Some things just don’t work out. Sometimes the best of intentions and plenty of money can’t overcome problems that were inherent in the design of a thing. And when the thing gets built, the shortcomings predicted from dispassionate analysis become showstoppers. There is no shame in abandoning projects as long as they are killed off quickly enough so that not too much damage is done. Thus the Seawolf submarine was killed off after building three of them and was replaced with the more cost-effective Virginia class. The same thing should happen to the Zumwalt class. Originally 32 were to be built. That has been cut to three.
The Zumwalt’s main weapon system, the Advanced Gun System, fires rounds that cost $0.4 million each but deliver only 11 kg of explosive per round. Hopefully the Zumwalts will be repurposed to fire some other weapon system. It is unlikely to be the rail gun because that system also has cost-effectiveness issues inherent in the way the thing works.
So it is with the F-35. Its show-stopper shortcomings were inherent in the design. The problem is that the F-35 program is taking a long time to die and that is having life and death consequences. The continued existence of the F-35 is putting the continued existence of the USAF in doubt and life for the rest of the armed services becomes more difficult also. The good news is that it is now possible for USAF generals to publicly cast doubt about the F-35. They are doing this by investigating what it would take to restart production of the F-22. While restarting the F-22 production line is not necessarily crazy, it is sub-optimal. The reason why the initial production run was terminated was because the F-22 costs too much, both to buy and to operate. That hasn’t changed and some in the USAF realize that.
The operating cost problem of the F-22 mostly results from its Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) coating. There is no cure for the operating cost problem until the RAM coating is gotten rid of. All that takes is a change of attitude. The idea of being unseen to x-band radars is no longer the be-all and end-all of aerial combat. If the enemy refuses to play by the USAF’s rules and doesn’t operate with his radar on all the time, all that effort put into stealth is negated. Stealth is good if you can get it without an operating premium; if stealth is inherent in the design and didn’t need constant patching.
That design is available to the USAF. It is the YF-23 which lost out to the YF-22 in the 1991 fly-off. Materials and electronics evolve but the physics of flight don’t change. While the F-22’s design heritage is from the F-15 and thus it needs all that RAM coating to be stealthy, the YF-23’s stealth is inherent in its design. That design is a completely symmetrical diamond wing planform conforming tightly to the Area Rule in the shape and distribution of its volume. This quite possibly made it the fastest aircraft in the world in relation to supercruise. It also has another big advantage over the F-22 in the form of its exhaust troughs to reduce the plane’s infrared signature. That means that it doesn’t have thrust vectoring but thrust vectoring is more useful in air show maneuvers than in combat and isn’t worth the weight penalty.
Restarting the F-22 will be delayed by all the tweaking that will be done to an aircraft that first started production 20 years ago. And what will result is an aircraft that is an interim measure. Like a high maintenance girlfriend, the experience will be less than satisfactory. That is why the restart proposals talk in terms of a production run of less than 200 airframes. In short, restart of the F-22 is a dead end that doesn’t provide a long term solution.
The short term problem is that the existing fighter fleet is too old and is outclassed by the latest Russian and Chinese fighters. The solution to that problem is to adopt the Gripen E to take the role that the F-35 is supposed to fill. Anything the F-35 can do, the Gripen E can do better and at a fraction of the cost. They have the same range but the Gripen E costs one third to one half of the acquisition cost of the F-35 and its hourly operating rate is one tenth that of the F-35. It can be turned around in 15 minutes between sorties while the F-35 takes two and three quarter hours. The Gripen E has the same engine as the Super Hornet, the GE F414, and a lot of other US-made parts as well. Modelling of its combat ability suggests that it is almost as good as the F-22. The sooner the Gripen E is adopted, the sooner the F-35 nightmare ends.
Choosing the F-22 over the YF-23 back in 1991 wasn’t such a big mistake. Quite an effective fighter aircraft resulted. Eventually it was realised that the F-22 was too expensive. The decision to stop production in 2011 was a good decision. The decision to proceed with the F-35 was a bad decision because the best possible outcome was a bad aircraft that is also too expensive to operate. Realising that, even if the F-35 does become operational the USAF is planning to limit the damage by buying only 48 a year. The problem created by all those good, bad and indifferent decisions is the big shortfall in USAF fighter numbers that is looming.
Restarting the F-22 production line would just be another bad decision in reaction to the results of previous bad decisions. The best decision possible is to go to a two aircraft solution – the Gripen E, a single engine fighter optimised on the current state of technology in materials, missiles and electronics and available now; and to resurrect the best twin-engine air dominance planform possible, the YF-23, and fill it with the current state of technology in materials, missiles and electronics. This, the most cost-effective solution, is also the lowest-risk solution.
David Archibald is the author of Twilight of Abundance (Regnery).