Opinion: F-22 is ultimate platform in systems age

The dawn of a new age of warfare is upon us, where even the most advanced and capable machines, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22, are apparently replaceable. It’s not about the platforms, they tell us. It’s about systems of usually less capable platforms.

As this theory transitions into reality, the move last week in the US Senate to end F-22 production after 187 aircraft built may be remembered as a key inflection point.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has never used the outdated and loaded term “transformation” in his case against building more F-22s. But those who argue the age of building increasingly exquisite platforms is over have clearly influenced the Secretary’s thinking.

In this sense, the F-22 can be viewed as a modern corollary to the SR-71, another Lockheed-built aircraft that proved to be as much an indispensable military asset as it was a precious work of art.

As was the case with the SR-71, which had no equals during its era, the F-22 is today’s foremost fighter. It is likely to remain so until the day it is eventually retired.

(That is, of course, unless the Russians and Chinese acquire the skills to build a comparable platform. But imagining how they could afford it is difficult. If the SR-71 and F-22 strained even the vast resources of the United States, how can any other military power hope to match such capabilities? This is especially true in the absence of an actual conflict.)

Like the SR-71 before it, the F-22′s superior performance comes at a price. The aircraft is expensive to buy and to operate, tricky to upgrade and hard to maintain.

The more painful truth is that the F-22 is a flying contradiction to the systems theorists. The Raptor was designed to be a technological loner in an increasingly networked battlespace.

In the Northrop Grumman APG-77 radar and the BAE Systems ALR-94 electronic warfare suite, the F-22 may possess the two most powerful sensors ever installed on a tactical fighter. Yet, this bonanza of intelligence data gathered by the aircraft’s sensors can not be shared with other platforms save for other F-22s. In the ten years since the start of the network centric warfare revolution, the F-22 still cannot transmit the reams of data collected to those in urgent need of actionable intelligence.

However, cancelling F-22 production now is not without risks. While this may be the age of networks and sensors, if the platforms carrying those systems are not fast, stealthy, or numerous enough to execute the mission, it begs the question, what good are they?

8 Responses to Opinion: F-22 is ultimate platform in systems age

  1. Prometheus 23 July, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    The aircraft is expensive to buy and to operate, tricky to upgrade and hard to maintain.

    All things that in the future will be true for say the JSF, too.
    network centric warfare revolution

    That has single points of failure. Satellits, the network itself(Electronic warfare anyone?) and others

    @ UAVs

    they are as of now only useful against people with RPG-7s & Ak-47s
    The moment the enemy has manpads, sensors and cyper warfare… they will die like flies.
    Nevermind that there is no UAV which can replace an Fighterjet and if there is it will cost as much or even more then Fighter+pilot.

  2. Aygar 23 July, 2009 at 7:28 pm #

    The F-22 program didn’t strain the resources of the USA. It’s is not and was not anywhere close to doing so. It costs more than the US government is willing to spend for it, but that is not the same as placing a strain on the resources of the USA.

  3. ELP 23 July, 2009 at 10:13 pm #

    Visit an active duty F-22 unit and spend some time with the maintainers.

    I think once the F-22 has done its work, you don’t need exotic aircraft like the F-35.

  4. Dan 23 July, 2009 at 10:43 pm #

    Its the one aircraft that as a loner has the ability to knock out entire systems… it’s an anti system all in one platform… taking out IADS and networked Su’s with AWACS and Ground Radar… will be achievable on a scale other systems can’t manage…

  5. Obamanite 24 July, 2009 at 12:45 am #

    Stephen, I applaud your even-handed, level-headed and rational analysis. “It was beauty killed the beast,” it was once famously said of a similarly soon-to-be-extinct marvel of man-made fantasy. In the case of the Raptor, it was “exquisite” (nice word) preciousness that killed it. A marvel of engineering, its designers and builders overreached and brought to production a prototype and proof-of-concept vehicle whose pioneering technologies, one dearly hopes, will be practicable and realizable, in an economically sustainable fashion, in the shape of the less ambitious, more do-able F-35. Were we still engaged in cold battle vs. an adversary such as the Soviet Union, and if that adversary were actively trying to out-do us, then heck, yeah, I would say, expenses and maintenance be damned, build more of them things. But that is not the case, and that is why, sad to say (no, really, I love the damned plane), the F-22 is in fact a Cold War relic.

