The Air Force’s top-of-the-line F-22 Raptor fighter made its combat debut this week in the skies over Syria, participating in multinational air strikes against terrorist targets. Details are sketchy on precisely what role the F-22 played. Raptor originally was conceived by the Air Force as an agile air-to-air fighter with secondary capabilities in ground attack, electronic warfare and signals intelligence. The airframe assembled by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and Boeing is extremely hard to track using radar or infrared sensors, and its two Pratt & Whitney F119 engines deliver unsurpassed maneuverability (not to mention a top speed of 1,500 miles per hour). Its Northrop Grumman radar changes frequency a thousand times per second to elude detection and can be focused to defeat hostile emitters non-kinetically, while its BAE Systems warning receivers afford continuous, 360-degree situational awareness.
So the plane could have been used in any number of roles over Syria, from striking ground targets to escorting the aircraft of other countries to electronically suppressing air defenses. At its heart, though, F-22 is an air superiority fighter. It can only carry 2,000 pounds of bombs internally (two GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions or eight Small Diameter Bombs), and putting a bigger bomb-load on its wings would reduce its ability to elude enemy radar. That could matter a lot over Syria, which has an integrated air defense network supplied by Russia. Syria’s sophisticated air defenses explain why F-22 was included in the strike package even though the Air Force only has 187 operational Raptors thanks to premature termination of production in 2012. But with a rising China and resurgent Russia threatening U.S. interests in Asia and Europe, military planners need to make sure they don’t over-use their silver-bullet Raptors.
Which brings me to the tri-service F-35, formerly known as the Joint Strike Fighter and now officially designated the Lightning II (after a famous World War Two fighter built by Lockheed). The Air Force version of F-35 — which will comprise two-thirds of the domestic production run and almost all the export sales — was developed to be the less expensive part of a high-low mix of tactical aircraft in which F-22 would do the heavy lifting of establishing air dominance on Day One of a war, and then F-35 would do pretty much everything else. It only has one engine compared with Raptor’s two (a super-capable Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan) and it is somewhat less optimized for stealth, but it costs much less and is more versatile in its ability to accomplish a wide range of missions. How much less does it cost? Prime contractor Lockheed Martin says that at economical rates of production, each additional Air Force variant of F-35 will eventually cost no more to produce than the latest version of a legacy F-16 fighter. That would be about half the price-tag of F-22, which cost $150 million per plane during its final years of production.
F-35 would have been well-suited to the Syrian missions this week if it had been available, but the program has been slowed by developmental glitches and budget pressures. The glitches are largely resolved but the budget pressures persist — turning F-35 into a bill-payer for other programs despite the pivotal role it plays in Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plans for future combat. But the growing need to conduct air operations in or near well-defended air space signals that it is time to start ramping up F-35 production. For instance, two-thirds of the air space over NATO ally Poland is within range of advanced Russian air defenses, and China is rapidly extending its own air coverage over littoral waters in the Western Pacific. It simply isn’t feasible to stretch 187 F-22s over so much real estate on a continuous basis. The joint force needs a much larger fleet of survivable, multi-mission tactical aircraft, and F-35 is the only viable option available. So rather than using up our silver bullets before a really big war comes along, let’s get F-35 fielded in numbers as soon as possible.
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