The Mil & Aero Blog
Sunday, November 16, 2008
  Outlook for U.S. military combat aircraft through the next decade

Posted by John Keller

U.S. military leaders will face many hard choices over the next 10 years when it comes to planning for military combat aircraft fleets as we move toward the second decade of the 21st century. Money is tight, the economy is bad, and U.S. bank and industry bailouts are placing more intense demands on the taxpayer's dollar than ever before.

One survivor of the military aircraft budgetary battles to come, I believe, will have to be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I know what you're thinking: some aircraft programs on the drawing board will have to go; there just isn't enough money to fund everything in the old reliable run of combat aircraft.

This is all-too true, but the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the hot chick jet fighter that has to be part of the mix. Without it, U.S. air forces will have to come up with brand new designs to streak through the skies like a zipfy, and there just isn't enough time or money left to do that.

I've read speculation that the F-22 Raptor might be the preferred aircraft over the F-35, and that just might turn out to be the case. I have to admit that historically I've been pretty poor at predicting aircraft winners. Granted, the F-22 is one of the most formidable combat jets in the world today, and it's a tempting proposition to transform it from a pure air-superiority fighter into a combination fighter-bomber like the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet.

Still, we've got to take a hard look F-22. It's design is 20 years old, it's a remanent of the Cold War, and it's designed from the ground up to take off and land on long runways. There's no version of the F-22 designed to operate from unimproved landing fields or from aircraft carriers like the F-35.

Moreover, a lot of the Pentagon's aircraft eggs are in the F-35's basket. By 2019 the lion's share of the military aircraft budget will be for the F-35, say analysts at the Government Electronics Industry Association (GEIA) segment of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. Nothing else comes close -- not the F-22, not the F/A-18, not even the KC-X next-generation mid-air refueling tanker.

By 2019, the F/A-18, and the F-16 will be very long in the tooth. The F-15s will be gone. We've already seen retirement of the Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters. If this country wants to maintain a credible combat aircraft presence in the world, the F-35 will be one of our last options -- that is, unless the U.S. wants to ditch manned combat aircraft altogether and rely on unmanned combat aircraft.

I don't see manned combat aircraft going away anytime soon. We won't see that until all the flag officers in the Pentagon who once were fighter jocks are retired and nestled quietly into nursing homes.

Variants of the F-35 will be able to take off from runways, aircraft carriers, and unimproved landing fields. Some variants will be able to take off and land straight up and down. These aircraft can dogfight other high-performance jets, as well as deliver precision-guided munitions, fly reconnaissance missions, and take out enemy radar and communications.

Do we really want to kill the F-35 and start over from scratch? This aircraft has been in development since the 1980s. If we start over now no new combat aircraft would be ready until probably after 2030. A lot can happen in the world between now and then.

I don't think it's worth the risk.
The F-35 is so far away from proving itself as to be scary. It will be some years before there is a fully tested example as opposed to pre-production examples flying now with no war systems on them. The program management is run on spin and sophistry.

Then to it isn't a mini-me F-22. It is a medium to low altitude strike fighter. It is the "Buick of stealth". It will never be the best combat aircraft in the area of technology. It will be the best aircraft that can be safely exported to a wide variety of countries each with a their own kind of export risk to technology bleed. The U.S. has spent billions on high end stealth R&D and other related combat technology over the years. We aren't going to just export that quality away. The LockMart doesn’t decide what tech is exported. A special technology board combining DOD and the U.S. State Department does.

Because the F-35 is has less than 2 percent of its flight testing done, there is no way we will know what it will cost.

The F-22 can super-cruise (not use it's afterburner) at around Mach 1.8 @ around 60,000 - 65,000 ft. It will not only clean the skies of aircraft but is the only high end stealth aircraft that can survive going against today's and future high end super SAMs.

And it is getting cheaper as we produce it. How much would the F-16 cost if we only made less than 200 of them? The F-22 is not old technology. Look at the relationship between it's APG-77 Radar and the AN/ALR-94 passive emissions detector and locator.

Stealth is nice but not everything. When the F-117 stealth fighter was shot down in 1999, LM came out and stated that even a simple turn could reduce your radar cross section by a factor of 100 or more.

The F-22 even if it was not stealthy, has raw speed and altitude to get it out of trouble just as fast as it got into it. The F-35 does not. The F-35 was meant to work after the F-22 cleared the big air defense threats.

Of course with JDAM et al (cheap near all weather sub 4 meter PGMs dropped from way up), After big SAMS and enemy aircraft are taken care of, I don't need a stealth aircraft. I can bomb you but you can't touch me.

For most AEFs ( Air Expeditionary Force, USAFs term for deployment packages by calendar date and quantity ) I don't need a stealth fighter. New build F-16s will do for most ( not all ) deployments. The budget group-think of the once great USAF is so far down the crapper, it will take a swan dive to save it. The USAF doesn't need the F-35 to kill off an enemy air threat. It does however need lots of cash to recapitalize all of it’s geriatric airframes, not just the pointy fast ones.

The Navy at least had the good sense to have new build Super Hornets to keep on deck for some years. Without that they would be in trouble. And of course they have delayed they're arrival of the F-35 to help pay for an out of control ship building industry.

The F-35 may be useful someday, but with all of the hype and spin about it's alleged ability with little test hours to show with real war systems on the jet and much more software than the F-22, DOD is putting it's money down on the roulette wheel and hoping for the best. The blue-sky marketing of the unproven F-35 is insane. It, by itself will not be the savior for air domination. It the 2020’s, we may start retiring some of the early F-22s. If production stops now, what will replace it? It’s performance is truly superior to anything on the drawing board. Without absolute air domination, or the deterrent value of it, the U.S. can not do any worldwide deployment or war. One thing man can’t do is predict the future very well. However, the Boy Scouts and not the Pentagon have it right: “Be prepared”.
The author's assumptions are probably as accurate as anyone elses--similar to trying to draw conclusions from all the financial talking heads having different outlooks on the economy and Market.
I for one don't think the F-35 will survive without serious production cuts. Why:
The expected future of warfare does not support need for JSF in concert with the fact that fewer and fewer of our Congressional members/staff have never spent a day in the military--I don't think they will appreciate the future tactical advantages the JSF will provide.
At least two foreign allies who had signed up to purchase/share the cost of the JSF are having second thoughts due to noise or funding, we can expect the unit cost to rise in result.
It would be substantially less expensive to cancel the JSF in favor of a mix of new F-16's and tactical UAVs.
The fragile state of the economy and Democratics preference for social issues over the Air Force's "wish list" will not be conducive to JSF funding.
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