I’m a huge fan of The Atlantic magazine and really enjoyed Mark Bowden‘s book Black Hawk Down but (you knew there’s be a ‘but’, didn’t you?) his article this month is a piece of hack advertising for Lockheed Martin/Boeing that had better have resulted in some significant ad revenue for the magazine.
Boden’s article, titled ‘The Last Ace‘ tells the chilling tale of how the evil doers of the world are nipping at our heels and the only thing which can guarantee our safety and the continuation of Western Civilization (the F22 Raptor) is in danger of being cut by a bunch of panty waisted, penny pinching bureaucrats.
The problem is this:
Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F‑15 in aerial combat, and given the changing nature of the threats our country is facing and the dizzying costs of maintaining our advantage, America is choosing to give up some of the edge we’ve long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it. The next great fighter, the F‑22 Raptor, is every bit as much a marvel today as the F‑15 was 25 years ago, and if we produced the F-22 in sufficient numbers we could move the goalposts out of reach again.
Of course, the F15 cost about $38 million in 2007 dollars and the F22 costs over $130 million dollars (by very generous estimates) so ‘the price to preserve’ our advantage has risen 300% in the past quarter century. There is such a think as a law of diminishing returns.
Now, in his defense, Bowden does do some lip service to the tough decision to continue such a costly program and how such planes don’t defend against guys with box cutters but then, freed of the obligatory disclosures, he can get right into talking about how totally cool the F22 is and how so hot those fighter pilots are. And, if you actually needed more than that, without the F22 there are going to be tons of dead soldiers and marines on our battlefields.
Because, you see:
A small country can buy a MiG‑21 on the world weapons market for about $100,000, put in a better engine, add more-sophisticated radar and jamming systems, improve the cockpit design, and outfit it with “launch and leave” missiles comparable to the AMRAAM. These hybrid threats are more dangerous than any rival fighters America has seen in generations, and they cost much less than building a competitive fourth-generation fighter from scratch. The lower expense enables rival air forces to put more of them in the air, and because the F‑15 can carry only so many munitions…
Of course, Bowden doesn’t answer the question that if some tin pot country can build an airplane that can match the F15 for 1/10 the cost, why not build a ton of these cheap, effective fighters instead of a handfull of these ‘superfighters’? While technology is great and all, the reason we haven’t had a significant dogfight in decades isn’t because our aircraft are so far advanced (the Iraqis had pretty good equipment) but rather that we had a training system for pilots that couldn’t be beat. So even if Sudan manages to get a couple souped up MiG 21s all tricked out, the fact that they can only give their pilots 20 hours of flight time a year is going to tell in a major way when they come up against trained U.S. pilots, even if we put them in an F-86 armed only with a surly attitutde.
Which leads us to the other unasked question Bowden left out. Why do we need piloted fighter planes at all? If we can build hordes of low cost drones (put a remote control system in a few of those MiG 21s, load ’em up with missiles and let them swarm) why isn’t that a possible alternative. Hey if you lose one of those, who cares? Have a bunch flying stand-by, have the controller take a swig of Mountain Dew and fly another into the fray (ok, I’m simplifying a lot but you get my point).
Then Bowden talks about how old the F-15s are. You’ve heard this before. ‘The pilots weren’t even born when these pieces of junk were built.’ That argument just doesn’t carry any water any more, espeically when it comes to air warfare. After all, the B-52 is going to have a service life of at least 85 years when all is said and done. Twenty five years for the F-15? The thing is barely out of the prototype stage.
And then we get to the real heart of the matter:
“I flew in a comparison test with both the F‑15 and the F‑22,” he continued. “You flew against the F‑22 one day, and the next day we took the same profile and flew against the F‑15. I fought both of those, and there was absolutely no comparison. This is not a paid advertisement for the F‑22. You talk to any aviator in the world, ask what they would like to fly, and if they don’t say the F‑22, then they are lying. I would kill to fly it.”
Hey, I don’t want to be a buzzkill, but maybe there’s another way for this guy to get his kicks other than a $130 million airplane (paid for by our tax dollars, of course). And that’s really what it boils down to for much of the rest of the article. You hear about how clunky the F15 is. How you have to work to fly it. You can almost hear them saying “Awww..C’mon! It’s so old all the other pilots are making fun of me.”
On second thought, perhaps this is just a commercial for Boeing. Bowden does take a shot at the equally expensive F35 (because the only thing better than one super expensive high tech fighter is two of them).
So America’s fighter fleet is likely to remain F‑15-based, backed up by the F‑22 and F‑35, a fifth-generation fighter that resembles the Raptor but without the same maneuverability and speed.
Is that a (not so subtle) hint for the powers at large to stop and go ‘Hey…what do we need the F-35 for? It’s got less maneuverability and speed? Why not just buy more F22s?!’
And no defense related story is complete without a dash of fear. So…who are the boogeymen today?
Russia, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and others are now flying fourth-generation fighters with avionics that match or exceed the F‑15’s. Ideally, from the standpoint of the U.S. Air Force, the F‑22 would gradually replace most of the F‑15s in the U.S. fleet over the next 15 years, and two or three more generations of American pilots, soldiers, and marines would fight without worrying about attacks from the sky. But that isn’t going to happen. “It means a step down from air dominance,” Richard Aboulafia, an air-warfare analyst for the Teal Group, which conducts assessments for the defense industry, told me. “The decision not to replace the F‑15 fleet with the F‑22 ultimately means that we will accept air casualties. We will lose more pilots.
Oh…an honest assessment from a defense industry consultant. I’m sure he doesn’t have a vested interest in the purchase of new fighter planes.
North Korea? Iran? Really? And are tensions looking that high with India? Why not throw in Great Britain too. What the heck…what if the U.S. Navy attacks? They have all sorts of advanced fighters…and are right off our shores!!!