27 May 2009

Symbolism

It bugs me when the F-22 Raptor is used as the symbol of American airpower

I think it’s a terrible symbol, and let me tell you why.

John Young, the USD(AT&L), says the thing hasn’t met the majority of its Key Performance Parameters (KPP’s = Very Important Requirements). The developer, Lockheed Martin, denies that assertion, but I'm inclined to believe the customer over the contractor.

It has a 62% mission availability rate and, despite the fact that we’re fighting two wars right now, it hasn’t flown a single combat mission (nobody denies that). The Secretary of Defense said it has no role in the war on terror.

It is something like 6 years behind schedule, and was supposed to cost $6.5B. So far, we've spent $65B. Yes, that's an increase of a factor of 10. In fact, it cost so much that we weren’t able to buy enough of them to really matter (the most conservative assessment says we need somewhere close to 300. We've got 100). 

I guess since we can’t use the F-22 in the current counterinsurgency wars, we decided to use it on posters and logos instead. Surely we can find a better symbol of American airpower. Like, say, a UAV...

13 comments:

Dick Field said...

On this subject, see today's Federal News Radio interview with Congressman (and retired Navy Admiral) Joe Sestak on the even more speculative F-35, at http://www.federalnewsradio.com/?nid=35&sid=1683870

Among other comments, the following:

"The new strike fighter that is coming out in thousands will probably be the last manned aircraft that the U.S. military builds. It will take us for the next 30 years. But you see the Army today not relying as much in Afghanistan or in Iraq upon the aircraft. They are relying on unmanned air vehicles, ones that they carry literally almost out of their napsacks."

30 Years?!?! Well, I guess that's enough time to determine whether unquestionable air superiority is still relevant - or affordable - in the age of irregular warfare!

RhetTbull said...

A UAV would be a terrible symbol. In many parts of the world, the UAV is a symbol of America killing innocent women and children as we chase down terrorist suspects. UAVs are accomplishing some great things but they also make it easier to indiscriminately use air power with grave consequences.

We did a lot of things wrong with the F-22 but it's still the most capable fighter in the world and many counties would like to have a few of them. The 300+ number estimates are based on assumptions that the F-22 will be used like the F-15 and F-16 are today. However, UAVs will increasingly fill many of those roles. But there will always be a need to gain air superiority, and for that, there's no match to the F-22. None.

All the F-22 naysayers have gotten spoiled by the fact that our wars lately have been in places where the enemy has no airpower. That may not always be the case. Sophisticated air defense technology is rapidly proliferating and if we ever need to fight in a denied area, we'll need the F-22 before any UAV can fly.

The F-22 is certainly not a symbol of American acquisition prowess and I'm not a big F-22 fan, but I am a fan of absolute air superiority. Ask any joe on the ground and I'll bet you they're a fan of air superiority too.

The Dan Ward said...

Rhet, you make a good point about the way the rest of the world perceives UAV's - that's definitely an important consideration.

However, I'm going to have to disagree with your assertion that the F-22 is the most capable fighter in the world. It has a mission availability rate of 62%, hasn't met most of its KPP's, and has not flown a single combat mission in either Iraq or Afghanistan. In what sense is it "more capable" than the F-15 and F-16 (or F-18, or any number of European fighters, etc).

Someday we may face an enemy that has an air force. We'll need to deal with that (and prepare for it). But there's a big difference between needing to do SOMETHING and needing to do THIS. Air superiority is essential. The F-22 is simply the wrong way to go about it.

I contend that the F-22 is not only a programmatic failure, but it's also a technical and operational failure as well. Maybe someday, after we spend many more billions and many more decades, someone will be able to fix it. Someday it might (MIGHT) serve a purpose. But so far, I don't see much to praise about the Raptor. And therefore, using it as a symbol of American Airpower burns my biscuits.

If we're not going to use a UAV as the symbol, I nominate the F-16 or, better yet, the A-10 instead.

The Dan Ward said...

Correction: the 141st F-22 rolled off the production ramp in May.

Phil said...

Dan, as you and I have discussed before, mission availability rate is not a measure of operational effectiveness. I agree the "ilities" have a long way to go on the F-22. But, I also agree with Rhet--hands down there is no better air superiority aircraft flying today. In a relatively short time, we won't have fourth-generation fighters available to secure the air dominance we enjoy today. We must have the F-22 to do that in the future. As for a symbol of Airpower, i'm partial to the MQ-9 Reaper or F-16 (but i'm also biased).

