Yes, US air dominance is coming to an end. But it is not because of J-20, PAK FA or lack of funding. It is because of profound mismanagement of resources and lack of clear understanding of what works and what does not, what is important and what is not.
Stealth is seen as a proof of US technological superiority which allegedly secures its unparalleled advantage in the air. But original stealth fighter was not low-RCS, hugely-expensive construct; it was meant to be very small, very agile aircraft that would hunt down enemy air defenses by using air-to-ground anti-radiation missile. Concept of stealth as it is today was developed in Russia, and, having been brought to US by Russian emigrants during the Cold War, it was adopted by United States and became latest obsession of technologists in the USAF. But it came at the cost: all stealth aircraft produced in United States have suffered major cost overruns and force reductions, with possible exception of F-117.
Many US conservatives want “strong defense”, by which they mean lots of highly expensive weapons. Following arguments are usually made:
- non-LO aircraft are unsurvivable in face of modern air defense systems
- in Vietnam, US lost 8.400 aircraft
- Soviet SAMs took heavy toll on Israeli aircraft in 1973
- mobile SAMs are largerly invulnerable to SEAD
- stealth fighters are unquestionably superior to non-stealth ones in air superiority
- only F-22 can defeat PAK FA and J-20; F-15, Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen can only compete with Flanker family
- radar-based BVR combat will dominate air warfare
All these arguments are either misleading or outright false. SAMs are usually even larger and heavier than BVR missiles used by fighter aircraft. Thus, their Pk will be way below even that of BVR missiles – in Vietnam, SAMs did not achieve Pk of more than 1%. While they did manage to shoot down many US aircraft, it had mostly to do with how long war lasted.
Reasons for US losses in Vietnam are several. First, F-4 as well as century-series fighters had very bad situational awareness due to bad canopy design. This meant that they were very vulnerable to aimed gunfire, as well as to SAMs, especially until they received radar warners (and even when they did, radar warner only warned them of being targeted, not wether SAM is in the air and what its trajectory and speed were. Guns were optically aimed, rendering RWR useless). Second, they had high wing loading and low thrust to weight ratio; to make things worse, F-4 and F-105 were very heavy. This made them rather sluggish in maneuvering, rendering them vulnerable to SAMs and AAA. B-52s were particularly vulnerable to SAMs due to their large size. Despite that, 8.400 aircraft figure cited simetimes is wrong. US Air Force flew 5,25 million sorties, loosing 2.251 aircraft, of which 1.737 in combat (out of 2851 aircraft that were lost in combat by USAF, USN and USMC). Loss rate was thus 0,043%. For comparision, USAF F-16 and F-117 in Kosovo war suffered 3 losses while flying 5.800 sorties, loss rate of 0,052%, or 0,034% if F-117 that was only mission-killed and subsequently scratched as opposed to shot down is not counted. F-16s flew 4.500 sorties and suffered one loss, for loss rate of 0,022%.
Assumption that LO aircraft are more survivable in face of modern air defenses is questionable at best. During Cold War, German Cessna managed to land in middle of the Red Square, and in 1989 Syrian MiG succesfully landed on defended Israeli air field. During Kosovo war, F-16 suffered one loss while having flown 4.500 sorties, a loss rate of 0,022%. In comparision, F-117 suffered 2 losses out of 1.300 sorties, a loss rate of 0,15% and shootdown rate of 0,077%, making F-16 3,5-7 times as survivable as F-117. Serb SAMs achieved total Pk of 0,36%, achieving kill or mission kill against 3 aircraft (2 F-117 and 1 F-16) in 845 launches. F-117s themselves had very bad maneuverability, no ECM and very bad cockpit visibility, all due to stealth requirements. Hits on F-117s were achieved by a single SAM battery utilizing low-frequency radar combined with IR SAM cueing; despite improved reliability and performance due to usage of IR seekers on missiles, two SAMs were required to shoot down non-evading, unaware F-117 with no ECM escort.
As far as SAMs go, all stealth aircraft in US service can be easily detected by HF and VHF radars. As a result, B-2 and F-22 are just as survivable as B-1 and F-15; former even less so, since it uses terrain-following radar when on penetration mission, one which spans entire B-2s leading edge and can be detected over the horizon (F-22 can at least shut down its own radar). To counter these radars – and modern VHF radars are mobile – small number of highly expensive stealth aircraft is not adequate. What is required are large numbers of small, cheap, agile fighters armed with anti-radiation missiles.
While US Air Force indeed is “geriartric”, as Heritage Foundation puts it, that is not due to lack of funds. Long-range strike missions (or strategic bombing) that Foundation advertises have never proven effective, and most important missions were always transport and supplying of troops, close air support and air superiority. Heavy bombers were only ever effective when employed either directly in support of troops, or in SEAD missions, carrying cruise missiles.
As shown previously, stealth can hardly be called “revolution”. It is simply an evolution of belief that technological superiority can be decisive on its own.
Heritage Foundation warns of proliferation of precision weapons which could enable US opponents to deny US basing ability, but it proposes old solutions, such as building a B2 replacement, reopening F-22 line, building advanced UCAV for penetrating enemy air defenses, continuing F-35 program as planned,
UCAVs have proven useless in air defense environment, despite first UAV flight dating to before first manned flight. Even in relatively permissive Lybian air space, manned fighters had to go in first and supress air defenses so that UAVs could operate.
