How the USAF shot itself in the foot over the past 20 years… repeatedly

In this month’s issue of the US Air Force Research Institute’s Air & Space Power Journal, Lt Col Christopher Niemi, one of the original eight handpicked F-22 initial operational test and evaluation pilots and former commander of the 525th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, writes a very interesting piece about the USAF’s acquisition missteps for its tactical fighter fleet for the past two decades.F-Niemi

Check it out here, it’s definitely worth reading in full.

00f22-f35-00-8056858098_58bb8db2cb_o.jpgNiemi writes about how the USAF failed to adjust the requirements for the F-22 after the demise of the Soviet Union, and how its single-minded focus on the Raptor’s air superiority mission led to the deferring of other priorities–such as replacing the A-10, F-16 and F-15E fleets. He points out how those decisions have led to the USAF’s current geriatric fighter fleet…

Niemi offers some interesting insights:

The Air Force’s own analysis projected that the F-15 was inferior to the future threat in “range” and “short-range missiles,” equal in “radar” and “long-range missiles,” and superior only in the “flight-performance” category. Ironically, today’s F-22 fails to deliver improved performance in those areas in which the Air Force assessed the F-15 as most deficient: range and short-range missiles. Nonetheless, the service reinforced its F-22 argument with thousands of simulations modeling the F-15 against the Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel (Multifunctional Frontline Fighter), a Soviet developmental project that never entered production. Scenarios pitted two F-15s against eight of these fighters, based on the BUR requirement to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. According to Air Force models, the F-22 would establish air superiority in seven days while the F-15 needed 22-25 days–and only after experiencing 4.8 times the losses. In effect, the Air Force had defended the F-22 by using its own assumptions about future threats without addressing the GAO’s fundamental allegation–the implausibility of the Air Force’s threat assumption.

Niemi also points out that USAF leaders grossly exaggerated some of the Raptor’s capabilities:

Air Force officials hinted at a strategic electronic-intelligence collection capability similar to that of the RC-135 Rivet Joint.39 However, these capabilities were not part of the F-22 design criteria, and currently fielded F-22s cannot conduct these missions effectively.

But to be clear–he’s not trashing the jet…

In terms of performance, the initial operational test and evaluation in 2004 found the F-22 “overwhelmingly effective.” Air Force analysts reinforced this evaluation recently, estimating that the F-22 exchange ratio is up to 30 times better than that for F-15s, F-16s, or F/A-18s in similar high-threat scenarios.

But he does point out its limitations:

F-22 performance is not without shortcomings, the two most substantial of which include limited range and high maintenance requirements. The aircraft’s maximum range is slightly superior to that of the F-16 but significantly inferior to that of the F-15C, which it was designed to replace. This fact has three important consequences: operational missions need more air-to-air tanker support, the F-22 has a limited ability to deeply penetrate hostile airspace, and pilots cannot take full advantage of the F-22′s supercruise capability.

The aircraft has also proven more difficult to maintain than originally anticipated. The Air Force acknowledged that the F-22′s “radar-absorbing metallic skin is the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected shortcomings.” The service needs to maintain these coatings continuously to ensure the combat readiness of F-22s, thereby significantly increasing the necessary maintenance manpower (and cost).

[Incidentally: The F-35 apparently really is better in terms of maintainability of its stealth coating. I spoke to a maintainer who has worked on the F-117, helped with the initial stand-up of the F-22 at Tyndall, and is now working on the F-35 at Eglin. He says it really is way better... read about that here]

But the fundamental problem with the F-22, Niemi says in his paper, is that the Raptor, as designed, is too specialized–in addition to being too costly. He says the USAF should have reworked the jet’s requirements prior to the start of the engineering manufacturing development phase and that the service should have bought additional 4th generation fighters.

If the service’s leaders had realized that surface-to-air-missile systems were eclipsing air-to-air threats as the primary danger to future air operations, they could have better leveraged the investment in ATF demonstration/evaluation to counter weapons like the S-300. The ATF’s stealth made the aircraft inherently more survivable against these threats, but it lacked a robust air-to-ground attack capability to target them. Furthermore, niche air-to-air capabilities such as thrust vectoring and some specialized avionics could have been eliminated to reduce cost and weight. Range should have received more emphasis, possibly even at the expense of supercruise. In addition to JDAMs, the Air Force should have added air-to-ground radar, Link-16 data-link transmit capability, and an infrared targeting sensor. These modifications would have greatly enhanced the F-22′s utility in threat environments dominated by surface threats without degrading air-to-air performance.

He also points out the USAF hasn’t seemed to learn from its mistakes on the Raptor program:

When acquisition eventually shifted to the F-35, the Air Force largely ignored its F-22 experience and failed to plan for inevitable developmental problems with the F-35. Despite massive cost overruns and schedule delays, the Air Force continues to hope that the F-35 can solely recapitalize 1,770 aging F-15Es, F-16s, and A-10s. However, continuing developmental problems and the emerging national fiscal crisis threaten to undermine this strategy.

Also, perhaps most importantly:

Most importantly, the cost of F-22s and F-35s threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force’s fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment. These facts suggest that the Air Force should reconsider its long-standing position that fifth-generation fighters are the only option for recapitalizing its fighter fleet.

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