Reliable Security Information

F-22 Debate Is About More Than Fighters

U.S. military primacy built nearly a generation ago has guaranteed freedom of the seas and threat-free skies for U.S. ground forces in current operations. These tremendous capabilities are being taken for granted as investment in maintaining superior and technologically-advanced equipment in sufficient quantities is of diminishing importance for Pentagon leaders and civilian policymakers.

The Air Force and Navy both face serious projected gaps in strike fighter inventory. A fighter gap is essentially a deficit between the services' fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements based on emerging and possible air threats to U.S. security.

Contrary to popular perception, the F-35 is not a replacement for the F-22A. Buying more F-35s does not alleviate the need for additional F-22s. These platforms were designed to operate in tandem and perform complementary missions: The F-35 needs sufficient numbers of F-22s to clear the skies before it may operate unencumbered. The F-22 has the added advantage of flying at supersonic speeds without using an afterburner, conserving fuel and reducing its heat signature--a capability the F-35 lacks. The F-22 also clears the skies and ensures sophisticated enemy air defenses do not take down unmanned aerial vehicles, as well. In a conflict against an enemy with a capable air force, UCAVs might become easy prey to enemy fighters with active electronically scanned array radar.

Congress needs to consider the future capabilities of states that may potentially challenge U.S. fighter aircraft in the coming decades as fifth-generation fighters become the mainstay of the future force and legacy aircraft retire. These capabilities include foreign advanced attack aircraft, jammers, infrared search and tracking sensors, ultra long-range missiles, surface-to-air missiles, radar detection, anti-stealth technologies, and electronic warfare.

Large production runs of air superiority fourth-plus-generation fighters equipped with fifth-generation technology, such as the Su-35BM in Russia and China, could put the U.S. Air Force with its fewer numbers of F-22s and an aging F-15C fleet at a serious disadvantage. History and the ongoing technological arms race suggest that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to assume that the F-22 will have no equal and thus have a decisive advantage over any other fighter aircraft for the next 20 years.

The F-22 debate reaches beyond fighters to federal spending priorities, fundamental shifts in defense policies and priorities, and the future of the U.S. military. While Congress is moving to end the program of record, the reality is that the planned buy was cut short due to arbitrary budget constraints. The military requirement for 243 F-22s remains unchanged and unfulfilled even as Air Force leaders have repeatedly testified they need this many air superiority F-22s based on the current national military strategy.

The bottom line is clear: The military is unable to sustain today's capabilities with current funding levels. The F-22 debate should be about an inadequate Air Force budget since that is what drove the decision to end the program at 187 fighters.

The limited F-22 purchase would essentially only allow the Air Force to fly unchallenged in one theater of operations, not two. Because it takes about 100 airplanes to field a wing of 72 operational aircraft, 187 F-22As really yield only about 125 combat-coded planes. With a normal attrition rate of one plane per year, that leaves roughly 100 operational planes in the long-term.

General Schwartz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, has said the traditional margins of U.S. military technology are diminishing. Investment in future technology advances and sufficient quantities of platforms is required to remedy this shift--and the F-22 represents this larger debate.

Mackenzie Eaglen is Research Fellow for National Security Studies in theDouglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Comments (3)

I am not a super-big believer in "requirements", since I have seen too many instances in which the books have been cooked to come up with the right answer. But if we need to take a second look at requirements, we should start with air-to-ground, not air-to-air. The current force structure objectives for the F-22 and F-35 were both established in the 1990s. The F-35 is envisioned as a one-for-for replacement for the F-16, which had by then mutated from a nimble dog-fighter to a heavy hauling bomb-dropper.

The main thing that has changed since these requirements were established is the precision revolution in air-to-ground munitions. We used to speak of sorties per target, and now we speak of targets per sortie. There has been a roughly order of magnitude increase in lethality-per-sortie, and yet there has been no detectible decrement in "requirements" for air-to-ground aircraft.

In round numbers, there has been no comparable improvement in air-to-air lethality. If there is an aircraft for which requirements are misunderetimated, I would look first at the F-35, not the F-22.


The F-22 is meant to clear the skies for the F-35 to do its job as an air to ground fighter. This actually makes the F-22 a more valuable fighter when it comes to controlling air space. We have a number of military vehicles capable of the air to ground role (e.g. F-16's, A-10, and helicopters-the Apache etc..). Since the F-35 is not meant to be an air superiority fighter its role is redundant. The F-22 is an operational fighter. It is flying and protecting America and its allies right now, which is something the F-35 is NOT doing as it is still in the testing phase of its development. It could be cut out of development right now (or its development could be delayed until budget conditions are right). I think the only reason the F-35 is still in motion is because of its international connections. Many of America's allies are paying dearly and are depending on us to develop and deliver the F-35 to them as promised. The loss of the F-22 and the continued developed of the F-35 is a purely political decision, not a military one.


The F-22's only operational capability is that of an air-to-air fighter. While it is phenomenally capable in this regard, legacy fighters have performed exceptionally in this regard, and the F-35 should surpass them dramatically.

The only conflicts where the F-22's superlative air-to-air ability would be a factor would be combat against a large, sophisticated air force backed up by a layered network of ground radars and high-end missile systems. In other words, Russia and China, both nations which, despite occasional saber-rattling, are not interested in World War III.

For every other conflict in the world for the next 40 years, the F-35 will be able to destroy targets and influence events on the ground, while the F-22 will be able to fly over the battlefield and watch.

From Desert Storm to today, the United States has never confirmed the loss of a fighter to enemy aircraft, and that record is unlikely to change, so investing in a superlative fighter is money in the wrong direction.

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