CDI: The F-22: not what we were hoping for

by James Stevenson and Pierre Sprey

The F-22 fighter aircraft’s focus on stealth brings big disadvantages in cost, weight and manoeuvrability, argue Pierre Sprey and James Stevenson

For decades, the US Air Force has pushed the F-22 as its fighter for the 21st century. Advocates tout its technical features: fuel-efficient, high-speed ‘super-cruise’; advanced electronics; and reduced profile against enemy sensors, known as ‘stealth’.

However, on measures that determine winning or losing in air combat, the F-22 fails to improve the US fighter force. In fact, it degrades our combat capability.

Careful examination of actual air-to-air battles tells us that there are five attributes that make a winning fighter. These attributes shaped the F-15 and the F-16.

They are: (1) pilot training and ability; (2) obtaining the first sighting and surprising the enemy; (3) outnumbering enemy fighters in the air; (4) outmanoeuvring enemy fighters to gain a firing position; and (5) consistently converting split-second firing opportunities into kills.

The F-22 is a mediocrity, at best, on (4) and (5). It is a liability on (1), (2) and (3).

The most important attribute – pilot quality – dwarfs the others. Air combat history from both small and large wars makes that obvious. After the Israel Air Force (IAF) swept Syrian MiGs from the sky in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon with an 82-0 exchange ratio, the IAF Chief of Staff told US congressional staffers that the result would have been the same had the Syrian and Israeli pilots switched aircraft.

Great pilots get that way by constant dogfight training. Between 1975 and 1980, at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (‘Topgun’), instructor pilots got 40 to 60 hours of air combat manoeuvring per month. Their students came from squadrons getting only 14 to 20 hours per month. Flying the cheap, simple F-5, the robustly trained instructors consistently whipped the students in their ‘more capable’ F-4 Phantoms, F-14 Tomcats and F-15 Eagles. Today, partly thanks to the pressure on the air force’s training budget from the F-22’s excessive purchase and operating costs, an F-22 pilot gets 12 to 14 hours of flight training per month. For winning future air battles, this is a huge step backward.

For half a century, the air force has been attempting to get the jump on enemy fighters through expensive, complex technology.

Billions of dollars were spent trying to perfect long-range radar missiles to achieve ‘beyond-visual-range’ (BVR) kills. Extraordinary kill rates, as high as 80 to 90 per cent, were promised when projects were being sold. Success rates in actual combat were below 10 per cent. Simple, more agile, shorter-range infra-red missiles and guns were far more successful and effective.

Worse, the ‘identification friend or foe’ (IFF) systems that must distinguish enemies from friends before launching BVR missiles failed in every war. As recently as Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ in 2003, misidentified allied aircraft were lost to US systems. The air force now tells us the only way to get the jump on enemy fighters supposedly launching BVR missiles is with stealth. But stealth solves neither the problem of less effective, high-cost BVR radar missiles nor the IFF conundrum. Moreover, stealth has failed to make our fighters invisible to radar and it brings crippling disadvantages.

In Operation ‘Desert Storm’ in 1991, according to the Government Accountability Office, so-called stealthy F-117s were significantly less effective bombers than the air force described publicly – there is anecdotal evidence that ancient Iraqi radars detected them. In the war against Serbia in 1999, non-stealthy F-16s had a lower loss rate per sortie than the F-117s. The F-22 will not be invisible to radar in real combat, where it cannot control detection angles and radar types.

The most obvious disadvantage stealth brings to the F-22 is extraordinary cost; it grossly reduces the numbers we will buy. New Department of Defense data shows the total unit cost of the F-22 has grown from about USD130 million to over USD350 million per aircraft. Result? The original buy of 750 is now down to 185.

Moreover, stealth plus the F-22’s complexity result in unprecedented levels of maintenance downtime. That further reduces numbers in the air; 185 F-22s will support about 120 deployed fighters. They will be lucky to generate 60 combat sorties per day: a laughable number in any serious air war. In World War II, the Luftwaffe could field only 70 of its revolutionary jet: the Me-262. It caused alarm among Allied pilots but had negligible effect on the air battle.

