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Raptors!

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Rear view of jet aircraft in-flight at dawn/dusk above mountains. Its engines are in full afterburner, evident through the presence of shock diamonds.
F-22 in full afterburner. U.S. Air Force. Public Domain

Been on the road for a bit, getting back into the swing of things…

Congress wants a study on whether to re-open the F-22 Raptor line.  This is a complicated question.  Way back when, I supported the decision to kill the F-22 at 187 planes, largely because the F-35 looked like it was going reasonably well, and because of other priorities.  Since that time the F-35 project has nose-dived, and the F-22 has performed exceptionally well, notwithstanding some issues at high altitude.  I think it’s fair to say at this point that the decision to kill the F-22 in favor of the F-35 was wrong.*

That doesn’t make restarting the F-22 line necessarily the right thing to do, however.  For one, restarting any line is extremely expensive, even when all of the tooling and the procedures have been locked down.  Workforce has to be trained (or rehired), factories have to be spooled up, etc.  The bump will all be in capability; new F-22s will cost more than new F-35s.  Moreover, the ban on F-22 export remains in place, meaning that it will still likely be impossible to recoup any expenses through an export model. Finally, although the F-22 is awesome, it’s also old; re-opening the project at this point means committing to a fighter that’s been in development since the 1980s, and in production since the 1990s.

It’s also worth noting that the worm can turn pretty quickly on the evaluation of defense projects.  Eight years ago the F-22 was an expensive disaster, incapable of contributing in a meaningful way to the COIN fights going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now, it is widely acknowledged by aviation experts to be the finest fighter in the world, a good distance ahead of any competitor currently flying, and most still on the drawing board.  The F-15 and F-16 (especially the latter) followed similar paths.

 

*Let’s take some care on this sentence; it takes no position on whether killing the F-22 to fund, say, schools or free Toyota Corollas or new battleships or anything else would have been a good idea.  Defense procurement decisions are generally of the branch rather than the root variety

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  • Rob in CT

    Finally, although the F-22 is awesome, it’s also old

    The hell you say. Fuck everything.

    • rea

      I’m old–I’ve been in development since Eisenhower’s first term–but nevertheless, please don’t defund me just yet . . .

    • Mike G

      B-52s are planned to be flying until 2040, at which point they will be about 80 years old.

      • Schadenboner

        Well, the concept they represent: “The B-52” will have had examples in flight for 80 years, but you would be hard pressed to find any particular component in the currently-existing examples that would be even near that age.

        (Paging Major Kong, Major Kong please pick up the white courtesy phone…)

        • Ahuitzotl

          This is my granddad’s axe. Dad replaced the haft and I put a new head on it.

  • The unstated reason for this ban was suspicion that Israel would, if it gained access to the F-22, transfer technology associated with the aircraft to Russia or China. The United States cannot, as a political matter of course, single out Israel for a ban on the sale of advanced technology, and so the F-22 export ban covered all potential buyers.

    Since there is apparently no bottom to the problems with the F-35, and starting the F-22 line again just for us would probably be prohibitively expensive even for the Air Force, what would the odds be that Congress could somehow lift the export ban only for treaty allies or something like that?

    The Israel lobby doesn’t play second fiddle to too many groups on the Hill, but the defense lobby is one of them. And selling F-22s to even just Asian allies would be a shitload of money, not to mention appeal to all kinds of anti-China sentiment. That’s gotta be worth more to America’s defense contractors than the relatively few billions per year they get from the Israel subsidy, right?

    • Brett

      Japan’s order alone would seriously help offset some of the costs of restarting the line. They wanted to buy them, too.

    • AMK

      Israel isn’t the only double-dealer who shouldn’t get these planes. Does anybody want “treaty ally” Erdogan using them to play chicken with Putin? How about the Saudis?

      And I may be wrong, but I’ve read that Japan is already developing an indigenous F-22/F-35-like fighter, having made the decision that it can’t rely on US export politics to keep its edge over the Chinese. I imagine there would be tremendous pressure from Japanese industry to continue that program

    • JG

      Our “great” Israeli allies…

  • Murc

    Do we need more F-22s?

    My understanding is that according to current AF estimates, the current crop of F-22s is capable of standing off literally every other air force in the world and the non-F-22 parts of our own air force, and that the only thing stopping it from doing so all at once would be a lack of missiles.

    My understanding is also that the Air Force has a tendency to lowball the efficacy of its interceptor platforms, in order to justify buying more of them. So it might actually be better than what I just outlined.

