(U.S. Air Force photo)
Is New Military Fighter Jet
Already Out Of Date?
a joint exercise in February, U.S. Air Force pilots flying the top
U.S. fighter, the F-15C, got chewed up by Indian military pilots
flying new, and not so new, Russian fighter planes.
Air Force won't disclose exactly how the mock engagements turned
out, but Gen. Hal Hornburg, head of Air Combat Command, said
afterward, "We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world
as we once thought we were."
of the reason for the strong Indian performance could have been
superior training, Air Force officials acknowledged. But the main
reason, they said, was that the F-15C, first fielded in 1979, is
showing its age.
major takeaway for the Air Force is that our prediction of needing
to replace the F-15 with the F-22 is proving out as we get smarter
about other countries' capabilities," said Col. Mike Snodgrass,
commander of the Air Force fighters that took part in the exercise
with the Indian pilots. "We've taken the F-15 about as far as
we can and it's now time to move on to the next generation."
acknowledge that the F-22 is far and away the finest airplane of its
type ever built. But they say its primary purpose -- to shoot down
enemy fighters and protect ground troops -- is a mission that is
long-gloried, dog-fighting fighter plane might soon be obsolete,
they argue, thanks to the proliferation of highly accurate
surface-to-air missiles that can shoot them down and to advances in
drone, cruise-missile and bomber technologies that can better
perform their offensive missions. They see the F-22 and the F-35
Joint Strike Fighter, another new plane the Air Force is working on,
as classic examples of weapons designed in one era that are no
longer relevant by the time they are ready for action.
existing capabilities are overwhelming," said retired Army Col.
Andrew Bacevich, who now teaches international relations at Boston
University. "We are purchasing for billions and billions of
dollars capability we don't really need. At least some of the money
would be better spent on systems relevant to the struggle we are in
thing that happened in the war in Afghanistan, and another thing
that didn't, have military experts like Bacevich doubting that the
Air Force needs the F-22 or the F-35 -- at least not in the
quantities the Air Force is seeking.
happened was that thanks to the accuracy of satellite-guided bombs,
the venerable B-52 bomber could provide close air support to ground
troops from high in the sky. Bombers are now superior to fighters in
that role because they can carry a larger amount and a greater
variety of ordnance, and can stay on station longer.
didn't happen was Air Force fighters playing a major role in the
Afghan war. There were no air bases close enough to Afghanistan from
which they could operate, and no Afghan planes capable of
challenging U.S. air superiority.
difficulty in obtaining foreign basing rights and an aging tanker
fleet mean there are many possible situations in which Air Force
fighters could not make a timely response, said retired Army Lt.
Col. Andrew Krepinovich, now head of the Center for Strategic and
Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., and retired Air Force
Col. John Warden, who planned the air campaign in the first Gulf
addition, Krepinovich and Warden said, overseas bases need to be
protected against terrorist attacks and are lucrative targets for
short- and medium-range surface-to-surface missiles.
not clear that there are countries out there salivating to take on
the U.S. Air Force in air-to-air combat," Krepinovich said.
"You would have to invest an enormous amount of money over a
protracted period of time in order to take on the American Air
Force. If we are faced with a more conventional enemy, what would
make sense for them is to invest in missile forces. That's what you
see countries like North Korea and Iran doing."
combat aircraft should be very fast and able to operate over a very
long range, Warden said. The F-22 is fast but it can't travel far,
relatively short range is illustrative of the consequences the come
from the extraordinary length of time it takes to get new airplanes
from the drawing board to the field, Warden said.
got a briefing on the F-22 prototype when I was at Bitburg [Air
Force Base in Germany] in 1986," he said. "I told [the
contractors] that it sounded like a swell airplane, but they
shouldn't base it here, because Bitburg wouldn't be open long once a
war [with the Soviet Union] started. They should base it in England,
said they couldn't, because one of the specifications for the F-22
was that it fit in a NATO generation shelter. And if it were small
enough to fit in a NATO shelter, it wouldn't have enough range to
strike targets in Eastern Europe if it were based in England."
Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The F-22 won't be operational until
2005. But it's already been crippled by a requirement to fit into a
shelter that is no longer being used, against an enemy that no
longer exists, Warden said.
Air Force is trying to give the F-22 more relevance by calling it a
fighter attack aircraft and has designed a special 250 lb. explosive
-- the small diameter bomb -- for it to carry.
small diameter bomb will have both satellite and close-in guidance
systems, so it will be able to strike within 10 feet of a target
from 60 miles away, said Jake Swinson, public affairs officer for
the Air Force Armaments Division. The current satellite-guided bomb
that can be dropped by long-range bombers at high altitude, the JDAM,
is designed to strike within about 40 feet of its target, although
it's doing much better than that in combat, Swinson said.
acknowledged that the technology going into the small diameter bomb
also could be applied to the larger bombs that other fighters and
bombers can carry, but that the F-22 cannot.
Air Force has a "minimum requirement" for 381 F-22s at an
estimated cost of $72 billion. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps
plan to spend $200 billion more on the F-35, which won't be fielded
before 2007. In addition, the Navy plans to spend $51 billion to
acquire 460 F/A -18 Super Hornets, an upgraded version of a fighter
bomber designed in the 1970s.
said the Air Force should cancel the F-35, buy only 100 F-22s and
challenge the aerospace industry to develop within five years a
hypersonic bomber that could strike targets anywhere in the world
from bases in the United States.
go out and buy an airplane that is significantly behind the
technology that's available?" Warden said. "Nobody has
challenged the aerospace industry for a long time."
Air Force currently has no plans to build a new bomber before 2037,
although that is being re-thought in the wake of events in
have played an important role in Iraq, where they have roamed
virtually unchallenged. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have permitted U.S.
and British fighters to operate from bases nearby, and Iraq is close
to an ocean, from which Navy fighters can operate. But if a crisis
erupts far from an ocean where neighboring countries will not
cooperate, U.S. fighters could prove of little value.
Richard Hawley said in a magazine interview in 2001, when he was
commander of Air Combat Command, that fighter bombers wouldn't be
much use in dealing with some of the most dangerous threats to the
United States, such as renewed Russian aggression toward Europe, a
Chinese threat to its neighbors or a threat from Iran.
common challenge posed by all these threats is strategic
depth..." Hawley said. "A bomber-centric attack force has
much more relevance in all these scenarios."
Thompson, an analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank
funded chiefly by defense contractors, said the results of the Cope
India exercise make it plain that the Air Force needs a new fighter.
And Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., a former naval aviator, is a
big fan of the F-22 Raptor.
had the opportunity to fly against the F-22," he said.
"The only way I could catch it in my F-15, even in full
afterburner, was in a turn. The F-22 is an amazingly capable fighter
that is going to insure America's air superiority in the years
figures that "without air superiority, we can't do anything
else." But he conceded that "you can probably do without
hundreds of lower-end fighters."
on the other side of the argument, made a concession, as well. He
acknowledged that the Air Force probably should develop a small,
"silver bullet" force of F-22s.
has an intimidation effect," he said. "It tells the rest
of the word: don't even bother challenging the U.S. in air