UPDATE (02/07/11): Tailless Aircraft And The End Of “Silent Service”

X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Taking Shape On Board Lincoln

By Lt. Cmdr. William Marks, USS Abraham Lincoln Public Affairs

USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, At Sea (NNS) — Personnel from the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program team and industry partner Northrop Grumman Corporation are underway with USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) to test the integration of existing ship systems with new systems that will support the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D).

This effort will reduce program risk and is one of many steps toward the X-47B’s first carrier arrested landing or “trap.”

The X-47B will be the first unmanned jet aircraft to take off and land aboard an aircraft carrier. With a 62ft wingspan and length of 38ft, the X-47B is about 87 percent the size of the F/A-18C aircraft currently operating aboard Navy aircraft carriers.

The UCAS-D effort is focused on developing and demonstrating an aircraft carrier (CV) suitable, low observable (LO) unmanned air system in support of persistent, penetrating surveillance, and penetrating strike capabilities in high threat areas. The effort will evolve technologies required to conduct launch, recovery, and carrier controlled airspace (CCA) operations and autonomous air refueling (AAR) of an LO platform. By FY13, the Navy plans to achieve UCAS CV demonstration; achieve hybrid probe & drogue (USN style) and boom/receptacle (USAF style) AAR demonstration; and evaluate and identify technologies supporting future naval capability requirements.

Mark Pilling, a former naval flight officer with operational unmanned aircraft experience, is the team’s mission operator. He and his team are charged with verifying mission operator software between the ship and aircraft.

“This is the first step in the X-47B’s integration into the carrier’s systems,” said Pilling.

The team is testing X-47B software integration by using a King Air turbo prop “surrogate” aircraft taking off and landing from shore. As the aircraft approaches the carrier, it performs the same types of procedures as manned aircraft. However, since the X-47B is unmanned, digital messages from shipboard controllers will be used to control the aircraft instead of verbal instructions. In response to the digital command and control messages, the plane’s software confirms, complies and sends a “wilco” signal back to the controllers and mission operator.

“Over the last two at sea periods on Lincoln, we have integrated into a number of the ship systems, from PriFly, to CATCC, to the LSO platform,” said Pilling.

Janice Stolzy, the Northrop Grumman project lead, is on board to verify that the prototype equipment works in a real-time operational environment. Stolzy said successful UCAS-D system testing on Lincoln will set the stage for additional developmental testing later this year, including testing the software integration using an F/A-18 surrogate aircraft to more closely emulate the X-47B’s flight path.

John Zander, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) lead test engineer, said a prime benefit of a UCAS concept is to reduce the risk to human pilots.

“This is an important milestone for the Navy and we’re making great strides on board Lincoln,” said Zander.

Additional UCAS-D development activities are underway at multiple NAVAIR and Northrop Grumman sites throughout the United States. First flight of the X-47B is expected later this year.

Classified Bomber Under Consideration

Aviation Week – By Bill Sweetman

The $2-billion question in development of a new bomber is whether a major black-world demonstration program is already underway, with Northrop Grumman as the contractor.

This hypothesis makes sense of a series of clues that have appeared since 2005. In that year, Scott Winship, program manager for Northrop Grumman’s X-47 unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS), mentioned that the company—responding to a U.S. Air Force interest in a bigger version of the then-ongoing Joint UCAS project—had proposed an X-47C with very long endurance, a 10,000-lb.-plus weapon load and a 172-ft. wingspan, the same as a B-2. The idea was to match extreme endurance with a “deep magazine”—a large and diverse weapon load for multiple attacks on different types of target. Soon after, in the Fiscal 2007 budget, the J-UCAS program was terminated. While the Navy continued with the X-47B—now undergoing tests before a first flight in early 2010—it was reported that USAF funds were transferred into a classified program. The service also introduced a budget line-item for a Next Generation Bomber (NGB), but the program had no visible funds for Fiscal 2008-10.

During 2007, Northrop Grumman leaders hinted that the company expected to win a major restricted program. A financial report in early 2008 then disclosed a $2-billion surge in backlog at the company’s Integrated Systems division—just after Boeing and Lockheed Martin agreed to join forces on an NGB proposal.

Since that time, sources in Washington and elsewhere have reported that the company did win a demonstrator program for a large stealthy platform, and that the program has survived the budget cuts announced in April 2009.

