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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

United Kingdom: F-35 or F-22?

Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank

Air Power Australia NOTAM

  25th February, 2009

Dr Carlo Kopp, SMAIAA, MIEEE, PEng

Contacts: Peter Goon
Carlo Kopp

Mob: 0419-806-476 Mob: 0437-478-224

As the unit procurement costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter progressively converge with the unit costs of the F-22A Raptor, and the F-35 becomes progressively less survivable as threats evolve, it is time for the UK to cut its losses, bail out of the JSF program, and opt for the F-22A instead. A US Air Force study published in 2000 identified Britain as one of three allies who could be supplied the F-22 without any risk of technology leakage (Author).

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is designed to defeat threats that will have been superceded well before this aircraft enters operational service. The performance of the F-35 is suffering seriously from the conflicting design requirements that it was intended to meet. As a result, the F-35 is shaping up to be a technological failure, a delivery schedule and 'affordability' failure, and a techno-strategic failure.  This will place Britain in the position of having to look at replacement options, which are extremely limited in view of developing threat capabilities. The question that must inevitably arise is: 'Should Britain Ask the United States for the F-22?'

Britain remains the largest single overseas partner in the F-35 program, and as this program unravels, Britain stands to lose much more than the other partner nations in a sunk investment not producing any direct return, and in political embarrassment. From a political perspective, America needs to start thinking about what alternatives it can offer the British as credible substitutes for the uncompetitive and technically troubled F-35. The F-16E, F/A-18E/F and F-15E/SG do not qualify as credible substitutes given the proliferation of high technology Russian designed Flanker fighters and double digit SAMs on the global stage. None of these types can survive in such an environment.

Britain’s intent to procure the expensive and underperforming F-35 for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy has produced intensive domestic criticism, some well informed and technically correct, some less so. What is clear however is that Britain does need new technology fighters to replace a range of increasingly less viable legacy aircraft, as well as the Royal Navy’s now retired Sea Harriers.

About a decade ago the F-22A Raptor was proposed as an alternative to the domestically built Eurofighter Typhoon. Britain’s influential aerospace industry lobby killed that proposal, rubbishing the F-22 with some very dubious DERA JOUST simulations, which claimed the Typhoon was 81 percent as good as an F-22. Forensic analysis showed this was nonsense, an assessment since then borne out by the operational experience of the US Air Force flying the F-22 against a range of conventional fighters.

Current planning for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy is to procure the F-35B STOVL JSF as a replacement for the RAF Harrier GR.7/9 fleet, the Jaguar GR.3, retired in 2007, and the Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA.2, retired in 2006. Cited numbers vary between 150 and 138 aircraft, although reports emerging from the UK late last year suggested a reduction to as few as 85 aircraft.  This is a far cry from the euphoric speculation of early 2002, when senior RAF staff officers privately suggested to their Canberra colleagues that the RAF should be replacing its remaining Panavia Tornado GR.4s, Tornado F.3s, and earlier built Typhoons, with the F-35A JSF.

Over the next two decades Britain will need to replace most if not all of its combat aircraft with credible new technology replacements. The only new fighter in the UK inventory is the Typhoon F.2, which is technologically comparable to currently built American F-15 and F/A-18E/F fighters. While more agile than these legacy US fighters, it is equally vulnerable to advanced SA-20/21/23 Surface to Air Missile systems, and new generation Su-35BM class Flanker variants. The new ramjet MBDA Meteor Air to Air Missile may eventually provide a credible capability against older Flanker variants, but will be matched over the next decade by the Russian ramjet Vympel RVV-AE-PD missile. The Typhoon has been justifiably criticised for program procurement costs which have been similar in magnitude to the vastly better F-22 Raptor.

The Royal Air Force will need replacements for the Tornado IDS (above) and Tornado ADV (below), capable of penetrating advanced air defences and defeating Su-35BM class fighters. The F-22A can perform both roles better than any other design planned or in service (RAF image).

The Typhoon F.2 is one of the most expensive fighters ever built, but lacks the stealth to penetrate modern SAM defences, and the persistence to compete with the latest Su-35BM class Flanker variants (MBDA image).

The F-35B is intended to replace the Harrier GR.9 (below) and already retired Sea Harrier FA.2 (above). With Britain's planned new carriers to be much larger than the Invincible class, and the ubiquity of modern Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems rendering dispersed basing almost irrelevant, there is not a compelling case for a STOVL aircraft to replace the Harrier variants (Royal Navy images).

Britain’s long term strategic needs have been the focus of much of the criticism directed at re-equipment plans for the UK fighter fleet. Sadly much of this criticism has been myopic, concentrated on short term considerations relating to Counter INsurgency Operations (COIN) in the Islamic world. In this respect Britain has suffered from the same nonsensical very short term argument seen in the United States, and Australia.

There is little doubt that over the long term Britain will need to provide some credible expeditionary capabilities to support coalition operations on the global stage. While another Falklands scenario is unlikely, given the loss of Britain’s overseas colonies, the need to intervene globally is unlikely to vanish. If future UK governments intend to contribute capabilities of any real use, they will need systems which are effective and survivable against the modern Russian high technology systems proliferating globally, and also interoperable with other coalition assets. Systems which soak up US forces as protective escorts to stay alive are more of a hindrance in a coalition campaign, than a contribution of value.

What should be of more concern to Britons are the increasingly toxic relationships between Putin’s Russia and the many former Soviet Republics, and former Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe. Putin’s confrontational and coercive foreign policy and military interventions along Russia’s exposed Western and South Western borders have fuelled mistrust and resentment in nations which were already largely resentful over Soviet era misdeeds. The expansion of NATO eastward has been a by-product of this progressive breakdown – not vice versa as is often claimed. Russians feel exposed without hundreds of kilometre deep buffer territories and this perceived vulnerability with its resulting fears will not disappear any time soon.

While Putin’s Russia will never be another Soviet Union, Russia is slowly recapitalising its Cold War era military with advanced systems, and will have a genuine capability to project coercive air power against European NATO nations. If any of the myriad ongoing disputes between Russia and its now NATO aligned neighbours degrade into shooting conflicts, the Russians will be able to drop smart bombs across much of Eastern Europe, unless the US Air Force deploys most if not all of its F-22 Raptors into European NATO airfields. Moreover, as Russia builds up numbers of the SA-21, it will be able to declare and effectively enforce permanent air exclusion zones up to 200 nautical miles outside its geographical borders – a Surface-to-Air-Missile-based buffer zone that would appeal to Russian fears of being subjected to attack by cruise missiles and conventional aircraft.

European NATO nations can look forward to the prospect of Moscow not only turning off the gas supply, but also exercising military muscle in NATO’s backyard. The expectation that the Americans will permanently commit their already overcommitted future F-22 fleet to cover for European military underinvestment is clearly asking a little too much and, at best, fanciful thinking.

It is worth observing that the character of developing Russian capabilities is very different from the Cold War era Soviet model. Rather than the vast numbers of mostly unsophisticated shorter ranging dumb bomb armed tactical fighters the Soviets deployed, Russia is emulating the US model of smaller numbers of highly sophisticated high technology long range aircraft armed with precision smart weapons. Large numbers of low performance fighters, including the F-35, are virtually useless against Russia’s new generation Su-34 and Su-35BM fighters.

While the broader issues of European NATO security are bigger than Britain’s needs alone, they underscore the realities of an uncertain future in a complex multipolar world.

Technological evolution and poorly thought out specification/definition of the F-35 design has seen to it that by the time the F-35 would deploy, assuming it survives its engineering, cost  and schedule problems, the F-35 will be wholly uncompetitive against the new generation of Russian designed weapons. That margin will grow as Russian and Chinese weapons evolve over the next three decades, while the overweight, underpowered, over-packed and under-stealthed F-35’s built in design limits make it increasingly outmatched.

Whether Britain wishes to conduct expeditionary warfare in coalition or unilaterally, or participate in European NATO continental defence, its Eurofighter Typhoons and planned F-35 JSFs will likely be fodder for the latest Russian weapons, unless the opposing side is an undeveloped Third World nation. The prospect of Russian contractor (i.e. mercenary) aircrew, ground-crew and missileers being deployed to Third World nations with the available cash introduces uncertainties even in the latter circumstance. It has happened before.

The wisest strategy for the United Kingdom is to negotiate access to the F-22A Raptor and bail out of the F-35 program at the earliest. An even wiser strategy is to collaborate with the Americans on the development of a navalised F/A-22N Sea Raptor, to drive down costs for the US Navy, Marine Corps and Royal Navy. The uncompetitive Typhoon can be relegated to air defence of the British Isles, and F-22A and F/A-22N used for expeditionary warfare and NATO air defence commitments on the continent.

While much has been said and written about not exporting the F-22 to US allies, what is less well known is that two studies have been done to determine exportability of the F-22.

The first of these is the public unclassified geostrategic and political assessment performed by then LtCol Matthew Molloy, USAF, who produced a 98 page study while posted to the Maxwell AFB School of Advanced Air Power Studies of the Air University, in 1999-2000. This document identifies Australia, Britain and Canada as the three US allies who can be trusted without question to operate the F-22 and protect its technology [1].

Less well known is a more detailed and not publicly released study performed by the US Air Force during the same period, often known as the “anti-tamper study”, which looked at risks arising from downed aircraft scenarios. The study also assessed the risks arising in exporting the aircraft to close allies, specifically Australia, which was known to have a developing strategic need for the F-22. The study concluded that it was safe to supply the very same configuration of the F-22 flown by the US Air Force to Australia, as the risks of unwanted technology disclosure were no different to those expected for the US Air Force.

Considering both the Molloy study and the “anti-tamper” study, the notion that the Americans would not export some configuration of the F-22 to the United Kingdom is difficult to accept.

The problems, which the Britons must confront at a strategic level arising from Russia’s devolving relationships with its neighbours, and the ongoing demand for global intervention forces, are problems to a greater or lesser degree shared by other leading European NATO nations. The difficulties arising from involvement in the ill considered F-35 program are also shared by a number of other European NATO nations, as well as the United Kingdom.

The unavoidable strategic reality is the European NATO nations will need a credible capability to discourage adventurous future Russian behaviour in Eastern Europe, and to make a useful difference in expeditionary warfare. None of the indigenous European fighters, or the F-35, will be particularly useful in either kind of contingency. Two to three full strength Fighter Wings comprising 50 to 70 F-22 Raptors each would provide enough deterrent capability and sustainable / survivable firepower to address Europe’s needs for decades to come.

While the NATO AWACS fleet model of a shared resource would be a politically attractive way for Europe to deploy an export configuration of the F-22, it would present practical operational problems.

The United States needs to think long and hard about how to redress Europe’s worsening strategic weakness, as it has the potential to soak up disproportionate US military resources in any serious contingency. Exporting a variant of the F-22 rather than the uncompetitive F-35 would solve much of that problem.

With the long term future of the F-22 now the subject of intensive political, public and analytical community debate in America, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter now showing the symptoms of an incipient technological “death spiral”, the time is right for the Obama Administration and H.M. Government to jointly explore the export of F-22 Raptor variants for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, as an “escape strategy” from the F-35 program.

There is a good precedent: when it became clear that the Nimrod AEW.3 could not be made to work in a reasonable timescale and cost, H.M. Government cut its losses, dumped the program and promptly acquired the top tier Boeing E-3D AWACS instead.

The basic strategic challenges both America and Britain face are much the same, whether we consider European NATO contingencies, or expeditionary warfare. The Alliance relationship is as close as it has ever been. All that is needed is the political courage and strategic foresight  to make a break from the past, well intentioned but fundamentally flawed, choice of the F-35.

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[1] Matthew H. Molloy, Lt Col, USAF , U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT FOR SALE: CRAFTING AN F-22 EXPORT POLICY, SCHOOL OF ADVANCED AIRPOWER STUDIES , AIR UNIVERSITY, MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, ALABAMA, JUNE 2000, URL: https://research.maxwell.af.mil/papers/ay2000/saas/molloy.pdf.

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