Key point: Moscow's planes may not be as good, but they also don't have as many technical problems. If it was a pure numbers game as in World War II, Washington might be concerned.
Surprise! America's F-35 stealth fighter is too complicated and expensive, claims a Russian military expert interviewed by Russian media back in 2018.
Hard to believe, isn't it? Yet while the Sputnik News interview might be dismissed as tendentious at best and propaganda at worst, it perfectly illustrates how Russia and the West view weapons technology.
"The F-35 is a very complex system and, as such, it has lots of holes, bugs and other things, and it is very difficult to debug it," Dmitry Drozdenko told Sputnik News. "Like other problems, all this is because it is an excessively high-tech aircraft."
Sound familiar? Russia would have made the same argument in 1943, when hordes of uncomplicated T-34 tanks faced formidable but heavily engineered and expensive German Tiger and Panther tanks. Or the American M-16 versus the AK-47, or the F-4 Phantom versus the MiG-21.
Americans are horrified when their soldiers don't receive the most cutting-edge equipment. Russia is willing to sacrifice sophistication for simplicity.
Drozdenko also declared to Sputnik News that "unlike us, the Americans rely too much on stealth. However, radar technology is developing fast and invisibility is no longer a sure-fire guarantor of air supremacy."
“Dogfights haven’t gone anywhere," he added. "They will fire from a distance the first day, but a couple of days later, we’ll be flying like we always did before."
Note the words "flying like we always did before." As far back as the 1950s, the U.S. thought the future of air combat would be aircraft engaging each other with missiles at long range (which proved a fallacy in the skies over North Vietnam). The whole concept of the stealth F-35 and F-22 is that they can blast a MiG out of the sky without the MiG knowing it's there. But to Russia, the good ol' days of close-range aerial knife fights aren't over.
Drozdenko does make a point about the F-35 that would have many Americans nodding in agreement. “The Americans tolerate this plane because it’s a very big and expensive business with contracts running into trillions of dollars. While they keep making the F-35s, the Americans are modernizing their fourth-generation-plus F-18s and F-15s trying to bring them up to par with Russia’s Su-35,” he noted.
What's important here isn't the mudslinging about who has better weapons, or the merits and demerits of the F-35. As Drozdenko points out, technological advances like stealth are transitory.
It's the rival conceptions of military technology, and by extension how to wage war. These are concepts rooted in history and circumstances. America's wars over the last century have all been fought overseas, where the U.S. could tap its industrial and technological resources to field expeditionary forces plentifully supplied with advanced equipment. For Russia, the last century was marked by two immense invasions by the Germans, as well as huge land battles against the Japanese, the Poles and even other Russians during the Russian Civil War. Conflicts fought on underdeveloped, rugged or frozen battlefields are harsh on equipment.
Of course, these images are partly stereotypes. Russia is indeed capable of making advanced weapons such as hypersonic missiles. And while simplicity is a virtue, it has its drawbacks, such as Russian jet engines that wear out too quickly. American weapons may be costlier and fancier than they need to be, but they can be quite effective if used by nations that know to operate and maintain them, as the Israelis have demonstrated time and again.
Still, it's hard to argue with Drozdenko's observations that war and technology are not the same. “Imagine a BMW and a Russian Niva on a bumpy road somewhere deep in Russia," Drozdenko says. "Which of the two will wear out? Technology is technology, but war is war."
This article first appeared in 2018. It is being republished due to reader interest.