When the United States started developing stealth aircraft, they were seen as the logical next step in combat equipment. Planes that couldn’t be detected on radar were seen to have the advantage of being able to attack without being spotted, and this advantage was apparently deemed so great that the other characteristics of air fighter superiority seemed to be abandoned – those of speed, agility, the ability to out-turn an opponent, and to duel in close-up dogfighting. In fact, the notion of what constituted “air superiority” itself was altered in the US view. The results were the F-35 (covered here), and the F-22, which at US $150 million per plane, is one of the most expensive combat aircraft ever created.
Recently, though, the Americans’ most advanced air-to-air fighter, the F-22, got within close distance of a Russian Su-35 and Su-25 jets in December, and according to Business Insider, was discovered to be at a disadvantage to these planes.
Disadvantages One and Two
The disadvantage is twofold. The first is psychological. The F-22 has all its weapons concealed within the body of the aircraft, to maintain radar invisibility. The Russian planes encountered have their loads of missiles and bombs in plain sight. So, there was no way for the Russian planes to know the F-22 was armed. Further, the intercept involved a maneuver called “head-butting” in military parlance, and this is a common occurrence presently in Syria, where the Russians and Americans have established “deconfliction” zones as a series of “do not cross” boundaries. Sometimes one side or the other crosses a line, and this brings about an intercept where the side in charge of the given area sends a plane to intercept the other’s. First there is a radio call asking the other pilot to be aware that they are in airspace they are not allowed to operate in, but then, the next move is for the intercept aircraft to show its weaponry as a reminder not to tempt fate.
The F-22 cannot do this. It can, and did, deploy flares and chaff to warn the Russian planes of their incursion. However, the F-22 pilots have noted in these incidents that were this to escalate into a dogfight, the F-22 pilots would have a problem with the up-close scenario. The F-35 can maneuver better in close situations, and as the most important maneuver in a dogfight is usually the ability to turn inside faster than the other plane can, the Russian fighter has an advantage.
The reports are disputed, but there are at least two incidents accounted for in which the Russian planes were successful in driving the F-22’s out of the areas they were in. Stealth capabilities are terrific for military action at a distance, but things are different when the pilots can actually see each other:
If a fight were to start during an intercept like the one [reported], the Russian pilot would start with the huge advantage of having the F-22 in sight. What’s more, the Russian Su-35 can actually maneuver better than the F-22.
Lt. Col. David “Chip” Berke, the only US Marine to fly both the F-22 and the F-35, previously told Business Insider that when flying the F-22, “my objective wouldn’t be to get in a turning fight” with an adversary. Instead, Berke said he would use the F-22’s natural advantages of stealth to avoid the dogfight.
The piece goes on to say that the F-22’s fate is not hopeless in such a situation; it is an enormously agile aircraft and has a good chance of surviving and winning the dogfight. But it does go into such a situation at a huge disadvantage because it relies so much on not being seen, that it may be a bit deficient in dealing with cases where it is actually spotted.
The F-22 is a marvelous piece of combat machinery, for sure. But the notion that good old-fashioned dogfighting is a thing of the past has been shown by the Syrian conflict to be false. Sometimes all the high-tech in the world doesn’t match the need for a good, tightly maneuverable airplane in order to be able to make it through a fight with an enemy.
The Third Disadvantage – the Price Tag
At $150 million a plane, this program was prohibitively expensive. It actually resulted in only 187 planes being built and deployed before the building phase of the F-22 program was stopped. The Su-35 is no cheap plane either, estimated around US $65 million, but even so, that is a 2-to-1 value for the money. The story of excessively expensive American fighter aircraft actually started with the development of the F-18 Hornet, which was intended to be relatively inexpensive like the very affordable F-16 Fighting Falcon ($14.8 million to $37 million for the V Variant in 2017). One of the criticisms about what creates this enormous cost is the manner in which contracts are awarded to manufacturers to design and build these weapons. The F-22, for example, is actually a consortium project with several major manufacturers participating:
Such a situation can lead to bureaucratic problems as the contracts go to several companies at once, rather than all design and development under one roof. The Russians appear to have this latter configuration, even though the Russian aircraft manufacturers are collectively organized into one “supercompany” the United Aircraft Corporation. This, plus the Russian government’s more direct control over these companies, helps to manage some aspect of costs. As an example the new Russian Su-57, the analogue to the F-22, is estimated to have a per-unit cost of between US $50 and $100 million. The Russians appear to be doing something right in this regard – the plane is by all accounts, superb, and the Russian military is able to produce such advanced weaponry at a much lower cost than their American counterparts.
While the American aircraft are indeed superb, one might propose the thought that centralizing the design and manufacturing process, as well as changing the way contracts are awarded to US companies for such aircraft, would be in order. It can be done. President Donald Trump, very early on – even before he was inaugurated, expressed sharp disdain for the excessive price of a new Boeing 747 modified to serve as Air Force one. The cost for the plane magically dropped, from US $5.3 billion to $3.9 billion for two such 747’s. Perhaps such dealing might trim a great deal of excess from the US military budget, which is already by far the highest in the world.