Why We Need the F-22 Raptor
David Axe provides the first persuasive argument that I’ve seen for further acquisition of the F-22 Raptor fighter. Since the Cold War ended, most of us have argued that continued reliance on the F-15/F-16 platform was more than adequate given the state of our adversaries. Why not just roll out next-generation versions of those planes with state-of-the-art avionics?
Axe argues that “the latest Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker derivate fighters and ‘double-digit’ surface-to-air missile systems such as the S-300” have largely obviated that argument. Even conceding that “the F-15 and F-16 might be equal or even slightly superior (when pilot training, weapons and joint and industry support are considered),” we are fast losing automatic air dominance. It’s not just theoretical, when one takes a look at who has these systems:
S-300: Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Cyprus, Hungary, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Slovakia, Syria, Ukraine and Vietnam
Su-27/30/33: Angola, Armenia, Belarus, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuala (rumored) and Vietnam
The other alternative, the F-35 Lightning, is not the answer, either:
While a fine bomb-hauler and (one hopes) a good multi-service airframe, the F-35 is a mediocre performer. Said 1st Fighter Wing commander Brigadier General Burton Field, “The problem with the F-35 … is speed. It doesn’t have the capability to supercruise. Speed lets us get inside the decision cycle of the bad guy.”
For the most dangerous air battles and attack missions, F-35 squadrons will rely on F-22s for support. That’s an unavoidable state of affairs when you design an airframe to replace slow- and low-flying Lockheed Martin A-10 Warthogs and Boeing AV-8B Harriers as well as light and flexible F-16s and Boeing F/A-18 Hornets. The F-35 is a compromise. Potentially a very successful compromise, but still …
We’ve already sunk $25 billion into Raptor development. That money is irrecoverable. Further jets cost only around $115 million (perhaps twice as much as a new F-16) and will get even cheaper. We should get a good return on our investment. A good return, in my estimation, means a full fleet of at least 381 Raptors in 10 or more full-strength squadrons. That should guarantee air dominance for another 30 years or more.
Which, incidentally, is about the age of our F-15/F-16 fleet.
I’m a systems guy, not a tech guru, so I’m not the best source on this. My general tendency is to be suspicious when the Air Force wants a new toy, because they always want a new toy (see the works of the late Carl Builder, especially Masks of War, for much more on that). But this debate is worth taking seriously.
UPDATE: Russell Newquist makes some good points about the leapfrog effect for high tech inventions.