Since only 187 examples of the F-22 had been procured by the Bush and Obama administrations the USAF had to look toward its own tired ranks for bolstering of America’s air superiority capabilities. This led to the F-15 “Golden Eagle” program, which is vaguely understood to be a loose and ever changing upgrade path for about 178 of the USAF’s best remaining F-15C/D Eagle airframes.
The centerpiece of the “Golden Eagle” upgrade is the APG-63V3 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Although this incredibly powerful radar set shares the same primary designation of the 1970’s era APG-63 pulse-doppler radar that the F-15A was originally fielded with, the similarities between it’s namesake forbearer are almost nil. The APG-63V3 has no moving parts, and features a massive active electronically scanned array antenna and a state of the art back-end processor. The radar is revolutionary in many ways as it is more powerful than pretty much anything else out there, and that power can be focused into pencil like beams for maximum scanning distance and sensitivity. The radar’s “aperture,” the frontal real estate it takes up which is limited to an aircraft’s nose diameter, is simply massive, dwarfing that of the APG-77 AESA radar found in the cutting edge F-22 Raptor. Many sources say that the APG-63V3 outperforms the Raptor’s APG-77 in many ways, including range and resolution.
From the F-15’s new radar, which will allow it to see over twice as far as its past incarnation, will also have other less “traditional” functions and features. These can include non-kinetic attack capabilities via using it’s massive emitting power to jam, spoof, or fry enemy radars, air defense communications nodes and even incoming missiles. State of the art AESA radars such as the APG-63V3 can also act as a high volume data-link, allowing for massive amount of information to be transferred over long distances directionally. Finally, because of the total lack of reliance on a mechanically steered antenna, fighter sized AESA radars are able to map the ground in high-resolution and look for aerial threats at the same time. Once this capability is mature, it may allow for an incredible amount of fresh “synthetic imagery” taken over the battlefield by an aircraft that has a totally unrelated primary mission, resulting in a higher ‘return on risk’ to battlefield commanders for sending the aircraft towards the front line. As processing power increases, such a mode may be able to “run in the background,” similar to running your anti-spy software on your computer, with only tiny detrimental effects on overall performance of other, more mission oriented functions.
The F-15 Golden Eagle program will see other upgrades over time. A infra-red search and track (IRST) system was high on the to do list, although Sniper pods slaved to the F-15’s APG-63v3 radar seem to be a stopgap measure for now. In fact fielding an IRST for the F-15GE may now be totally unnecessary, as it will fight with the Raptor in any future war, and thus it’s need for passive aircraft detection sensors may be almost eliminated. The Golden Eagle will eventually need a major cockpit upgrade featuring large displays for proper dissemination of the massive swathes of high fidelity tactical information that will be continuously piped in from 3rd parties via its various data-links, as well as from its own powerful sensors. Further, a next generation helmet mounted site (HMS) such as the JHMCS II will eventually be integrated in order to provide a fully functional HMS in night vision mode, while also allowing for the projection of more “3D” information within the pilot’s visible “sphere,” which will be made available through the jet’s upgraded sensors and data-links. Also, in order to survive even in the periphery of decently defended enemy airspace, a modern digital threat warning receiver and jamming system may be on the horizon. Finally, depending on how long these aircraft are to soldier on, right now it seems for about another 20 years, at which time the youngest jet will be 45 years old, there may need to be a robust structural and “reliability” upgrade as well.
The F-22 was supposed to have a production run well above 500 airframes, but by the 2000’s, facing the crushing costs of the Global War On Terror and rising costs per F-22 produced, the USAF demanded that it get about 340 Raptors in order to field and effective fighting force. Such a force size would allow for the retirement of all front-line, and many ANG F-15s, especially when bolstered by a future multirole fighter such as the F-35. Over time, as politics and totally misguided and frankly uniformed or even corrupt decision-making took hold, the horrifying number of 187 Raptors was floated. The USAF plead for about 250 of the jets as a reaction to the dismal 187 production number, still an inventory based on only 250 jets would make fielding an adequate F-22 fighting force suspect. But alas, at Secretary Gates’s hand, and backed by both the Bush and Obama Administrations, the Raptor would only see 187 examples on the grounds of its cost, about $160M per machine, and for the misleading fact that it could not participate in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So with that incredibly stupid and near-sighted logic, common of the Gates era, the F-22 program’s end was in sight, with well less than 200 examples to show for 30 years of developmental work. In it’s place would be the F-35, the largest weapons gamble in the history of mankind.
