(Editor’s note: The Jefferson Journal ran an article on the F-35 on August 7th, 2014 that can be found here. This piece came is in response to that column.)
Low Observable or “stealth” technology is no longer a niche capability. It has now become the baseline for all future combat aircraft development by any country building a modern air force. In a limited fiscal environment, the United States must make sure it doesn’t squander resources by constructing legacy systems that are vulnerable in any modern air campaign.
Advanced radars and guided anti-aircraft missiles from either the surface or the air have had a significant impact on air warfare. This impact can be mitigated in one of two ways: 1) either build a host of support aircraft that are necessary to get a limited few platforms across the target, or 2) make the generational shift and design aircraft that are less vulnerable due to a significantly reduced radar signature.
A key point in the history of naval warfare was the advent of the exploding shell. From its earliest use in the Crimean War, the exploding shell doomed the all wooden hulled ship and caused ship designers to seek an answer. The answer to mitigate the impact of the shell was to alter ship design. In short, to counter the weapon, ships had to change from wood to iron or eventually steel.
The advent of one weapon had caused a radical shift in another. Within fifty years of the Crimean War, modern navies had made the jump from sail powered wooden ships to the dawn of the armored dreadnought. The baseline construction for warships had changed. Today we are experiencing the same cause and effect in the design of combat aircraft with advances in radar and missile technology, resulting in the development of stealth technology that make an aircraft “invisible.” Initially this technology was very special use for aircraft such as the F-117. Now, however, stealth or low observable is like building ships with metal armor.
Much discussion is taking place in the defense and political community about the future of tactical combat aircraft. Key to this discussion is the emphasis on 5th Generation aircraft such as the F-35 versus continued purchase of older 4th Generation aircraft and systems like the EF-18.
There are some critics of the F-35 who claim we should continue to put our limited resources toward “tried and true” 4th Generation platforms. Their argument has some merit, but only if they mean to keep our 4th Generation platforms survivable long enough for the F-35 to reach initial operational capability in sufficient strength. A strike package of 4th Generation aircraft requires significant help to penetrate a modern integrated air defense system, and even then only at the maximum acceptable loss rate. Packages of F-15Es, F-16s and F-18s will need standoff weapons and support assets to take down IADs comprised of advanced surface to air missiles and integrated interceptors.
Aircraft like the EF-18 Growler can fill some of the support roles necessary to keep our 4th Generation aircraft viable. But make no mistake, this is a band aid and not a cure for modern airpower. We should only invest in the “Growler” to the minimum level necessary to mitigate the risk to our current
fleet. Any additional procurement, thoughts of staying with a primarily 4th Gen fleet or diversion of resources from the F-35 is as useful as it would have been for the Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to have been made of wood.
Anything that takes away from the F-35 program is wasting money. We should no more consider building 4th Generation aircraft than we considered building wooden hulled warships in 1900. But we are at an interesting crossroads. Eventually, all flying platforms both manned and unmanned will be low observable. The sooner we are there the better, and the less risk we will face. No amount of electronic “options” added to a 4th Generation fighter or flown in support of a 4th Generation fighter will provide the protection.
As a nation we owe those we ask to fight the best possible chance of accomplishing the mission and surviving. For the current threats and our future security needs that means not doing anything that takes away from the F-35.