A possibly related development is the construction of a large new hangar at the USAF’s flight-test center at Groom Lake, Nev. Unlike other buildings on the secluded site, it is screened from the closest public viewing point by a specially constructed berm.

The most likely focus of a flight-demonstrator program would be on the aerodynamic and aero-propulsion aspects of a very stealthy flying-wing design. The B-2 was designed in the earliest days of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), before the complex 3D airflows over an all-wing aircraft could be simulated properly, and represented a low-risk trade between aerodynamics and signatures. Thirty years later, vastly more powerful computing makes it possible to design shapes with better signatures and higher efficiency that nearly ensure they will work in the wind tunnel and in flight. However, a large-scale flying demonstrator can incorporate engine inlet and exhaust effects in the design and evaluate stability and control.

High-altitude performance could be another goal. The Air Force does not regard the B-2 as survivable in daylight because of the risk of visual detection by a fighter aircraft. The B-2 cruises at the same altitude as most fighters and can be caught in the best position for visual detection—silhouetted against the horizon. A high-altitude aircraft operating at 60,000 ft. or above is less likely to be in this position, and the sky above it is dark.

Using a version of Northrop Grumman’s “cranked kite” configuration—designed to be scalable and adaptable to different flight regimes—a new bomber could be around half the weight of the B-2, but about equal in centerline length, allowing it to carry the same types of weapons, possibly up to the size of the 30,000-lb. Boeing-developed Massive Ordnance Penetrator, intended to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets.

Northrop Grumman’s development of an NGB could be facilitated by its work on B-2 upgrades. Improvements being developed for B-2 include changes to the bomber’s rotary weapons launcher, allowing it to carry mixed loads of weapons ranging from Small-Diameter Bombs to 2,000-lb. class bombs; a new Ku-band active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, with the potential for extremely high ground resolution; and stealth-compatible high-rate satcoms systems.

Bomber supporters have mooted the idea of building and deploying a new bomber/ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) aircraft in phases. An initial version could be manned, powered by versions of existing engines, and use off-the-shelf sensors and avionics. Later aircraft could be unmanned or optionally piloted and powered by advanced engines, improving altitude performance or supplying power to directed-energy weapons for self-defense or attack.

Stealth will be very important to a bomber/ISR platform, and a key advantage compared to low-observable (LO) fighters. According to experts familiar with UCAS programs, blended wing-body and flying-wing shapes offer two unique attributes. First, they can provide all-aspect stealth, with low signatures from the side as well as in the front and rear aspects, whereas more conventional designs (like the F-22 and F-35) have a characteristic “bow-tie” radar cross-section (RCS) plot with peaks to the sides, associated with the body sides and vertical tails. Flying wings also feature “broadband” stealth: at lower radar frequencies, the wingtips, tails and other small parts of a conventional aircraft have dimensions in the same magnitude as the radar wavelength and therefore have a “resonant” RCS that is largely unaffected by shaping or materials. Recently, both Russia and China have unveiled modernized versions of VHF radars, touting their counterstealth performance.

ISR capability would be inherent in a new-technology strike aircraft. Characteristics such as long endurance, wide-band active and passive radio-frequency sensors, and LO-compatible high-bandwidth satcoms are essential for both missions.

Another major issue is whether the new bomber should be nuclear-capable. Analyst Barry Watts, in a February 2009 paper for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued that four conventional requirements were the strongest justification for a new bomber: missions requiring a sufficient radius of action from the last air-refueling point to reach targets deep in defended airspace; conflicts in which there is a need to strike targets at intercontinental distances; missions requiring the survivability to persist in defended airspace in order to prosecute time-sensitive targets; and operations in which U.S. forces must have a radius of action beyond the reach of enemy weapons.

Watts saw a need for nuclear missions only in the case of limited, controlled nuclear options against a regional threat and suggested only a moderate degree of electromagnetic pulse hardening.

UPDATED LINKS:

CTBA (Briefing): Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike (PDF)(35 PAGES)

CTBA (Full Report): Sustaining America’s Strategic Advantage in Long-Range Strike (PDF)(108 PAGES)

The F-22 Program in Retrospect

Barry Watts – Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) August 2009 (Revised December 2009)

Overview

It now appears likely that F-22 production will end with a procurement of 187 Raptors, of which 179 will be operational aircraft. The crucial moment came on July 21st, 2009, when the full Senate voted fifty-eight to forty to strip the $1.75 billion Senate defense authorizers had added to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 defense bill to keep F-22 in production. This vote came in the wake of intense lobbying by defense secretary Robert Gates and a veto threat from the White House should Congress continue F-22 production beyond FY 2009. In light of these developments, now seems as good a time as any to look back and try to take stock of the F-22 program. Are there any lessons to be learned, and where, if anywhere, is the program likely to go from here?

