Read an exchange over: The F/A-22 Raptor Must Fly

January 01, 2004  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The American Spectator  ·  Military

Original article by Michael Fumento
The American Spectator, July 8, 2004
Copyright 2004 The American Spectator Read the original article.

To the editor: 

Mr. Fumento's article makes an extraordinary number of claims for the Raptor, almost none of which have been demonstrated in its testing. And, nowhere does he mention the estimated $ 200 million cost per aircraft!

The Raptor is described as a stealthy fighter. This is based largely on its reported radar cross section as measured from only one aspect. However, stealth consists of the suppression of all major signatures: visual, infra-red, radar section and electromagnetic. The B-2 and the F-117 achieve these things in a number of ways. Both aircraft operate almost exclusively at night. The F-117 is very small. Those features eliminate the possibility of visual detection. Both are subsonic, so their infra-red and acoustic signatures are low. Neither has an on-board radar, so they neither emit radar signals nor have a bulky and highly reflective radar transmitter/receiver in their nose. None of these things would be true for a fighter designed to fly air superiority missions. Let's consider these things in a little more detail.

The F-22 is a very large aircraft. It has to be. It is designed to carry at least 6 air-to-air missiles and to fly for considerable distances (500 nautical mile combat radius). Since it is supposed to be stealthy, some of its missile load is carried in an internal bay, shielded from enemy radar. The F-117 has a similar feature. In a fighter, though, this means a smaller overall missile load than would otherwise be possible for an aircraft of this size. Once in close combat, though, the F-22's great size will render it very visible to enemy aircraft. This is not a fatal flaw (the F-14 and F-15 are large aircraft as are the most recent Russian-made air superiority fighters), but it illustrates the meaningless of the value of stealth in the visual combat environment. As to radar cross-section, the generally held measure of stealthiness, the F-22's signature would change dramatically the moment any external ordnance was attached. External ordnance might include fuel tanks to give it greater range or electronic warfare pods to augment the aircraft's on-board systems. It would also include infra-red homing missiles which, by their nature, cannot acquire targets if carried internally. This last problem might be mitigated somewhat by careful design of the missile launch points e.g. by recessing them somewhat into the underside of the fuselage. Then, there's the aircraft's infra-red signature. Assuming the aircraft is capable of sustained supersonic cruising without using its afterburner (something that it has not demonstrated to anything like the degree promised), aerodynamic heating of the aircraft's surface at supersonic speeds would rapidly make it detectable (in all aspects) to enemy infra-red sensors and missiles. That is a blunt hard fact of physics that cannot be changed simply by shaping the fuselage. Since the equation for surface heating is related to the square of the aircraft's speed (in Mach numbers), once over about Mach 1.25, the airframe becomes quite warm relative to the surrounding air. And, at sustained supersonic speeds, it would also be detectable to ground-based acoustic sensors. Finally, there is the aircraft's own radar system. The moment it starts looking for targets, it will announce its presence to any and all enemy air and ground systems in the vicinity. This is highly unstealthy. But, since the aircraft's primary armament is 6 internally carried, radar-guided Amraam missiles, there is no way around it. As the maximum range of these missiles is typically on the order of 35 nautical miles, and reasonable closing speeds in air-to-air combat are on the order of 1000 knots, aircraft on closing courses will be within visual range of one another within a minute, at which point many of the Raptors so-called advantages vanish. What one might call the geometry of air combat is the primary reason why sustained beyond-visual-range combat has never dominated air combat, even in the missile age (unless only one side has such missiles).

The F-22 has not yet demonstrated sustained supersonic cruise capability without afterburners even though the Air Force keeps adjusting its criteria for this part of its testing. Being able to exceed supersonic speed in a dry thrust configuration is nice (the aircraft has done this), but the value of this depends heavily on the amount of time the aircraft can sustain it. Also, sustained flight at these speeds will depend greatly on the aircraft having an absolutely clean exterior i.e. no fuel tanks, electronic warfare pods, laser targeting pods or additional missiles.

