21 September 2009


Let's say I can hold my breath for two minutes. That would be an impressive capability.

However, being able to hold my breath that long would not make me a more capable writer or engineer - the two main areas of professional expression I'm currently engaged in. I would not include "can hold breath for 2 minutes" in a resume looking for an engineering or writing job -it's just not relevant to those tasks.

So, when I hear people say that the F-22 Raptor is "the most capable aircraft ever," I have to object and ask what they mean by "most capable."

When I assess a system's capability, I'm looking at its ability to contribute to the fight. Since 2001, any system that doesn't provide capabilities we need in Iraq or Afghanistan is, by my definition, not very capable. And that's precisely the case with the Raptor. It first went operational in 2005, and it has yet to fly a combat mission in either war. It's not bringing anything (a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g) to the fight. In what sense is it, therefore, the "most capable" jet around?

To put it plainly, the F-22 does things we don't currently need to do. We may need to do them someday, although I think that's not as likely as some people do. But it is a demonstrable fact that we don't need these capabilities today... or any time soon. The SECDEF himself said the Raptor is "irrelevant" to the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. To my mind, that makes it one of the least capable aircraft in the inventory (and that's not even factoring in its maintenance issues, low availability rates, etc). Combine that with the $65B we've spent on the thing and you can see why we've decided to not buy any more of them.

So yeah, it can hold its breath for a long time, but that capability doesn't line up with the near- or mid-term needs. What we need are aircraft that are capable of accomplishing the mission. The Raptor clearly is not. I'm not saying we should scrap the whole fleet. I'm just saying we should stop trying to paint it as the "most capable" system we've got.


Mike Burleson said...

This is wonderful stuff! Any reform advice for the Navy like you guys had for the USAF? Sometimes I feel like I'm the wilderness.

The Dan Ward said...

Mike - Love your blog! Thanks for stopping by here and leaving a note.

And I have to admit my reaction was "Oh no! Please don't tell me the Navy is screwed up too. They keep telling us in the AF that the Navy acquisition guys know what they're doing!" :)

As for specific advice, check out The FIST Handbook (a free PDF download). It's a collection of articles detailing the Fast, Inexpensive, Simple & Tiny approach to weapon system development. I think you'll dig it. There's a link on the sidebar.

B.Smitty said...

Problem is, if/when we need them, we'll need them NOW, not after a 20 year development cycle.

If we were to find ourselves in a fight with Iran or North Korea next week, F-22s would be involved.

The Dan Ward said...

@Smitty - Ah, but that's the thing. It doesn't have to take 20 years to do this stuff. No kidding, we could field a world-class, dominate-the-battlefield-for-decades capability in 4 to 5 years (or faster if we really had to). I only say that's possible because it's been done... and could be done again.

As for Iran & NK, we've got a fleet of Raptors now, albeit a smaller one than we would have needed against the USSR. But seriously, do Iran & Korea really have air forces that we couldn't handle with the F-15, F-16 and F-18? My money says their fighter jets wouldn't even leave the runway. The real threat is SAM's, of course... so frankly that's where I'd put some funds & mental brainpower.

But like I said, let's not scrap the Raptors we have... but let's also not toss around that "most capable" label too easily either.

B.Smitty said...

They are the most capable air superiority aircraft ever created. I think that is fairly clear. They will also contribute significantly to future stealthy strike, SEAD/DEAD and ISR.

F-22s may not have capabilities relevant to the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, just focusing on those conflicts and not the broader range of potential security challenges over the next 20 to 30 years is myopic, IMHO.

The Dan Ward said, " The real threat is SAM's, of course... so frankly that's where I'd put some funds & mental brainpower."

They have. One revolutionary breakthrough is, of course, stealth.

The Dan Ward said...

But Smitty, isn't it just as myopic (hyperopic? astigmatic? glaucomic?) to put so many resources on a system that is primarily relevant to a hypothetical future fight, 20-30 years from now, at the expense of the two wars we're currently engaged in?

And I'm not saying to ignore the potential security threats that might pop up in 2035. This post was about the idea that the phrase "most capable" should be applied to systems that bring something to the fights we're actually in, not to the fights we hope to get in someday later.

But we're veering into a different topic here - the idea that just because it took 20+ years to develop this jet, that it will always take 20 years to develop a new jet. We can do it much better & faster - and get a better, more relevant (dare I say, more capable) system. A topic for a future post, I'm sure...

The Dan Ward said...

One last thought - the F-15 air superiority fighter is being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. So is the F-16, and so is the F-18. If "capable" means "able to contribute to the fight," in what sense is the F-22 more capable than any of those three? Which gets back to the holding-my-breath idea.

I'm not saying we'll never need the Raptor. I'm not even saying it's a bad aircraft. I'm simply pointing out that the record shows its capabilities are profoundly limited when it comes to actual combat needs. I'm saying I don't think it's "the most capable air superiority fighter ever created."

B.Smitty said...