This paper first reviews the F-22 acquisition program, focusing on the cost increases and schedule slippages that, over time, led to the buy quantity to drop from 750 to 187. It is now almost certain that the US buy will end at 187 F-22s, of which around 130 will be combat coded. This procurement quantity has been determined more by budget constraints on the F-22 program than by operational requirements. This means that the Defense Department is, in effect, accepting high risk to its future ability to achieve the rapid air dominance that has been central to the American way of war since the Korean conflict. The main sources of this risk stem from emerging anti-access/area-denial capabilities that, in the case of the People’s Republic of China, include ballistic missiles capable of delivering conventional warheads and submunitions accurately against forward US airbases such as Kadena on Okinawa, thereby forcing US forces to operate from as far east as Guam.

Further, on the area-denial side of this growing challenge to US power projection, Russia’s commitment to developing and selling abroad surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems such as the S-300 and S-400 argues that US-PRC and US-Russia conflicts are not the only future scenarios in which US air dominance could be seriously challenged. The ability of anyone to forecast US requirements for air superiority as far out into the future as the F-22 is likely to remain in service is limited at best. The fact is that proliferation of S-300 SAMs is already well underway and foreign sales of Su-35s and S-400s to any country with the cash to buy them are probably just a matter of time.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposes to offset the risk of the truncated F-22 procurement by banking on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to be fielded in large numbers by the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps (2,443 JSFs total), as well as by close allies such as Britain and Australia. History is not encouraging, however. Since the development of the F-117 began, the Defense Department has invested in four programs that initially planned to field nearly 2,800 all-aspect low-observables (LO) combat aircraft.

If US F-22 production does end at 187 planes, the total actually fielded from these four programs will end up being only 267 F-117s, B-2s, and F-22s. Thus, whether or not the United States fields significant numbers of so-called 5th-generation combat aircraft—a category currently limited to the F-22 and the JSF—hinges on the F-35 program proving to be a startling exception to past US developments of all-aspect LO aircraft. Will 187 Raptors be the end of F-22 production? Not necessarily.

The Japanese have expressed interest in fielding some Raptors, and Japanese procurement of forty to sixty aircraft would go far to bolster Japan’s ability to deter a belligerent North Korea and other prospective security challenges in Northeast Asia. Currently, though, there is a Congressional prohibition against selling F-22s to foreign governments, even to those of close allies. This legislative restriction would have to be lifted for Japan to acquire F-22s, and the Japanese would have to find the funding for such an acquisition. Nevertheless, pursuing overseas F-22 buys that would build partner capacity is an opportunity that the United States should surely pursue.

Cost, Schedule, and Quantity

Even before the Air Force selected Lockheed’s YF-22 prototype to be the successor to the F-15 air superiority fighter, cost growth had become an issue in what was then the demonstration-and-validation (Dem/Val) phase of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) competition between Lockheed (today Lockheed Martin) and Northrop (now Northrop Grumman). In February 1991, the Government Accounting [now Accountability] Office (GAO) reported that inflation, program changes, and adjustments in labor-rate and material costs had increased the projected program cost from $79.5 billion to $103.7 billion. Over time, as the planned buy dropped from the 750 F-22s originally envisioned to less than 200, program-unit costs ballooned to over $350 million per F-22 because the large research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) investment—over $24.3 billion —had to be allocated to fewer and fewer aircraft.

However, even the unit flyaway cost, which excludes RDT&E, grew substantially. In 1988 the ATF program office established a flyaway unit cost goal of $35 million per plane in FY 1985 dollars, or roughly $60 million in FY 2009 dollars. As of May 2009, the average flyaway unit cost for 175 production F-22s had grown to $158.8 million. Schedule fared no better in the case of the F-22. The Dem/Val phase, which funded the Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics and Northrop/McDonnell Douglas teams to develop two flying prototypes each, began in 1986. The Air Force finally declared initial operational capability (IOC) with the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base (AFB), Virginia, in December 2005, almost two decades later.

