Catch F-22

By Commander Jeff Huber

The F-22's sales pitch frames it as the undisputed master of each air superiority task. I'm skeptical.

  • Defensive Counterair. Being stealthy for the purpose of shooting down strikers isn't a persuasive F-22 selling point. DCA fighters operate over friendly territory and don't have to worry about bad-guy surface-to-air missiles. For the sake of role expansion, however, proponents attribute to the aircraft a "unique" DCA ability to shoot down stealthy cruise missiles: "The F-22 also will carry the next-generation AIM-9X and improved versions of the AIM 120 AMRAAM designed to destroy low-observable cruise missiles expected to be on the market early in the next century."

Land-attack cruise missiles avoid radar detection by flying low against the terrain, putting the earth between themselves and enemy radars. Spending extra money to make them stealthy is a curious notion. Even if the arms industry can create a viable market for low-observable cruise missiles, there's genuine doubt as to whether advanced air-to-air missiles will be able to shoot them down.

Regardless, whether whiz-bang air-to-air missiles will be able to shoot down whiz-bang cruise missiles has nothing to do with the F-22's stealthy airframe. The air-to-air missiles and their companion avionics will work equally well on any fighter airframe in the current inventory. More important, fighters are almost certainly the least cost-effective or tactically effective means of defending against cruise missiles. Cheaper, better countermeasures can be found.

  • Offensive Counterair: For the OCA role, stealth fighter advocates describe divisions of F-22s circling over enemy territory in "free-fire zones," within which they could attack any "positively identified target." In fact, "free-fire zones" and "positive identification" are mutually exclusive terms in the air-to-air world. Free-fire zones are so named because they don't require positive identification of a target to engage it.

The free-fire concept declares that because projected F-22 tactics "ensure" that no stealth fighter will accidentally shoot down his wingman (a leap of faith worthy of Martin Luther), anything within an F-22's detection and weapons envelope is a hostile aircraft and may be engaged. Unfortunately, any innocent aircraft happening into the zone gets whacked along with the bad guys. Worse yet, any good-guy strikers (who are the reason for having the free-fire zone in the first place) flying into the zone get whacked as well. That's why beyond-visual-range engagements require positive identification.

The free-fire zone is a groovy concept, but doesn't work. Associating the term "free-fire zone" with the F-22 implies that the stealth fighter is somehow better able to kill more bad guys more quickly than any other fighter with similar weapons, sensors, and command-and-control connectivity. Not.

"Wait," cry F-22 pundits, "we're not talking about strike support; we're talking about the pure air superiority sweep mission!"

In this OCA tactic, the fighter cavalry "sweeps" into Indian country alone and unafraid, unencumbered by any requirement to defend strike aircraft or any danger of accidentally shooting them, and takes on latter-day Red Barons in a duel for control of the sky.

The fighter sweep is a relic of the two world wars and Korea. The primary objective was attrition. Good-guy fighters flew near bad-guy airfields, drew their fighters into the sky and knocked them back down until they were all gone or they just gave up and ran off. The tactic's attrition efficacy was particularly notable in the MiG Alley brawls of the Korean War, though its overall operational and strategic worth was questionable. In subsequent conflicts, the sweep has made negligible dents in enemy fighter inventories.

More recently, the sweep has been modified to include a loose connection with the strike mission. Fighters ingress some set amount of time before the strikers enter the area. This, theoretically, allows for a freewheeling air-to-air fight that clears bad-guy fighters from the sky for at least as long as it takes the strikers to hit the target and skedaddle back to the fort.

What really happens is that in the process of raging around the sky over bad land, the sweepers manage to make absolutely certain that every element of the enemy's integrated air defense system is wide awake and ready to rumble. The sweepers run out of gas before they kill anybody and go home before the strikers show up. Bad-guy strip alert fighters get airborne just in time to jump on the strikers like sharks on a school of goldfish.

A last word about the sweep: there's an odd irony in using F-22s as sweepers. You can only sucker bad guy fighters into coming up to fight if they know you're there. If you're stealthy, how do they know you're there?

But forget the cruise missile and sweep things. We've got the no-fooling F-22 air-superiority tactic-raid disruption. This is where we sneak up on enemy airfields while bad-guy strike groups are forming up and blow them away before they even finish their rendezvous. This sounds great if you're going up against one of General Savage's "Twelve O'clock High" thousand-plane B-17 raids. Problem is, modern tactical air strikes aren't anything like that. They can consist of as few as four, two, or even one aircraft. It takes very little time for small strike packages to join up and press to the target.

And if bad guy really wants to launch massive strikes, he can counter raid disruption with raid dispersion. Dozens, scores, or hundreds of strike aircraft can be launched in small packages from multiple fields spread over a broad geographic area. Raid disruption F-22s would be unable to engage enough of these strike packages to keep the rest from saturating and overwhelming our air defenses.

Or, if bad guy doesn't have enough airfields for dispersion, he can just attack during the day. Stealth aircraft may have radar and infrared detection avoidance characteristics, but they can't evade the human eye in broad daylight any better than any other aircraft. Raid disruption, like stealth, is pretty much a nighttime thing.

