Monday, October 02, 2006

Worth the Money?

In recent months, we've detailed various efforts to target the Air Force's F-22 fighter program, centerpiece of the service's force modernization efforts. The F-22 (nicknamed the Raptor) is the world's first, true fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth, advanced sensors and supercruise capabilities in an airframe designed to dominate aerial combat, and precisely strike high-value targets on the ground. At $361 million a copy, the F-22 is hardly cheap, but it's an aircraft that the Air Force considers vital for assuring aerial superiority for the next 50 years.

Critics argue that the F-22 is not only too expensive, it's completely ill-suited for the Global War on Terrorism, where much of the fighting occurs at close quarters on the ground. They believe that money earmarked for the Raptor would be better sent on the expansion of our ground forces, and improvements in systems/sensors that directly support our troops who are carrying the fight to the enemy. From our perspective, we believe that our forces need both. Obviously, a long war against terrorism mandates upgrades to our ground forces--and the elements that assist them. But cancelling the F-22 would be a grave mistake, allowing our adversaries to close the technological gap and jeopardizing the ability of U.S. forces to maintain air dominance--a cornerstone of our military strategy against an advanced foe, namely China.

But critics of the F-22 smell blood in the water, and attacks on the aircraft have ramped up in recent months. The 20 September 2006 issue of Jane's Defense Week (subscription required) contains a scathing critique by former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey and James Stevenson, who once edited Topgun Journal, the official publication of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School. On the surface, Sprey and Stevenson appear to have the background and experience to make such an argument. Sprey made his mark in the 70s and 80s as a member of Air Force Colonel John Boyd's "fighter mafia," arguing for smaller, more manuverable aircraft, based on analysis that showed larger, less nimble fighters were more likely to be shot down. During his time at the Pentagon, Sprey played a leading role in the development of both the A-10 ground attack aircraft and the F-16 multi-role fighter. Stevenson, the former Topgun editor, is also the author of books on the Navy's cancelled A-12 fighter program and the F/A-18.

According to Sprey and Stevenson, there are five attributes that make a winning fighter: (1) pilot training and ability; (2) obtaining the first sighting and surprising the enemy; (3) outnumbering enemy fighters in the air; (4) outmaneuvering the enemy to gain a firing position, and (5) converting split-second opportunities into kills. Based on their analysis, the F-22 is a mediocrity on attributes 4 and 5; it is a liability on numbers 1, 2, and 3.

To support their claims, Mr. Sprey and Mr. Stevenson utilize a blend of half-truths and outdated information. They note that F-22 pilots are only receiving about 14-20 hours of flying time a month--about the same as Navy pilots entering Topgun in the late 1970s. Sprey and Stevenson note that "robustly" trained Topgun instructors, flying "cheap" F-5s and flying 50-60 hours a month, consistently whipped their students--and their USAF breathern flying more advanced F-15s and F-16s. Missing from their analysis is a salient fact: Topgun instructors--like their USAF Weapons School counterparts--are the elite of the nation's military pilots. By design, Topgun instructors were supposed to fly more each month that pilots from "line" squadrons; if the instructor pilots hadn't dominated their students and "ordinary" fighter jocks, that would have been a genuine news flash, and the school would have quickly closed its doors.

Sprey and Stevenson also discount the training provided by today's full-motion, state-of-the-art simulators which are much more realistic than those available 30 years ago. Simply stated, pilots can accomplish a lot more in today's "sims" than they could in the late 1970s, so some of the training once reserved for an actual sortie can now be accomplished on the ground. True, flying the sim isn't quite the same thing as strapping on the jet, but ignoring the benefits of simulator training is a major flaw in their analysis.

The Raptor critics also downplay the increased effectiveness of today's air-to-air missiles, referring (instead) to the Vietnam era, when AAMs--particularly the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow--had a high failure rate, forcing F-4 crews to press in for an IR missile shot (with an AIM-9 Sidewinder), or use the 20mm cannon that was retrofitted to the Phantom. They ignore more recent conflicts, most notably the 1999 air campaign against Serbia. During that conflict, NATO warplanes (USAF F-15s and a Dutch F-16) relied solely on the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) to shoot down five Serbian MiG-29 FULCRUMs, most at beyond visual range (BVR). Reliability rates for AMRAAM in the Balkans were far higher than the oft-quoted 10-20% success rate for the AIM-7 in Vietnam. But, since AMRAAM data doesn't suit their argument, Sprey and Stevenson carefully ignore it.

