It’s a shame that all of our fighter aircraft that have been designed as “stealth” or low observable have very limited range. Take the F-22 for example, it has about a 550 mile combat radius when supercruising (flying +1 mach without afterburners) for just 100 miles of that radius. That does not convert to much time on-station when flying from long standoff ranges to the very much non stealthy tanker aircraft to get gas. This is not of a major issue when it comes to the wars we have been fighting, where fairly close basing is a reality, and the countries involved are smaller in geographical size and do not field a large advanced air force or integrated air defense system. In other words, when it comes to Europe and the Middle East, having lumbering tankers in close proximity to the battlefield, or even over it, is totally possible. Even the tankers don’t have to burn much gas getting to their “tracks” in most cases, but what about tomorrow’s wars? Is it plausible to assume that this convenience of past combat will remain a viable reality? When it comes to the Pacific theater or operations I think anyone with a decent knowledge of air combat can safely say that such a situation will be rare at best, and totally non-existent at worst.
Often times, a looming trait of the Pacific Theater is described as “the tyranny of distance.” It truly is a place where continent sized aerial transit times are the norm, not the exception. This can work for or against you when it comes to armed conflict. On one hand, the enemy has to reach far to strike your bases, and distance still equates to some degree of safety in modern warfare. On the other hand, bases closer to the conflict area, although offering more acceptable transit times too and from the enemy’s location, are almost outposts in a sense, they are in many ways vulnerable to layered attacks and if said bases to survive, resupply can be problematic once a conflict erupts. When it comes to America and China, distance and time is the US’s enemy. China knows this full well and has created specialized weapons to deny America closer proximity basing through naval power, seen in the rapid development of their anti-ship ballistic missile program, intended to take out our carriers and their escorts from very long distances, a threat we have few ways of foiling as of yet. Further, China has amassed massive stockpiles of cruise and medium range ballistic missiles to attack our known bases in the region, thus leaving closer proximity basing once again vulnerable to obliteration. It is said that China also has hundreds of old MiGs converted into drones that could over-saturate Taiwan’s, and possibly our, limited fighter born air defenses in the region, which already have limited on station time to begin with. At the same time such an overwhelming onslaught of targets would whittle down our air to air and surface to air missile stocks in the process. In many ways this leaves Guam, basically a huge, non moving aircraft carrier and surface to air missile battery, as the America’s master air-base in the region. Guam is still susceptible to ballistic missile and even ship launched cruise missile attack, but at least it’s generally out of reach of China’s numerous shorter ranged weapons and air-breathing decoys.
Then there is the China’s new, stealthy fighter/interceptor, the J-20. In this author’s opinion this aircraft was designed to break through American lines in an attempt to attack our tankers and ISR (information, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets that by and large give America its combat edge. In effect, if you take out America’s tankers and AWACS, flying network nodes etc, you have gained a sizable advantage that is compounded by distance. The Chinese have always been cunning and smart tacticians, especially when it comes to finding an enemy’s weakness- Why attempt to shoot down one fuel thirsty, although superior fighter jet at a time when you can possibly sneak by and destroy their tankers? If successful, at worst you made the fighters aircraft return to base immediately, at best they fall into the sea. Such a tactic is similar to the old adage “the easiest place to destroy an enemy aircraft is when they are already on the ground,” well in many ways without their tankers, America’s short ranged stealth super fighters are vulnerable to fuel starvation much more than to enemy fire. The same can be said about our AWACS and ISR aircraft, as it is well know that China will make every attempt to disrupt or destroy our “active net” satellite and data link systems in any protracted engagement. Although not as life or death a loss to fighter and bomber aircraft than losing their flying gas stations while a mission is underway, destroying America’s almost omnipotent picture of the battlefield will significantly level the playing field for China’s less technologically advanced forces.
So with all this mind, America MUST do at least one of two things to ensure some type of edge when it comes to peer state conflict in the region:
1.) Build regional fighter bombers that have at least double the combat radius and weapons load as current fighters such as the F-22 and F-35. This would come in the form of an FB-22 or larger type concept. Procuring these aircraft instead of traditional short ranged fighters would allow our tanker aircraft to standoff at enough distance from the front lines of a conflict that they would be out of the range of the enemy’s marauding low observable fighter aircraft. Current F-22 and F-35 designs are ill-suited for the Pacific theater, and are effected as much by the “tyranny of the tanker” and the “tyranny of distance”, as they simply do not have the range or weapons carriage capability to hold back a serious assault from their distant land bases. Also, by increasing an individual aircraft’s weapons carriage capabilities you maximize each sortie’s ability to make an impact over the combat zone. Ask any F-22 pilot what they want most when it comes to their mount and the answer is almost always more beyond visual range air to air missiles. We would be smart to answer this deficiency via an FB-22 type of aircraft.
