Editor’s Note: This article concludes Mike Fredenburg’s series on replacing the disastrous F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Part I explains why the program should be considered a failure and argues that the Trump administration should proactively cancel the F-35. Part II lays out the measures the Pentagon should undertake to bridge the gap between the F-35’s cancellation and the production of a new replacement fighter.
The United States needs a new high-endurance dedicated fleet-defense/air-superiority fighter for its Navy and a new close-air-support warplane to fight alongside the venerable A-10. But our most critical need is an effective air-superiority fighter for our Air Force that provides genuine airpower at a price we can afford. The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor is too expensive to procure and spends too much time on the ground undergoing maintenance. The F-35 is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none strike fighter that spends too much time on the tarmac and costs far too much to support over its service life.
Because the fighter that powers up its big, powerful radar first turns itself into a great big target in the modern battlespace (by emitting lots of heat and radar waves), our new air-superiority fighter will focus on achieving first-shot dominance via passive sensors, a smaller infrared signature, and practicing electromagnetic-emission control (EMCON). To speed development and save on cost, this single-engine fighter will be built using the best of existing vetted technology. Because of superior aerodynamics, i.e., because it won’t be crippled by a large front-facing radar and stealth-shaping requirements, its range will be superior to our current fighters. And it will have a truly useful supercruise capability. Most importantly, unlike the F-22 or the F-35, which are capable of flying only a single sortie (mission) every two or three days, the F-45 will be capable of two to three sorties per day for many months at a time.
Since the rule of thumb is that you buy fighters by the pound, our 21st-century Mustang will be light, lean, and lethal. On top of their greatly reduced cost, smaller fighters are better in a dogfight. And because they have smaller visual signatures and smaller infrared heat signatures, they are harder to see and hit at both WVR (within visual range) and BVR (beyond visual range) ranges. Lighter and leaner warplanes also cost less to maintain.
Effective air power comes from planes that are actually flying.
The U.S. military seems to have forgotten that the greater part of a fighter’s effectiveness derives from the experience and training of the pilot. More pithily, Colonel John Boyd, far and away the most influential practitioner and theorist of aerial combat, puts it this way: “A real fighter pilot has always had the attitude: They give us sh** to fly, and we win anyhow.”
Happily, it has been decades since our pilots have been in a shooting war with enemy pilots who had a snowball’s chance against any of our fighters. A 1992 Air Power Journal article concludes that the opponents we faced in Desert Storm were “unable to fight” and “unwilling to fight.” Iraqi pilots who had been chosen for political connections rather than talent were literally flying their planes into the ground.
Things were even more lopsided during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when over 1,800 coalition aircraft completely dominated the air space with no air-to-air combat of any significance. But the downside of being so utterly dominant is that you get used to pervasive no-risk coverage by support planes such as airborne-refueling tankers and Airborne Warning and Control System planes (AWACS). When facing competent opponents, things will be different. Indeed, a doctrinal priority for both the Chinese and the Russians is to take out such support planes immediately; indeed, they have been developing weapons and tactics such as the very-long-range (250 mile) S-400 Triumf/SA-21 anti-air-support missile to do just that. Decades of facing outnumbered, poorly trained opponents flying poorly maintained planes is terrible preparation for going up against peer opponents — who, in any particular theater, may outnumber us and will have the support of their own AWACS and support planes.
The Five Principles of American Fighter DesigN
Because American air power has not been tested in combat against peer competitors for over 40 years, in designing a proper replacement for the F-35, Principle No. 1 going forward is: Any lessons we think we have learned during this period of utter airpower dominance needs to be viewed extremely skeptically. Concluding that our successes were primarily due to our technological superiority does not hold water. A more balanced, historically mindful interpretation of our dominance in the Middle East is offered by Steven Biddle, who in his excellent, must-read book, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, builds the overwhelming case that it was superior leadership, superior training, and superior tactics, augmented by technological superiority, that led to the perfect storm of military dominance that we experienced in the Gulf Wars. A nice summary of Biddle’s views can be found in an International Security Paper, in which Biddle writes:
Similarly, arguments that modernization spending should be protected at the expense of training and readiness accounts overestimates the military value of technology per se, and underestimates the role of skill in determining the effects that any given technology will produce. . . . It would be a mistake to pay for faster modernization by accepting a less skilled military.