During wartime such a small number of F-22s would leave only about 40 jets available for continuous operations. No matter how good the jet is, with only a few dozen available to consistently fight a war abroad, how would the US secure airspace against a well armed peer state? Enter the F-15 “Golden Eagle” mentioned above. In order for the USAF to field an effective aerial offense or defense the techno-marvel Raptor and the archaic but modernized F-15s will have to work as a team.
It would seem counter-intuitive that a stealth aircraft and a very much non-stealth aircraft could actually work together against a common aerial foe along the front lines of battle in foreign land. But with a little creativity, it really is not counter-intuitive at all, it’s actually quite logical. So just how will an aircraft designed in the 1960’s and produced in the 1970’s really work as a team with a stealthy, supercruising, thrust vectoring, superfighter that went operational less than a decade ago? I will attempt to answer that very question in the following paragraphs. Keep in mind much of this is personal conjecture and the careful piecing together of information that has trickled out from key sources over time. None-the-less, at this point I am willing to hang my hat on its validity and I am confident these are some of the tactics that are in the developmental stages now, if not already standard operating procedure amongst America’s F-22 and F-15 units.
The F-22’s ability to fly into enemy airspace undetected is unprecedented. Further, the fact that it can do so at high-speed, in a single slashing supersonic attack is marvelous. Yet in order to ensure this capability remains intact, the best way for the F-22 to enter enemy airspace is to do so emissions silent. Even though it’s AESA radar and emitting systems have advanced low probability of intercept (LPI) modes, it still is better to remain as silent as possible when flying beyond the forward lines of battle. Just because an advanced enemy cannot see you, it does not mean they cannot hear you. Further, the F-22’s passive ALR-94 electronic service measures (ESM) suite is so fine tuned that it turns the aircraft into a mini-EC-135 “Rivet Joint” electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft. The ALR-94, and its receiving antennas based strategically around the F-22’s airframe, can not only sense the direction of the enemy’s radio frequency emitters, but it can actually classify and triangulate their exact location for immediate targeting and subsequent destruction. Once again, this is a passive system and does not require the F-22 to use it’s high-power APG-77 radar. In other words, if anything sends out a radio signal, such as those used by an integrated air defense system to pass information, or especially an enemy search radar or SAM site attempting to search or engage enemy targets, the F-22 will know not only what it is, but exactly where it is. Such high-fidelity real-time targeting information allows the F-22 and other aircraft that are connected to it via data-link to prosecute a variety of air defense related targets with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
The F-22’s stealthy abilities are not all reconnaissance based, the aircraft is as lethal as it is smart, although it does not have an unlimited supply of weaponry. In the beyond-visual-range air-to-air arena the F-22 can fire 6 AIM-120 AMRAAMs until her well run’s dry. After which point the aircraft retains a pair of heat seeking missiles and it’s internal gun. Although close-in engagements would put such a high value, low density asset at incredibly high risk. Especially considering the F-22 does not have a high-off bore-sight (HOBS) missile capability (it still carries the AIM-9M, not the greatly enhanced AIM-9X) or a helmet mounted sight (HMS) as of yet. The whole idea for the F-22’s implementation is to remain invisible, so avoiding a within-visual-range fight at all costs is key to the weapon system’s continued effectiveness. In the air-to-ground, destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) arena, the Raptor can launch up to 8 highly accurate small diameter bombs (SDB), which can glide about 50 miles to their targets from the Raptor’s perch on high, and 2 AIM-120 AMRAAMs until her magazines are empty. A mixed load-out of 4 SDBs and 4 AIM-120 AMRAAMs can also be carried for a true multi-role, counter air defense punch.