Suffice it to say, the ATF/F-22 development was not exactly a model acquisition program. The program, of course, faced the considerable technical challenges of designing a stealthy, but highly agile fighter that could fight and survive in the daytime as readily as at night. Both the F-117 and B-2 had been basically “bomb trucks” that only operated in enemy airspace at night due to the threat of visual acquisition by enemy fighters. The Air Force’s emphasis on incorporating every available state-of-the-art technology into the F-22 also tended to affect cost and schedule adversely. Also, due to the F-22’s long gestation period, some elements of the design have required modernization even as the plane was still in production. And the Air Force’s single-minded drive to get as many Raptors “on the ramp” as possible inevitably led the Service to neglect other worthy acquisition programs as F-22 costs grew and IOC slipped.

The Air Force itself probably deserves the lion’s share of the responsibility for the Raptor’s cost and schedule difficulties. However both the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Congress made significant contributions to cost growth and schedule slippage, starting with (then) defense secretary Dick Cheney’s decisions in April 1990 to delay F-22 production two years to FY 1996 and cut the peak production rate from seventy-two to forty-eight planes per year. It is also worth remembering that the F-22 had the misfortune of entering full-scale engineering development in 1991, the same year as the first Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The program, therefore, was confronted almost immediately with tectonic changes in the international security environment. Finally, the US Navy, which originally planned to buy over six hundred carrier versions of the ATF, eventually dropped out of the program, reducing the total buy by 45 percent.

One Hundred and Thirty Versus Operational Requirements and Long-Term Risk

Given the unfortunate acquisition history of the F-22 together with staunch opposition to further production from Secretary Gates and acquiescence by Air Force leaders, there is good reason to suspect that the Senate’s July 2009 vote against further production will stand, ending the buy at 187 aircraft. When the last F-22s are delivered in 2012, about 130 in seven squadrons are now planned to be combat-coded and available for operations. Thus the F-22 fleet will have been sized primarily as a consequence of fiscal constraints on the production part of the program rather than by future US operational requirements for air superiority.

The pivotal budgetary decision came in December 2004 when OSD cut $10.473 billion from the F-22 program, reducing the buy at that time to 179 aircraft. Granted, there was some later backtracking. In the February 2006, the Quadrennial Defense Review Report directed that the F-22 program be restructured to extend production through FY 2010 with a multi-year contract to “ensure the Department does not have a gap in 5th generation stealth capabilities” for air dominance. It now appears that this direction will end up adding four more production aircraft, bringing the final buy to 179 operational aircraft.

Is there any clear linkage between this outcome and potential operational requirements? Based on the United States fighting two major regional contingencies (MRCs, or Major Combat Operations, MCOs) near simultaneously against high-end adversaries able to contest air superiority, the Air Force has long argued that the minimum buy for a lowrisk F-22 force is 381 aircraft. Among other things, this total would allow the Air Force to equip each of its ten air expeditionary forces with a 24-aircraft F-22 squadron (plus two operational spares) and have ample additional planes for pilot transition training into the F-22 (the “school house”), the weapons school and operational test squadron at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in Nevada, depot maintenance, further developmental work, and, most importantly, attrition.

To date, two F-22s have been lost in accidents, and the Raptor’s service life could very well extend through mid-century. Consequently, as recently as mid-July 2009, the chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, General John Corley, reiterated that 381 F-22s is the minimum for a low-risk force, even though commitment to the two-MRC force-sizing criterion inherited from defense secretary Les Aspin appears to be waning.

By the spring of 2009, however, the Air Force secretary and chief of staff had acceded to capping the F-22 buy at 179 production aircraft. On April 6, 2009, Secretary Gates announced his decision to recommend to President Obama that F-22 production be ended with the FY 2009 increment. One week later, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz explained in The Washington Post that although a buy of 243 F-22s would provide a moderate-risk force, buying sixty more Raptors would create an unfunded $13 billion bill and prevent the Air Force from funding other capabilities critical to ongoing joint operations. Thus, based on the assumption that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program moved ahead successfully, Donley and Schwartz were willing to endorse Gates’ decision to end F-22 production at 187 aircraft.

These choices will leave the United States with, at best, a high-risk F-22 force. A glimpse of what “high-risk” might mean can be found in a 2008 RAND Corporation study that explored, among other things, 2020 scenarios in which the United States sought to achieve air dominance over the Taiwan Strait against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The analysis assumed that all 130 combat-coded F-22s were committed to the conflict. Unfortunately, since 1996 the PRC has been investing in a range of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, including the ability of the 2nd Artillery Corps to deny US forces the ability to operate from forward bases such as Kadena AFB on the island of Okinawa. Kadena, after all, only has fifteen hardened shelters, and a saturation attack with as few as thirty-four CSS-6 ballistic missiles, each delivering 750 1.1-pound bomblets similar to those used as area submunitions by the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), could, theoretically, hit all the aircraft on Kadena’s parking ramps.

