“If the United States is to maintain air dominance, it needs the [Lockheed Martin] F-22 [Raptor],” 1st Fighter Wing Captain Elizabeth Kreft said point-blank at the end of our Aug. 10 meeting.
The threat, Raptor advocates contend, is a dual one: the latest Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker derivate fighters and “double-digit” surface-to-air missile systems such as the S-300.
S-300: Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Cyprus, Hungary, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, Slovakia, Syria, Ukraine and Vietnam
Su-27/30/33: Angola, Armenia, Belarus, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuala (rumored) and Vietnam
Critics including fighter designer Pierre Sprey say the earlier generation of U.S. fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 Viper and Boeing F-15 Eagle are adequate to defeat Flankers. Raptor friends point to exercises such as the infamous (and perhaps rigged) Cope India as evidence that the Viper and Eagle can be bested.
My own take: Sure, the F-15 and F-16 might be equal or even slightly superior (when pilot training, weapons and joint and industry support are considered). But for how long, in light of continued Flanker development? And since when is parity enough? Don’t our pilots deserve better?
As for those S-300s … The U.S. military has perhaps become accustomed to operating in permissive air defense environment such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Granted, helicopter pilots might not agree that these places are all that permissive. But there certainly is no real threat to the fast-movers and high-fliers that haul the cargo, spot targets and come to the rescue of pinned-down Marines. In this context, the Air Force has spent a decade mostly running down its Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses force; the Raptor promises to revitalize the capability and ensure global access for legacy aircraft and the future Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning.
Speaking of which, some critics ask, why can’t we cut the expensive Raptor in favor of the cheaper Lightning? While a fine bomb-hauler and (one hopes) a good multi-service airframe, the F-35 is a mediocre performer. Said 1st Fighter Wing commander Brigadier General Burton Field, “The problem with the F-35 … is speed. It doesn’t have the capability to supercruise. Speed lets us get inside the decision cycle of the bad guy.”
For the most dangerous air battles and attack missions, F-35 squadrons will rely on F-22s for support. That’s an unavoidable state of affairs when you design an airframe to replace slow- and low-flying Lockheed Martin A-10 Warthogs and Boeing AV-8B Harriers as well as light and flexible F-16s and Boeing F/A-18 Hornets. The F-35 is a compromise. Potentially a very successful compromise, but still …
We’ve already sunk $25 billion into Raptor development. That money is irrecoverable. Further jets cost only around $115 million (perhaps twice as much as a new F-16) and will get even cheaper. We should get a good return on our investment. A good return, in my estimation, means a full fleet of at least 381 Raptors in 10 or more full-strength squadrons. That should guarantee air dominance for another 30 years or more.