Furthermore, the stealth requirement adds significant drag, weight and size. Size is the most crippling. Why? Because real-world combat is visual combat. Because the F-22 is much bigger than most fighters, it will be detected first, reversing the theoretical advantage it derives from stealth. Topgun had a saying: “The biggest target in the sky is always the first to die.”

Once seen, the F-22 has trouble outman-oeuvring the enemy. Its weight hurts the key performance measures of turning and accelerating. Put simply, both the F-15A and F-16A out-turn and out-accelerate the F-22.

Finally, stealth harms the F-22’s quick-firing ability. To retain stealth, the gun and missiles must be buried behind doors that take too long to open to exploit instantaneous opportunities.

The air force will argue strenuously that we are wrong and the F-22 has excelled in air-to-air exercises against all comers. However, our information is that these are ‘canned’ engagements in which the F-22 is pitted against opponents in joust-like scenarios set up to exploit the F-22’s theoretical advantages and exclude its real-world vulnerabilities.

There is a way to find out who is right. A serious test of F-22 capabilities would pit it against pilots and aircraft the air force does not control using rules of engagement dictated by combat and the ratio of F-22s to enemies that the tiny F-22 inventory should expect in hostile skies.

We both would be delighted to observe any such realistic exercises and to report back to this magazine. Nothing would please us more than to find that we are wrong and US fighter pilots have been given the best fighter in the sky.

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22 thoughts on “CDI: The F-22: not what we were hoping for

  1. “There is a way to find out who is right. A serious test of F-22 capabilities would pit it against pilots and aircraft the air force does not control using rules of engagement dictated by combat and the ratio of F-22s to enemies that the tiny F-22 inventory should expect in hostile skies.”

    They will never do that – after all, the F-22 might lose and not be found a cost-effective aircraft at all.

    And that would cut into the MICC’s profits.

    • They did it non-official in Qatar in 2009 and they fought to a draw with Eurofighter, while Rafale wiped the floor with both of them (F-22 and Eurofighter). Rafale was the smallest target in the sky. 😀

      • Andrei, I am not making anything up. Go to those links that I posted. They are my reference.

        The mano-a-mano type contest with one aircraft against the other coliseum style… realistic? Only on those same exact circumstances. My suspicion is that if you throw a small and agile F-16 with in visual range he cleans up against all of them. Does that make him the best choice?

      • @HGR

        Don’t believe everything somebody writes:

        For article “http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htecm/articles/20140315.aspx” the author lumps the F-22 in with the F-35 saying they both have inbuilt IRST, they don’t. Only the F-35 has and the author clearly didn’t bother to check because he winds up contradicting himself: “The U.S. Air Force is not as enthusiastic about IRST. In 2011, as an economy move, and because of unspecified “technical problems”, the U.S. Air Force dropped all efforts to equip any of its F-15C fighters with IRST. This includes an effort, begun in 2009, to equip a hundred F-15Cs with heat sensing pods once used to equip navy F-14Ds (which were retired in 2006). The refurbished navy IRST pods would have enabled the F-15s to detect and track aircraft, over a hundred kilometers away, from the heat the target aircraft give off. IRST is a passive (it does not broadcast) sensor, thus it is undetectable by the enemy.” IRST on the F-35 is a Navy requirement not USAF.

        The other two articles make absolutely no reference to IRST whatsoever. They are defending stealth but only when it comes to radar. They make no reference whatsoever to IRST, they don’t make any reference to infrared stealth or lack thereof. And they believe that in the event of war both Europeans and Russian will ignore the lead they have over the US in terms of IRST and use they radars so that F-22 will have turkey shoots. Highly unlikely.

        “The mano-a-mano type contest with one aircraft against the other coliseum style… realistic? Only on those same exact circumstances. My suspicion is that if you throw a small and agile F-16 with in visual range he cleans up against all of them. Does that make him the best choice?”

        No they are not but neither are the group on group scenarios in witch the USAF uses F-22, which prohibit Eurofighters and Rafales to use ANY means of passive detection and force them to USE they radars at maximum power. A very unrealistic scenario for either eurocanard or for any member of the SU-27 and MiG-29 family for that matter. So when the USAF comes up with the same kill-ratio, it advertises now, in a realistic group on group scenario in which Rafales and Typhoons use their IRSTs and RWRs and keep the radars shut down, then when I’ll believe that the F-22 is a super-fighter. But that is not going to happen because USAF bras knows that the F-22 would have negative kill-ratios in that scenario against either Eurocanard.

