Settling for Second Best

9 March 2011

Wednesday


Last Friday US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave a speech at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. Since he was speaking to the Air Force it is to be expected that his remarks as Secretary of Defense were focused on Air Force issues. After reviewing the present strategic situation (and, by the way, outlining long term goals quite similar to those entertained by his predecessor Rumsfeld) and the role of UAVs, Gates turned to air superiority fighters. Here are two key paragraphs from the speech about the F-35 and the F-22:

“So even as I’ve touted the need to incorporate the lessons of the current conflicts, I have also committed the Department of Defense, and this country, to the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history — the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The department is programmed to buy 2,400 of these aircraft, and the first Air Force training aircraft will arrive at Eglin Air Force Base in just over two months. Having a robust, large quantity of fifth generation tactical air fighters is something I view as a core requirement, and in this era of increasing budget constraints, my goal has been to ensure that core capabilities for all the services are protected. This has meant increasing development funding for the F-35, scaling back or cutting other programs that are not as essential, and intervening directly to get the program back on track, on budget, and on schedule.”

“At the same time that F-35 received high priority, the Department made the decision not to buy more than the 187 F-22s planned for our arsenal. As I have said before, the F-22 is far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced, and it will ensure U.S. command of the skies for the next generation. But in assessing how many F-22s the Air Force needed, the Department had to make choices and set priorities among competing demands and risks. Three years before I took this job, the previous Secretary of Defense imposed a funding cap on the F-22 and approved a program of 183 aircraft. Subsequent analysis conducted by the Department concluded that 187 was the number needed for high-end air to air missions that only the F-22 could perform, the number ultimately chosen. Within a fixed Air Force and overall Department of Defense budget, buying more F-22s would have meant doing less of something else — in this case, other air power capabilities where the military was underinvested relative to the threat.”

It is interesting to note how he called the F-35 “the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history,” but he did not call it the best tactical fighter in history. Then he went on to say that the F-22 “is far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced.” So, there you have it, the most advanced tactical fighter is not the best, and the best is not the most advanced. This is an interesting state of affairs, but not at all difficult to understand.

Technology changes so rapidly that the on-board electronic systems of the F-22 are already dated. The F-22 prototype first flew in 1990. The fighter was introduced into active service in 2005. Think of the computer you were using in 1990 or the software you were using in 2005 and you get a sense for the ways in which the F-22 is dated. Many upgrades and been completed, and further upgrades have been proposed, but they are quite expensive.

Regarding the on-board electronics on the F-35 one website says:

“The amount of computing power required to successfully accomplish its missions exceeds that of a typical aircraft several times over. Its communication system enables data sharing with other platforms in the air, at sea and on the ground through Web enabled logistics support developed via a new standard common across the nine countries involved in its development.”

This is why Gates called the F-35 the most advanced tactical air fighter, which it is. The F-35 is the most advanced fighter because it is the most recent. The the F-22, which Gates called “the best air-to-air fighter ever produced,” is not the best because it is the most recent and the most advanced, but because it is the best design. That aircraft designers could design and build and put into production a fifth generation fighter in 1990, at a time when there was not only no peer competitor, but no peer competitor even in sight, is a remarkable feat of engineering. I imagine there must be quite a story behind it, and I think it ranks as an accomplishment up there with the design and production of the SR-71 Blackbird during the Cold War.

While there was no peer competitor in sight when the F-22 was first produced, the Russians are now testing their Sukhoi PAK FA and the Chinese have flown the first prototype of their Chengdu J-20 Blackeagle (which I discussed in Fifth Generation Faceoff). In other words, peer competitors to the F-22 are in development and are likely to be available in the near future. One of the reasons for killing the F-22 program was the lack of peer competitors, but that reason is soon to be moot.

The early entry into the fifth generation fighter ranks by the US with the F-22 means not only that the technology is tried and tested, but that pilots for these fighters are trained and experienced. There is already a tradition and a routine in the operation and maintenance of the F-22. For the F-35, this is all yet to be established, and is likely to present novel challenges. And, as Gates said, there are plans to produce a lot of the F-35s, 2,400 of them or thereabouts. This many F-35s would definitely be a robust fighter force. However, the F-35 will become dated for the same reason that it is the most advanced fighter of the moment: because it is fighter of the moment. The F-22 is a fighter than transcends its moment. It is a superior airframe.

If the basic design of an airframe is superior, everything else can be continuously updated, and you still have an excellent aircraft. This is why Boeing still builds 747s. The 747 is one of the best commercial aircraft designs ever produced, and its airframe can always be kitted out with the latest and greatest gadgets. The F-22, like the 747, is one of the greatest fighter designs ever produced. It would be difficult to improve upon the basic design. There is a sense in which, with the F-22, the designers have created a perennial fighter — i.e., an air superiority fighter as a perennial technology.

While the F-22, like all weapons systems, will eventually become outdated and superseded, it will not become outdated and superseded in the same way as the F-35 will become outdated and superseded — and not nearly as rapidly.

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