2.) Build a stealth tanker that can operate over or very close to the front lines during a conflict with an enemy equipped with a modern and robust integrated air defense systems. This aircraft may be able to do much more than just tanking, with the airframe being adapted to command and control, jamming, and ISR duties as well. This will allow America’s current and future inventory of short-legged tactical assets to operate in close proximity to the gas they so desperately need to stay airborne, thus increasing on station time and persistence over the battlefield. A large stealthy aircraft would also provide some insurance that the critical “active net” of data links and information fusing and sharing devices will not be lost to enemy fighters such as the emerging J-20. Such an aircraft would also allow these sensitive communications and surveillance systems to operate closer to the front lines than what a traditional and much more vulnerable standoff asset could accomplish. Thus resulting in higher fidelity information being recorded and/or exchanged in a more secure and survivable manner.
Currently, our order of battle in the region is something akin to a series of “sitting ducks,” where bases and even forward deployed assets have their achilles heals fully exposed for China to slash. A stealth tanker and/or a regional fighter-bomber would alleviate this issue to a large degree and would offer a much more plausible and sustainable defense to potential Chinese aggression in the region.
A totally different argument can be made for the need for a stealth transport aircraft. As seen during the Bin Laden raid, Stealth capability is not just for high-speed air to air engagements or long distance bombing runs anymore, but for transport as well. The ability to insert forces and their gear with a high degree of success anywhere in the world and on short notice is a massive capability that our forces need, especially when it comes to the Global War On Terror. Currently, such infiltration missions are flown by the same types of platform that have done so for almost 50 years, the SOCOM derived C-130 fleet. One must ask themselves, in a world where high-end integrated air defense systems are being proliferated around the world, has America’s infiltration capability eroded to the point where the MC-130 infiltration option is relevant for some poor, third world countries or other special circumstances? The Air Force/Army Joint Future Theater Lift initiative is looking at these issues, with everything from massive tilt-rotor designs to stealthy jet transport concepts being examined. Yet is the DoD missing a massive opportunity to meet such a valuable requirement right here and now, not in the distant future? I think so, and here is why:
Currently the 2018/Next Generation Bomber/B-3 is on the USAF’s wish list, and is in the early stages or design and development. Will such a high-price item survive the looming defense cuts? It should if the folks at the Pentagon and Congress have a head on their shoulders. This aircraft is supposed to provide a low observable multi-mission platform, one that can conduct certain surveillance missions as well as the bombing role in the not so distant future and will rely on spiral development instead of the “block 1 = 100% solution at all costs” type of mentality that has been the killer of high-tech defense programs in the past. The aircraft is supposed to be subsonic utilize a mix of leading edge and proved technologies, instead of soley “bleeding edge” highly expensive and long-term development technologies. With the aforementioned need for a stealth tanker, ISR platform, transport and bomber in mind, I think there is a massive opportunity here to field a single platform that can in effectively accomplish all the missions mentioned. Developing one baseline airframe design that can be adapted individually for many different missions sets would allow America to field various technologies, some we may not have even thought of yet, over time. Keep in mind that although certain “modular” missionized equipment sets could be swapped in and out as needed, not all missions would have to be performed by each airframe. Quite the contrary, such an aircraft would provide an “open architecture” template to build off of and modify for each mission set as needed or as they emerge in the future. For instance, a tanker version could also be used as a transport as well, but not as a bomber or surveillance platform. Conversely, a bomber variant could be used also as a surveillance platform and so forth. One base design, maximum flexibility amongst common mission sets.
It all comes down to philosophy. It may be near impossible to take a state of the art stealth bomber design and make it into a tactical transport, BUT it is not impossible to take a stealthy tactical transport and turn it into a bomber, tanker or information, surveillance and reconnaissance truck. In fact, it makes total business sense, instead of investing in one airframe for a couple uses, you can invest in that same airframe for a dozen uses that span across the tactical and strategic spectrum. The only problem is that you have to go into the design process with such a goal, you cannot add it later.
Those who would say that this concept is similar to the F-35/JSF boondoggle may have some grounds at first glance, but in reality they are totally wrong. The JSF requires mach speeds, high maneuverability, game changing avionics and stealth, all in a tiny package. The joint stealth bomber / tanker / ISR / transport / Jammer concept requires subsonic speeds and is large and flexible by its very design and philosophy. The economies of scale here would be massive and the program would really be a game changer when it comes to America’s ability to project survivable air power, and even ground forces, of many different types, over long distances, to anywhere in the world at a moments notice.
Probably the best idea to make such a concept a reality is to start with Lockheed Martin’s “Speed Agile” concept which shows promise and has already been in conceptual research and development for some years.
You can read more about Speed Agile here:
In conclusion, the USAF should get off its fighter fix and look toward making a true multi-role stealthy heavy aircraft platform a reality. At a minimum, giving the USAF’s current and misguided procurement plans, a stealth tanker is absolutely necessary. But why stop there? A joint heavy stealth platform would offer maximum flexibility and capability not just when it comes to America’s potential future conflicts in the Pacific but also in the ongoing Global War On Terror. Such a platform could provide certain and persistent close air support, strike, ISR, tanking, networking, jamming and clandestine insertion capabilities over an increasingly lethal and uncertain battlefield.