From the American Enterprise Institute’s report: “If a wing of seventy-two F-22 fighters was based at a distance of 1,500 nautical miles from the combat zone — roughly the distance between Anderson Air Force Base on Guam to the South China Sea — only six aircraft could be kept over the battle area at a given time…”
If you follow Aviationintel regularly you have heard a much more fleshed out discussion of all the topics featured in the article linked above. The fact that we do not have enough stealth aircraft to launch a sustained campaign against China is a no surprise, and I am glad that the AEI is floating a topic I care so passionately about. But there are some highlights from this article that are of particular significance to note, keep in mind I have yet to read the full report, but none-the-less:
The report says the DoD should invest heavily in F-22 modernization, F-35 procurement, Next Generation Bomber development, KC-46 program, and long-range unmanned strike platforms for carriers, although the piece does not say if the AEI rationalizes all this when it comes to real dollars available. This is key as they are basically saying that the DoD needs to continue investing in everything, which really is not fiscally possible. The article says that the study then goes on to say that US tankers are vulnerable to attack during a conflict in the Pacific Theater. Also, close proximity basing in that region is also vulnerable to strikes via ballistic and air-breathing missiles. If this is so, and it is incidentally, then why would the American Enterprise Institute on one hand support the F-35 program, and on the other hand make it very clear that the tankers they so intensely depend on are totally vulnerable to attack? This is most alarming as I constantly see this same total disconnect from reality from the Pentagon and other respected think tanks alike. When will America realize that the idea of vast fleets of top of the line short-range fighters no longer fits our strategic or budgetary doctrine?
The simple truth is that when you invest so heavily in a tactical aircraft that will depend on a multiple mid-air refueling or, more unrealistically, basing within 500 miles of it’s target, you also need to invest proportionately in tanking assets that can survive getting it there and back. Not just new or recapitalized tanking assets, but historically relevant sized fleets of tankers with massive volumes of gas to offer hoards of thirsty jets, or much larger fleets of smaller tankers, and ideally a mix of both. Further, tankers that are low-observable in nature are almost essential because at 500 miles range (in reality much closer if the F-35s they support are to stay on station for any time) traditional tankers are essentially large targets that not only make your whole strike force vulnerable to loss (take out the tankers and thus take out the fighters), but they also give away the general location from which your $150M a copy fighter force will be attacking. In other words its an archaic model of air warfare, mixed with new game changing technologies that are only as good as their weakest, or most visible link, and in this case that weak link is non-stealthy but essential aerial tankers.
So if we are not willing to field a low-observable tanker, a concept that could be paired with the Next Generation Bomber program as pitched here many months ago (see links at the bottom of the post), it’s quite logical that medium to long-range combat aircraft, mixed with a smaller number of very potent counter air fighters, is what we need to field in order to remain totally unmatched in aerial warfare over the coming decades. By buying thousands of F-35s, while at the same time procuring an expensive tanker that is very much non-stealthy, is like dropping off a team of ninjas to do battle in a bright yellow school bus. In other words, much of your costly cutting edge fighting force’s capabilities will be not only compromised by being spotted before you arrive, but they are also very vulnerable to being taken out, as they may be hard to kill individually, but their delivery and pickup vehicle certainly is not. If you kill the tankers you kill the F-35s, its as easy as that, and this is precisely the role China’s startlingly advanced J-20 was built to do in this authors long standing opinion.
So what should we be doing in light of these undeniable truths? We should immediately make the Next Generation Bomber initiative a high priority, produce more F-22s and integrate technology developed for the F-35 into their design, and continue to field the KC-46 tanker as planned while looking at designing a tanker expansion capability into the Next Generation Bomber’s design. Finally, we need to begin work on developing an FB-22 regional bomber. Based on the Raptor’s design, an FB-22 with a combat radius greater than 1500 miles (from Guam to the South China Sea and back), including supercruising for 50% of that radius while carrying at least double the F-22A’s weapons load would be the perfect multi-role system for the age of low observable modern air combat. It does not rely on constant refueling to make it to it’s target and back, it can stay on station for hours not minutes and have the weapons load to make their time on station relevant, and it can get to the target area and back fast using supercruise. This faster transit time means more sorties with less aircraft. Where will all the money come from to do this you ask? Simple, cancel the F-35 immediately and exploit it’s avionics and other technologies for existing and the new platforms mentioned above.
I know some of you are thinking “but who is going to dogfight with all those Super Flankers and J-20s that China will have within the next decade?” With another 150 or so F-22s there will be enough aircraft to provide a “tip of the spear” protective force for low-observable strike aircraft on the opening days battle. After some degree of air supremacy has been achieved, F-15 Golden Eagles and AESA equipped F-16s can begin to move closer to the battle zone and provide force protection combat air patrols for key assets and facilities. Further, an FB-22 really is the ultimate air superiority machine. More of an interceptor than a fighter, it can work alone, or alongside the more maneuverable F-22As as an arsenal and sensor ship. Packed with beyond visual range missiles and Small Diameter Bombs, the FB-22 can supercuise into the target area with the F-22s, lobbying bombs at air defense nodes at will and firing missiles at aerial targets once the F-22A’s magazine run dry. On deep strike missions, beyond the range of F-22s, the FB-22 will be more than capable of defending itself as it packs the F-22s beyond visual range capability and ability to evade hostiles, merging the stealth design, the ability to supercruise, and a massive weapons arsenal into a deadly and stealthy package. In the unlikely situation that the FB-22 found itself in a within visual range fight, the FB-22 could be outfitted with the F-35s Distributive Aperture System and the AIM-9X Block II missile. The pairing of these systems would allow the FB-22 to fire on fighter targets at or even after the merge, while the enemy is making it’s energy depleting initial turn. Basically the DAS tracks the enemy threat after the merge, and then tells the missile where to fly so that it can lock it’s seeker on the enemy fighter after launch. Usually this entails the missile making an 90′ or greater turn, which it is capable of doing. Meanwhile the FB-22 is cruising out of the fight at great speed, without the need for fuel depleting and IR signature increasing afterburners.
