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American Fighters III: Is the current fighter plane strategy sane?

With much of the American military attention focused on the F-35 as the go-to for everything, what does this do when matched against forces superior in speed and armaments?

Prototype of the F-35

The move to revamp the entire contingent of the US air combat forces is unprecedented in the recent history of the American military. During World War II and since, a widely diverse array of aircraft have served for all manner of air combat needs. During the last decades of the Cold War, development was competitive among a few military contractors for both fighter planes and their specializations.

But going into the 21st century, the move of the American military has been to create something that might well be called a “one size fits all” sort of plane. There were still two actually created – the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning (a.k.a. Joint Strike Fighter).

But the disturbing thing about these developments appears to be a dissociation from practical reality.

These two airplanes are superb in many ways, to be sure. The F-22 is swift, superbly agile and it is very stealthy. The F-35 is configurable for extremely short take-offs and vertical landings, which make it of enormous utility on seafaring vessels. It is also stealthy and pilots who fly it are very impressed with its power, comparing it favorably to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, for example.

But the approach seems to be based around a single strategy – stealth, and certain other aspects are apparently ignored in this strategy. Some of those aspects are as follows:

  • Speed – Neither the F-22 nor the F-35 are as fast as their forebears. The F-15E Strike Eagle maxes out at 1,875 mph (3017 km/h), and its carrier-based cousin the now retired F-14 Tomcat was able to reach 1,544 mph . The F4 Phantom II was retired in 2016, and this venerable plane could and did reach speeds in excess of 1,600 mph.By contrast the F-22 maxes at 1,726 mph, and the F-35, at 1,200. These speeds pale in contrast to the Russian standard issue aircraft such as the MiG 29 (1,490 mph), the MiG-31 (1,860 mph), the new MiG-35 (1,490 mph), and the Sukhoi Su-25 (1,550 mph). While Russia has many other fighters with lower top speeds, they still maintain a very sizable force of all of the above planes. The F-35 is particularly vulnerable with regard to speed, because if one is acquired by any one of these other planes, it is not able to escape.
  • Armament (psychological) – Both US planes are highly innovative in that they achieve high stealthiness by concealing their weapons within the aircraft bodies. However, the psychological disadvantage is an adversary may decide that the American planes are flying without weapons. Having a bristling array of missiles hanging under your wings is a good messenger.
A Russian MiG-31, carrying the hypersonic Kinzhal missile. (c) Russian Defense Ministry
  • Armament (practical) – 
    • For the F-22, Business Insider provides this information regarding armament:
      • One M61A2 20-mm cannon with 480 rounds
      • internal side weapon bay carriage of two AIM-9 infrared (heat seeking) air-to-air missiles
      • internal main weapon bay carriage of six AIM-120 radar-guided air-to-air missiles (air-to-air load out) OR
      • two 1,000-pound GBU-32 JDAMs and two AIM-120 radar-guided air-to-air missiles (air-to-ground loadout)
    • By comparison, the Sukhoi Su-35 has a lesser capacity for the cannon at 150 rounds, but it has many more missile hardpoints:
      • 12 hardpoints, consisting of 2 wingtip rails, and 10 wing and fuselage stations with a capacity of 8,000 kg (17,630 lb) of ordnance, and for air-to-air combat configuration it has these options:
      • 8 × R-27RE/TE
      • R-40
      • R-60
      • 6 × R-73E
      • 12 × R-77M/P/T
      • 6 × R-74
    • So here, in a matchup, the F-22’s only real advantage lies in its stealth and its guns, which does not exactly make sense, because if these two planes get in a dogfight, stealth is no longer a factor, but the Su-35 can outlast the F-22 in availability of air-to-air missiles.
  • The armaments configuration for the F-35 in an air-to-air combat situation is fairly versatile, with an air-to-air missile load of eight AIM-120s and two AIM-9s possible using internal and external weapons stations. The F-35’s gun has configurations for either 182 rounds or 220 if mounted with an external pod.
  • Computer control – This is purely opinion, but the F-35 is notably a software controlled aircraft. And to be fair China and Russia both are also making computer assisted guidance and targeting major features in their warplanes as well. But the language surrounding the F-35 system leads one to believe that the plane is not just a fly-by-wire system, but it is essentially an extremely sophisticated software application with guns, rockets, wings and an engine. This is unsettling to consider trusting the safety of a pilot or his plane to computer software. Hacking opportunities, anyone?

This makes barely a scratch in providing any kind of comprehensive or accurate assessment of the new US fighters. But the idea that these two planes, especially the F-35 (since the F-22 is no longer being produced) are to replace a vastly faster, more directly-controlled and much more variable range of air combat needs is unsettling. It is a bold assumption of any military force to believe that a smart enemy would fight within the parameters our equipment sets. in fact, this seems unwise.

In Star Trek, the rather astute comment was made that “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all.” It would therefore seem logical that eventually stealth will be cracked, and then, what do we have? A fighting force that is certainly highly technologically developed, but neither the fastest, nor the highest, nor the most powerful. An aggressor with significantly less tech could take these planes down easily.

While this article reflects an opinion that is far less than fully informed, it does join other who have asked similar questions, for indeed, the sources from which this piece is drawn include many skeptics. It seems like a good thing to question.

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