F-22 vs. F-35: Thoughts On Fifth Generation Fighters

F-22 and F-35 [War on the Rocks]

[This is the first post from Geoffery Clark, a guest contributor to Mystics & Statistics. TDI is pleased to share his perspective and insights.]

This post begins a series on air warfare, how it has evolved, and where it is headed in the future. My goal is to highlight key facts that I believe are meaningful to help understand capabilities, both existing and emerging, and how they might play out in battle. Of course, I will also hypothesize, speculate from time to time, perhaps even downright evangelize. Those actions will obey the doctrine of separation of church and state. A good place to start a series on air warfare is the current state of the US Air Force (USAF) fighter programs, specifically the fifth generation F-35 and sibling F-22.

To disclose my own biases, I’ve been a skeptic of the F-35 aircraft for a long time, largely because my father worked on the F-22 program, and a certain amount of rivalry exists between these two programs. Often the F-35 capabilities have been compared to the F-22, as they are the first two fifth generation fighters into service with any air force. USAF Air Combat Command (ACC) has stated that anything that you can do in a Raptor (F-22) you can do with a Lightening (F-35), you just need more of them to do it. This has stoked the embers of those on the F-22 program, who saw their program end after several build curtailments, as prospects for export were squashed in congress; although production resumption bills spring up from time to time.

My personal opinion is that the F-22 advantages are fleeting, as all military advantage seems to be (“military secrets are the most fleeting of all.” ~ Spock, Star Trek, “The Enterprise Incident”), we should thus sell the Raptor to allies, dulling the stealth coatings to acceptable export levels, and using the opportunity to upgrade the Raptor’s avionics, sensors, cockpit and software (aka “real-time sensor fusion engine”, per Lt Col Berke, see below) to keep the platform optimized and relevant in the decades to come.

I’ve not been alone in my skepticism of the F-35; from War is Boring:
* ‘Your New Stealth Fighter is Really, Really Awful‘ (I bought this book for my Dad!)
* ‘The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat
* ‘Denmark’s F-35 Decision is Pretty Dumb
* ‘F’d: How the U.S. and Its Allies Got Stuck with the World’s Worst New Warplane

Perhaps most famously, the “Pacific View” briefing from RAND to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) back in 2008, which was leaked and apparently caused a bit of embarrassment for RAND. This was widely reported by F-35 critics, echoing the lines in the report “F-35A is “Double Inferior” … can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” (see attached slides, number 80). Dr. John Stillion, one of two listed authors, departed RAND, and is now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), and has published some interesting viewpoints on future air warfare.

In the course of data collection and analysis, however, I’ve come to challenge my own bias, and consider the F-35 for what it is, what capabilities it brings to the field, and what that means for air warfare. What has caused this change of heart? More information about what the F-35 can do, for example, Aviation Week’s “Check Six” podcast, interview with Lt Col David Berke, USMC. Berke has flown both fourth generation fighters (F/A-18, F-16 “loves them”) and fifth generation fighters (F-22, F-35). Such first-hand evidence is essential to understand the capabilities of these aircraft as they develop in the hands of operators, whom he likens to app developers on the iPhone platform. They don’t ask “what can this plane do for me?”, rather “what can I do with this airplane?”

F-35 is in a world of its own, you’re talking about a level of awareness. Data is fused and presented, I can look at it and tell with a glance what’s happening, almost like watching a baseball game, I can see where everyone is. Then I can choose to drill into something, such as second base, and I can see what sensors are contributing, how confident those sensors are, see who else might be helping me out, constantly presented with information on the spectra, and thinking about which sensors are best to use in different situations. How can you best contribute to the development of this information? This is nothing like fourth gen platforms, which might have the link 16 network, but they did not fly around thinking ‘how can I better contribute to the link 16 network?’

Berke was quite candid about the state of the military networks, saying that “evolution of what this networking will allow us to do, we are in the infancy with this… those networks are in some ways yet to be created.” Indeed, USAF leadership is asking for help with technology; “fusing sensor data and communications from the land, sea, air, space and cyberspace will be key to the U.S. military’s success in future battlefields,” General David Goldfein said at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando Florida. “The victory in future conflict … will go to that leader who can command and control his or her forces to create multiple dilemmas from multiple domains … at a pace that would overwhelm any enemy on the planet while denying the enemy the ability to do the same.”

According to Berke, “the most precious commodity by a huge margin is data … situation awareness … information. The ability to make a more intelligent decision, earlier than your opponent, and do something smart with an airplane because you know what is going on around you.”

This reminds me of John Boyd’s famous OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

More to come on this topic!

2 thoughts on “F-22 vs. F-35: Thoughts On Fifth Generation Fighters

  1. ” we should thus sell the Raptor to allies”
    I have to (partially) disagree. This would increase the chance of leakage, thus shortening the time before other Nations and potential enemies would be able to field similar fleets. This phenomenon has been observed throughout history. Fragile alliances are an utmost problem. Loyal systems, (such as the United Kingdom) considered a safe choice, possess the know-how to make similar (if not better) solutions – the absence of such an aircraft can only be explained by decision making (e.g. we do not know what Japan has in store).

  2. I agree, the choice to export the Raptor is a difficult one because of the risk of technology falling into the hands of unfriendly powers. Memories still exist of Toshiba selling 3D precision milling machines to the Soviets, for purportedly commercial purposes, but which had the dual use of being able to manufacture improved submarine screws.

    But, the US is exporting the F-35, which has similar (if not improved) technology, some of which has already been stolen by PLAAF hackers. How much of the Raptor export ban is driven by Lockheed Martin wanting to promote the F-35, and not wanting the Raptor to cannibalize sales?

    “But now, the F-22 must be upgraded through a costly service life extension plan and modernisation program because, “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22,” says [Chief of U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command Gen. Michael] Hostage to Air Force Times.”

    So, it is a bit like promoting the F-16, and neglecting the F-15. Or promoting the MiG-29 and neglecting the Su-27 … it just does not make a whole lot of sense to me. Now Trump wants to accelerate the F-X 6th generation platform, which will certainly not see service until well after the 2020 election …

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