’s go home” crowd … are more interested in Stealth than in Electronic Warfare.

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