So should we stop buying Virginia class SSNs too? They have no capability in the wars we are fighting today.

F-15Es (the strike variant) are being used over Iraq and Afghanistan, not F-15Cs (the air superiority version).

F-15Cs did deploy during the early stages of OIF, when there was an air threat. They have not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since (to my knowledge).

The F-15C can't drop JDAMs or LGBs, the F-22 can (JDAMs and SDBs). So, by your measure, the F-22 does have greater "capability" today (in current operations) than the F-15C. (Note: There is work ongoing to add this capability to the F-15C.)

I disagree that we can just pop out a more capable system "just in time", when we need it. Technology development is an iterative process. Windows 7 wasn't the product of an intellectual "virgin birth". It took decades of development and refinement, and many Windows versions before it.

Same goes with aircraft technologies such as stealth. We can't reconfigure our entire defense aviation industry to produce OV-10 Broncos to fight the wars of today, and then expect them to turn on a dime and spit out an F-22 when we need it. It took the Have Blue, F-117, B-2 and other black programs to develop the science and technological infrastructure to produce F-22 class stealth. It took decades of iterative fighter development (from the P-51 on) to produce the engines, airframe, avionics, sensors, countermeasures, munitions, ground systems, and so on needed to build the F-22.

If you tell aircraft companies that the only business in town is COIN, then they will shed their high-end capabilities. People will leave, processes will be forgotten. The institutional knowledge will evaporate.

The Dan Ward said...

You've got some good points, Smitty - and this is a fun discussion. I don't want it to get lost in the comments section of an aging blog post, so I'll post something at the top level so we can continue the conversation from there.

Gabe said...

Well, it's a stretch to say that the stealth on the F-22 is better than the F-117, so that part of the argument breaks down. The problems with the stealth technology used on the F-22 is one of the key reasons leadership began second guessing it. There's a point where what you're building just isn't worth it. Evidence the Commanche.

Here's the deal though...turning on a dime is exactly what it's all about. Getting inside the oponents OODA loop as it were. If we can't turn fast enough, then it won't matter what big powers come along to face us conventionally in the future because we won't exist to fight them. We'll have been shwacked by the little guy in an unconventional small war. That's how they're beating us...sheer, adaptable, non-hierarchical speed. Right now the insurgencies in either country can turn way faster than we can. We can crush them conventionally, but that really doesn't matter. So spending just a portion of what was previously an extremely large F-22 budget, to confront this threat, is worth the shortfall in number of planes delivered.

I agree with the iterative process of tech development, but no industry survives on an iterative cycle of one new development every 20 years. With tech moving so fast, you have to field systems quicker and thus buffer yourself from the instability caused by that same quick tech. Faster iterations, again, is key. The rest of industry does it. Insurgents and terrorists do it. Why not US Defense?

B.Smitty said...


Why is it a stretch to say the F-22 stealth is better than the F-117?

Most public sources I've seen claim that the F-22 has a lower RCS (over at least certain aspects).

Key stealth enhancements over the F-117 also include blended vs faceted surfaces, so the F-22 doesn't pay as great an aerodynamic penalty, and ease of maintenance of F-22 RAM coatings.

If you want to steal funding from a program, maybe you should look to the 500lb Gorilla in the room - the F-35 program. Most of it's $330 billion (and rising) has yet to be spent. On the other hand, most of the F-22s have been built. Most of the program dollars have been spent.

I highly recommend everyone read the latest CSBA report by Dr. Thomas Ehrhard (who now works for the USAF chief as a strategy advisor), An Air Force Strategy for the Long Haul.

In it, he argues for halving the USAF buy of F-35s (850 aircraft) to pay for the new long range bomber program, new UAVs, and a "viable" F-22 force (not a major increase - just seven squadrons of 24 aircraft plus training and attrition reserves).

The overall emphasis would shift towards long-ranged systems more useful in today's limited/denied basing environment, from short-ranged fighters like the F-22 and F-35.

I think it's the most reasonable and balanced proposal I've seen to date.

Gabe said...

Well, the public sources may be right, but I suspect they aren't. Other public sources claim the RCS may indeed be lower, but only when everything is perfectly aligned. The maintenance problems to keep everything perfectly aligned are a nightmare. This story from the Washington post is one of many making this claim: Premier U.S. Fighter Jet Has Major Shortcomings

So, I agree with Dan's original assesment that the F-22 is not capable. Never-the-less, I agree with you about the F-35. I forsee it going down the same road as the F-22 which is why we need to start chopping on it now and shift some of those funds over to FISTy, more capable projects for the short term.

B.Smitty said...

Stealth maintenance is still tricky business, I'll give you that.

The USAF and LockMart have posted a rebuttal to the Post article. Some details are here,


" The Washington Post’s putative exposé of the F-22 and all its shortcomings, printed on its front page Friday (and picked up as gospel by various wires and blogs over the weekend), was riddled with inaccuracies, according to the Air Force, Lockheed Martin, and our own investigation. "