The F-35 has been in the headlines repeatedly in recent years. Whenever a news outlet needs an example of gratuitous military spending, you can bet a picture of Lockheed’s banner jet will find its way into the article. If someone’s in the mood to post a bit of patriotic motivation, the F-35’S incredibly advanced technological abilities are among the first to be flaunted, and conversely, anytime someone hopes to draw clicks by claiming the U.S. has lost its edge in military technology to its competitors, the F-35 is again put on display, with each of its (honestly numerous) shortcomings brought to bear for the sake of argument.
To be honest, it can be easy to get a bit confused about where the U.S. really stacks up when compared to the modern jets being fielded by the competition. China’s J-20 and impending J-31, and Russia’s SU-57 and even 4th generation Su-35 are often compared to the jet that is expected to become the workhorse fighter for a new generation of NATO countries… and to be perfectly frank, not all the stats look good for us. Because the F-35 wasn’t ever designed to serve specifically as an air superiority fighter, it should come as no surprise to any of us that it doesn’t stack up well against competitors designed specifically for air-to-air engagements in some key categories. Under a direct comparison of classically considered tenants like maximum speed, maneuverability, or fuel range, the F-35 falls short of both China’s and Russia’s top military jets.
Of course, dogfighting was never part of the plan for the F-35, and its state of the art communication and target tracking suite of systems ensures our birds will be able to locate, identify, and engage with its opponents well before the Russian or Chinese jets are able to respond – meaning the F-35 may well be able to compensate for its inability to outrun or out-turn other jets simply by being better aware of the battle space… but something about maintaining an operational standard of never getting caught with our britches down is concerning. In a real peer-to-near-peer war like one we’d find ourselves in with a country like China, we’d have to assume that not every engagement would be to our advantage, and that sometimes our men and women in harm’s way will be expected to perform under circumstances beyond the scope of equipment’s intended use – as we’ve seen in every war since men started sharpening sticks.
So if the F-35 is a sniper intended to engage opponents from a distance and escape undetected, what do we do when it’s time to go toe to toe with the best fighters our enemies could muster? In the minds of many, that’s a perfect opportunity to show off America’s less discussed 5th generation fighter: the F-22 Raptor.
Unlike the F-35, the F-22 has been operational for years, and has already been used in a number of intercepts of foreign aircraft over international waters. It also trumps the F-35 in performance tests like maximum speed, rate of climb, and maneuverability, delivering figures that match or exceed that of most of the competition. Like the F-35, however, the F-22 also comes equipped with a top of the line suite of electronics that allow for a scope of the battlefield experts don’t believe can be matched by our opponents. While it lacks some of the pilot interface technology the F-35 boasts, the F-22 can still muster an over-the-horizon awareness of targets that would leave most jets destroyed before they were even sure they were being engaged.
The only problem is, President Obama’s administration gave the F-22 program the ax after Lockheed Martin had only fulfilled a bit more than half of the initial order. With 187 completed F-22s, and fewer than 130 combat operational, the U.S. Air Force received only about half of what they believed they needed to ensure America had the best air superiority fighter fleet on the planet. Of course, at the time, President Obama and others believed wars with near-peer adversaries were a thing of the past, relegating the F-22 to the shelf of weapons without a war. International developments in the years since that 2011 decision have proven the former president wrong, of course, as we prepare for potential conflicts with nations fielding their own 5th generation fighters… some, like the J-20, modeled exactly after stolen designs of our own, now cancelled for being too capable (and expensive), F-22.
While some have argued that the United States doesn’t need the F-22 thanks to the capabilities of our existing fleets of fighters and the anticipated capabilities of a fully functioning fleet of F-35s, and there’s certainly merit to some of their points, the F-22 has demonstrated its value as an air support aircraft thanks its speed, payload capacity, and tiny radar signature. Pulling F-22 production out of mothballs would certainly bolster our country’s defenses – but is doing so a sound financial decision?
It would seem probably not. F-22 production has been stopped since 2011, meaning many of the assets allocated to building these jets have since been redistributed to other efforts or simply left to rot. In order to kick-start production, a significant initial investment would have to be put forth, possibly removing any financial incentive for using an existing platform rather than moving forward with one that is currently under development, like the PCA endeavor.
Which brings about another important factor to be considered: despite being one of the most advanced pieces of military hardware on the planet, the F-22 is now already outdated. The F-22 is based on a platform that was under development for decades – meaning a concerted effort to field an all new air superiority fighter, like efforts underway for a MACH 6 capable long-distance recon bomber SR-72, could provide an aircraft that doesn’t just compete with Russia’s Su-35 or China’s J-20, but leaves them in the dust.
Of course, we’ll have to finish mulching up hundred-dollar bills to feed through the jet inlet on the F-35 first… so it may be a while.
Images courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin, Aviation Week