Speaking on the importance of training in general, Lieutenant Colonel Tom “Chuck” Norris, a retired USAF pilot with over 3,000 hours of flight time, observed: “Ten to 15 hours per month is enough to maintain familiarity with your aircraft, but not enough to maintain proficiency.” Our fighter programs attract the best of the best, but without enough training we are incurring undue risk for our really good people. And yet, the unreliability of fighters like the F-22 and F-35 ensures that our pilots struggle to get ten to twelve hours per month of actual in-air flight training (stick-time).
Consequently, the F-45 must be reliable enough to ensure that our pilots tap into the tremendous multiplicative effect that superior training and tactics brings to the battlespace. Further, giving our pilots the time to train to tactics will equip them to overcome any technological edge a peer competitor might temporarily hold. Therefore, Principle No. 2 is: Our next fighter must be of sufficiently reliability to support minimal-sustained-training rates of 30 hours per month of flight time indefinitely, with a surge-training capability of over 40 hours per month to enable our pilots to progress past proficiency to mastery. Only at these high levels of training can our pilots gain the all-important proficiency in the many-on-many air battles that will prove decisive in our struggle for air-power dominance in the future.
Principle No. 3 is tightly coupled with Principle No. 2: Our new air-superiority fighters must be able to fly multiple sorties per day indefinitely. A high sortie-generation rate is the most important single measure of a fighter’s effectiveness. As has been the case for last 30 years, the U.S. can get away with a low sortie-generation-rate fighter when we are the ones dictating when, where, and how we will engage our opponents. However, when going up against peer competitors capable of forcing the fight and taking the initiative, low-reliability/low-sortie fighters will be a huge liability and their lack of real airpower will be fatally exposed on multiple levels.
An effective air force needs fighters with high sortie-generation rates to produce genuine airpower while simultaneously supporting high training rates. That we have let our vendor-controlled procurement system siphon away hundreds of billions of dollars and decades of development time to produce fighters such as the F-22 and the F-35 that have zero chance of flying one combat sortie per day while supporting effective training rates is simply scandalous.
An effective air force needs fighters with high sortie-generation rates to produce genuine airpower while simultaneously supporting high training rates.
During the Cold War, the U.S. maintained a significant technological advantage over countries such as China and the Soviet Union. However, we also invested in fielding large numbers of fighters and ships. Both our Navy and our air forces were much larger and more powerful at that time than they are today. And with 25 to 30 hours per month of in-air training, our pilots maintained much higher average levels of proficiency.
That was then, this is now. Today, we find ourselves without the numbers to maintain the same kind of global presence we could maintain in the ’80s and early ’90s. And as our numbers have dwindled, so has the large technological edge we once held. An example of technological parity can be found in Russia’s extremely advanced air-to-air missiles and the powerful radar-jamming technology deployed on its latest fighters, such as the SU-35S Super Flanker. The new Russian fighters also feature stealth-piercing Infrared Search and Track (IRST) capabilities.
Given that any new fighters will be around for the next 30 years or even longer, any fighter program designed around the assumption that we can regain and maintain an overwhelming technological advantage would be foolish and reckless. U.S. designers must also presume that during long periods of low-intensity conflicts, advanced technology will end up proliferating one way or another. So, Principle No. 4 is: In designing a new fighter we must — as has been the case for most of history — assume rough technological parity.
The next principle is the logical extension of Principles No.1 and No. 4 and simply recognizes that there is absolutely, positively no such thing as an invulnerable airplane. Anyone talking about the invulnerability of any fighter or cloud of fighters should be disqualified from being involved in fighter design. Accordingly, Principle No. 5 is: We must build enough fighters to absorb casualties in a fight against a peer opponent and yet still prevail. In short, as has been the case throughout military history, numbers matter.
Leave the ‘Inspector Gadget’ Ideas in the MovieS
But enough with meta design principles. Let’s move forward by assuming we get the right team of vendor-independent folks in place to do the detailed conceptual-design work and to oversee a defense-contracting process requiring a true competitive fly-off. Rather than embracing their inner Inspector Gadget, as was the case with the F-35’s designers, this team should look to legendary fighter designer William Bushnell Stout for inspiration. Stout’s motto for fighter design — “Simplicate and Add Lightness” — will inform the entire process. This will be the exact opposite of what Lockheed Martin did with the F-35 and F-22: adding complexity and heaviness — and, not incidentally, tremendous cost and unreliability.
