The F-22 is a great strategic aircraft, but we may have other more pressing priorities
The F-22 is America’s premier air superiority fighter plane. Developed mostly in the 1990’s it entered service in 2005. It is a pure stealth fighter but, unlike the F-117 stealth fighter jet, it is supersonic and has super-cruise capability, meaning it can operate at afterburner speeds without using the afterburner and without consuming excess fuel. Thus the F-22 has great range, a superior radar, and beyond visual range (BVR) weapons. Above all it is a strategic airplane. Its role is to balance against an enemy air force and provide superior intelligence and kill capability to knock out their fighters and bombers.
Stealth reduces an aircraft’s radar signature, sometimes called the radar cross section. The F-22 looks to a conventional radar like a small grapefruit, if it sees it at all. This gives the F-22 a massive advantage because it can penetrate an enemy’s air space and both attack an enemy’s airborne assets and provide critical surveillance and intelligence to other US fighter aircraft that are not necessarily as stealthy as the F-22. In this role it becomes a type of AWACS surveillance platform, but one that can get close.
That is not to say that the F-22 is invulnerable. In fact, a lot of what can be said about the F-22’s capability is presumptive, or based on simulations and test environments. The plane has been used to chase some old Russian Tupolev bombers, but it has never been in a layered defense environment. Its use in Iraq, for example, was more of a demonstration that the F-22 was functional; it had no air adversary or even any ground base threats of significance (in the form of missile batteries, for example). We also do not know how the F-22 will perform in a heavy jamming environment, something the Russians have and continue to perfect. Nor do we know how stealthy it is against unconventional radar (for example L-Band) and radio based detectors that do not use conventional radar frequencies, most typically X-Band. Indeed, no matter how confident we think we are about the F-22’s performance, a lot remains to be proven.
VERA Passive Surveillance System can “see” Stealth
But we can say for sure that the F-22 was not designed against low-capability third world countries. It was designed as a strategic system to balance what other potential adversaries might have in their arsenal. In that sense, the F-22 appears to differ fairly radically from what the Russians and Chinese are up to.
The Russians are working on a stealthy fighter the Su-50 PAK. This airplane is still under development, with some major components still not ready including its engines and radar. Moreover, we do not know the level of integration of the airplane’s systems. We do know that it has some stealth features, but it is not as complete as the F-22 and has more in common, in that department, with the F-35. Moreover the Su-50 is both a strategic and tactical aircraft by design, and it is exportable. The F-22 is definitely not a tactical platform and is not exportable.
Su-35 demonstrator #709 displays a mix of R-27 Alamo and R-77 Adder BVR missiles (KnAAPO). (Air Power Australia & Dr. Karlo Kopp)
We don’t know how many Su-50’s the Russians plan to build, but given the state of Russian finances and the intrinsic capability of Sukhoi to build these platforms, the best guess is considerably less than one hundred airplanes; probably more like 50 to 60. From a purely numbers game approach there are already 184 F-22’s in inventory. Congress is asking whether the F-22 fleet should be over 380, a massive expenditure if the production line was restarted because these planes used to cost over $400 million a copy (and over $600 million each counting non-recurring R&D). They are also fabulously expensive to operate. The cost per flight hour is $68,362 (the costly F-35 comes in at a fat $42,200 to operate per hour). An inventory of 380 F-22’s would incur an annual cost that is budget busting if the planes are really flown.
Now it is true the Chinese are also working on stealthy airplanes and they have showed one of the prototypes off. It is easy to get excited about, but until we know a whole lot more about the Chinese planes, it is hard to calculate them into any strategic assessment. Japan is buying the F-35 to counter Chinese air power, but Japan’s first choice was the F-22. It is probably the only viable customer that could afford the F-22. Would we restart a production line for Japan? Hardly. A better solution would be to base a significant number of our F-22’s in Japan and ask Japan to pay the cost. That may sound like Trump (sorry, but he is right), but it makes sense.
There is also a serious issue in the idea of restarting a production line. Before that can be done two things are needed: the tooling for the airplane and the upgrades that are needed since some of the F-22’s systems are in need of improvement. While there is only speculation about the tooling, most experts think most of it was trashed to make room for F-35 manufacturing. Recreating it is a big and expensive job, and where to put such production is also up for grabs.
Because of the costs, and the fact that Russia is still some years away from finishing the Su-50 PAK, it is unlikely anyone can justify producing the F-22. Indeed, given the many trade offs, a better area for investment might be in jamming and other countermeasure equipment and improved radars and other types of sensors that can track a stealth airplane. Like anything else, stealth has a half-life and there is little doubt we are on the right hand side of the bell curve. Unfortunately we don’t know what the actual half life will be, but it can’t be much more than 10 to 15 years. That is not good news for a re-start of the F-22.
ECM “Khibiny” wing tip module on Su-34
There is yet another factor of serious importance: should be prepare for regional conflicts or for strategic ones? Obviously we need the ability to deal with all kinds of threats, but priorities are important. Looking at the US aircraft inventory, we are in rather bad shape (notwithstanding the arrival in depth of the F-35). Our airplanes (F-16’s and F-15’s especially) are close to worn out. The Marines tell us their F-18’s and their helicopters are more than 80% used up. Maybe the F-35 will fill the hole –that is what Lockheed and the Air Force are claiming. But it is a risky bet. The F-35 lacks a lot of the combat characteristics desirable for regional conflicts, and it is not a strategic aircraft. It does not have super-cruise, and its weapon’s portfolio is old. The F-35 would have a hard time against Russia Su-35 and even many of the earlier Sukhois and MIGs. And worse yet, it is a very expensive platform to use as a (poor) close support aircraft, something the Air Force is pushing.
If we must focus on strategic platforms, then the F-22 or an evolved F-22 makes sense. If we are thinking about regional conflicts, the F-22 is unnecessary, and so maybe is the F-35.