Foundation’s praise of F-35 is completely undeserved. Combat simulations it cites were ordered by Lockheed Martin and USAF and can thus hardly be called reliable. F-35 can indeed carry missiles and bombs at maximum supersonic speed, but this speed (Mach 1,6) is less than those of Eurocanards in air-to-air configuration with external weapons. At the same time, F-35s EW systems are of about same capability as Dassault Rafale’s at best, and “over-the-shoulder” missile shots F-35 can perform are well within Rafale’s capabilities.
Instead, main problem for USAF is USAF itself. USAF as it is relies on following assumptions to operate effectively:
- aircraft quality can beat aircraft quantity
- air bases will remain safe from the attacks
- future combat will be BVR centric
Unfortunately for the USAF, these assumptions are outright false. In air-to-air combat, stealth fighters rely solely on promise of radar-based BVR combat: namely, assumption that BVR missiles will be effective enough to allow stealth fighters to destroy several times more numerous non-VLO opponent at BVR. However, F-22 costs 260 million USD flyaway, and F-35 costs 200 million USD flyaway. Most expensive non-VLO fighter, Eurofighter Typhoon, costs 130 million USD flyaway; Saab Gripen C costs <40million USD. Thus for each F-22, one can buy 2 Typhoons, while each F-35 costs as much as 5 Gripen Cs. F-22 and F-35 will be lucky to fly one sortie every two days; Gripen and Typhoon can fly 1,5-2 sorties per day. Thus, for same amount of money, F-22 will be outnumbered by Typhoons 6:1 to 8:1; F-35 will be outnumbered by Gripens 15:1 to 20:1. Yet historically, 3:1 was the usual limit where quality could compensate for a quantity.
With these numbers, even perfect missile Pk would not be enough for stealth aircraft to defeat equal-cost force of Gripens. But BVR missile Pk was never perfect. Even against utterly incompetent opponents, Pk was never above 50%. Against competent opponents, it was never above 10%. With 10% Pk and 6 BVR missiles each, 12-aircraft squadron of F-22s would shoot down 7 opponents, assuming that all missiles were launched. This is nowhere enough to secure a victory against a more numerous opponent.
At the same time, these assumptions have led to decline of US air force. Fighter inventory has – as most conservatives have correctly noticed – gotten old, mostly because of failures of procurement plans based on nothing more than wishful thinking. These plans called for 650 VLO F-22s and 3.000 LO F-35s – instead, end force will most likely be 180 F-22s already procured plus 500 – 700 F-35s. These will fly 340 – 510 sorties per day, barely more than what Armee de’l Air can fly (currently consisting of 73 Rafale and 167 Mirage fighters, capable of flying a total of 360 to 480 sorties per day). Even the original procurement plan called for replacement of 1.256 F-15s with 750 F-22s, which is even worse as 750 F-22s would only have been capable of flying 375 sorties per day, compared to 1.200 that F-15 were able to support. Such force reduction, no matter how more capable new system is, is always a huge disadvantage.
J-20 is far less of a threat than scare-mongers in US suggest. It is large and heavy LO aircraft; as such, in visual-range combat it will be at disadvantage, and it won’t make enough appearance in the combat zone to be noticed in military terms. Gripen E, Rafale and Typhoon will all have exhcange ratio advantage over J-20, and even fighters without IRST, such as Gripen C and F-16A, will be a tough nut for J-20 as long as they have good RWR and MAW.
Some have gone so far as to state that J-20 signals an end to America’s air invincibility. But this “invincibility” was simply a combination of superior numbers and incompetent, underequipped opponent; J-20 or not, war between US and China would have shattered that invincibility on first day of air combat. F-22 was never going to shoot down enemy at 50 miles; longest-ranged BVR victory in Gulf War I happened at distance of 18 miles, and that was against aircraft with no ECM, no RWR and incompetent pilots. J-20 is not a game changer; it does not strengthen Chinese air power but weakens it. However, perception is always important, and even when incorrect, it can have a major impact; thus J-20 is indeed strengthening Chinese political position, in large part thanks to disinformation campaign sponsored by US themselves after the Gulf Wars.
J-20 itself is, like F-22, based around promise of radar-based BVR combat. But even disregarding rather uninspiring combat performance of radar-guided missiles, using active sensors in combat is suicidal. Radars have always been vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles, and stealth fighters are no exception. Radiation-emitting targets can be easily hit in any weather, as long as missiles can reach them. Radar also does not provide for a reliable IFF identification of opponent; only visual sensors, such as IRST, do. If opponent uses radar himself, however, he can be relatively easily identified, especially of “opponent” in question are United States, which use fixed set of frequencies intended to provide an all-weather capability. If J-20 does not shut down its radar, it will render its radar stealth superfluous and also cause itself to be vulnerable to attack; if it does, it will still render its radar stealth superfluous by being forced to rely on IRST, and/or engage in visual-range combat; in all cases, it will be at disadvantage against aircraft such as Eurocanards due to its weight, size and powerful radar.
But F-35, aircraft that USAF planners count on to fill the gap, is utterly useless in air combat. It is too heavy, has huge wing loading, bad cockpit visibility, high drag, low thrust-to-weight ratio; consequently, it has low turn and roll rates (ignore USAF’s propaganda statements) and is unable to challenge modern fighters in air combat – which was always a visual-range combat as long as both opponents were somewheat competent. It is equally vulnerable to SAMs and AAA, not only due to lack of maneuverability but also because of fuel-surrounded engine.
Air bases also are not safe from the attack. They never were; from World War II on, attacks on air bases were an unforgiving reality. F-22 and F-35 are both short-ranged fighters, requiring air bases close to areas of conflict, which are thus vulnerable to enemy attacks. Resultantly, even if they do turn out to be stealthy in the air, lack of stealth on the ground due to reliance on easily-found air bases will doom them in the war.