First and foremost, our new fighter must be affordable enough, both in terms of initial-acquisition cost and support costs, that we can afford to buy and support it in numbers that matter (over 1,000 fighters). As a point of reference, we will use Sweden’s impressive $61 million, 15,000-lb., multi-role Saab Gripen JAS 39C as an example of a modern, world-class fighter that costs about one-third to one-fifth as much to fly per hour as does the F-35A. Since our F-45 Mustang II will not be saddled with the cost and complexity associated with the Gripen’s air-to-ground attack capabilities or a large heat-generating radar, it can both weigh less and cost less. The target weight and cost for the F-45 Mustang will be 11,750 lbs. and $48 million, respectively. This price may seem unfeasibly low — but only because, like the proverbial frog in the pot, over the decades we have become accustomed to ridiculously overpriced weapons systems.
To keep down costs and improve agility, our modern Mustang will be a single-engine warplane. Of course, the F-45 will have all the air-to-air capabilities that the Gripen features in addition to what the F-35 is supposed to sport, including sensor fusion, networked sensors, helmet-cued missile launching, and lock-on-after-launch missiles.
But, critically, its design team will avoid the Inspector Gadget–obsessed fighter-design mindset that gave us the F-35’s first-generation Distributed Aperture System (DAS). The DAS was hyped as boosting a pilot’s situational awareness by providing a 360-degree spherical view. The reality is quite different: The DAS generates a green-and-black picture at far less resolution than the human eye. Given its relatively poor 2D resolution, it’s not surprising that Major John Wilson, an F-35 test pilot, told an interviewer that if he were ever involved in a dogfight, “I’ll use my eyes, because I need to see things with my own eyes to judge aspect, distance closure, and other details that you can’t get using a 2D camera.” Major Wilson went on to characterize the DAS as a system of “limited utility.” Other analysis tells us that the DAS provides nothing that other less expensive systems provide.
Therefore, going forward, before a decision is made to implement new technology fleetwide, new systems such as the DAS, with no demonstrated real-world battlefield utility, should be extensively tried out on test planes and then rolled out on a limited basis to production fighters in order to validate that they actually deliver essential combat power commensurate with their cost and weight. Not doing so is acquisition malpractice.
In lieu of the complex and costly DAS, our Mustang will incorporate a bubble canopy that will provide truly useable situational awareness such as that found on our F-16s, F-18s, F-15s, F-22s, and, of course, the WWII P-51D Mustang, but which is sadly lacking on the F-35 strike fighter.
Rather than being built around the terribly risky idea of achieving air dominance through blasting the battlespace with kilowatts of electromagnetic energy in clever ways, our F-45 will achieve dominance via passive sensors and superior tactics enabled by superior training. Our fighter-design team will adhere to this ancient mantra: “When operating in a world of increasingly powerful digital-signal processing, anti-radiation, lock-on-after-launch missiles, infrared missiles, and high-sensitivity triangulating-microwave receivers, he who fires up his heat-generating, high-powered, low-probability-of-intercept, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar first, loses!” Our F-45 Mustang II will be a modern-day disciple of Sun Tzu!
The importance of range cannot be overestimated.
Right behind high training and sortie-generation rates in importance will be our fighter’s effective combat range and endurance. This may surprise some folks, but the importance of range cannot be overestimated. When you take a fighter capable of a high sortie-generation rate and add exceptional endurance, you end up maximizing the number of fighters in the air protecting our troops from the enemy’s airpower. This ensures that our own close-air-support aircraft, such as the A-10, can partner with our ground forces in defeating enemy ground forces. What we need is fighters in the sky, not on the ground. Therefore, our F-45 will be able to spend four to five times as much time in the air as an F-35 or F-22. Additionally, range and endurance becomes even more important when your airborne-refueling tankers must stay far away from the battlespace to avoid being shot down — as will be the case when facing a peer competitor such as Russia or China.
Another important capability is tactically useful supercruise capable of the following: a) achieving and maintaining speeds over Mach 1 without having to use the fighter’s afterburner while carrying a full load of missiles; b) maintaining supersonic speeds for at least 20 minutes after having flown 350 nautical miles (402 miles); and c) engaging in combat and still getting home with acceptable fuel reserves. By greatly extending how much time our fighters can spend at speeds significantly faster than our opponents, genuine supercruise will enable our pilots to gain position and surprise (bounce) to fire that all-important, high-probability first shot. It will also make it harder for an opponent to surprise our pilots. And when engaged in beyond-visual-range combat, supercruise can impart extra energy to our missiles, giving them a big boost in range.