Given this growing PRC capability to deny US forces the use of bases such as Kadena, RAND’s 2008 analysis considered scenarios in which the F-22 force had to operate from Andersen AFB on Guam, which is outside the reach of missiles like the CSS-6. Given the long distance of the Taiwan Strait from Guam, RAND calculated that the PRC’s projected inventory of advanced Flanker fighters could generate some 1,300 sorties per day over the strait whereas the entire F-22 force could only mount around 140, giving the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) an average nine-to-one numerical advantage.

The upshot was that even assuming the F-22s over the strait would be able to shoot down significant numbers of opposing PLAAF Flankers without losses even when heavily outnumbered, by the time the F-22s ran out of missiles and fuel, enough Flankers were still available to begin attacking high-value assets such as air refueling tankers and E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft. As a result, F-22s were lost not due to being shot down by PLAAF fighters but because they could not rendezvous with tankers to get the fuel to make it back to Guam.

Many will view the United States-PRC scenario that produced this outcome as extremely unlikely. Indeed, Secretary Gates has argued that while the F-22 “is clearly a capability we do need,” it is only needed “for one or two potential scenarios,” namely those involving “the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet.” Judging such scenarios to be extremely few and far between, his conclusion is that if the JSF can be fielded on time and on cost, the risk of not having enough F-22s for such conflicts is minimal. Indeed, in the case of the PRC, Gates projects that in 2020 the United States will have nearly 1,100 F-22s and F-35s, whereas the PLAAF will have no 5th-generation fighters, and by 2025 this gap will only widen.

Moreover, the PRC seems to be making sufficient, if gradual, progress toward bringing Taiwan under Beijing’s control to provide little incentive to hasten reunification by resorting to the overt use of military force. Still, the RAND analysis does illustrate the potential risk inherent in terminating the F-22 buy at 187 aircraft as well as the importance of the JSF program moving ahead without major delays or cost growth. It also gives rise to the suspicion that it might not have been prudent to terminate F-22 production until there was solid evidence that the F-35 would not going to encounter major delays, cost increases, or related developmental problems.

The Uncertainty of the Future

The risk Gates, Donley and Schwartz appear to be taking in betting future US air dominance on the F-35 “in the bush,” rather than on the F-22 “in the hand,” becomes clearer when one considers the uncertainty of the future together with the opportunities being foreclosed by terminating the F-22 program in FY 2010. Consider, first, just how unpredictable the future course of events in international affairs or warfare really is.

The disappearance of the Soviet Union’s external empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself from 1989 to 1991 are a case in point. Very few in the West, or anywhere else, predicted what happened in any detail. One partial exception is Peter Schwartz, who has argued that, in 1983, he was able to use scenario analysis to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union if Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. But even Schwartz did not predict the relatively bloodless way in which the Soviet regime unraveled, or the speed and precise timing with which that unraveling occurred. What he really predicted was that if Gorbachev came to power, perestroika and glasnost would lead to “massive economic and political restructuring,” a reduction in East-West tensions, and “major shifts in international relationships.”

Similarly, who predicted during the 1990s that the United States would invade Afghanistan in 2001 and overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003? To paraphrase an Arab proverb, predictions of the future are lies even when they turn out to be accurate.21 Second, Gates’ assertion that 187 F-22s (130 combat-coded) will suffice through midcentury is the sort of prediction about the future that can never be made with confidence. The future is simply too uncertain to be sure that Gates is right. Yet he is betting heavily on the accuracy of his prediction while precluding the possibility of overseas sales to close US allies, starting with the Japanese. Particularly questionable is his insistence that the F-22 only has value in one or two low-probability scenarios.

It is certainly possible that US military forces will neither confront nor fight Russian or Chinese military forces during the service life of the F-22. But that is not the end of the story. Both Russia’s Sukhoi design bureau and the Russian Aircraft Corporation “MiG” are reportedly trying to develop a 5th-generation fighter comparable to the F-22. Sukhoi appears to be ahead. In July 2008, Russian Air Force commander Colonel-General Alexander Zelin stated that first flight of Sukhoi’s PAK FA [Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsyi] would occur in 2009.

