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National Defense

America’s Defense: Time for Raptor 5.5

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Donald Trump’s tweets have a way of ruffling billion-dollar feathers, as when he complained about non-existent cost overruns in Boeing’s recent contract to build a new Air Force One. Boeing’s stock promptly dropped by 1%, which may not sound like much, but is equivalent to almost one billion dollars in market cap.  Mr. Trump has targeted other American companies before and after the campaign, including Ford, GM, and Carrier. This is a favorite negotiating tactic of the new Chief Executive: shake the tree, rattle your opponent, and see if any of those low-hanging fruit fall into your lap for free. That’s fair enough: after all, Theodore Roosevelt said the White House was the best “bully pulpit”[1] in the world and he used it to verbally batter opponents both foreign and domestic. Leaving aside the potential conflicts of interest generated by an undivested President who can manipulate stock prices to favor himself or his friends, rattling the complacent military-industrial complex is long overdue.

That is certainly what occurred when Mr. Trump subsequently took aim at Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 program. Lockheed Martin’s stock took a bigger beating than Boeing did, ending 2.5% down and costing the company $4 billion in value. The criticism is entirely justified: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the boondoggle of the ages: a gargantuan defense program which has swollen to be the most expensive, overpromised and under-delivered in history. It has survived for decades because of the army of defense lobbyists supporting it and the manufacturer’s clever stratagem of farming out so many pieces of design and production to so many suppliers in so many Congressional districts that the House can never muster a majority to kill it. The inexpungible program has already exceeded the $400 billion mark – more than twice the initial estimate – and is 9 years behind schedule. What is worse, test pilots admit that it can’t dogfight, while the Air Force reports that the planes so far delivered are by no means ready for combat, and may never be.

I’ve argued in the past that the F-35 program should be killed stone dead:

  • It suffers from fundamental and uncorrectable design problems that make it an unaerodynamic pig unable to outmaneuver the 1980’s airframes it is replacing[2];
  • It carries less ordinance and is more vulnerable than the A-10 or AV-8B in the CAS role;
  • The F-35A is being delivered with an internal cannon that cannot be fired for lack of appropriate software which will not be available until 2019, while the –B/C variants lack an integral gun entirely[3];
  • It’s internal weapons bay has compatibility issues with some of the munitions currently in service or soon to be deployed[4];
  • It is so complicated and expensive to maintain that pilots will find their flight hours severely curtailed, leading to lower levels of preparedness as well as affecting sortie rates under operational conditions;
  • It fails at all of the above at 6 times the cost to the taxpayer per airplane[5].

The Marines should take delivery of their F-35B variant while the Air Force and Navy develop the F-15SE and the Advanced Super Hornets[6] until a new strike aircraft can be developed[7]. That is not going to happen. President Trump will not succeed in killing this program (though he may cut back on the total number of aircraft ordered). The reality is that the US is going to have to depend on the F-35 for the next 40 years or so. If the Lightening II is a dog that won’t hunt, it will be up to the F-22 Raptors to establish the necessary air superiority that will allow the strike fighters to execute their missions and keep their pilots alive. That is the opinion of Air Force General Michael Hostage, of Air Combat Command, who told Air Force Times that “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform.”[8]

But the Air Force only has 187 of the air superiority Raptors. And the Navy will have no dedicated air superiority aircraft at all. And that’s a very big problem.

That wasn’t the original plan. The Air Force wanted 750 of the advanced fighters, but the high cost of each Raptor and the ballooning expenses associated with the F-35 program destroyed all hopes of reaching that goal. The decision to terminate production was taken in 2009, though the assembly lines would keep turning out planes until 2011. The Air Force tried to put a good face on things citing that “the Raptor was not relevant in post-Cold War conflicts such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Of course, five years later American aircraft were intercepting Russian aircraft over Baltic airspace while Japan and China were barking at each other over uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea. The Raptor suddenly became relevant enough that a squadron of them was dispatched to Europe to warn Russia and ease the fears of our European allies. That lone squadron represents one sixth of the entire Raptor fleet.