It is logical that when fielding a composite air dominance force of F-22A’s and F-15GE’s it is key to maximize each platform’s unique strengths, and de-emphasize their individual weaknesses. In this case the F-22’s ability to fly over and behind enemy lines to collect information and attack key targets when it is most opportunistic, both in the air and on the ground, offers a game changing capability. Meanwhile the F-15GE is not stealthy, and thus has no need to be quiet. Instead it can use its massive radar to look far into enemy territory. Acting like a high-tech searchlight for enemy aircraft and cruise missiles well over a hundred miles away. Further, considering that the F-15GE will be throwing a ton of electromagnetic energy out over enemy airspace, there is no reason for it to be fitted with an infra-red search and track (IRST) system as was once planned. The F-22 will be the passive and silent stalker, while the F-15GE will be lit up like a metaphorical Christmas tree. Consequently, the Eagle needs to see the Raptor’s passively acquired information, and the Raptor needs to see the Golden Eagle’s actively acquired information. This can be accomplished via data-link.
With all this in mind, logical tactics begin to materialize clearly. The F-22s, acting very much as scout snipers do, will venture out in-front of their conventional counterparts, gathering intelligence on the enemy while taking out key targets without ever being seen. After causing havoc and confusion amongst the enemy’s air defense forces, the F-22 can continue in the command and control role, calling in air-to-air “artillery” where need be in the form of beyond visual range air-to-air missiles carried by F-15GEs many miles away. Positioned behind enemy lines, silent, deadly, and smart, the F-22’s role as the USAF’s scout sniper cannot be underestimated metaphorically. While the F-22 team attacks the enemy at key points and “thins the aerial herd,” the F-15GE team acts as the cavalry, leveraging the F-22’s onsite passively acquired intel to provide a heavy punch against an already weakened and confused enemy.
So a modern engagement would look something like this: F-15GEs would be placed slightly behind friendly lines, setting up as a combat air patrol (CAP) outside of the engagement zones of the enemy’s most potent air defenses. The F-15GE’s, loaded with AMRAAMs, would fire up their massive radars to peer deep inside enemy lines, identifying and classifying targets with ease. Meanwhile the F-22’s would supercruise, emissions silent, behind enemy lines, identifying key air defense nodes and destroying them without being detected, all the while utilizing the F-15GE’s APG-63V3 derived aerial targeting information, sent via data-link, to take out the most threatening of enemy aircraft. Basically causing broad confusion and destruction to an enemy that only “sees,” adversary fighters orbiting over or slightly behind the line of scrimmage. Further, based on the F-22’s ALR-94 derived threat information, the F-15GE would be able to “attack” some of these targets using non-kinetic tactics. In other words, firing pencil thin beams of incredibly powerful microwave energy out of their AESA radars at threatening enemy air defense emitters in order to jam, spoof, or even fry them.
For the enemy fighters that may not be destroyed by the ninja-like F-22’s, and who break through heading towards the F-15GE’s and US front lines, the F-15GE team can turn and engage these targets at the outer limits of their AIM-120’s range. In the case of the soon to be deployed AIM-120D, this will be at 50miles or more. Additionally, if the airspace is clear of other enemy fighters emerging deep from within enemy airspace, the F-22’s can turn around and engage the marauding enemy fighters from the rear as they make a run at “sacking” the F-15GE team. This leaves the “fortunate” remaining enemy aircraft barrage that survived the F-22’s initial surgical attacks, trapped between a wall of F-15GEs in front of them and a wall of F-22s behind them. Death from all sides, the classic hammer and anvil.
