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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

F-22: 187 Raptors is NOT Enough!

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

  8th April, 2009

LtCol Walt “BJ” Bjorneby, USAF (Retd)

Contacts: Peter Goon
Carlo Kopp

Mob: 0419-806-476 Mob: 0437-478-224

The F-22 Raptor is the only US fighter design with the stealth, speed and agility to defeat the new Russian fighters and Surface to Air Missile systems, and their Chinese built clones (US Air Force image).

For some sixty five years the USA has enjoyed air superiority. For the last fifty eight years the USA has had air supremacy. There are precious few people left alive, civilians or veterans, who have ever seen an airborne enemy on attack. We are now on the verge of losing that strategic and tactical advantage.

With the growing hazards of fatigue failure affecting our F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s we are certain to see a constant and increasing loss of these aircraft as the years go by. This is the same fate suffered by all fighters from the Korean War onward, notably the F-4s and the F-105s. It is inevitable. Nothing lasts forever and the stresses on fighters, by the nature of their use in realistic training, add up cumulatively until failure is inevitable.

Avoid stresses in training? That makes such training ineffective. I cite less than satisfactory fighter employment prior to Top Gun and Red Flag, and now the F-22 fleet is to be cut off at 187 aircraft. I do hope people realize that does not mean all 187 will be available for combat on any given day. Far from it.

The F-22 was built to achieve and maintain air dominance. It is an air superiority fighter, and capable of penetrating the heaviest air defences to also destroy opposing air defences and critical ground targets. No other fighter in the world can meet it on an even basis thanks to its superlative performance, weapons system and stealth characteristics.

Will those traits mean that we will never lose an F-22 in combat. Hardly. Clausewitz said it best: “there is friction in war”. We used to call it an unlikely hit from a “golden beebee”. Unpredictable things happen, and the statistical realities of aerial combat cannot be escaped. Potential and actual opponents of the US forces are doing their very best at this time to negate the advantages of the F-22. All the common perils of flight, disregarding risks in combat, apply to the F-22, as they do to any other aerial vehicle.

Consider the closing days of World War II when Germany's Luftwaffe had a terrific advantage in an excellent combat jet aircraft, the Me-262 Schwalbe. Yet Allied fighters, because of their numbers, shot them down.

Vastly superior numbers of Allied fighters meant that there was literally no safe haven for the fast jet. Could this happen to a single F-22 or a flight of F-22s?  Most enemies are not stupid; if they were, combat would be a lot simpler.

Soviet fighter doctrine was replete with ploys and traps to seek to ensure numerical superiority. You can wager any possible rival knows of these tactics. You can also wager they study our tactics seeking out our vulnerabilities. Modern Russian doctrine, packaged into the support sold with Russian fighters, is based largely on former Soviet and current US fighter doctrine.

Strategy: America's war plans have always aimed at securing at least air superiority. Maybe we can achieve it now - how long can we hold it, say, in any one of a number of hot spots? Will we still be able to do that five or ten years from now?

Mention has been made repeatedly of using the F-35 JSF as an air superiority fighter. I differ with that premise. The F-35 lacks the performance and the stealth to be effective as an air combat fighter. It was designed to be a single seat bomber, not an air superiority fighter or a deep penetrator.

For instance, some have cited the F-35's Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) as anti-air capable, as if it could overcome the F-35's other basic limitations. Unfortunately, for an infrared sensor to work it must have clear air; clouds occlude IR radiation. I tested and flew the F-102A with its quite capable IRSTS. Excellent gear; clouds rendered it useless.

What happens if the underperforming and understealthed F-35 meets two or more enemy fighter aircraft of at least Su-27 Flanker performance?  Personally I believe the odds will be more like 4 or 6 to 2, but that is my own opinion, crediting the enemy with only going for a sure bet.

It is only too true that America's long period of air dominance has left its ground forces, and the Navy too, for that matter, lacking experience as to what hostile air power can do when friendly forces are inadequate as defenses. Who in general/flag officer rank has ever been subject to air attack? Does anyone now in high office in the DoD have an understanding of what hostile air power can do even lacking air superiority? Skilled, determined men achieve remarkable results. The men who felt the full force of enemy air in WW2 are long retired. How many of our people spot a speck in the sky and wonder if it is friendly?
The Korean War had several enemy attempts that were quickly defeated. The attacks in the Vietnam campaign were derisory. A US helicopter shot down a biplane attempting  to roll munitions out a door. Two US Navy ships shot down two MiGs with missiles. Serbia, weak as far as air power goes, produced some “lessons learned” except we failed to eradicate the SA-6 missile battery sites and one precious F-117 was lost through sheer disregard of the elements of security and surprise. Shades of Vietnam and “going north” following the same routes repeatedly. One would hope that simple lesson has been learned by now.
I am reminded of the pre-WW2 maneuvers where the rules would state “the weather is bad and all the airplanes are grounded.” I just recently attended an unclassified Red Flag briefing. One item was missing; there were no ground forces columns involved. No armored forces operating under hostile air forces. No support units, no troops on foot. I well remember overseas missions where we would make mock daily attacks on troops on the march or in bivouac in both Taiwan (ROC) and South Korea (ROK). Our task was to catch them unawares - their task was to respond quickly and properly. Our flying rules were those in actual combat - do whatever worked best to catch them wide open. And we did and they learned. So did we.
I understand some air is involved in the Army's Fort Irwin maneuver exercises. I wonder how many times a full strike force is involved? SEAD packages, plus a 16 ship strike force followed by another 16 ship “clean-up” package shortly afterward. Full surprise of course, other than the general warning “hostile aircraft are expected.” Paint balls would make a good and legible substitute for cluster munitions. Their colors could be chosen to reflect the type of munitions. I do think such missions would be instructive to all armed forces. 

Unfortunately I cannot come up with a practical and safe substitute for air-launched sea-skimming supersonic anti-ship missiles targeting aircraft carriers.
Lastly, I am reminded of Britain in the nineteen thirties, preparing each year's defense budget. The continuing premise was “No hostile action is anticipated for the next ten years.” They were almost correct, and prevailed only by the skin of their teeth, once that premise collapsed. It may have played out differently if not for the extra year of preparation won by the Munich Agreement.
We do have existing defense commitments that involve the full faith and credit of the United States of America. Will we be able to honor those commitments or simply die trying because our forces are inadequate and obsolescent?

Philosopher George Santayana summed this up so eloquently when he said “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Thus I maintain that a failure to produce a significant, meaningful number of F-22s, using attainment and retention of air superiority anywhere on the globe as the primary strategic criteria, would amount to a tragic strategic error on the part of the United States of America. It is an invitation to hostile action from other nation states in a world which is increasingly competitive, and increasingly concerned about a critical supply of natural resources.

CV: LtCol Walt “BJ” Bjorneby, USAF (Retd)

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