The Buzz

What Would War II Could Teach America's F-35 and F-22 Stealth Fighters

Long Range Air-to-Air Missiles

Around the late 1990s, a new generation of long-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles entered service, notably the AIM-120 AMRAAM and the Russian R-77. These could hit targets over 50 kilometers away. (The earlier AIM-54 Phoenix boasted even longer range but was very expensive). In subsequent decades, the range has continued to increase to well over 100 kilometers, and new types such as the European MBDA Meteor and the Chinese PL-15 continue to push the envelope of speed and range.

The current AIM-120D has a theoretical maximum range of 160 kilometers; although in practice firing range will likely be much shorter for reasons soon discussed.

As long-range missiles are radar-guided, stealth fighters are not particularly vulnerable to them. The same cannot be said for non-stealth aircraft. An F-15 or Su-35 may attempt to avoid missiles with evasive maneuvers and counter measures—but doing so will disrupt whatever they are doing, and an opponent is likely to fire more than one missile.

One factor that is difficult to calculate is how likely long-range missiles are to hit. Extrapolating from past usage of radar-guided missiles is problematic, both because missile technology has advanced considerably since its inception (early radar-guided Sparrow missiles had a less than 10 percent kill probability in the Vietnam War), and the conflicts in which radar-guided missiles have been more successful (Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Gulf War) involved poorly trained opponents lacking effective countermeasures.

It’s safe to say that long-range missiles will have lower hit rates than short-range missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder and the Russian R-73—modern versions of which have chalked up a roughly seventy percent probability of kill.

Attrition and High Value Targets

Third- or fourth-generation fighters seeking to engage stealth aircraft in combat must close within short range so that their targeting systems are effective, all while dodging volleys of deadly missiles. As the stealth fighters themselves are difficult to track, they can disengage to avoid entering the short-range envelope in relative security.

It’s a difficult advantage to overcome.

But referring back to the Battle of Britain can reveal a limitation of this strategy. The British hit-and-run attacks succeeded in inflicting deadly attrition on German bombers over time until they were forced to call off the air offensive. But they rarely prevented the German formations from hitting their targets. The German simply had too many aircraft.

At first, this was a problem: the Germans relentlessly pounded British airfields, degrading the Royal Air Force’s ability to fight in the air. But then the Germans switched to bombing civilian targets in London. While this inflicted many civilian casualties, the raids did not degrade the RAF’s ability to fight back. The British fighters could sustain their advantageous rate of attrition versus the German Luftwaffe until the latter was forced to tap out.

So what happens if the other side attacks with superior numbers a target that must be defended?

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.