    So… why buy more, again? Aren’t we kind of good?

    • CP

      That, and the wars we get involved in nowadays seem to be mostly asymmetrical, i.e. not the kind of thing that involves a lot of aerial combat of any kind.

      Like, what enemies are we expecting to pit the F-22 against? Russia and China and North Korea have air forces, but since they also have nukes, I’m not seeing any conventional war with them happening in the near future. Iran’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

      ETA: or what Jake said below.

    • I know people who have flown the F-22. It is reportedly every bit as good as you think it is.

    • max

      So… why buy more, again? Aren’t we kind of good?

      To finish out the F-22, the last manned fighter, and retire all the earlier fighters still on the front line.

      max
      [‘Next major functional model is or should be a drone fighter – which should be aimed at quantity over quality. A drone fighter can be traded for an enemy plane via just crashing the damn thing into the opponent. But it’s too early to go to that yet.’]

      • max

        Also, the F-22 is likely to be only thing that can survive combat with future opponent drone fighters.

        max
        [‘So there’s that too.’]

        • ajay

          Also, the F-22 is likely to be only thing that can survive combat with future opponent drone fighters.

          By the time there is an opponent drone fighter that can defeat an F-15, Typhoon or F-35 (because that’s what you’re talking about here), I would expect the USAF to have developed its own drone fighters. At present there isn’t an operational drone fighter in the world that would stand a chance against a P-51 or Sopwith Camel.

          [‘God, this parenthetical quote gimmick thing is annoying. Has been for about the last decade or so. Seriously.’]

          • Sixth-generation air defenses will be a greater threat than drone fighters.

            Missiles are getting to be frighteningly effective.

          • Rob in CT

            +1 for Sopwith Camel.

            • Schadenboner

              Curse you, Red Baron!

      • CP

        Introducing the latest Air Force air superiority tactic: the Zerg Rush.

        • rea

          Well, it worked for us in WW II

          • CP

            And the Civil War.

            • Merkwürdigliebe

              Zerg rush is an entirely legitimate strategy, especially if you don’t have to sacrifice pilots to execute it.

          • I’d say that’s greatly overstated.

            Other than tanks, we had equal if not superior quality hardware to our opponents. Our front-line aircraft were equal to or better than the front-line German and Japanese aircraft, certainly from 1944 on.

      • Murc

        To finish out the F-22, the last manned fighter, and retire all the earlier fighters still on the front line.

        Do they need to be retired and replaced? Again, my understanding is that the F-22 is so good that the current fleet by itself could kick the shit out of all other air forces. So we need more at that point… why?

        A drone fighter can be traded for an enemy plane via just crashing the damn thing into the opponent.

        Isn’t… isn’t that basically just, you know, a highly expensive and inefficient missile? Why not just use missiles?

        • Arouet

          Again, to say they’re good enough by themselves is simply incorrect. Even stealth fighters can be destroyed in the air when sufficiently outnumbered. All fighters can be destroyed on the ground relatively easily. All are vulnerable to attrition in some way. 187 fighters cannot win a war against China alone.

          Whether we need more is a more multifaceted question.

          • liberalrob

            Are we planning on fighting a major war against China anytime soon? Or ever? They do still have nukes…as do we. Have the Chinese become more suicidal lately?

            I really question the likelihood of major wars of conquest anymore. WWII was the last hurrah. Now the only people likely to attempt wars of conquest are idiots and madmen. Not that there will be no more wars, obviously, but no more between great powers. It’s bad for business.

    • Brett

      187 isn’t a lot of fighters, especially if we’re buying them to use for three decades. Attrition will take a serious toll over time.

    • Arouet

      That is… not accurate. The F-22 is brilliant but it can only be in 187 places at once, and it can be killed – it’s just really tough. The F-22 + F-35 + 4th Gen fighters is enough at the moment. F-22s simply don’t have the bandwidth to win on their own which is why the Air Force has been focusing on creative ways to “team” them with F-35s and/or 4th gen fighters.

      With advances in radar/targeting technology and the fighter capabilities of China especially, we will need more than the F-22s to assure air dominance in the future. Whether that’s literally more F-22s, a 6th gen fighter, or some new combination of platforms and tactics (see suggestions about using bombers as missile magazines, swarming drones, etc.) is unclear.

  • jake

    Eight years ago the F-22 was an expensive disaster, incapable of contributing in a meaningful way to the COIN fights going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, it is widely acknowledged by aviation experts to be the finest fighter in the world, a good distance ahead of any competitor currently flying, and most still on the drawing board.