It is very likely that event will be delayed. Since 2004, the Russian aircraft industry has been saddled with heavy debt even though state funding has increased twenty fold. However, during a meeting at Zhukovsky Air Base outside Moscow on August 18, 2009, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated that “the 5th-generation military aircraft project will receive full funding,” and emphasized that work on the PAK FA “is one of our priorities.”The likelihood, therefore, is that, in the long run, the Russians will develop a 5th-generation fighter to compete with the F-22 and F-35.

When they do, moreover, there is every reason to think that variants will be sold to any country willing to pay for the airplane. The prospect of US forces one day facing Russian- or Chinese-designed 5th-generation fighters in air combat, then, is not limited to conflict scenarios against Russia or the PRC. The same is true of advanced, long-range surface to- air missiles such as the Russian S-300 Favorit and S-400 Triumf SAMs.25 The F-22’s ability to cruise at high altitudes at Mach 1.5 or above without engaging fuel-guzzling afterburners (supercruise) and low-observability, combined with the Small

Diameter Bomb (SDB), make the Raptor the US aircraft most capable of surviving inside the engagement envelopes of these lethal SAMs, or even directly attacking them. Again, though, the Russian inclination to sell S-300 and S-400 systems to any country willing to pay for them means that they could show up in more conflict scenarios than those in which US forces fight either Russian or PRC forces.

Technical Performance versus Situation Awareness

What other capabilities does the F-22 uniquely provide? The argument has been repeatedly made that the F-22 is a “Cold War relic” designed to “combat a force of advanced Soviet fighter jets that never materialized.” True, funding limitations have limited Russian progress in recent years toward designing, much less fielding, a fighter with the all-aspect LO and other advanced capabilities of the F-22. Nevertheless, advanced Russian fighters that substantially outclass the F-15 have in fact materialized. The strongest competitor is the Sukhoi Flanker, variants of which have been exported to the PRC and India. The first country to receive Flankers after the Cold War ended was the PRC, and the PLAAF has imported two models in addition to the licensed manufacturing of around one hundred J-11 Flanker Bs.

The latest Flanker variant in operational service, the Su-35 Super Flanker, incorporates fly-by-wire controls and two-dimensional thrust vectoring, which give the plane phenomenal maneuverability at any angle of attack. This upgrade of the Su-27 includes digital avionics and a “glass” cockpit with large programmable displays. The hybrid (gimbaled) but electronically scanned Irbis E radar can track up to thirty targets at a time and engage up to eight of them with active radar homing missiles. In an air superiority role, the SU-35 can carry mixed loads of as many as fourteen active, passive, and infrared-guided air-to-air missiles.

The F-15, by comparison, carries only eight air-to-air missiles, as does the F-22 in a stealthy configuration. Flankers are also equipped with infrared search and track systems not carried on US fighters, and the Russian fighter comes with a head-mounted sight for high-angle-off employment of infrared missiles when the engagement has evolved into a close-in dogfight. The engines, which use key components of the Al-41F core, make the Super Flanker the first non-US fighter with a substantial capability for sustained supersonic cruise without afterburners.30 The SU-35 has just entered service with Russian units, and a buy of sixty of these “4.5-generation” fighters is now planned.31 Export sales are also anticipated, probably including the PRC.

In light of the Su-35’s technical features and performance, the Super Flanker is considered superior in technical performance to all fighters now in service except the 5th-generation F-22A Raptor. Of course, there is more to gaining air superiority than the technical performance of opposing aircraft, their sensors, or their weaponry. Well-documented combat experience going back to the Vietnam War, tests such as the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) Operational Unity Evaluation in the early 1980s, and extensive training experience at Red Flag and other exercises have confirmed, time and again, that the situation awareness (SA) of the aviators inside the cockpits has been the driver in engagement outcomes about 80 percent of the time. The important point here is that the F-22 is the first US fighter in which pilot SA was given priority in the plane’s design from the outset. Indeed, reflection on the F-22’s better-known technical characteristics—all-aspect LO, supercruise, and avionics automation to lighten the pilot’s workload—suggests that various technical features were integrated into the overall design to maximize the SA advantage of Raptor pilots over their adversaries.