The Dan Ward said...

Well, it looks like I'm flying solo here, but I'm still not convinced the Raptor is "better" than the existing airframes.

It largely comes down to the fact that the F-16 and F-15 are actually performing combat missions, and the F-22 is not. Doesn't it make sense to judge a tool's value by how useful it is, not by how useful it might be. So, my critical assessment is based on its demonstrated (lack of) value, not its speculative value.

And yes, the venerable Falcons and Eagles are getting old. Something needed to be done. They needed to be replaced. I hear the brand new F-15SE Silent Eagle is quite something...

And my larger point is that the F-22 wasn't the only option. We could have developed a system that was simpler, cheaper, available sooner & in larger quantities, and which might have actually been usable in the forseeable future (or, even in the present!)

Dick Field said...

Dan, you are not flying alone. This wingman may be old, but he still has the visual accuity of WWII Japanese ace Saburo Sakai! (. . . I wish)

"Doesn't it make sense to judge a tool's value by how useful it is, not by how useful it might be." Precisely. If we base programs on potential threats in the far flung future, why stop with the F-22. Why not develop the ultimate air superiority with space-based weapons platforms. I mean, we will some day have to fight the Russians and Chinese in space! (. . . maybe)

Until somebody can show me that these or other adversaries have the technology, stategy, and wherewithal to threaten us with conventional air superiority - or are well on the way to getting it (e.g., the Russian military has resumed its Soviet status) - I shall remain convinced that we are far better off developing our prowess in irregular warfare. We should maintain REASONABLE airframe sophistication at a low level of development, production, and deployment to maintain the technological base for air war - BUT, we should never let it eat our lunch, as programs like F-22 are want to do. What is the point of developing ultimate defense if we have no viable economy and nation left to defend? Perhaps the license to develop the ultimate defense is why these programs cost so damn much. It's a license to kill all right - any notion of fiscal responsibility.

Dick Field said...

To balance out the perspective, I just read "The Last Ace" by Mark Bowden, appearing in the March 2009 issue of The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200903/air-force). It makes a compelling warfighting case for the F-22. Interestingly, though, there is absolutely no mention of cost feasibility - affordability. I like what the Indians did for the Cope 44 exercise in 2004 over Gwalior, India - a $100,000 MIG-21, tricked out.

The Dan Ward said...

Thanks for mentioning the article, Dick - I think it was a great read, and it seemed to support my position in several ways... starting with the fact that there are no aces on active duty right now (and the "last ace" only had 3 kills, not five). It's just a type of combat we don't engage in anymore.

And did you catch the introductory paragraph, where it says "Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez."

Or - there's a third option. Focus on building weapons that are relevant to the wars we're actually fighting. And then spend no more than 5 years to develop a new 5th Gen fighter, using the FIST approach. The "F-22 or dead pilots" situation is a HUGE false dichotomy.

Dick Field said...

Agreed. Somehow, I have to think our 20-year plus timelines are the result of institutional bloat and inertia and the polluting effects of political interest - NOT the demands of some cruel chase of state-of-the-art technology.

It appears various other developers (including the Indians) are able to cheaply and quickly come up with systems that are sufficient to stun and foil the expensive weaponry we bring to the party.

Where, oh where, has the Skunk Works ethos gone?

The Dan Ward said...

@Dick -Where has the Skunkworks Ethos gone? It's right here, baby! We're it!

Dick Field said...

Rock on!

Gabe said...

@Dick...you're totally right here. The Indians kicked our butt! Believe me...I know. Do you think their government spent untold millions to do it. Hell no!

As for the rest, and as for the F-22, let me say this, it's quickly becoming a B-1 maintenance type of nightmare (again, believe me, I know). It may be capable as heck when all the complicated systems it uses are in place and working. But it's going to be a HUGE effort just to do this. I forsee reliability problems for decades to come unless some crazy new technologies come on board. I think the F-22 harkens back to the F-111 that Boyd hated so much. Complicated systems that are heavy and hard to maintain are useless. That's why his Fighter Mafia developed the F-16 in the first place. The F-22 could have been awesome, but they tried to make it do way too much. And as Dan said, it's real strengths aren't really what we need right now. If they (we) had tried to keep development short, they (we) could have easily known that they might need to change gears and develop stuff for a more assymetrical fight.