I have great respect for the opinion of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, but his assertion that stealth gets you into missile range before the enemy can shoot depends entirely on only your side having something like AWACS aircraft close to hand to direct the fighters in while allowing them to remain electronically silent. That has been the case in recent conflicts. It may not be the case if we are opposed by high performance fighter aircraft backed by their own AWACS (the Russians know how to make these too) and/or a modern ground-based air defense system. And, over Vietnam it was the North Vietnamese who had ground-based direction for their aircraft, which is how their smaller Mig-19s and Mig-21s, none of which had radar, repeatedly got within visual range of our state-of-the art F-4 Phantoms. Which raises another interesting point, namely the real role played by aircraft quality in air combat.

In Vietnam, theories of air combat in which missiles and systems were supposed to make close quarters combat obsolete failed miserably. The F-4s that Randy Cunningham flew had terrible rear quarter visibility and poor turning capability compared to their smaller Soviet made opponents. In fact, the Air Force version of the F-4 didn't even have guns, at first! Our pilots learned to overcome these problems by using those features of the aircraft that were superior to those of their enemy. Much the same thing happened 25 years before Vietnam, when Navy pilots went up against the Japanese Zero. That's because warfare is not simply a matter of technology. And in air combat, time and time again it has been shown that better pilots will get you victory, provided your equipment is at least competitive. There is no reason for assuming that our current generation of aircraft are outclassed by all of their Russian or European counterparts. The Air Force's testimony on this point is in fact highly suspect, coinciding as it does with the debate over the F-22.

We don't need "magic" systems and we don't need the ridiculous notion of painless victory against competitive enemies. We need competitive, cost-effective systems that we can purchase in large enough numbers to meet a variety of contingencies and that allow for adequate training. If the current war on terrorism proves anything it is that there is a strategic cost to sacrificing quantity to an excessively high level of quality. Numbers still matter in war. This is particularly true in air combat. Although the specific relationship between quantity and quality is a subject for debate, repeated exercises have shown that in any dogfight involving more than about 4 aircraft per side, confusion quickly takes over and numbers matter. Large aircraft, no matter how high tech, lose many of their advantages in such an environment and have to work much harder to win. No amount of on-board kill-from-a-distance technology has ever been able to maintain an air battle at a great enough distance to prevent the fight from reaching visual range.

It is also claimed that we're in danger of losing our edge in air-to-air combat? To whom? To the Russians, whose pilots are lucky if they get 10 hours of flight time per month? To Middle Eastern foes who are lucky if they can land their aircraft? Even assuming that the latest generation Sukhoi and Mig fighters are better than ours, the most cost effective solution would be to build improved versions of our current aircraft, along the lines of the Russian designs that so impress people (and which were built and designed by a bankrupt country whose economy even at its peak was a fraction the size of ours). This evolutionary approach would allow us to build and maintain large numbers of competitive aircraft. The rest would be up to the pilots.

Having a pro-defense point of view does not mean automatically accepting whatever spin interested parties in the Pentagon and industry put on their products. Our soldiers need good equipment and the aerospace and defense industries are entitled to make a profit supplying them, but what's good for Lockheed, various Senators and Congressmen and generals angling for post-service employment are not necessarily in the interests of national defense. It's worth noting that the single most useful aircraft in our current fight is the ultra-low tech A-10 ground attack aircraft. This aircraft, designed as the best anti-tank aircraft in the world during the Cold War, was opposed with almost fanatical hostility by the Air Force brass. Ground support of infantry is not high on their list of priorities, even though it has been one of the two most historically useful air force missions (the other is reconnaissance). Lots of danger, not much glamour. And don't tell me the F-22 will do this. During all of our recent wars, against enemies without air forces or air defense systems, the rules of engagement have kept our most advanced fighter-bombers at altitudes where their ability to support the troops is minimal, and their own survival assured. I am absolutely certain that the Air Force would be highly unwilling to put the $ 200 million per aircraft F-22 in range of some loser with a Kalashnikov.