As time goes on and air defenses are destroyed, the forward “front” of such a strategy can be pushed deeper and deeper into enemy territory. Allowing for cheaper and more conventional fighter aircraft, such as the F-16, to provide close air support and lower risk combat air patrols over held territory. Further, other tactics that are similar but higher risk in nature may be used such as baiting maneuvers where the very non-stealthy F-15GEs push forward toward enemy airspace, all in an attempt to light up the enemy’s air defense network and/or to draw in enemy fighters. Such a sudden push towards enemy territory may cause enemy fighters and ground based air defenses to switch on their radars in an attempt to engage the Eagles. At which time the F-22 would punish them to the fullest extent possible and in total radio silence. Finally, a scenario where the Raptor/Eagle team could provide armed escort for a non-stealthy strike package could even be envisioned. Before such a strike all known fixed air defense targets would be taken out by B-2 Spirits and cruise missiles. Then a few divisions of F-22s would scout forward of the attacking strike package, using their stealth and supercruise ability to decimate any “pop-up” enemy air defenses along the path to the target that may have survived the initial onslaught. Meanwhile the conventional, non-stealthy strike package tails behind, pushing their way toward their target over airspace freshly sanitized by the F-22. Such a strike package would be escorted by F-15GEs for counter-air and F-16CJs in the second tier “Wild Weasel” role. These aircraft will traditionally protect F-16s, F-15E’s or even B-1s assigned the attack role. Once on station over the target area, and before the conventional strike package arrives, the Raptors could act as an invisible fly swatter taking out pop-up targets in the air and on the ground that may threaten the incoming strike package. Even if their magazines run dry, they can provide invaluable targeting data and threat intelligence to inbound F-15GEs and F-16CJs. Once the strike package is about to hit its target the F-22s can clear the way home, once again picking off any air defense targets that may have hidden during the package’s infiltration. Clearly, by leveraging the F-22’s element of surprise and data gathering capabilities, even a conventional strike package may be able to completely survive over highly defended enemy air space for a limited amount of time, the Raptor creating a temporary window via sanitizing the most deadly threats both on the way in and on the way out of the target area.
The most amazing thing that get’s highlighted in the Golden Eagle/Raptor strategy is that the F-22s value as a shooter is not paramount. In reality, its greatest utility comes from its ability to “quarterback” the game, working as a battlefield tactics manager, as well as a shooter. Something akin to an armed forward air controller, but instead of targeting the enemy on the ground, it is doing so for solely enemy air defense related targets. In many ways, the F-22 is a massive force multiplier for the rest of the combat air component. Providing battlefield ISR, command and control, and key kinetic and non-kinetic attacks all in one stealthy and fast package. Those such as Secretary Gates who mocked the F-22 for not being “multi-role” were either misinformed or they were intentionally not being totally forthcoming about how capable the F-22 weapon system truly is, and could continue to be with proper ongoing development. The reality is that F-22 is an attack aircraft, a stealthy scout, a mini-RC-135 Rivet Joint, an incredibly efficient command and control platform, a jammer, with the right missile a “wild weasel” SEAD asset, as well as being the best air supremacy fighter ever conceived. If that is not multi-role than I do not know what is!
Was the F-22 built to fight people who pack rusty AK-47s and live in mud huts? No. That would be a total waste of it’s abilities, and neither was the F-15E or F-16 designed for such missions for that matter. No, the F-22 is built to fight a capable peer state adversary, in a war where much more will be on the line than holding ground in Sunni Triangle or hunting insurgents along the border regions of Pakistan. The reality is that if we had enough F-22s there would be no need for the F-15GE, or the F-35 for that matter. Instead cheap and reliable F-16s, upgraded with AESA radars, could back-fill for Raptor with ease once it, the Next Generation Bomber, assorted cruise missiles and standoff munitions have kicked down’s the enemy’s metaphorical air-defense door. In other words, the F-35 is an export program that will drain the USAF’s resources, both to procure and to operate. Sure it will do a good job at achieving air superiority once it is finally fielded, but at a much greater cost than the high-low fighter mix of a reasonable F-22 inventory and a plentiful lot of upgraded F-16s and/or F-15s.
Considering the mistake of killing F-22 production has already been made, the Raptor/Golden Eagle team is a good use of the assets available for the time being, although a few points come to mind regarding such a strategy that should be addressed:
1.) The F-15C/D is an old airplane. I know folks who work on these jets and they are becoming more expensive to operate and their availability will continue to decrease as the airframe ages. Their components and basic technology is dated. Although you can put new radars in them and avionics etc, that does not mean they are going to be more flyable in the future. The APG-63V3 does not have a steerable dish which is supposed to greatly help in it’s reliability, and it probably will once the system is mature, but I have heard varying accounts concerning this claim under real-life operations. In the end, the jets and their component technology is old. This does not mean that they need to be thrown out, but a substantial refurbishing and upgrading of the non-mission oriented systems may be well worth the investment as the best radars in the world are useless if the jets cannot get off the ground due to mechanical issues. Further, 178 Golden Eagles may not be enough airframes if availability continues to slip. America has plenty of F-15s sitting in AMARG, why not bring more into the fray as the cost will be limited to upgrading and operating them. In other words, we already own the hardware so we might as well spend a relatively tiny amount to have plenty of them around and outfitted to today’s standard.