The United States once again faces near peer rivals with far more advanced military capabilities than those of Baathist Iraq and a technological-industrial base that shakes the assumptions of US air dominance upon which much of our strategies are based. Russia has developed a new 5th generation air superiority fighter, the T-50 (PAK FA). Based on lessons learned from the F-22 (i.e. espionage), the T-50 shares many of the characteristics of its American rival and is even more maneuverable; indeed, the Russians have nicknamed it the “Raptor Killer.” Meanwhile, China is developing not one but two indigenous 5th generation stealth fighters, the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31. These aircraft bear remarkable similarities to their American counterparts, the F-22 and F-35, which is almost certainly not a coincidence given recent revelations regarding the extent and systematic nature of Chinese hacking and espionage. While both the Russian and Chinese aircraft remain entirely unproven – unlike the F-22 – and are experiencing substantial teething problems, the fact remains that the technological dominance that promised easy victories for the US fighter has eroded.

Advances in radar technology have also eroded the greatest advantage the F-22 (and F-35) once boasted, their stealth capability. Russian, and more recently China, have developed passive low-frequency radars which are much more capable of detecting stealth aircraft than the traditional high-frequency radars the aircraft are designed to defeat[9]. The US Navy is deploying this same technology on an enhanced E-2D Hawkeye with stealth detection capabilities to counter the threat posed by the T-50, J-20/-31 and stealthy cruise missiles. To be fair, these new detection systems are still probably not good enough to actually lock on and direct a missile to a fighter-sized target. But they can direct alert their own fighters and direct them towards the opposing force. And they will get better with time.

Even without the fear of a near peer competitor – Russia will be lucky to purchase and field even 50 of the expensive T-50’s – there is another problem. In field exercise after field exercise, the Raptors showed a disturbing tendency to run out of missiles before the REDFOR aggressor ran out of planes. That means that even individually less capable aircraft, like the Chinese J-10 and the Russian Su-27/-30 could overwhelm the smaller number of Raptors, even though they would suffer fearful losses. In these exercises, the BLUEFOR compensated for its lack of Raptors by using older F-15’s and F-16’s to bulk up their numbers. But that introduces a non-stealth element to the force which compromises the whole purpose of deploying stealthy aircraft. For the tactic to work, the entire strike force must be ALL stealth or you might as well not bother.

During a recent biennial exercise between the USAF and the Royal Malaysian Air Force[10], the F-22 and Su-30 went head-to-head for the first time and the Russian jet held its own[11]. At a cost of approximately 30 million dollars that works out to four Sukhoi fighters for the price of each F-22 we have bought: not a great ratio. The Russian Air Force is purchasing more Su-30’s and is expected to have over 100 in operation by 2016 and the next largest operator is China, with approximately 70 in operation; but they are also beginning to produce quantities of the Shenyang J-16, an advanced fighter based on the Su-30 airframe.

We can’t assume that a future conflict against Russia, much less China, will be anything like our experience in Gulf Wars I and II. In both those campaigns the US achieve air dominance within hours of starting operations. In a high-threat, contested airspace against a near peer, the attrition rate on US aircraft is very likely to be much higher. Using a 1982 Rand Corporation study of a potential NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict with an estimated loss rate per sortie of a 2% and a 4:1 damage-to-loss ratio, and assuming 2 sorties per Raptor per day over a 10-day hypothetical conflict, we can make some rough estimates of losses:

  • Destroyed: 46 aircraft (-25%);
  • Damaged awaiting repair: 35 aircraft (-19%);
  • Remaining operational: 105 aircraft (56%);
  • Sorties per day on Day 1 = 374, versus on Day 10 = 217 (-42%).

Simply put, the Air Force and Navy need substantially more than the 187 Raptors now in service. And the services can’t wait until the mid-2030’s for a dubious sixth generation fighter: they need something deployable in the early-2020’s. It’s time for generation 5.5.

Some people, including me, have argued that America should restart the F-22 production line. That option has become highly impractical. A 2010 RAND study[12] estimates that reopening the line estimates that restarting the line alone would cost between 330 and 550 million dollars, due to the need to rehire and retrain workers, build specialized tools and dies, and create new manufacturing space. All of these were lost when the original production run ended in 2011, though some machine tools remain in storage.  In addition to the start-up costs, the flyaway cost of each new airplane would be higher than the original Raptors: an estimated 179 million dollars per aircraft for 75 aircraft, or 50 million dollars more per bird. Besides the high cost, we would be getting a 30-year old design with numerous identified deficiencies.