    You say this as if it can’t be both at once.

    • liberalrob

      +1. In fact, for the incredible expense it had best better be “the finest fighter in the world.”

  • Morse Code for J

    I thought the Air Force had moved on to fucking up its next long-range bomber, or the next series of tankers.

    • Ahuitzotl

      Fighters are sexier, and the AF is run by fighter jocks as far as I can tell.

  • cleek

    the F22 looks cooler than the F35. and, therefore, according to my inner 9 year old, it should stay.

    • CP

      I have to say, as much as the adult me shakes his head about Pentagon waste, fraud and incompetence, the extent to which military manufacturing has become nothing but a stealth stimulus program, and the very low likelihood that we’ll ever get to actually use these things in the Red Storm Rising live action RPG that much of the military still seems to be wishing for…

      … whenever this topic comes up, I still can’t shut up my inner twelve year old fighter plane nerd. He’s still there, going “OHHHHHH MYYYYY GOOOOOD THAT IS SOOOOOO AWEEEEEESOME!” before moving on to Batman-vs-Superman-esque “I wonder who would win in a fight between this plane and that plane” musings.

      (Occasionally, this inner nerd will team up with my inner sci-fi nerd. The only reason I went to see the Christian Bale Terminator movie was because the trailers were promising aerial combat between A-10s and Skynet Hunter-Killers. Imagine my disappointment when those scenes lasted all of thirty seconds).

    • CornFed

      This is my final argument in any discussion of keeping the A-10 Warthog in active use.

      • CP

        To be fair, a big chunk of the A-10’s coolness factor could be transferred to other fighters by simply painting shark jaws on them, too.

        • CornFed

          No, that gun and the raised engine pods can’t be replicated with just a paint job.

      • cleek

        hell yeah.

        i built so many A-10 models as a kid, it feels like an old friend. feel the same way about the F-16 with it’s distinctive intake and all its pretty curves.

        i regret i’m too young to have lived when P38s were around.

        if i was conspiracy minded, i’d start thinking that model airplane kits are a plot by the MIC to indoctrinate young boys into warmongering nationalism.

        • Keaaukane

          So was the GI Joe dolls, and especially the TV series. And now you know.

          • Keaaukane

            C’mon, no ones gonna give me a “And knowing is half the battle”? Screw y’all, you were probably rooting for Cobra.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DW3dg9VURMU to see when Cobra finally won.

            • liberalrob

              The Baroness always made me think weird thoughts…

      • Rob in CT

        Totally.

      • Schadenboner

        Ultima ratio regum: DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!

    • There’s a saying that a “plane will fly the way it looks”.

      It’s usually (but not always) correct. The Douglas X-3 comes to mind.

  • max

    I think it’s fair to say at this point that the decision to kill the F-22 in favor of the F-35 was wrong.*

    {waves}

    For one, restarting any line is extremely expensive, even when all of the tooling and the procedures have been locked down. Workforce has to be trained (or rehired), factories have to be spooled up, etc. The bump will all be in capability; new F-22s will cost more than new F-35s.

    ‘F-22B’. Preferably with the pilot environment system drastically improved.

    Eight years ago the F-22 was an expensive disaster, incapable of contributing in a meaningful way to the COIN fights going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    This was always wrong. No fighter (very much including the F-35) is going to contribute to coin operations. You don’t use a jigsaw to drive nails – making the COIN argument irrelevant. The ‘disaster’ part comes from flat misjudging the technology. You just can’t make a high performance fighter that’s also a bomber and a juicer, a Mr. Microphone and a bottle cutter. And that evens scales fish!

    You can make a convertible low-performance aircraft. Making an F-35 that functions as strike bomber, a ground support bomber and that takes off from carriers and performs emergency fighter functions is entirely doable. If you want one.

    But making a high performance land-based fighter that’s also a high-performance carrier fighter is the equivalent of standing on your head while trying to run a marathon. If you do it, you won’t run a very good marathon time, and you probably won’t be too good at standing on your head either.

    A high performance fighter is a high performance fighter, and the ones we have are even older, and we gotta have one, even if we never use the damn thing. The choice is purely a) do we need a high performance manned fighter (yes, for now) so b) which one? The F-35 or the F-22?

    new F-22s will cost more than new F-35s.

    Incidentally, I am not at all clear that F-35 costs will not continue to escalate. As near as I can tell the control software is half alpha, half vaporware.

    max
    [‘Hypothetical man year.’]