2.) During a time of war, who is going to watch America’s skies and borders if all of the Air National Guard’s F-15 wings are now basically front line combat units? Considering that during such an event the American homeland would be on full-scale alert, who will be here to protect our skies if all of our F-15GEs are needed overseas? The inventory is simply getting to thin for comfort at just 178 F-15GE’s to fight foreign wars and protect the homeland against cruise missile strikes or broad attack. Frankly, I would like to see the USAF’s plan for such an event and how this contingency could possibly support such a small F-15GE force. F-16s will simply not due, as their range is limited and their radars are not capable at engaging cruise missiles at reasonable ranges. Once the newly AESA equipped F-16s hit the flightline this will help, but still they cannot replace the range, look, or weapons loads of an F-15GE.
3.) Since the F-22 most likely will be operating in close proximity to the enemy, it would seem that the latest AIM-120D AMRAAM variant should be adequate for their use, especially considering the missile’s diameter will be limited by the aircraft’s internal carriage constraints. Yet the Golden Eagle, with its super long-range radar and the probable tactic of operating in concert with, but far back from the Raptor, it seems clear that the F-15GE could use a longer range missile. Something approaching the long retired AIM-54 Phoenix’s range, able to reach out to the outer horizon of the F-15GE’s radar tracking abilities. Otherwise, having a F-15GE pilot sit in the cockpit watching the enemy approach slowly on radar will be poor use of such a capability.
“The one that sees first and shoots first wins.” If this old air combat adage is still true today than there is every reason to give the F-15GE a missile that can make full use of its incredible radar. Further, just the known existence by the enemy of such a long-range missile would provide another “layered threat” from the F-22/F-15 team. Even if only two missiles of this class could be carried in addition to the F-15’s normal load-out, it would be well worth it. Even just a single round hung on the Eagle’s center-line station, so that the F-15 could retain it’s wing tanks, would be a major capability upgrade. In fact, such a missile has been in the testing phase, although it is meant for ballistic missile defense. This system was said to have paired a MIM-104 Patriot missile with the F-15 under the Net Centric Airborne Defense Element concept. Such a weapon would offer the Raptor/Golden Eagle team an even more robust magazine of weapons to use against targets at various ranges, and could bring ballistic missile defense into the F-15s repertoire in the process. Considering that the F-15GE will most likely be loitering over the front lines, or key infrastructure slightly behind the front lines, giving the aircraft a ballistic missile defense capability is really logical. Hopefully such a missile could also be used against air-breathing targets at long ranges as well. Even a developed version of MBDA Meteor, with it’s throttleable ramjet powered motor, may be a good place to look with regards to a long range weapon for the F-15GE.
4.) With only about 360 dedicated air superiority fighters in the USAF’s inventory, all of them finicky and demanding when it comes supportability, how much persistence over the battlefield can be offered by the force during a large-scale conflict? If realistically there is only about a quarter of the total fleet available for continuous operations during a time of prolonged combat, than that would mean that about 90 aircraft at best would be usable at any given time, and this is being optimistic. Are 90 jets enough for defending against an overwhelming barrage of enemy cruise missiles, fighters, drones (both low-tech, such as converted MiG-21 used as saturation targets, or high-tech such as armed drones), attack aircraft and so on? Further, with foreign low-observable fighter threats coming online such as the J-20 and PAK-FA, how will our tankers and AWACS aircraft fare seeing as all it will take is for one aircraft to “break through” and attack these vulnerable force multipliers? Above all else, such scenarios clearly underline the need for the USAF to stop retiring F-16s and immediately upgrade their radar systems with a modular AESA set like SABR or RACR offered by Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. Such an upgrade will allow vulnerable but absolutely essential support aircraft and installations to be defended by a capable third tier air defense force if aircraft or missiles end up breaking through the Raptor/Golden Eagle team’s first and second lines of defense. Thankfully the USAF agrees on this point and is starting down the path to modernize at least 350 F-16’s with new AESA radars. I think more will be needed, but at least this is a step in the right direction.
