The Buzz

The U.S. Military's Big Mistake: Putting So Much Faith in the F-22 and F-35?

An F-22 has a combat radius of some five hundred miles on internal fuel. The F-35 can fly 875 miles when loaded for air-to-air combat. Now consider the thousands of kilometers lying between U.S. bases in the Pacific and Europe and various potential conflict zones. To operate over those distances, stealth fighters would require aerial refueling from tanker aircraft. If fighting a well-equipped opponent, carrier-based aircraft would also likely be distant from the warzone, as carriers are at risk if they approach too close to ground-based anti-shipping missile batteries and aircraft.

American fighters would also likely be supported by AWACS airborne radar and command and control platforms, notably the E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 Sentry. The tankers and the AWACS aircraft are basically lumbering airliner-sized planes crammed full of fuel and electronic equipment respectively.

Let’s consider what would happen when American fighters encounter a much larger force of fighters based on the coast. The American fighters could fire their long-range AIM-120D missiles from more than one hundred kilometers away—four from each F-35 and six on the F-22. Soaring at Mach 4—twice the maximum speed of the aircraft that launched it—an AIM-120 can traverse eighty kilometers in one minute.

The radar-warning receivers on their targets would light up as they detect the incoming attack. The further away the target, the more time it has to evade the missile. Therefore, BVR missiles may be fired at well below their maximum range to ensure a higher probability of a kill, particularly when engaging maneuverable fighter aircraft.

In Len Deighton’s book Fighter, he describes the tactics used by the outnumbered English fighter pilots defending against German Luftwaffe bombers in the Battle of Britain:

The professional fighter pilot gained height as quickly as he was permitted, and treasured possession of that benefit. He hoped always to spot the enemy before they spotted him and hurried to the sun side of them to keep himself invisible. He needed superior speed, so he positioned himself for a diving attack, and he would choose a victim at the very rear of the enemy formation so that he did not have to fly through their gunfire. He would hope to kill on that first dive. If he failed, the dedicated professional would flee rather than face an alerted enemy.

Deighton’s point was that the best British pilots used hit-and-run tactics emphasizing surprise and speed in order to minimize losses, rather than dogfighting at length with enemies after those advantages were spent. These tactics permitted small numbers of British fighters to tackle the aerial armadas of the German Luftwaffe.

Obviously, technology has changed dramatically since 1940. While contemporary fighters can now go more than five times as fast as the Spitfires and Messerschmitt fighters of the Battle of Britain, two new technologies promise to make hit-and-run tactics more effective: stealth technology and long-range air-to-air missiles.

Stealth and Its Limits: 

While virtually any plane can be equipped to fire long-range missiles, stealth airframes are built using radar-absorbent materials and engineered precisely to minimize reflection of radar waves. This constrains their load-carrying abilities, as external weapons or drop tanks could increase their visibility on radar. The United States fields two stealth fighters, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.

Stealth planes are properly described as “Low Observable” aircraft. They are not actually undetectable, but are very hard to spot on radar. Let’s review the limits on stealth technology, and how fighter doctrine may evolve around them.

Stealth aircraft are optimized to be difficult to observe on the precise X-Band radars used on modern fighters: while some radars have better resolutions than others, most will only be able to track a stealth fighter at shorter distances. An F-22 is claimed to have the radar cross section of 0.0001 square meters in certain aspect—the same as that of a marble.

Low-bandwidth radars are more effective at detecting stealth aircraft. These are typically used by ground installations and ships, but also found on specialized aerial platforms such as the E-2D. However, they come with a major limitation: they can reveal only the general location of a stealth fighter and are too imprecise to be used to target missiles—though they can indicate to an X-Band radar where to look.

Infra-Red Search-and Track (IRST) systems offer another means of detecting stealth aircraft, but their range is generally limited. The latest IRST system on the SU-35 has extended the range up to 50 kilometers, whereas its radar has detection range of up to 200 kilometers. Just like low-band radar, IRST doesn’t give a precise track and can’t be used to lock on weapons. Stealth fighters include features designed to minimize heat signature, but they are far from completely effective.