        • Thank you Andrei. I did not realized that the F-35C was the only one with the heat sensors.

          The use of radar at full strength by the aircrafts with out discern and use of ruse is certainly not realistic training. But so often training is used just to test assumptions. Like the opposite; fight with out radar.

          I am not sure this question can be settled with out some realistic test.

      • “I believe that A and B also have IRST, but tžit was US Navy’s insistence that caused IRST to be included in the first place.”

        Correct – the USN has long preferred having passive IR sensors.

        The Air Force is invested in the perceived superiority of active radar without passive IR sensors.

        That being said, there are other mistakes that have been made:

        The B variant does not have a gun pod and needs an external gun (apparently no internal room because of the VTOL capability).

        http://defensetech.org/2012/06/22/pic-of-the-day-f-35b-shows-off-its-gun-pod/

        Likewise, the C variant also needs a gun pod. I do not believe that the planes are still stealthy with their gun pods.

        Of course all of this precludes the fact that if the any F-35 finds itself in a dogfight, it will need to be in a position where it can out-dogfight the enemy competition and fire its gun at the enemy aircraft.

        • The carrier version is also beefier as it needs to accommodate the near-crash carrier landings as well as the stress of the catapult launches. And the retractable into the fuselage re-fueling pod as well as the also retractable tail hook. All these things bring along added weight and consume space. So the gun had to go.

          The gun pod is in a conformal set up so it should be stealthy and since it is being added from the very start of the design I am hoping that it is mounted sturdy enough to arrest its vibration when it is fired so it is accurate. But this is a hope. Personally I wished they had found a way to keep it internally.

  2. Here is a comment… not made by me but by some one else… in a blog. It is for it…

    I think Pierre Sprey is full of his usual s**t. Strangely no one told this “trick” to the Iraqis in 1991 or the Serbians in 1999. Apparently they never realized that all they needed was one of their old rusty P-12 radars.

    There are several problems with these assumptions of the supposed weaknesses of ‘stealth” aircraft to long-wavelength radars. First off, none of the people making these claims have any idea how the stealth features of the particular types of US stealth aircraft work. I.e., the B-2 is not optimized for the same sort of radars as the F-35. Also, physical features of the aircraft are not the only mechanisms through which they defeat radar detection. All these “analyses” are based off the physical features of aircraft like the F-22 or F-35, but without having any idea of the materials and radar-absorbing structures inside the frame. Obviously, US aircraft designers were aware of the different features and materials needed to optimize to particular radar threats. Assuming that they somehow overlooked the most OBVIOUS and PREVALENT radar threat out there…early warning radars…would be rather curious.

    So that even if we assume that an F-22 has…100 times greater RCS in the VHF band, most VFH radars would still not be able to detect it out to 50 miles! But of course, we have NO CLUE as to the performance of the F-22 or F-35 or B-2 against such radars. We do know from experience, that the abundance of long-wavelength radars in Iraqi or Serbian inventory did NOT mean that they were able to detect the stealth aircraft. So that ought to tell us something.

    Second, stealth aircraft, particularly those optimized for penetration of an air defense, like B-2, F-117 or F-35, may well be optimized to approach different threats from different angles; i.e. they would present different profiles to such radars to maximize their RCS reduction. The idea is that such aircraft would reduce the detection range enough to create gaps in coverage, which they could exploit. Add to this the limitations in altitude that such radars have, and penetrating airspace covered by such radars is not such an impossible task. Quite the opposite, considering point three below.

    Three, these radars will be detected by the “enemy” long before they will detect the “enemy”. Their position and frequencies will be broadcasted and picked up outside of the envelop at which they can detect aircraft. This means that air operations planners will be able to devise strategies to minimize their ability to detect stealth aircraft, and maximize the ability of the aircraft to destroy these large and fixed targets. In any war, these would be the FIRST targets to be attacked.