    • ajay

      But making a high performance land-based fighter that’s also a high-performance carrier fighter is the equivalent of standing on your head while trying to run a marathon.

      The F-4 Phantom was pretty good at both, IIRC.

      • It’s usually easier if you start out with a carrier based fighter and then turn it into a land-based fighter.

        Going the other direction is difficult.

        The F-4 and A-7 both started out with the Navy.

  • Brett

    I’d be in favor of restarting it, as long as Congress doesn’t do fuckery on the order number. The F-22 only has a couple of jobs it does, but it does those jobs extremely well.

  • j_kay

    Isn’t F-22 a hangar queen?

    If not, where is it in combat?

    • Warren Terra

      My understanding is that it’s an air-superiority fighter. The last time we were remotely worried about establishing air superiority was, what, the First Gulf War? The Kosovo conflict? Nothing in almost the last twenty years, anyway.

      • Brett

        That’s the point. If you have fighters so good that it’s basically futile to fight them with other fighters for air superiority, then you don’t even have to use them directly in air-to-air combat that often – they’re leverage to keep the skies clear.

        • Lurker

          This is, I think, called the “fleet-in-being” effect.

  • I feel exactly the same way about Obama’s decision to kill the F-22. I was strongly supportive at the time, but with what we learned about the F-35 since then, he should have killed that instead.

    I like the “helper planes” idea instead of restarting the F-22. A couple F-22s networked with a squadron of updated F-15s or -18s, and start the ball rolling at some point in the future on an even-newer fighter.

  • MikeJake

    Question for Farley (and others):

    I understand that WWIII, if it happened and was somehow mainly fought conventionally, would have been a “come as you are” war, because all those big ticket military systems are too complex to just start pumping out replacements from assembly lines. So I’m wondering if there were backup plans anywhere for manufacturing weapons systems that were more amenable to mass production. I know the nukes would have come out regardless, but are we even capable of fighting a sustained industrial conflict like WWII today?

    • Lurker

      You were nit capable if it in 1938, either. The US started ramping up the production in 1940 or so, but the full industrial capacity was not converts on war footing before late 1943 or 1944.

      If you needed to fight a prolonged conflict again, ramping up the military production would take at least three years. You can see it I small scale in Afghanistan and Iraq. You almost ran out of small-arms ammo in 2003.

      • Murc

        Counterpoint: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were being run by manifest incompetents who had the explicit goal of not converting the country to a full war footing, because they didn’t want one bit of sacrifice or discomfort to hit the people on the home front. As far as I know they didn’t even change the normal, bloated procurement process.

        We could probably ramp up much quicker if we were to actually place the whole country on a real war footing.

        • so-in-so

          Except modern weapons systems are so complex (and expensive) that I’m not sure we could replicate WWIIs near total replacement of existing weapons with one or more new generations in our years. maybe our designs are so good there is no need to do so, unfortunately you find that out when the shooting starts.

          I’m not even sure that production on current weapons can ramp up that well to replace existing loses in a large scale war. Probably nukes mean it won’t be a problem, either because we never fight on such a large scale again, or for other, darker reasons.

    • JG

      This is the same mistake that pre-WWI planners made. Never doubt the productive capacities of mobilized nation-states.

  • AMK

    new F-22s will cost more than new F-35s

    Still? Give the F-35 program another few months to snowball and they’ll cost the same.

  • lnthga

    ” it takes no position on whether killing the F-22 to fund, say, schools or free Toyota Corollas or new battleships or anything else would have been a good idea. Defense procurement decisions are generally of the branch rather than the root variety”

    So you’re not ruling out restarting the Montana production line?

    • Schadenboner

      Fuck it, let’s develop a new BBN, with hookers and blackjack, and New-Panamax dimensions.

      USS Bender.

      • Schadenboner

        BBN

        More like BBW, ammirite?

  • ” …it takes no position on whether killing the F-22 to fund, say, schools or free Toyota Corollas or new battleships or anything else would have been a good idea.”

    Come on. You can’t leave this juicy hint just dangling. We want Farley’s real plan for a dreadnought fleet. Monohull or multihull? You can get some serious speed with catamarans. What’s the new version of 16″ main armament guns – missile tubes? How many choppers? Can you replace armour plate with 50 feet of Bibendum crash foam?

    • Ahuitzotl

      Trimarans, 4 masted, with 12 32pounders a side, and JATO units, est top speed 225 knots.

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