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Force multiplier

FAR FROM viewing the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as a possible cheaper alternative to the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22, the US Air Force believes that deployment of the F-22 air-superiority fighter is a prerequisite for development of the multi-role JSF.

"If we fail to deliver and deploy sufficient F-22s, the JSF requirement will quickly evolve and grow to closely resemble the F-22, because we still want air dominance," warns Gen. Richard Hawley, commander of US Air Force Air Combat Command.

With the F-22 as its high-end fighter to replace the McDonnell Douglas F-15, the USAF"-can stay focused on affordability with JSF" and make performance trade-offs to achieve the $28 million flyaway-cost target set for the aircraft, which is to replace its more-numerous Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The possibility of cutting, or cancelling, the F-22 programme has been raised as US tactical-aircraft modernisation plans come under the microscope of the Quadrenniel Defence Review now under way. The JSF's potential price-tag has attracted lawmakers concerned by the F-22's $71 million flyaway cost.

The JSF "...will be a capable replacement for the F-16, but it will not give us what we need to own the enemy's airspace," says Hawley, arguing that the relatively low-cost fighter will not have the stealth, supersonic-cruise or weapons capability required to achieve air dominance.

The F-22 is designed to provide guaranteed air-superiority, enabling US forces to deploy and operate free from the threat of enemy air attack. Establishing air dominance allows other aircraft to be operated with relative impunity, the Air Force argues.

"We have operated a high-low mix for the last few decades," says Hawley, referring to the combination of air-superiority F-15s and multi-role F-16s flown by the Air Force. "This allows us to operate within the assured airspace control of the high-end Ìghter," he says.

The Air Force believes its ability to provide that control is eroding, as other countries deploy aircraft matching - and in some areas exceeding - the capability of the F-15. The Mikoyan MiG-29, with its helmet-mounted cueing system and high off-boresight missile, "-wins the within-visual-range fight against my best aircraft. Our advantage is already eroded in this area. It is only a matter of time before we lose the advantage in others", he says.

Hawley acknowledges that the threat projected when the F-22 programme was launched has not developed as fast as predicted, but he notes that deployment of the aircraft has slipped accordingly, from "around now" to late 2004. "The programme is paced well against the threat," he believes.

What concerns the Air Force most are the threats that can be expected to emerge in the latter stages of the F-22's 30-year operational life, which cannot be predicted but must nevertheless be anticipated.

The aircraft's flexibility compared with that of the F-15, which will itself have been operational for three decades when the F-22 enters service, is regarded as the best antidote for uncertainty.

Hawley reveals that F-22 units will train from "Day One" not only for the air-superiority role, but also for lethal suppression of enemy air-defences and interdiction - both the latter roles employing the aircraft's inherent capability to carry the near-precision Joint Direct Attack Munition.

He also indicates that the Air Force is prepared to replace its Lockheed F-117 stealth fighters with F-22s, rather than see production of the latter being cut below the planned 438 aircraft. Hawley says that it would be a relatively easy task to adapt the F-22 to perform the F-117's "first day of war" precision-strike mission.

Hawley does not seen any justification for cutting the number of F-22s, unless the Quadrenniel Defence Review reduces the Air Force below its present level of 20 "fighter-wing equivalents", or cuts the service's overall budget. He says that the 438 aircraft planned are sufficient to re-equip the Air Force's four wings of air-superiority F-15Cs. At its peak, he says, F-22 procurement will consume no more than 6-8% of the Air Force's annual budget, around half of what the service historically has spent each year on modernisation.

Unless its force structure or overall budget is cut, the USAF will continue to spend about 10-12% on modernisation. Hawley argues that upgrading the F-15 would consume 80-90% of funds budgeted for the F-22 and result in an aircraft only one-third as effective.

He also points out that F-22 procurement is planned to tail off just as that for the JSF is scheduled to pick up. To stay within budget limits, the USAF has employed a sequential modernisation strategy for some decades, he says, beginning with its fighters in the 1970s, bombers in the 1980s and transports in the 1990s. Replacing the F-15 with the F-22 starts a new cycle, according to Hawley, and, he says, is essential if the F-16 is to be replaced by an affordable JSF.