The Buzz

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

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.

Most opposing aircraft would not be able to shoot back at the stealth planes, though they might have a general idea of their position if they are supported by low-band radar or good infrared sensors. They could close on the American fighters, hoping to enter the envelope in which their sensors are effective.

What if the U.S. fighters close to short range after expending their long-range armaments, rather than prudently disengaging? If both sides are closing upon each other at maximum speed at high altitude, the distance between them would diminish at a rate of 60-80 kilometers a minute. Even if the AIM-120s were fired at maximum range, the opposing aircraft could close that distance in one or two minutes.

In short-range engagements, surprise, pilot training and flight performance will determine the victor.

The F-22 is a superb dogfighter. The F-35… not so much, though it has its defenders. Both aircraft can carry two Sidewinder missiles and fire shells from their onboard cannons.

However, their opponents would be able to spot the American fighters as they enter visual range thanks to the Mark One human eyeball, as well as infrared and electro-optical sensors—and even radars, which are effective against stealth aircraft at short ranges. The stealth fighters could be targeted with heat-seeking missiles, more of which could be carried by the non-stealth aircraft. If the opponents retain a significant numerical advantage, than within-visual range combat could be quite risky.

But why would stealth fighters risk engaging in short range in the first place?

Stealth Fighters Don’t Swim

The Rand Corporation’s Pacific Vision wargame simulating a conflict with China in 2008 found that even in a favorable scenario for the United States—half of U.S. missiles hit at long range and the none of their opponent’s do—a force of U.S. fighters outnumbered roughly three to one would be overwhelmed after firing off all its missiles. The less-maneuverable F-35s fared poorly in the ensuing dogfight. But in the end, nearly all of the U.S. fighters were lost.

Why? The hostile aircraft didn’t have trouble detecting the tankers supporting the U.S. forces. Unlike the F-22s and F-35s, tankers have neither the speed nor stealth to evade a determined attack.

If the tankers get shot down, it doesn’t just force the U.S. fighters to abandon the fight. It could force them to crash into the ocean, without enough fuel to make it back to base. In effect, a tanker would be a high-value target that U.S. air-superiority fighters would need to defend to the last.

A similar problem exists while defending an aircraft carrier from attack. Unlike the resilient city of London in the Battle of Britain, a carrier is a vulnerable and militarily consequential target that must be defended at all costs. A lost carrier consigns its fighters to the ocean as well.

A final consideration is that opponents may field limited number of their own stealth fighters, such as the J-20 or the Sukhoi T-50. Even a small number of stealth fighters would be effective at sneaking into the range of the tankers and AWACs aircraft and taking them out before the U.S. aircraft could evade or retaliate. Very long-range missiles such as the R-37 and the PL-13 could also assist in the anti-tanker mission.

The Psychological Factor

There are limitations to the “overwhelm with numbers” strategy.

In ground warfare, consider what would likely happen if an attacking infantry unit were to sustain 33 percent casualties attacking an objective. More often than not, the attackers would halt their advance, if not beat an outright retreat. Not only do fear and stress from incoming fire and casualties cause soldiers to abandon an attack, but disorganization and confusion set in as communication becomes frantic and links in the chain of command are eliminated.

The RAND wargame results hinged on ten surviving pilots shooting down the U.S. tankers after sixty-two of their compatriots were shot down. How coolheaded and rational would these pilots remain while their unit suffered 86 percent casualties?

Air warfare does have different psychological and physical dynamics than ground warfare. There are historical incidents in which aerial units pressed home attacks despite sustaining very heavy casualties, even up to 100 percent. However, there are also instances in which aerial attackers aborted in disorder after taking losses.