Five Years Can Be A Long Time

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Outgoing U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Hostage continues to talk about the relative merits of the F-35 and F-22. In an interview with Breaking Defense - conducted by F-35 supporters Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake - Hostage repeats his comment this summer that the F-22 is far more survivable than the F-35, and that the F-35 will need to operate in numbers to survive against the toughest threats. 

"A Raptor at 50-plus thousand feet at Mach 2 with its RCS has a different level of invulnerability than a Lightning at 35,000 at Mach .9 and its RCS," Hostage says. "The altitude, speed, and stealth combined in the two platforms, they give the airplanes two completely different levels of capability. The plan is to normalize the Lightning’s capability relative to the Raptor by marrying it up with six, or seven or eight other Lightnings. The advanced fusion of the F-35 versus the F-22 means those airplanes have an equal level or better level of invulnerability than the Raptors have, but it takes multiple airplanes to do it because of the synergistic fused attacks of their weapon systems."
 
Couple of observations. One is that if you take the price of six-to-eight F-35s you get into the price range of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, which - given that the LRS-B will have range that no number of F-35s can match - is an interesting comparison. Unless both deliver identical strategic effects, one of the two will be a better investment. 
 
The other observation is that, if Hostage's insight is correct, these words from then-defense-secretary Bob Gates in 2009, in a speech in Chicago, sound a little optimistic: "The F-35 is 10-15 years newer than the F-22... and is superior in a number of areas - most importantly, air-to-ground missions such as destroying sophisticated enemy air defenses. It is... less than half the total cost of the F-22." But Gates, at the time, also sounded optimistic about schedule, saying in an appearance at Fort Worth that "things seem to be on schedule... for initial operational capability in 2012." 
 
China, Gates added, was not expected to have any operational stealth aircraft until 2020 - but it was just over a year later that the first J-20 was sighted at Chengdu. 
 
It's always dangerous to play a historical game of "what if?" but you have to wonder how 2009 would have turned out if Gates had been better informed about the cost, capability and timescale of the F-35 program. (By September 2009, it was obvious that the program was not tracking to its own schedule, and in early 2010 the program office director was summarily fired.) I'm not sure who was advising Gates at the time, but I hope they're not doing anything important today. 
 

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