    Surprised to see that no one has noted a critically important fact: LM was 100% on board killing the Raptor. Why? Was it because Gates told LM, you shut up on the Raptor, and I’ll back the F-35 to the hilt? Yes, obviously. But maybe, just maybe, was it because LM implicitly admitted that the F-22 is simply obsolete and impractical? I think so. As much as it might have hurt at the time, marvels like the B-70 and B-58 were killed by the Minuteman and even more so by Polaris, Poseidon and Trident. As Gates said about the Raptor, it wasn’t even close. And we are just going to have to live with the fact that, just as gunslingers and horse-mounted cavalry were rendered obsolete by unstoppable advances in weaponry and tactics, however “romantic” they may have been, the days of the fighter jock are numbered.

  6. Phaid 24 July, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    The F-22 “network gap” is so much hype. Link-16 may be jam-resistant and encrypted, but it is not undetectable; the F-22 is designed to operate in environments where those sorts of emissions could compromise its stealth.

    On the other hand, there are platforms flying today that can bridge the F-22′s IFDL into a Link-16 network — check out the use of the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) during the JEFX-08 exercise. Rather than doing an expensive retrofit of a Link-16 transmit capability to every F-22, we can easily add BACN to a few UAVs (Global Hawk leaps to mind), AEW platforms, or even tankers, and get the same capability cheaper and more quickly.

    Remember, we’re supposed to think in terms of systems, not platforms, so let’s add the capability to the network rather than focus on a single aircraft.

  7. Bright future or unfounded optimism? 24 July, 2009 at 10:33 pm #

    I find it interesting that the same people who badmouth the F-22 for missing its promises on acquisition cost, maintainability, and maintenance cost glowingly describe the anticipated improvements the F-35 will have in these aspects. The same contractor, indeed many of the same personnel, who allegedly failed so badly on the F-22 are the very people who are making the bright promises on the capabilities and costs of the F-35. Is there any real indication that they’ll pull it off any better this time? Judging by the amount of actual test hours flown, I’d say it’s a bit of a stretch to wax euphoric about the F-35 just yet.

    As for employing the F-22′s revolutionary capabilities in the form of the “more do-able” F-35, let’s not forget that air combat and air to surface combat is not just electrons. Yes, EA will continue to gain importance, but much of air warfare is still physics. The F-35 cannot match the kinematic upper hand the F-22 will offer in altitude and sustained speed, with it’s inherent advantages in battlespace coverage and tactical flexibility. We talk about not being able to afford the F-22, but will we be able to afford parity in the air in future conflicts?

    I hope for the sake of all the guys on the pointy end of the spear out there that the folks who allegedly oversold the F-22′s cost and capabilities are now completely on the ball with the their F-35 promises.

  8. Duncan 29 July, 2009 at 6:59 pm #

    All the F-22 witch hunting has a strong stench of a lobbying of the lowest level (Biased Washington Post article, Obama veto promise, delayed report on delayed F-35 production). Facts are simple: Russians plan to put Su-35 in production and for sales by 2011, PAK-FA by 2015ish. IMHO Su-35 is beats F/A-18E/F and F-35s in ALL KEY KINEMATIC PARAMETERS. It will outfly (outturn, outrun, run of out fuel) both of those strikers (not a fighters, sorry). Bigger radar, longer range missiles, letting US jets depend on allegedly superior avionics and stealthier design. PAK-FA shall raise stakes by taking away even that advantage (provided it exists, how many out of two existing Su-35s were tested by Pentagon?). This is how USAF air superiority was taken away – no fireworks, just making people believe cutting F-22 production will save money. Ten years from now Russians will hold all aces in the air-to-air domain if they wish so. Add S-400 and other Russian state of art air defense platforms and F-35s will be as relevant as British Faiery Battles in May 1940 over France. All UAVs now so proudly promoted by secdef will die the first day they meet tier one opponent and not a Talib with an AK-47.

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