Along with the capabilities outlined above, our F-45s will carry a combination of up to six BVR or WVR missiles and will have an effective gun for aerial combat. Its primary sensors will be state-of-the-art passive sensors such as infrared search-and-track (IRST), radar-warning systems, as well as 360 degrees of missile-warning coverage and wing-embedded conformal sensors capable of detecting enemy radar, infrared, and other electromagnetic emissions. Its secondary, complementary sensor will be a light, compact radar that will be used situationally. The upshot here is that its passive-sensor technology will allow it to get the drop on fighters foolish enough to try to use their radar to locate it.
What about Stealth?
So far, we’ve discussed supercruise and the importance of range and endurance metrics. But What About Stealth! We Gotta Have Radar Stealth!
Actually, no we don’t. The reason why is that contrary to the irresponsible, overhyped portrayal of stealth, the limited x-band radar-focused stealthiness of planes such as the F-35 and F-22 exacts a huge penalty. So-called stealth planes have much higher initial-acquisition costs and higher maintenance costs, carry fewer weapons by weight, have less range, and take a hit in overall aerodynamic performance.
The radars used during the Battle of Britain could have tracked both the F-22 and the F-35 at ranges approaching 100 miles.
With all these design penalties accounted for, however, stealth might be worth it — if it worked as advertised, but it doesn’t. Even as you read this, China, Russia, and many other countries have the ability to detect the F-35 — and even the F-22 — from hundreds of miles away. In fact, the radars used during the Battle of Britain could have tracked both the F-22 and the F-35 at ranges approaching 100 miles.
While UHF/VHF radars may or may not be accurate enough on their own to guide missiles directly into “stealth” planes, they are plenty accurate enough to direct anti-stealth/ IRST–equipped fighters to intercept stealth fighters as well as cue up anti-stealth radars that can launch surface-to-air missiles at our so-called stealth fighters. Anti-stealth developments such as quantum radar are far outpacing any possible advances we will see in stealthy platforms. Moreover, advances in infrared-detection technology such as Quantum Well Imaging Photodetectors (QWIP) completely ignore efforts to make planes harder to see on radar. So, while the F-45 will have a small radar signature similar to that of Sweden’s Gripen, it makes no sense for it to incur the huge radar-stealth penalty given that it will be around for the next 30 to 40 years.
Building the F-45 Is Doable — If Our Leaders Have the Courage to AcT
The F-45’s airframe will benefit from the cost decreases we have seen over the last 20 years for high-end, high-strength-to-weight composites, allowing its designers to add lightness and the ability to carry more fuel. It will have a small infrared signature, a small visual signature, and, while not technically being a radar-stealthy plane, it will have a smaller radar signature than an F-16. It will have will have excellent range, endurance, and agility. And it will cost less to support than F-16 Vipers or even a Saab Gripen. Shrewdly integrating only pre-existing, mature, best-of-breed components will create a plane greater than the sum of its parts. Critically, it will be reliable enough to execute multiple sorties per day, while enabling our pilots to get the all-important 30 hours of stick-time per month that they need and deserve. The F-45 will be a blast to fly. And because our pilots will finally be able to get back to doing what they signed up to do and love to do — fly — our pilot-retention rate will see dramatic improvements.
Critics might say that the above table makes the F-45 look like some kind of fantastical super-plane, but it most certainly is not. The key here is that a well-designed, modern fighter such as the F-45 built for a reasonable price stands out like a sore thumb when compared to planes that fly as infrequently as the F-35 and the F-22. The bottom line here is that for the hundreds of billions we have spent — and are set to spend — on our current fighter programs, we are getting criminally little airpower from our tarmac-class fighters.
Building a plane like the F-45 is imminently doable, but right now with both our military and Congress dominated by defense vendors, producing a cost-effective plane is politically difficult, to say the least. That needs to change. It’s time to start putting the needs of our taxpayers, our pilots, and our nation’s security ahead of the wants of defense contractors and their future senior executives.
— Mike Fredenburg holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a master’s in production operations management and is a regular contributor to National Review. A past contributor to the California Political Review and the San Diego Union Tribune, he was the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute of San Diego.