I would close on a different note. Trust between all of our public institutions and the people in general is very important. Having spent the last 20 or so years following military and aviation matters what has impressed me the most is the almost continuous revision of our systems' publicly acknowledged capabilities. When first introduced, the super-whiz-bang killing machine is advertised as unbeatable. Five years later, things the critics pointed out the first time are acknowledged (usually in response to hard facts) and upgrades are demanded as necessary. These upgrades can't be refused because too much money has already been sunk into the program in question. Over a period of years, this cycle repeats itself and, generally, things tend to work out, but always at more cost and with more controversy than was needed. Goodwill is lost and cynicism develops. It becomes even harder to develop new systems. This is in no one's interest. Let's learn from that this time around.

– Anthony Mirvish

Michael Fumento replies:

Mr. Mirvish's OED-sized letter makes an extraordinary number of claims against the Raptor, such that it is truly marvelous he could be wrong with virtually every one.

  1. According to Lockheed-Martin spokesman Greg Caires, "All of Mr. Fumento's claims have been demonstrated during ground-based and flight testing by Lockheed Martin and the US Air Force." Obviously Lockheed has a personal stake, but it is beholden to Congress while Mr. Mirvish is not.
  2. The average per aircraft cost of the F/A-22 Raptor is $125 million. I did say the price of the Raptor was extremely high and explained it was partly because of the added ground support role. (And yet Mr. Mirvish has the gall to say, "Don't tell me the F-22 will do this," because it would put the plane within range of small arms fire. Funny, the B1, B2, and B-52 have all been used recently in a ground support role without suffering so much as a bullet hole.) I also explained the relatively high price resulted in part from Congress's decision to scale way back on its order, thereby increasing the per-unit price.
  3. The Raptor has "all-aspect" stealth; the F-117 "stealthiness" is only head-on.
  4. Pray how does the F-117 qualify as "very small" and the F/A-22 as "very large," when the F-117 is 66 feet long with a 43-foot wingspan, while the F/A-22 is 62-feet long with a wingspan of 44.5 feet. The Raptor is actually a foot shorter than the F-15.
  5. The Raptor bristles with missiles, 6 radar-guided and 2 heat-seeking missiles. The F-117 has no defensive weaponry.
  6. By Mr. Mirvish's own admission, the F/A-22 can have a full minute or more to identify a foe before the foe can make visual contact. In modern air combat, an extra second or two is all that's needed, thank you.
  7. The Raptor will not carry external electronic warfare pods – upgrades to the Raptor's EW suite will occur "under the skin."
  8. The Raptor routinely flies faster than 1.5 times the speed of sound without using its afterburners.
  9. Aerodynamic heating is reduced by the physical properties of the material from with the Raptor is built. The Raptor is not an aluminum jet; it is made from classified alloys.
  10. The Raptor's radar does not have active radar that gives itself away by emitting electronic signatures while looking for targets.
  11. The Raptor will only use external fuel tanks or carry external missiles when stealthiness is not an operational necessity (when deploying or when enforcing a "no-flight" zone). The Raptor will not use laser targeting pods (a technology that is fast becoming replaced by radar guided bombs).
  12. Finally, this talk of planes built by "bankrupt" countries shows the utter bankruptcy of Mr. Mirvish's anti-F/A-22 obsession. Nobody except perhaps he doubts that other than the Raptor, the Russian SU-37 is the world's finest fighter and that this jet WILL be purchased by China and other potential enemies of the U.S. God help us if the best plane we have to oppose them is the F-15, which was flying while we still had troops in Vietnam.

Read Michael Fumento's additional writing on the military. Michael Fumento (U.S. Army Airborne, 1978-82) is the author of numerous books.