Monday, June 29, 2009


Not my usual topic, but it's something I've said to my dad once or twice: Okay, so we've got the F-22 Raptor. It's got stealth, supercruise, thrust vectoring, and can turn into a giant robot. This is all supremely nifty.

But really, who are we going to be using it against?

Yeah, I realize it's probably just in case relations with other developed countries goes really sour, or something like that, but it still feels off.


Joshua said...


MWchase said...



Pairs of scissors.

A butterknife.

(Not butterknives in general, just a single butterknife that really cheesed off the Navy this one time.)

Jimmy Blue said...

Same criticism can be levelled at the Eurofighter - I've seen pictures of early designs of this thing from Jane's books published in the early 80s - that's how long ago these aircraft were dreamt up.

Both were built for high intensity warfare against opponents we are no longer likely to fight - but then part of the military's job is being prepared for the war no-one said could or would happen.

I'd say we need them still, but not in as many numbers as we have. I'd switch resources to more adaptable multi-role platforms capable of fighting low to medium intensity conflicts but still maintain this higher capability.

Joshua said...

"...adaptable multi-role platforms capable of fighting low to medium intensity conflicts..."

Supposedly, this is where the F-35 is going to come in. I'm skeptical, though. The idea of a multi-role fighter is obviously sound (e.g., F-16, F/A-18), but the F-35 specifically is trying to please too many people at once. The three major variants are, in their requirements, just completely different planes. I mean, maybe you could have the same basic airframe serving the Air Force and Navy versions. But trying to make the same airframe work in both standard and STOVL configurations? The performance characteristics in one mode or the other have got to suffer from that...

James K said...

The F-22 seems like an excellent example of generals fighting the last war. Air superiority is essentially irrelevant to the USAF at this time, no-one does air wars any more, the action is in counter-insurgency and you can't do that with a fighter no matter how shiny it is.

Since it also "creates jobs" (by the FSM's noodly appendage how I hate that phrase) and increases the budget and therefore status of the USAF its also a classic example of public choice theorem.

Dark Jaguar said...

One thing I tend to hear somewhat often on the history channel when it covers one war or another is there's some tipping point where generals need to change strategy and/or tactics and/or weapons because the methods used in the last war just aren't doing it any more. It seems to be happening here too.

Of course a more cynical explanation is they keep building so their budget isn't reduced so that they can keep building.

Cyc said...

Being someone who has grown up around air bases, including test beds, I have some understanding of such processes (not to imply that others here do not).

While I agree with Jimmy Blue, that the F-22 was originally dremt up when the need for air superiority was at its greatest, there are a couple of other very good reasons for its existance.

The first is the aging airframes it was meant to replace. When an airframe is designed it is given a general life expectancy. Granted there are a few airframes that have greatly exceeded their life expectancy, namely the B-52 and A-10, but this is only through extensive upgrades. The suppressors experienced by fighters is much harsher, this leads to more required maintenance and therefore a higher cost for aging craft. Newer airframes have been built to survive such suppressors much more easily leading to fewer breakdowns that are common near the end of an airframes lifespan.

The next reason is safety. Newer airframes are more resilient, less detectable, more maneuverable and easier to fly (in fact in case of a pilot emergency the F-22 can fly itself for a period of time increasing potential survivability). While older airframes can be upgraded, the constraints of the original design allow them to maintain only certain roles, such as the F-15E Strike Eagle which was designed for the Wild Weasel program (AKA insane pilots who fly below radar at high speeds to take out SAM and AAA sites). Stealthier and more maneuverable airframes, such as the F-22 can do this with decreased danger to the pilot.

Yet another reason is the increasing ease that volatile states are gaining access to more advanced fighters. It is becoming increasingly common for such states to get their hands on airframes such as Mig-29s which are comparable in capability to the F-15. Granted the training of their pilots are inferior (as a general rule), but having a superior fighter eliminates the risk these airframes pose.

The final reason is sometimes known as the oh shit factor. When you have a potential enemy that possess technology such as an F-22, you are far less likely to want to step up against them directly.

As to the idea that air superiority is not needed as much in the conflicts we are seeing today, I point you to the Serbian conflict where air superiority played a key role in that campaign. Even if we are not fighting with such tactics at this very moment does not mean we should slack off, as that could change at any moment. The further ahead we stay, the more lives that will be saved both in our military's lives as well as civilian casualties.

I know I've gone on for far to long, but one last thing. Joshua, the reason for the three forms of the F-35 is for both cost and cross training purposes. By having a standard airframe that can be modified at key stages of assembly, the cost is reduced greatly. The technology for STOVL has increased greatly in recent times, decreasing the size and required engine output enough to make the conversion much simpler.

Sorry for the overly long post.

Dark Jaguar said...

That's interesting stuff to point out, and it has convinced me there's valid reasons at least for this stuff.

The idea of other countries managing to get these planes is something I want to ask about though. How exactly do they get ahold of them? I mean, wouldn't it be immediatly noticed if a fighter jet just went missing? Are we not keeping track of these things as well as we should?

I guess my only remaining thing is that at the very least, fighter jets are still a very small scale force of destruction, not a city smasher. As such I'd be hard pressed to say there's much reason to keep up the nuclear piles to the extent they are kept these days. World ending nuclear thingies just don't seem to do much. Even as deterrant, what then? Would Russia really risk the fallout (in both senses) of threatening us with their own bombs if ours were gone? That'd kinda completely backfire on them wouldn't it?

Then again, the whole policy of nuclear deterance rests on the idea that national leaders are thinking clearly about consequences. If you get some nutjob that doesn't care if they live or die in charge, it really doesn't matter.

I suppose ideally it's best to set up a situation where soldiers have a culture of questioning their orders on a regular basis. What threat would Hitler have been if when he came to power, his military collectively said "no" to everything he ordered?

Or perhaps I'm just ranting randonly and about to have my intellectual arse handed to me again.

Bronze Dog said...

As much as the ability to question orders/authorities is a good thing in civilian life, it carries a certain risk in the military, where speed of reaction and some counter-intuitive thought on the part of leaders is often necessary.

Jimmy Blue said...

I suppose ideally it's best to set up a situation where soldiers have a culture of questioning their orders on a regular basis.

Actually, this would be catastrophically fatal for an effective military - but don't make the mistake of also assuming that members of the military blindly follow orders either.

An effectively disciplined and well trained military is able to question the morality and competence of orders without needing a culture of questioning orders.

On morality, for instance, members of the British armed forces are told from the beginning of their training that they are not obliged to follow an order that breaks the Geneva Conventions, and they cannot be ordered to do so.

A culture of questioning orders would fundamentally undermine a military - but soldiers, sailors and airman trained to the point where they can critically assess orders quickly and accurately is something else entirely, and it is one of the reasons the British military places a lot of emphasis on junior ranked leaders (NCOs) compared to the US focus on officers.

An old friend of mine was in the British Army in Germany during the 1980s, and at one point there was an exchange program where some of his regiments officers swapped with some American army officers. One of the US officers ran a gas attack drill one day where he was out in the base and shouted 'Gas, gas, gas." He was astonished that the British soldiers immediately went through their drills, applying respirators etc. He couldn't believe that they hadn't simply started asking questions about whether it was a drill, why were they doing it etc etc.

That's what happens if you try to have a culture of questioning orders in the military.