The Buzz

Why the F-22 and F-35 Could Be the U.S. Military's Two Biggest Mistakes Ever

The U.S. military is a big proponent of networked warfare. In theory, if one airplane detects an enemy, it could pass on that data to friendly ships and aircraft—and through Cooperative Engagement Ability, even potentially allow those friendlies to shoot at that target from far away. One potential tactic is to use a vanguard of stealthy fighters to identify incoming enemy aircraft and send targeting data to ships or non-stealth fighters, which can carry heavier weapons loads. The F-35’s excellent sensors and datalinks could make it effective in this role.

There is even an idea being kicked around to mount large numbers of missiles on a B-1 or B-52, which would be fired off hundreds of kilometers away from the battle. Of course, such an “arsenal plane” would be vulnerable if enemy fighters broke through the accompanying line of F-22s and F-35s. The tactic would likely require even longer-range missiles than the U.S. currently employs.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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