The main reason for the F-22’s astonishing dominance over 4th-generation F-15s and F-16s flown by some of the Air Force’s top pilots, then, is SA. How dominant has the F-22 been in operational testing and training exercises? To cite one representative example, during Exercise Northern Edge in Alaska in 2006, F-22s achieve an exchange ratio of 108-to-zero despite being substantially outnumbered in the simulated air battles. It is the SA superiority designed into the F-22 that has consistently enabled Raptor pilots to target and “kill” opposing fighters before their pilots had even been able to detect the F-22. Thus, the short answer to the question of what capabilities the F-22 uniquely provides—besides an ability to attack advanced SAMs—is an unprecedented superiority in SA over all other fighters flying today.

A point recently emphasized by some opposed to F-22 production beyond 187 is that the plane has “never flown over Iraq or Afghanistan.” But ongoing US involvement in both countries ranges from counterinsurgency to stability, security, transition, and reconstruction (SSTR) operations, and the F-22 was obviously not designed for such operations. Using the F-22 in either conflict would have been massive overkill. Indeed, one suspects that the deployment of the F-22 to Iran or Afghanistan prior to Gates’ recommendation to end production in April 2009 would have sparked a firestorm of criticism that the Air Force was misusing the aircraft in order to bolster the case for additional Raptors. And the critics would have had a point.

Trends the Fielding of All-Aspect LO Combat Aircraft

Since Lockheed’s stealth fighter demonstrator program (HAVE BLUE) showed that the radar signature of fixed-wing aircraft could be reduced by orders of magnitude, the United States has fielded three combat aircraft with all-aspect LO designs: the F-117A, the B-2A, and the F-22A. In only one of these three programs, the F-117, were more operational aircraft built than initially envisioned. While the original F-117 plan was to build only twenty-five planes—five test vehicles and twenty production aircraft—a total of fifty-nine operational F-117s were eventually produced in addition to the test birds.

In the case of the B-2, the buy was originally 132 production aircraft for Strategic Air Command’s nuclear bomber fleet. Secretary Cheney, however, cut the planned buy to seventy-five in 1990 as part of his major aircraft review, and in January 1992, after the Cold War had ended and the Soviet nuclear threat had largely vanished, President George H. W. Bush halted production at twenty B-2s. The ATF/F-22 program, like the B-2 development, started with a large planned buy: 750 for the Air Force and 618 carrier versions for the US Navy’s carrier air wings. The Navy dropped out of the program in favor of an upgraded variant of the F/A-18 Hornet,36 and the Air Force, it now appears, will end up with only 187 F-22s.

Finally, the Navy’s Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) or A-12 program, which aimed at fielding an all-aspect LO successor to the A-6, also came to naught. Early planning anticipated a buy of 858 ATAs, for the Navy and Marine Corps plus another 400 for the Air Force. In the end, none were produced. The program was famously cancelled by Secretary Cheney in 1991, and, in the Navy’s case, the F/A-18s have had to shoulder the missions of both the A-6 and the F-14.

The implication of these numbers is that the US military has invested considerable money in developing four different all-aspect LO combat aircraft. The combined RDT&E bill for the B-2 and F-22 alone probably approached $45 billion. Despite the large investment in all-aspect LO aircraft programs, however, the Defense Department has ended up fielding much smaller numbers than initially planned. The buys originally envisioned for the F-117, B-2, ATF (including the naval variant), and ATA programs totaled 2,778 production aircraft. With the termination of F-22 production, the total that will actually be fielded is a paltry 267 planes, including the twenty-first B-2 which Congress added by funding the conversion of a test vehicle into an operational aircraft. The 267 all-aspect LO aircraft that now appear to be the final buy of these four designs is but 10 percent of the total envisioned at the beginning of the F-117, B-2, F-22 and ATA programs, and the last F-117s were retired in August 2008.

Why emphasize this unfortunate history regarding the procurement of all-aspect combat aircraft? The reason, of course, is the JSF. The current program envisions a US buy of 2,443 F-35s, of which 1,763 will be F-35As for the Air Force, and the remaining 680 will be divided between the F-35B STOVL (short take-off and landing) variant for the Marine Corps and the carrier-based F-35C for the Navy. In addition, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin anticipate at least a couple thousand more JSFs being sold to close allies as successors to 4th-generation fighters such as the F-16.