    Fourth, experience from the last 30 years of conflict has shown that these sort of radars are the first targeted and also very successfully destroyed, not only by stealth aircraft, but by conventional aircraft. Syria 1982, Libya 1986, Iraq 1991, Serbia 1999, Libya 2011. The list of radars of this type destroyed is too numerous, so clearly, they are not the wonder weapons they are made out to be.

    • “but without having any idea of the materials and radar-absorbing structures inside the frame”

      Radar absorbent materials are, if anything, even more sensitive to changes in wavelengths.

      “We do know from experience, that the abundance of long-wavelength radars in Iraqi or Serbian inventory did NOT mean that they were able to detect the stealth aircraft.”

      Except they were able to detect them. Serbs even managed to disable two F-117s with a single VHF radar (all other SAMs were, contrary to the statement above, using X-band radars), and USAF took special precautions, sending *helicopters* to destroy Iraqi early warning radars before sending in the F-117s.

      “Three, these radars will be detected by the “enemy” long before they will detect the “enemy”. ”

      So why the F-22 has no IRST? Plus, you’d be hard pressed to fit an RWR designed to detect VHF radars onto an F-22 or F-35.

      “This means that air operations planners will be able to devise strategies to minimize their ability to detect stealth aircraft, and maximize the ability of the aircraft to destroy these large and fixed targets.”

      Russians are selling mobile VHF radars.

      “not only by stealth aircraft, but by conventional aircraft.”

      So what is the point of having stealth aircraft then?

      “so clearly, they are not the wonder weapons they are made out to be.”

      Wonder weapons don’t exist, period. VHF radars are not wonder weapons, but stealth aircraft are even less so.

        • It doesn’t. It would be quite obvious if it did, so I can draw no other conclusion than that whoever wrote the StrategyPage article worked off the F-22 concept, not the finished aircraft.

      • IRST, along with HMDS was deleted on the F-22 in 1995 to save weight and cost.

        There are however plans to put it on it a future upgrade but there are not timelines to do so. The article you linked was about the Navy’s FLIR, although I have been unable to find any other sources with IRST on the F-22. The F-35 though does have a ground attack IR sensor built in and does have HMDS, although right now its a source of problems for the jet.

        I suspect that it may be a typo on that article’s part. I will contact the author and see if he responds.

      • “It doesn’t. It would be quite obvious if it did, so I can draw no other conclusion than that whoever wrote the StrategyPage article worked off the F-22 concept, not the finished aircraft.”

        Even simply looking at the aircraft, there is nothing like PIRATE or OLS-35 on the aircraft.

        I do remember someone saying there were plans to upgrade them.

        Some reading material:
        http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/usaf-debates-major-upgrade-for-f-22-raptors-345808/

        • Chris, not only the F-22 but also the F-18 which now has a pod that does this. What needs to be understood is that you cannot raise to the level of deal breaker a feature that can be added to an aircraft at any time.

          Information capture this way (infrared) by one aircraft can be networked into the others so the pod is not a bad option since the use seems to be on long distance detection..

      • HGR stop inventing information. F-22 dose not have any means of ifrared detection. Not only dose it not carry an internal IRST but it also has no option for a FLIR or IRST POD.
        The original concept of the F-22 WAS supposed to have two IRSTs in the wing roots. That’s why the YF-22 had shorter leading edge flaps, it had space reserved for IRST. The F-22 has leading edge flaps on the whole length of the wing. There is no more place were to install an IRST.

      • “There is no more place were to install an IRST.”

        That’s actually another very serious problem with the F-22. Very little upgrade room.

        The F-35 given its weight margins also suffers from upgrade issues.

  3. And then these against… by the indefatigable DR. Kopp… a little technical but it is worth reading to its end where he shows some of the F-35 perceived weakness and has a diagram of how to use the radars against stealth… interesting.

    http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Nebo-SVU-Analysis.html

    Do not forget the annex too…

    http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Nebo-M-Annex.html

    And then this one is for it…

    http://www.geekosystem.com/reports-of-stealths-death-are-greatly-exaggerated/

    I google these topics routinely and can’t understand how I missed these articles earlier but here they are. Enjoy!

  4. Totally OT, but what does everyone here think is really happening in the Ukraine and the Crimea dispute? Obviously, the Western or Russian mainstream media are not to be trusted, and I am looking hard for reliable information.

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