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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has never used the outdated and loaded term “transformation” in his case against building more F-22s.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?