The Air Force’s fifth-generation F-22 Raptor made all previous fighters obsolete. But rather than develop its own fifth-generation fighter, the Navy is banking on the F-35C Lightning II and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to provide the fleet’s air defense. While the F/A-18E/F is an improvement over the fourth-generation F/A-18C Hornet, and the F-35C introduces fifth-generation stealth fighter capability to the carrier air wing, neither is designed to be an air superiority fighter like the F-22.
Whether the carrier air wing fights the next high-end war with the F/A-18 or the F-35, it will not be Navy and Marine Corps aviators’ first time flying against a fighter of equal or greater performance. In the 1942 Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the Grumman F4F Wildcat defeated Japan’s faster and more maneuverable Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The advantage the F4F had—and that the F/A-18 and F-35 will need—was the support of effective command and control (C2).
The C2 Edge
At the 1940 Battle of Britain, effective C2, including radars and fighter direction procedures, enabled Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots to develop and employ new tactics. As a result, the Hurricane shot down more German aircraft than the RAF’s newer Supermarine Spitfire—a stark contrast to its earlier losses to the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in the Battle of France, when the RAF lacked C2.1 In the 1942 Battle of Singapore, however, the Hurricane was defeated by Japan’s Zero after RAF ground-based C2 was decimated by Japanese aerial bombing.2
At Coral Sea and Midway, U.S. Navy C2, shipboard air-search radars and fighter direction, and tactics such as the Thach Weave enabled the Wildcat to defeat the Zero. But land-based C2 did not prevent the Zero from overwhelming the Wildcat’s predecessor, the U.S. Marine Corps Brewster F2F Buffalo, at Midway.
An obsolete fighter such as the Buffalo, even with the best C2 and tactics, will lose to the superior fighter. But with effective C2, a relatively inferior fighter, such as the Hurricane or Wildcat, is adequate to compete with a superior aircraft such as the Zero. High-end warfighting between high-end fighters requires effective C2 and tactics.
Good, But Good Enough?
In the 1991 Gulf War, an E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft warned and enabled two F/A-18Cs to shoot down two intercepting Iraqi MiG-21s with semiactive medium-range AIM-7 Sparrows.3 The F/A-18, a fourth-generation strike fighter, required C2 queuing from an airborne platform, the E-2, to switch its multimission capable pulse-Doppler radar from ground attack to air-to-air mode and fire its AIM-7 missile. Nearly three decades later, the E-2 and F/A-18 still deploy together in a world of emerging fifth-generation fighters.
A fifth-generation fighter, such as the F-22, can compete with another fifth-generation fighter without the help of supporting C2, and a fourth-generation fighter, such as the F/A-18, can compete with a superior fighter with the support of C2. But even with the help of C2, a fourth-generation fighter is likely to be defeated by a fifth-generation fighter.
Before the F-35C even deployed from an aircraft carrier, its high cost spurred some to propose the 4.5-generation F/A-18 Block III Advanced Super Hornet as a “low cost” alternative.4 The next possible adversary, however, likely will not have third-generation MiG-21s among its order of battle. Effective C2 and tactics—which have been key to enabling less advanced fighters to defeat superior adversaries—is the edge U.S. naval forces will need in the future.
1. Richard Hough and Denis Richards, The Battle of Britain (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2007), 15.
2. Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939–1942, vol. 1, in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 3: Air (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962), 333, 339–40, 384, 387.
3. Edward J. Marolda and Robert J. Schneller Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Washington DC: Naval Historical Center, 2001), 178–79.
4. Dave Majumdar, “How to Replace the F-35: Meet the ‘Advanced’ Super Hornet for the U.S. Navy,” The National Interest, 30 May 2019.