Likewise, they also tend to overestimate the ability of enemy pilots and air defense crews to detect and engage LO aircraft like the F-22. They note that the Serbs managed to down an F-117 during Operation Allied Force, using older radars and surface-to-air missiles. But, once again, they omit key facts, namely that the Serb air defense commander who scored the F-117 kill was considered the best in his nation's air force, and that NATO planners inadvertently aided the Serbs, by using the same ingress and egress routes time and time again. With better planning--and against lesser-skilled SAM crews--the F-117 would have probably survived its mission, so the "shootdown" over Serbia is not an accurate indicator of how LO aircraft might fare against adversary air defenses.

Sprey and Stevenson also claim that the relative "unreliability" of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems will make it more difficult for the F-22 to kill hostile aircraft at long ranges, resulting in more short-range dogfights where the larger Raptor is supposedly at a disadvantage. However, those arguments are equally suspect. IFF is but one tool used to identify hostile aircraft, and not the primary mechanism employed in combat, where (it is assumed) that virtually all aircraft will have their transponders turned off, or squawking a secure mode that cannot be correctly process by our fighters or AWACS. In that scenario, other tools, including non-cooperative target recognition, rules of engagement and electronic support measures (ESM) will be used to identify friendly and hostile aircraft. The possibility of mistaken ID (and even fratricide) will always exist--as it always does--but there are more measures for combat identification than IFF.

In short, Sprey and Stevenson are guilty of cherry-picking information to fit their case. With its ability to engage enemy aircraft at long range (and remain undetected), the F-22 has the ability to dominate aerial combat for decades to come, and support a fundamental requirement for our military doctrine. Certainly, the Raptor is expensive, but the supposedly "cost effective" solution (updating our F-15s and F-16s) would only result in a slow erosion of our superiority in the skies. Against adversaries that are rapidly modernizing, it is an option we simply can't afford, and the savings promised by F-22 critics are illusory at best, dangerous at worst.


SMSgt Mac said...

Good post and thanks for the tip on the JDW article!

A much as I think the AF bought the wrong ATF, you "go to war with the ATF you got". From what you've written, it seems the concept of 'Stealth' is still sneaking up on Sprey and Stevenson.

CW said...

The question is not whether the F-22 is a great fighter, or whether it is needed to remain competitive against Flankers, but whether we should spend $361 million apiece for an airplane that has no apparent use in the war that we are fighting. The answer to that question depends on whether you believe we'll have to fight the Chinese in the air or not.

SMSgt Mac said...

Re: "The answer to that question depends on whether you believe we'll have to fight the Chinese in the air or not."

No, the question is whether or not you believe that you need an air dominance fighter to establish control of the air so you might exploit the air with all of your other tools with relative ease.

IMHO the AF has always made a poor case for the F-22 in the Air Dominance role in two ways:

1. The AF has failed to institutionalize the concept that Air Dominance includes removing all threats to air forces -- including Surface to Air threats. They acknowledge it, but sometimes I think they don't really believe it.

2. The AF has failed to emphasize that the F-22 has unparalleled air-to-mud SEAD and DEAD capability. Instead, it chose to try and 'sell' a general 'attack' (F/A-22?) capability to an ignorant Congress and public who think that one plane should be able to do a lot of things equally well (TFX anyone?)

Re: needing the F-22 to fight the 'war we are fighting'.

We as a nation are now on a very dangerous course of framing defense needs of the future within the concerns of today.
This single-minded focus on counter-terror operations must be avoided at all costs. It must be avoided because if we do not, it provides incentives to other players (like NoKo & China) to become more aggressive while our minds are occupied elsewhere. History shows a marked tendency for nation-states to end up fighting the wars they 'didn't plan on' rather than the wars they did plan for.

SMSgt Mac said...

I found a non-subscription copy of the article at the CDI site (after begging up the tech library copy at work of course) as well as links to slide shows that were precursers of the article. The opinion piece was everything you said it was.
Links are at my site.(If you had an e-mail addy posted I would have just e-mailed the links.)
Thanks again!