Ok, so either I am a liar and/or I have no clue about what I am talking about, or the Defense Department is in total denial of what it really needs in terms of aerial equipment to win the wars of the future and the budgetary battles back here at home today. Well I am not liar and if you read this site regularly I would imagine that you believe that I have a pretty tight grasp on the capabilities of strategies discussed in this piece. So yes, I think the DoD is in total denial of the rapidly changing technological and strategic conditions in relation to their often troubled pet projects. The very idea of a single, very expensive fighter design being the backbone of an air force as large as the USAF’s is an unrealistic, inflexible, expensive and self-serving concept. One steeped in the romance and history of fighter combat, but totally unrealistic when you consider where technology and our strategic footprint is today and especially where it is headed in the future. The F-35 was a too big to fail, one-size-fits all, short legged, and aerodynamically compromised concept by design. Now as our gaze looks towards the long ranges and sparse basing options of the Pacific, nobody attempts to call a serious audible on such an expensive and flawed procurement strategy. Sadly, our talented and military aviators will be left holding the bag. Their short legged fighter aircraft reliant on tankers very far from their home base, and much to close a potent enemy’s front lines defenses.
So how did this happen? Why didn’t anybody see that short ranged fighters are ill-suited to fight against our greatest emerging threat when you take into account the inhospitable basing and operating environment of the Pacific? I believe that a decade of focusing of wars where range and tanking over “hostile” airspace was never and issue had something to do with this. Further, I think the dreaded “go-fever” syndrome instilled in those that have a stake in the program, and a fighter pilot dominated culture in the Pentagon just cared more about pushing the aircraft through than evaluating if it was indeed the right aircraft to push through in the first place. Keep in mind the flawed Joint Strike Fighter doctrine comes from the same minds who fought an insurgency for over a decade using platforms like F-15Es, B-1Bs and Super Hornets, at a cost of many tens of thousands of dollars per hour, when in almost every case an off-the-shelf militarized turboprop aircraft would have provided a better end product at a tiny fraction of the cost. The same folks also brought us 10 years of tanker patty-cake and still we have yet to see a prototype fly and who thought that a new Presidential helicopter that cost as much per aircraft as two brand new KC-46s was even remotely acceptable to tax payers. Man, it must be a very different world in that 5 sided bubble that sits along the Potomac…
In the end, its not even about how we are flushing our national treasure down the drain on the wrong combat aircraft to support our future strategic focus, it’s about the flawed philosophy and warped cult of personality that got us these aircraft in the first place. The disease of denial is a very potent one. It is hard to cure with anything but the most powerful and inconvenient medicine. That being the truth. Even AEI apparently made the exact case against the F-35 program in their very own report, yet at the same time demanded more funding for it? Huh? Where is the creative problem solving? Where is a sober thought process? How is there always the lack of clarity needed to take a train of thought to it’s final conclusion? Any logical mind would realize that tankers are expensive to buy and operate and their gas costs between 5 and 10 times, depending on how you calculate it, more to offload to hungry fighters than ground fueling. Yes, tankers are and will always be invaluable players in our strategic footprint and combat capability, but they are not meant to fly on the front lines when an enemy is equipped with a modern integrated air defense system and advanced fighters, of which some will soon be low observable in nature. America needs to get off the tanker nipple, invest in medium and long-range assets that can utilize tankers thousands of miles, not hundreds of miles, away from their final targets. And yes the fighter should live on, but in smaller yet more potent numbers. Wake up Washington! The days of massive fighter fleets are over, and if we play our cards right that fact could be a huge strategic advantage for the USA. As it sits the USAF will be hard pressed to field over 1500 F-35s, costly upgrades to F-22s, F-16s and F-15s, new tankers, and a Next Generation Bomber. Take the F-35 out of this equation and America could have a more potent, longer range, affordable, and flexible combat fleet than with massive numbers of the tanker dependent F-35 (you can read my plan for replacing the F-35 linked at the bottom of this post).
For those who say America will never go to war with China due to economic interdependency and the like, I say that is a very reckless conclusion that assumes we have control over the actions and decisions of a nation who is in incredible flux, and that we already understand much less than we should. Sometimes it is not our decision to go to war, especially when you consider the potential foe in question may be the worlds only other super power within the decade. Nobody has a crystal ball, and if you are a student of history you will know that sometimes wars start for reasons totally unforeseen by academia and honored political and foreign policy theorists of the day. Its time we stop living in denial, not every war will be like Red Flag, where the tankers are just a few minutes away from the combat zone. End America’s growing addiction to massive and extremely expensive short-range fighter fleets and tanker gas, it’s a strategic liability and could very well end up resulting in soaked aircrews bobbing up and down in the blue waters of the Pacific, surrounded by the wreckage of the their $150M fighter jets. Not because they were downed by an enemy J-20 fighter in heated combat, but because their tankers were downed by a J-20 and that they did not even know was there…
*Additional note: I read the full report right after publishing this post. All my commentary stands.
My program for replacing the F-35:
Thoughts on the Next Generation Bomber, Stealth Tankers & Transports: