The history of fighter aircraft suggests a massive edge for better capability

Wednesday, June 7th, 2023

There are a few areas the Air Force needs to address, Austin Vernon suggests:

Reducing Sensor Vulnerability:

The Chinese see the US Air Force’s big, slow sensor platforms as a weak link. Many speculate that the purpose of the Chinese J-20 stealth is to sneak around combat air patrols and shoot long-range missiles at helpless radar planes and tankers. Putting smaller radars, cameras, electronic listening, and jammers on many drones would reduce sensor vulnerability. The Off-Board Sensing Station program is developing the capability to operate these drones beyond line-of-sight with limited satellite coverage, a critical requirement for the vast Pacific Ocean. The distributed drones will almost certainly cost more because it might take one hundred XQ-58-size drones that cost several million dollars to equal the coverage area of one E-3 or E-7. The Air Force could also use the B-21 airframe as a sensor/coordination platform.

Anti-Missile Fighters:

The Air Force needs inexpensive anti-missile combat air patrols over likely targets. Short-range, guided munitions like the $25,000 APKWS 70mm rocket can dispatch most threats. An F-16 fighter recently downed a cruise missile in a test using one, and the US already manufactures ~20,000 APKWS kits a year for air-to-ground purposes.

Traditional fighters can fulfill this mission, but drones like the XQ-58 could cover more potential targets and better handle attacks from multiple directions. They can also maintain near-perpetual readiness waiting on the launch rails, allowing a surge of launches within seconds without the stress of keeping crews at high readiness.

Supersonic Stealth Fighter:

The F-22 being out of production is a liability because the F-35 is not nearly as optimized for air-to-air combat. Restarting production could be a low-risk option until the NGAD fighter enters service. The history of fighter aircraft suggests a massive edge for better capability, making the F-22 hard to replace with lesser aircraft. A historical example is the Hellcat having a 19:1 kill-to-loss ratio against the Japanese in WWII. The Chinese put so much effort into attacking airfields to avoid fighting the F-22 in the air.

A relevant supersonic stealth drone will likely be about the size and cost of a traditional fighter with more technical risk and longer development timelines than restarting F-22 production. You can always put an AI pilot in an F-22.

The template for a cheap, low-capability fighter drone already exists in the XQ-58. There is a risk that it would score zero kills against 5th-generation fighters and cheaper anti-drone missiles are on the horizon to negate swarm attacks. But, the XQ-58 is an available design that can scale rapidly if testing or experience proves it useful for battling enemy fighters. There may be other simplified drone types worth testing, like a stealthy dogfighting drone that only uses guns.

The Air Force must keep airfields near Guam and Okinawa in the fight, he notes, to use its hundreds of F-22 stealth fighters and thousands of F-15s and F-16s:

RAND makes the case that the best option for protecting aircraft during a war is dispersal, selective hardening, and using cheaper shelters that provide some protection against shrapnel or cluster bomblets but not bombs. Leaving most aircraft shelters empty can obfuscate where the planes are, lowering the accuracy of precision-guided munitions. Increasing active defenses like interceptor missiles is critical, too. Many of these strategies are already underway. The combined effort makes launches of $20 million ballistic missiles look less appealing.


  1. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Whatever happened to “Give Peace A Chance”?

    The Pacific Ocean lies between China and the Continental US. China has given no indications of preparing to cross half the planet to attack the US. The US has long acknowledged that Taiwan is part of China, and Vietnam gave the US an expensive lesson in the wisdom of staying out of other people’s back yards in that part of the world.

    But let’s stick to the practical situation rather than the strategic or moral dimension — How many imported Chinese parts & tools would the de-industrialized US need to build these expensive wonder-weapons?

  2. cassander says:

    Re-starting F-22 production is a non-starter. it would take almost as long and cost almost as much as designing a whole new fighter. A huge share of development costs are standing up the supply chain, almost all of which needs to be reconstituted from scratch. And at the end of the day, you’d get an F-22, a plane designed to duke it out with the soviets over eastern Europe, not one meant to fight in the pacific.

    Anyone who recommends such a course is basically disqualifying themselves as a serious aerospace analyst

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    With a homosexual military, China and others have nothing to worry about. Just wait for the military to self-destruct.

  4. Bob Sykes says:

    The Kuomintang is still a major political party in Taiwan, and they handily won the last round of municipal elections on the island. Moreover, their official position is that Taiwan is a province of China, and they, too seek reunification, albeit under their rule. The Kuomintang leadership also meets more or less regularly with CPC leaders.

    Should the Kuomintang win the next national elections (2024?), they may make some progress on reunification, and that would really reduce tensions in the region.

    Of course, our genius leaders in Congress have suggested that if China and Taiwan are reunited, peacefully or otherwise, the US should bomb TSMC into oblivion. They might want to bomb it anyway, once our factories are up and running.

    Don’t you just admire suggest far-sighted leaders?

  5. Jim says:

    I apologize in advance for this stake in the red, white, and blue heart.

    Fighters haven’t been used in a peer conflict since the Total War Against Germany. (For those unfortunate consciousnesses drifting unmooredly through time, that was Damned-Near Eighty Years Ago.) In that War, fighters were used for two purposes: to defensively escort and offensively shoot down bomber squadrons, and to defensively escort and offensively sink battle groups. Since that regretful conflict, spearheaded by known communist and cripple, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, fighters have been used mainly by Israelis against A-rabs in an unspeakably bizarre campaign to occupy the single worst place on earth, for admittedly very impressive sportsball flyovers, and in peacetime generals’ bureaucratic hot-house dick-measuring contests. No one has ever convincingly explained why militaries are still flying the F-15 (first flown in 1972) or the F-16 (first flown in 1974) if this is not true.

    To really drive the point home, the F-16 has been “in service” for 49 years and the F-15 for 51. The Orvilles’ first powered flight was only in 1903, or 120 years ago. That means that the U.S. military has been flying those two specific airplanes for fully 42% of the history of powered flight. Concretely, if an ordinary F-16 pilot is 23 years old, both his father and grandfather could conceivably have flown the same airplane. And the U.S. Air Force allegedly intends to keep flying the F-16 for another two decades at least.

    Do these machines sound more like instruments of war or more like movie props and flying museum-pieces?

  6. Jim says:

    They could, of course, have been used to shoot down the airliners ostensibly piloted by illiterate Moslem terruhists on 9/11, but that would have defeated the purpose.

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