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Lose the "Cold War" jet label

November 14, 2007 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Anyone stating that the F-22 is a "cold war" aircraft and is not needed for the defense of the United States is doing so at the risk of their own credibility.

F-22A Block 10 Raptor no. 91-4008 drops a small diameter bomb from its weapons bay during a test mission September 5th, 2007

Some "think tanks" and other well meaning oversight organizations with the goal of being a watchdog for U.S. government spending do some really great work. When some of those organizations or other pundits claim that the F-22 is not needed for future warfare they are doing so with blinders on.

There is nothing wrong with being critical of how a government program is managed. Certainly in the case of the F-22 there have been a number of mistakes. Here though if there are mistakes, everyone that was involved in the program should share the blame. That would include Congress and senior leadership that went on a "procurement holiday" in the 1990’s after the end of the cold war looking for some fantasy "peace dividend". Not only was it a procurement holiday for new military aircraft, it was a procurement holiday for spare parts of all shapes and sizes for the whole U.S. military. This is the environment that the F-22 program lived in during it’s most critical formative years.

Software development has certainly had its share of ugly moments with the F-22 program. Numerous computer crashes onboard the F-22 could not have been fun. The infamous international dateline event when F-22s deployed to Okinawa is an example of a bad quality control process. But software problems aren't unique to the F-22. It was years after entering operational service until the C-17 had its software problems sorted out. Aircrew would go out to the jet to test a new software update and sometimes the aircraft was considered unsafe to fly while attempting start up. It took years before proper software simulators were set up for the C-17 program to fix this problem. Then there was the U.S. Navy AEGIS class cruiser that was dead in the water due to a software crash in the early days of implementing "smart ship" technology to help reduce on-board manpower.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will have a much larger amount of software than the F-22. While the recent U.S. budget will fund 12 F-35's, R&D dollars for the program were cut. Program officials are up against a wall to keep costs down and a proposal to cut the amount of test flying using actual F-35 airframes has been put forward. Some experienced engineers have been critical of this move.

Looking at the test program of the V-22 Osprey shows a path of numerous challenges and heartbreak. Over 600 JASSM cruise missiles were delivered to the Air Force and they are not combat ready. Anyone stating that the development problems of the F-22 are important to focus on should also make themselves aware that those problems aren’t unique when looking at the procurement trail of most complex weapons programs.

Structural issues like corrosion and airframe life have come up with the F-22. While it would have been nice to have a happy story without this happening, one has to know about the rabid fanaticism design engineers were looking at when making this aircraft to have the best stealth qualities available combined with raw airframe performance. One has to consider that you can't just put large amounts of quarter of an inch drain holes all over the airframe like it was an F-15. Those would be called "apertures". Those are bad things that can contribute to lowering the radar cross section (RCS) of the aircraft. While I have no idea where the drain holes are on an F-22, I do know for a fact that engineers looked at issues like this with a strong eye toward preserving the RCS of the aircraft.

Engineering can be a trade-off. Structural problems in expensive weapons systems aren't unknown. Recently it was revealed that numerous Arleigh Burke class destroyers for the U.S. Navy will need expensive structural repairs because of design flaws. This isn't uncommon in naval ship building. The new U.S. Navy fighter the F-18 E/F Super Hornet needed a variety of fixes during its ongoing development spiral. Canopy part problems, wing problems, center barrel problems on a few early production jets and other things have come up.

Even a few years ago a test program was started again to fly one around with a variety of wing fences to help increase it's rather luke-warm airframe performance. It is a common practice in the fleet to not fly the aircraft with an inboard left drop tank because it can block the view of the ATFLIR electro-optical laser pod. Yet the U.S. Navy and Boeing paint the Super Hornet with rave reviews at every opportunity.

It is well known in the C-17 program that the main landing gear have some interesting engineering challenges on the topic of wear and tear, yet again, the C-17 is a huge success. Engineers and sales people originally sold the C-17 to the Air Force claiming it wouldn’t be a "PDM" jet. Yet today with all of the use it gets, it now goes through scheduled periodic depot maintenance. Are the recent structural flaws found in the F-22 that requires it to go back to the shop for a fix, an engineering gaff? That would be up to a peer review of engineers to decide if it was a gaff or just an over-reach on risk-reward balance in design. This kind of problem isn't unheard of to many other weapons programs seen as success today.

Killing power of the F-22 should be impressive. Exercises have shown numerous non-stealth technology fighter aircraft that were declared dead with no acquisition of the F-22. One has to realize that the passive sensors of the F-22 can allow the operator to geo-locate radar emissions and cue weapons on those emissions without using the F-22’s on-board radar. That applies to enemy aircraft and enemy surface-to-air threats.

The threat that the F-22 will face will no longer be some broken down MiG-29s, first generation SU-27s and older technology surface-to-air missile threats common in the post cold war 1990's. The threat will also include newer generation "Flanker" aircraft evolved from the older SU-27 design, with bigger motors, better avionics and radar, better self-protection jamming, longer range air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and better performance than any F-15.

Add to that airborne early warning aircraft (AWACs), newer generation surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats and local and wide area networks thrown in for good measure. Potential adversaries are crafting manned and unmanned stealth aircraft. Super-sonic cruise missiles will proliferate. That is what the F-22 will be facing in the coming years. A pundit that states that future air supremacy will be maintainable with the current older technology such as the F-15 fighter has their head in the sand. The fact that the U.S. is currently involved in fighting 4th Generation warfare ( state-sponsored and stateless terror threats ), does not mean that this will be the only kind of war the U.S. military has to be prepared to fight in the future. Thinking in this fashion goes from having ones head in the sand to suicide by poor military insight.

While the recent accident of an F-15 due to structural failure may be good fodder to get more F-22s, one has to be fair and point out that no one has given the accident investigation team time to do their work. It is quite possible one cause could be due to a maintenance person drilling in the wrong spot on that airframe years ago and from that initial event weakness in the airframe grew. We don't know. Let the accident report come out and be evaluated and move from that point.

The trail of the F-22 program shows one that isn't perfect. Yet other complex military weapons systems deployed today had similar tails of woe. Most of the costs in the aircraft are already sunk. While it’s main goal of breaking a high threat integrated air defense is important and useful, its sensor and super-cruise ability will be important, along with friendly surface-to-air missiles to work as a team to help reduce the threat of enemy cruise missiles.

In order for a U.S. expeditionary operation to be successful, it will need air domination of the theater of interest. It is not, nor has it been in the last 30 years, the mission of the United States Air Force to meet a threat based on having parity. History shows that fighting on parity in air warfare increases friendly losses and can put mission success at a higher risk. Certainly the U.S. military is running on older aircraft by the day. Certainly pundits and those from the "broken-rifle-defense-is-always-overspending" crowd are needed to highlight problems. Certainly there is a lot of defense reformation that is needed. Publishing ideas on these topics are a good thing and should be looked at as strength even when there is disagreement. To state that the F-22 is a "cold war" fighter aircraft and is not needed for the future defense of the U.S. is flatly wrong. The F-22 will help allow the U.S. to fight an air war against conventional threats of improving technology on its own terms for years to come.

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