Day attack also offers bad guy a bonus convenience his pilots don't know how to fly at night anyway.

  • Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses: HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missile) allows tactical aircraft to destroy or shut down an enemy surface-to-air missile while flying outside the missile's range. The launching aircraft can have one or both of two objectives for employing HARM: (1) to attack the missile from a safe distance, allowing other aircraft to fly through its envelope, or (2) to protect itself from the missile.

An aircraft protecting other aircraft from a safe distance doesn't need to be stealthy, and a stealthy aircraft doesn't need to protect itself from a surface-to-air missile. "However," Aviation Week & Space Technology explains, "Air Force officials favor overflying the target with a stealth aircraft and dropping much more powerful weapons to destroy a radar site."

If they favor overflying the target so much, why did they spend the money to redesign the HARM so it would fit the F-22?

On Time, On Target, On Per Diem

Expanding into the role of a true strike fighter, the F-22 is being readied to carry and deliver state-of-the-art precision-attack munitions: improved joint direct-attack munition (JDAM), JAST-1000, miniaturized munitions technology, wind-corrected munitions dispenser (WCMD), low-cost autonomous attack system (LOCAAS), and GBU22 Paveway. It's great that they'll spend tons of money to modify these weapons so a $150-million jet can carry them in its weapons bay. It's not so great that existing $16-$50 million dollar jets can or could carry the same weapons without having to spend money to modify them.


"You have the stealth of an F-117, but you add supercruise. Therefore, anybody's reaction time in dealing with F-22 is reduced considerably."

-A senior Air Force official

Speed is life. It's the key to mission accomplishment and survival. By the time they see me coming, I'm already gone. Wait a minute . . . If I'm stealthy, how did they see me coming?

Now You See 'Em, Now You Don't

"Because the F-22's [detectability] has been so dramatically reduced, the single pilot's defensive duties-a time-consuming task in conventional aircraft-have been taken out of the new stealth fighter."

-A Lockheed Martin official

The real bottom line of F-22 advocacy is that while it won't do much that existing tactical aircraft couldn't do, it's stealthy! Well, sorta.

Besides HARM, the F-22 and its stealthy cousins (the F-117 and B-2) are being designed, refitted, or projected to carry all sorts of advanced stand-off weapons. Why would stealth aircraft need to shoot stand-off weapons?

Aviation Week & Space Technology says Air Force planners concede that "to preserve maximum stealth, F-22s will have to be flown in specific attitudes relative to enemy radars." What if they have to change their attitudes to shoot somebody down? Or drop a bomb? Or launch a HARM? That could get "time consuming"!

Yet another unidentified senior Air Force official concedes that the United States "must guard against the fact that someday, given enough [data] netting and sensors, the value of stealth could be reduced." This Air Force official, apparently, didn't predict anything about stealth's cost adjusting over time in proportion to its value.

Stealth technology is not a panacea. It does not make aircraft invisible to all radars and passive sensors; it just makes them less visible. The "stealth gap" conundrum is that even before newer, better, and more expensive stealth aircraft come on-line, newer, better, and cheaper counter-stealth detection and targeting are out there waiting.

Stealthiness is not a bad thing, even if it is not perfect. The point is to shrink enemy weapon systems' envelopes as much as reasonably possible. Some stealth is better than none. More stealth is better than some. If we can reduce a threat envelope by 25% or even just 10% at an equitable cost, that's a significant and affordable tactical advantage. But with the prices we're looking at for aircraft such as the F-22 and the B-2, the stuff ought to work like a Romulan cloaking device.

The F-22 Catch

The Joint Strike Fighter, conceived from the ground up as a multirole stealth jet, is just down the road. Most estimates peg it at half or less the per-copy cost of the F-22. My vote is to skip the expensive one and buy the less costly one-but I'm not voting. The guys who are have constituent local economies at stake. They're under pressure to balance the budget, salvage what key social programs they can, and ensure that a fair share of the government dollar gets to their home states and districts. In addition, they must judge the F-22's worth in terms of capability, which must be a nightmare. For every uniformed knucklehead like me who says the platform can't walk its talk, there's another who says it can.

Early air power theory centered on the notion that the bomber will always get through. When fighters and air defense artillery proved that maxim wrong, air power force planners adopted a strategy of designing and buying more theoretically defensible and costlier manned bombers. When that didn't work, they sank money into escort fighters to protect the bombers.

The B-2 and F-22 are direct conceptual descendants of the Flying Fortress and its P-51 Mustang escorts. The world has changed; the thinking hasn't. It is imperative that today's planners apply a transformational philosophy to designing our future air power force structure. If we keep asking for money we don't really need, we might find ourselves cut off completely.

Maybe we should hold off on that spiffy new stealth strike/fighter for a few years.


Commander Huber is a freelance writer and a regular Proceedings contributor. He recently coauthored a piece on command and control of U.S. naval forces for Jane's Fighting Ships.

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