David W Nicholas said...

The problem I have with the F-22 is a pretty fundamental one. It's a fighter. Fighters are designed (primarily anyway) to shoot down enemy aircraft. The Taliban had almost no air force. Al Qaida has none at all. And the USAF last lost an aircraft to enemy *air* action during, when, Viet Nam, Korea? The last time US ground troops were attacked by enemy air power was during the early days of Korea.

Our Air Force has gotten very very good at what they do. This of course creates a problem in terms of Pentagon budgets: you do things so well it looks like you need no help, so of course no one wants to spend any more money on you. That of course is bad, and the Generals in the Air Force wing of the Pentagon desperately want new toys. And what they want most is new fighters, because they are the sexy planes that the Generals flew or wanted to when they were young.

What the Air Force should be doing is trying to upgrade its air-to-air missiles and avionics on its existing fighters, and spend the rest of the money developing a plane we actually need. Air Force politics typically involve providing the minimum amount of support to ground elements (all Air Force theorists are followers of Douhet, who felt all ground forces obsolete and a waste of money) in favor of "sexier" planes like fighters and strategic bombers. What no one has explained is what good such aircraft are when the enemy has no strategic targets to bomb and no air force to shoot down.

What they should be working on is a second-generation A-10, perhaps a VTOL version. The authors of the article speak of the critics of the Raptor advocating planes based on the war we're currently fighting. While this is perhaps a valid criticism, the advocates of the Raptor look very much like they're fantasizing about a possible opponent in a future war, and then designing a plane to fight the imaginary opponents. It is, perhaps, a good idea to design weapons to defeat actual enemies, as opposed to imaginary ones.

Peacedog94 said...

I was an USAF officer and graduated from the USAFA in 1994. During this time I worked mainly in politico-military affairs and as an FAO.

My primary problems with the F-22 are the cost of the system and the fact that as a centerpiece for technology it is going in the wrong direction.

Manned aircraft for combatant operations should be going the way of the dodo at this time. UAV technology is rapidly improving and costs much less than manned aviation development. The money the USAF is spending on the F-22 should be reserved for the development and purchase of next generation UAV products.

This process would have been expedited, and we could have had the predator series aircraft ten years ago had a service other than the USAF been given lead for this program. The USAF leadership has fought the development of UAV technology, and similar programs, for years and is the primary reason why we are just begining to exploit this technology today.

This is complicated by the fact that the USAF and USN (the services with the largest aviation component), USMC excepted, are essentially sitting on the sidelines of the War on Terror.

Personally, I feel the cancellation of the F-22 program and the reprogramming of those funds into projects that would yield larger long term gains would send a much needed message to USAF and USNA leadership about their needing to get into the game.



Z said...

I think the author makes some valid points about the improved quality of simulator training, and the improved efficacy of the AMRAAM. However, I think it does do some disservice to some of Sprey's contentions about stealth and its interaction with advanced missiles. If we're assuming an advanced opponent, they might not have top shelf airframes, but they will have top shelf missiles, all of which are now packing passive anti-radiation modes that almost certainly can detect the Raptor's magically spread-spectrum LPI radar-just as the AMRAAM can do presently with jamming, and probably can with radar emissions. It's just too good of a trick to pass up-the mechanics of detecting the signal are much simpler than using it in a radar. So, in an environment where everyone's radar is off (and this still cuts the range on the AMRAAM to that of an IR missile-with such a small seeker head, its excellent range stems mostly from datalink guidance provided by the launch platform-and its big radar) and engagement range drops to visual it a)becomes hard to justify hundreds of millions in stealth system that don't matter-no radar, and RCS doesn't matter and b)other qualities, like wing area, power-to-weight, canopy visibility, etc. matter more, and the F-22 ranges from equivalent to poor, and certainly not what could be bought for an equal amount of money.

I think the real issue is just about military procurement-any product that takes 20 years from blueprint to production, and then in tiny numbers, after having passed through the hands of different leaderships with different demands, politics trumping engineering, and the rest, its no wonder when products arrive late, in tiny numbers, and gold-plated out of any rational price range.