MEET THE RAPTOR
The F-22 Raptor is widely described as the best fighter in the world. First flown in 1997 (the prototype YF-22 first flew in 1990), it entered service in 2005 and has dominated in exercises.
It is not unknown for aggressor pilots to be told that the dogfight is over and they have been shot down – before they have any clue that the fight is on.
That is a far cry from the engagements of past wars like Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.
With a classified top speed, the ability to cruise faster than the speed of sound, and stealth technology that renders it invisible to radar, it has often been called not an air-superiority fighter, like its predecessor, the F-15C Eagle; it has been called an air supremacy fighter.
WHY AIR SUPREMACY?
This is a surprising change in terms. What does “air supremacy” mean? Well, to put it into perspective, compare
it to the term “air superiority”:
Air superiority is defined as “That degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”
Air supremacy is defined as “That degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.”
Note the difference between “prohibitive interference” and “effective interference” – interference can still be effective – even if it is not able to stop an attack.
WHY DOES AIR SUPREMACY MATTER?
How important is air supremacy? Consider this: American bombers and attack planes like the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-16C Fighting Falcon, and F-15E Strike Eagle have been providing close-air support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the Global War on Terror. But what makes it possible for them to do so is the near total absence of threats from opposing fighters and surface-to-air missiles.
This was achieved in 2001 over Afghanistan and in 2003 over Iraq with the first-generation stealth systems, including the F-117A Nighthawk, enabling the rapid takedown of the regimes run by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, respectively.
But what does it take to get air supremacy – also known as “air dominance” – over a hostile sky? The answer is it takes a combination of things: better aircraft, better tactics, and better pilots.
BETTER TACTICS AND PILOTS MATTER, BUT TECHNOLOGY COUNTS, TOO
Anyone who has studied the history of the air war over North Vietnam knows just how much well-trained pilots are needed. A discovery by the Navy of shortfalls in training led to the establishment of the Navy Fighter Weapon School (TOP GUN). That training helped then-Lieutenant Randall “Duke” Cunningham to become the war’s first American ace after a legendary dogfight against a North Vietnamese pilot believed to be a thirteen-kill ace nicknamed “Colonel Tomb” on 10 May, 1972.
Today, Top Gun and Air Force exercises like Red Flag keep American pilots as the best-trained in the world. But it’s not just the pilots that matter; their tactics count as well. For one classic example, look at the “Thach Weave” from World War II. This tactic, first used at the Battle of Midway, enabled the F4F Wildcat to counter the more agile and faster Zero fighter. Proper tactics can save lives.
Technology can be decisive, too. For instance, in Vietnam, the first use of precision-guided munitions took down the Thanh Hoa Bridge – after a few hundred prior sorties had failed, with over 104 pilots shot down. In Desert Storm, the F-117A Nighthawk was able to strike targets on its own without the need for escorts and jamming aircraft. And, as multiple exercises have shown, the F-22 has dominated the F-15 and F-16 due to its advanced technology.
HOW MUCH PER PLANE?
But the technology that provides a decisive edge in war comes with a high price tag. The early F-22s cost as much as $339 million each, which reflected their research and development sunk costs.
The current flyaway cost for a new F-22 is $137.5 million, according to a FY2007 budget document. It’s much cheaper than the price cited by many critics of additional F-22 production.
The other secret to a low production cost would be buying in bulk. It’s the reason that BJ’s Warehouse can sell a 36-pack of Mountain Dew for under ten dollars – while buying three 12-packs of Mountain Dew would run you $18 at Giant. Had the Air Force committed to another 100 planes in addition to the 183 funded, the unit cost would have gone down to $116 million per plane.
“The cost of the airplane is going down,” Air Force Major General Richard B.H. Lewis told Air Force Print News in 2006.
F-15S FLY APART
Of course, keep in mind that exercises showed that one F-22 could win dogfights against six F-15s. As one Air National Guard F-16 pilot told Popular Mechanics, “We die wholesale.”
Similar results could be expected against the widely exported Su-27/30 Flankers and Mig-29 Fulcrums, both of which come close in terms of capability to the F-15 and F-16. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, nations operating one or both of these included such good global citizens as Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. Other purchasers of the Fulcrum include Yemen. American forces have already faced the Fulcrum over Iraq and Yugoslavia. That is not the only problem facing the Air Force’s F-15 fleet. In 2007, the Air Force grounded the entire force of F-15s due to structural defects caused by age and heavy use.
The grounding resulted in a request to Canada for assistance in defending American airspace.
The Air Force has 522 F-15s in its inventory—meaning each F-22 will have to do the work of nearly three F-15s.
During the Bush Administration, the Air Force leadership had outlined a requirement for 381 F-22s. Yet, despite these public statements, on 6 April, 2009, the Obama administration announced that the F-22 production would be stopped at 187 planes. The commander of Air Combat Command, General John Corley, a former A-10 pilot, described that total as a high-risk figure in a 9 June, 2009 letter to Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).
A total of 243 F-22s was described as a moderate-risk figure.
When House and Senate committees included a total of $2.119 billion in funding to build seven new F-22s and provide long-lead components for another 12, Barack Obama threatened a veto, and launched a full-court press against the funding. On 21 July, 2009, the United States Senate voted to halt additional production by a 58–40 vote.
After the vote, a Pentagon report leaked to CQ Politics stated that the F-35, which had been touted by Obama and Defense Secretary Gates as being able to fill the gap caused by stopping the production of F-22s, was two years behind schedule.
It was something not mentioned by Secretary Gates in his 16 July speech at the Economic Club of Chicago in his effort to defend halting additional F-22 production.
Gates also raised the specter of a zero-sum game in that speech – saying, “Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity – whether for more F-22s or anything else – is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable.”
Two days before Gates made that speech, the Congressional Budget Office reported that H.R. 3200, a healthcare reform bill introduced in Congress, could cost taxpayers over a trillion dollars over ten years.
This was in the wake of a $787 billion stimulus package and the $700 billion TARP bailout over the last year.
The F-22 may not necessarily be dead. Japan has expressed continued interest in the plane, as a replacement for the F-4EJ Phantoms in service.
However, such a sale would require repealing the Obey Amendment, which prohibits the sale of the F-22 to even America’s closest allies. Meanwhile, as we go to press, hopes to maintain air dominance will rest solely on the F-35.
Michael Dunn, President and CEO of the Air Force Association, said, “I can only hope that years in the future we won’t be forced to say: ‘We wish we had more of these aircraft.’”