5.) An air war over the Pacific will result in long transit times, where aerial tankers will be essential. But with such a limited fighter force, will these tankers become massive targets instead of force multipliers? Without continuous tanking, that aforementioned available Raptor/F-15GE airframe number of 90 aircraft would be woefully inept at providing any sort of persistent defense against a robust enemy onslaught. In other words, do we need more cutting edge fighters at all, or do we need larger, more persistent “regional interceptor” or “fighter bomber” types of aircraft that can rely much less on tankers and can carry many more missiles to fend off waves of enemy attacks? I would say so, as the proof is in the numbers. The combat radius of an F-22 is something like 650 miles. Considering the aircraft can supercruise well above 1200mph, the time between takeoff and tanking can be measured in minutes, not multiple hours. This may be fine when operating over land, where forward basing is not an issue, or against an enemy that simply cannot threaten USAF tankers, but against a peer state such as China, surrounded by thousands of miles of water, this becomes a real problem. I will continue to posit that we do not need more fighters of any sort at all, but what we really need are regional fighter bombers, that maximize speed, stealth, sensor fusion and range as opposed to maneuverability.
America’s air arms, especially the USAF, are walking a strange line right now. On one hand they are discovering what relatively simple upgrade programs can do for keeping plentiful old fighters relevant, especially when paired with a smaller force of cutting edge suprtfighters. On the other hand they are burning through cash at an astronomical rate in their pursuit of the flawed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) concept. At best the F-35 offers some of the F-22’s low observable capabilities, and even more evolved “senor fusion,” with a much higher emphasis on ground attack. At worst the F-35 is almost as expensive as the F-22 and offers many of the same capabilities that could be integrated into existing or new build F-16’s at a fraction of the F-35’s cost. Further, does it make sense to field a massive force of one-size-fits-all, “first day of war” capable airframes, that are bank breaking to procure and to operate, when proper application of creative tactics and substantial upgrades to existing fighters, paired with a larger and more developed F-22 fleet and possibly a Next Generation Bomber, would offer a more flexible and maintainable force at a fraction of the F-35’s cost and general volatility?
All this begs the question, is the F-15 Golden Eagle program a symptom of what is wrong or what is right with the USAF? I would say it is a gleaming example of what is both right and wrong with the USAF. The program should not exist because we should have continued developing and buying the Raptor instead of the F-35. But since that “ship has sailed” I think the F-15GE program is a fantastic step in the right direction for the USAF. Making creative use of platforms America already owns and leveraging revelations in net-centric warfare while constantly pushing the envelope when it comes to weapons and sensor technologies will give America the viable and affordable force it needs for the 21st century. A high-low mix of F-22’s and Next Generation Bombers, paired with upgraded legacy platforms that can share in the information gained from their newer counterpart’s sensors via data-link, and visa-vera, allows for a modern American air force that does much more with less. But with the F-35 eating up so much of the DoD budget such a cost-effective alternative strategy cannot be implemented yet alone fully explored. If America were to cancel the F-35 tomorrow, and purchase another 120 or so fully evolved F-22s, bolster its Golden Eagle fleet by another a few more squadrons and give the Eagle a structural, reliability and cockpit upgrade, you would have a truly potent and persistent Raptor/Golden Eagle team. Further, by continuing to upgrade America’s F-16 fleet with modern radars and cockpits, while building more as needed, we would have an incredibly flexible and cost-effective fighting force to bridge us into the 6th generation fighter class that is already looming on the horizon.
If the F-35 is going to be truly America’s “it” plane for the foreseeable future than certain details need to be worked out now regarding it’s true capabilities. The biggest complaint of Raptor pilots is that they wish they had more AMRAAMs. With this in mind Lockheed needs to confirm that the F-35 will in fact be able to carry 6 AIM-120’s internally. It was reported that this was the case in around 2007, but since then I have not heard of a hard confirmation on the subject. Seeing how the F-15 can carry up to 8 air to air missiles, and if stations 1 and 9 are activated this would be increased to 10 or possibly 12 AAMs, and the Raptor carries 8, the F-35 with its 4 internally mounted AMRAAMs will not get the job done, and frankly it puts the asset at risk. The F-35 can always carry more missiles externally, although this would negate the aircraft’s main advantage, that being stealth. Without its radar cloak the aircraft turns into a bit of a dog by 5th generation standards when it comes to air to air combat. In reality, when external stores are added it basically becomes a very expensive next generation F-16. Bottom line, to pack an offensive counter-air punch Lockheed needs to ensure it can stuff 6 beyond visual range missiles into the F-35’s internal weapons bays. If not than America needs to get serious when it comes to relying on such an expensive asset with such a limited air-to-air punch.