Will F-35 production unfold as now planned? Secretary Gates is betting heavily that it will. Indeed, he hopes to accelerate production by increasing the JSF buy in FY 2010 from fourteen to thirty aircraft. In light of the history of US all-aspect LO designs so far, however, one cannot help but wonder how realistic the US goal of 2,443 F-35s augmented by substantial foreign sales really is. The GAO’s latest report on the program documents that since system development started in October 2001, the JSF’s total program acquisition cost has grown from $233 billion to $298.9 billion, including a $10 billion increase in development costs, and the estimated delivery date for the first operational aircraft has slipped from 2008 to 2010.These numbers, like the buys of earlier all-aspect LO aircraft, are hardly encouraging.

Preserving the Industrial Base with Overseas Sales

In 1997, Representative David F. Obey added an amendment to the defense appropriations bill for FY 1998 that prohibited the sale of the F-22 to any foreign government.

At the time, there was legitimate concern that overseas sales might compromise some of the key technologies in the F-22. In light of present plans to sell thousands of JSFs overseas, though, this concern no longer appears justified. After all, in several areas the technologies in the F-35s are more advanced than those in the Raptor, and the JSF is being built by the same company that has been building the F-22. Nevertheless, Obey’s restriction on overseas sales of the F-22 remains in force today. The effort in the House of Representatives in 2006 to repeal Obey’s amendment ultimately failed, with Obey saying that he was “significantly uncomfortable” with lifting the restriction.

The most recent development regarding this restriction occurred in June 2009 when Senator Daniel Inouye sent letters to the Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki and Secretary Gates, presumably suggesting that in light of Japan’s defense needs and a desire to preserve a portion of the US industrial base, it may be wise to reconsider selling F-22s to Japan.

Reportedly, the Japanese have expressed interest in acquiring F-22s, possibly under a licensed-production agreement such as they used to build F-4s and F-15s for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in the past. One problem is timing. With US production ending in FY 2009, it is likely that some of the key F-22 suppliers will be lost as early as 2010 even though the last deliveries to the Air Force will not occur until 2012.

So there are legitimate questions about the timing of reopening or building an F-22 production line in the event of a Japanese Raptor buy. In fact, the shutdown of the US F-22 production line has yet to be negotiated between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin.42The bigger obstacle, however, is cost. Japan’s defense budget has been relatively flat, and Tokyo would probably have to sacrifice some other programs to find the money for an F-22 buy due to the 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product cap on the country’s defense budget.

One recent estimate is that Japanese F-22s would cost some $250 million each (compared to the Air Force’s $192 million weapon-system unit price). Further, if some of the most sensitive F-22 technologies are removed from the Japanese version, then the JASDF might end up with a less capable plane while paying a higher per-unit price than the Air Force has for its 187 Raptors. At $250 million each, a buy of forty JASDF F-22s would come to $10 billion. In short, even if the Obey amendment is repealed by Congress, it is not self-evident that the acquisition of modified F-22s by Japan would go forward. Still, with the Pentagon shifting to the F-35, the possibility of F-22 sales to, or co-production by, Japan appears to be an opportunity that the United States should aggressively pursue.

Conclusions

In retrospect, the F-22 program suffered from unfortunate timing, cost growth, and schedule slippage virtually from the outset. Given the various programmatic “children” the Air Force had to neglect to achieve IOC in 2005, one can certainly sympathize with Secretary Gates’ desire to put an end to the program, even if a final buy 187 is clearly not based on the operational needs for air dominance that could materialize in coming decades.

The proliferation of S-300 and S-400 SAMs, the already formidable capabilities of Russian designs such as the Su-35 along with that plane’s likely proliferation, and the inherent uncertainties of the future suggest that 130 combat-coded F-22s may not be enough through mid-century. Secretary Gates has opted to offset that risk with the F-35, specifically by endorsing the planned US buy of 2,443 JSFs. But whether the Air Force, for example, really needs the 1,763 F-35s to replace, for the most part, around 1,200 aging F-16s is certainly open to debate. Thus, the big bet being made of the F-35 program proceeding as currently planned is surely also questionable—especially if the history of the nation’s other all-aspect LO aircraft programs is any guide.

All that said, there is one opportunity to extend the Raptor program: namely overseas sales or co-production of the F-22 to build capacity in close US allies. The legislative restriction on foreign sales of the F-22 would have to be withdrawn for this opportunity to be exploited. Further, the most plausible candidate to acquire F-22s, Japan, would have to find the necessary funding. But the opportunity to build partner capacity and preserve a piece of the US industrial bases is not one that the US defense establishment should ignore.

© 2009 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. All rights reserved.

 

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