What is needed is a Raptor 5.5[13]; a design that builds upon the existing airframe as much as possible while introducing improvements that remedy the existing F-22’s weaknesses:

  • The current version of the Raptor is does not have the infrared search-and-track capability that its newest Russian and Chinese rivals have. Even stealth aircraft produce heat signatures that can be used to track them and guide in a heat-seeking missile. Currently, the Raptor would require an external sensor which would mess up the stealth characteristics. Raptor 5.5 would have this sensor incorporated internally;
  • Side-looking radars are also lacking on the current F-22. This requires the aircraft to continue flying generally towards its target until missile impact. With side-looking radars, a missile could be tracked and guided into the target even after a more than 90º turn away from it, maintaining a safer distance for the US aircraft;
  • Three-dimensional vectored thrust. The F-22 has two dimensional vectored thrust, making is supermaneuverable; but the Russian T-50 has three-dimensional vectoring, which makes it even more agile. This brings advantages in both missile evasion and within visual range combat (dogfighting);
  • Lower maintenance and support requirements. The F-22 is expensive to keep in the air. At $68,362 per flight hour, it is 65% more expensive than the F-15C Eagle – which is only that expensive because it is 50 years old. With two decades of experience now operating Raptors, the 5.5 version should target a 50% reduction in the cost per flight hour.

Raptor 5.5 should come in two variants, one for the Air Force and one for the Navy. The Navy version would be optimized for carrier operations: reinforced landing gear, arrestor hook and folding wing-tips. The Air Force version would be slightly longer and larger for extended range and an additional pair of AIM-9X Sidewinders in the weapons bay. Otherwise, the aircraft should be identical to avoid cost overruns and logistical complications. Yes – that was the pitch for the F-35 as well and commonality between the three variants has fallen from 70% at inception to barely 20% today. DoD will have to be rigorous in enforcing the requirement for high commonality of the two variants. A total order of approximately 900 aircraft would allow the Air Force to meet its original need of 770 air superiority aircraft (187 Raptors + 570 Raptors 5.5) with another 200 providing 20 squadrons for the Navy’s carrier air wings.

The Air Force needs more air superiority fighters in the near future to ensure it can meet the heightened threat environment of our potential near peer adversaries. And the Navy doesn’t have one at all. Neither service can wait for the F/A-XX program to bear fruit in the 2030’s – assuming the program can even produce an affordable, flyable aircraft by then. Instead, both services should focus on taking the successful F-22 Raptor and upgrading it, using the past 20 years of experience and technological advancements, but without fundamentally redesigning the entire airplane. This incremental approach will avoid the enormous expense of a totally new design, reduce production costs, and allow the US military to bolster its air fleet with the necessary number of advanced fighters in a reasonable time horizon.


Sources and Notes

[1] From Merriam-Webster: a prominent public position (as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one’s views

[2] Guy Norris and Amy Butler, “F-35 Flies Against F-16 in Basic Fighter Maneuvers,” Aviation Week, 02 April 2015

[3] Dave Majumdar, “New U.S. Stealth Jet Can’t Fire Its Gun Until 2019,” The Daily Beast, 31 December 2014

[4] Tyler Rogoway, “F-35 Can’t Carry Its Most Versatile Weapon Until At Least 2022,“ Foxtrot Alpha, 28 February 2015

[5] In constant 2005 dollars. Using estimated fly-away costs for the F-35A variant

[6] Neither the F-15 Stealthy Eagle nor the Advanced Super Hornet are true “stealth” aircraft, despite having substantially reduced radar cross-sections. They remain upgraded variants of generation 4.5 aircraft: which is what the bulk of the advanced world’s aviation arms are fielding today.

[7] Of course, there is no point developing a brand new strike fighter until our broken defense procurement system is completely reformed.

[8] Aaron Mehta, “Air Combat Command’s challenge: Buy new or modernize older aircraft,” Air Force Times, 02 February 2014

[9] This is due to physical limitations in aircraft and materials design; no platform can hope to defeat the entire electormagnetic spectrum, it must be optimized against a certain frequency range, leaving itself more vulnerable to detection by systems utilizing other frequencies.

[10] Tyler Rogoway, “US Air Force’s F-22s & F-15s Just Battled One of Their Most Feared Foes,” Foxtrot Alpha, 27 June 2014

[11] Haris Hussain, “MAN: Turning and burning with the best,” New Straits Times, 28 June 2014

[12] Obaid Younossi, Kevin Brancato, John C. Graser, Thomas Light, Rena Rudavsky and Jerry M. Sollinger , “Ending F-22A Production: Costs and Industrial Base Implications of Alternative Options,” Rand Corporation, 2010

[13] I.e. Generation 5.5, an incremental development between the original fifth generation aircraft and a truly advanced sixth generation.

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