If we are going to get by with a small Raptor/Golden Eagle air dominance team for the foreseeable future, then investments must be made in missile technology. The AIM-120D is a good upgrade to the venerable AMRAAMs series, but it will not give the Golden Eagle, or even upgraded F-15E’s with a similar radar set, a weapon that can take full advantage of their radar’s massive reach. A longer range missile, something with similar performance to the AIM-54 Phoenix utilizing ramjet technology would be best. Even a missile based on the MBDA Meteor may be an option for such a requirement. On the other hand, the recent and ridiculous cancellation of the Next Generation Missile (NGM), which was going to be able to be employed as both a anti-radiation missile, used to suppress enemy radars kinetically, while also packing similar air-to-air functionality as the AIM-120D, is a telling sign that America is rapidly losing ground when it comes to air-to-air missile technology. The NGM would have given the F-22 and eventually the F-35, as well as upgraded F-16s, incredible flexibility over the battlefield by allowing a single missile to be used for two incredibly different but important needs. Paired with the Small Diameter Bomb, the NGM would allow an F-22, F-35, F-16 or any properly equipped fighter platform to be able to provide Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses at a moment’s notice, all the while retaining a strong beyond visual range air to air capability. Keep in mind that these two disparate functions that once took up two separate stores stations and added weight to already overloaded fighters could now be accomplished by a single missile, mounted on a single stores station. For the F-22 and F-35 this is especially critical as they would have been able to provide counter air and SEAD support with a single missile type mounted within their limited weapons bays. In the F-22’s case, the aircraft would be able to carry out the DEAD, SEAD and counter-air roles all on its plentiful internal stores. This would be a true quantum leap in fighter flexibility. Further, such a multi-role missile would allow for less aircraft to be tasked on a single mission, thus alleviating risk, lessening attrition, and freeing up America’s dwindling fighter fleet for other missions during a time of warfare.
In the end, I think the USAF needs to continue down the path of doing more with less. Or at least they need to develop the assets they already have paid for to their fullest potential and steadily procuring “silver bullet” weapon systems, such as the F-22, in moderate but effective quantities, before making the leap to the one-size-fits all F-35. This high-low complementary mix will give America the advantage over the battlefields of tomorrow, all at a reasonable cost and in a relatively low-risk nature. The biggest problem facing the force now is that the F-35 is stifling these efforts as the DoD tries to maintain a viable combat force while at the same time dumping all it’s cash filled eggs into one very fragile basket. Hopefully, after a decade of bingeing on unlimited defense funding and chasing every capability at any cost, those in charge over at the Pentagon will wake-up to the economic realities of the day and realize they could have a more flexible and affordable fighter fleet, one that they can field in significant numbers and actually afford to fly and train with by ceasing to chase the F-35 dream. A dream that has become an unsustainable nightmare and may very-well pull the entire force down with it. Instead, the USAF could build more fully evolved F-22s, utilizing the avionics and building techniques developed for the F-35, procure a next generation multi-role bomber, a platform key to countering threats over the vast expanses of the Pacific, invest in new drone technologies and upgrades for existing “legacy” fighter platforms, and begin working on a 6th generation fighter. All the while saving massive sums of cash in the process.
In actuality the only thing certain for the USAF’s fighter fleet right now is that F-22A/F-15GE air superiority team will be the vanguard of American air power for the decade to come. Hopefully such a small fighting force will be effective during a protracted conflict against a serious threat. If not, the opportunity cost inflicted by chasing the F-35 dream may be much larger than we could have ever possibly imagined.
*My example plan for what America could buy if we cancelled the F-35 program is linked below, and make sure to share your feelings about this piece in the comments box below!
-All photos via USAF.