It’s hard to know where you’re going unless you have some sense of where you’re starting. America is in the midst of transitioning away from two large bodies of fighter aircraft that date back to the 1970s and this is proving to be a bumpy path.
Let’s take a look at the nearly 3,300 aircraft that make up the backbone of our land and sea based fighter force.
The A-10 Thunderbolt is a single seat attack plane that first flew in 1972. Designed to get up close and personal with Soviet heavy armor, this plane is built around a gigantic seven barrel GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun. If ground fire takes out one engine and half the tail the pilot is liable to come back and finish off whatever hit the plane before returning to base. These things are built to take a lot of punishment and keep on flying. We have over 350 of them in service and they’re often found flying top cover for our helicopters in Afghanistan, waiting to pounce on anything that bothers our air mobile troops.
A-10 Thunderbolt II, aka the Warthog
The F-16 Falcon is a single seat single engine multi-role tactical fighter/bomber that first flew in 1974. We’ve built and used just over 1,500 of the total 4,450 produced world wide. Armed with a 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling gun and a dizzying array of missiles and bombs, this simple, durable fighter has more than repaid the initial acquisition cost.
The F-15 Eagle is a single seat twin engine multi-role air superiority fighter that first flew in 1972. Armed with the same cannon as the F-16 and able to carry the same range of weapons, this fighter is most likely to be found above the F-16 suppressing an opponent’s air defenses. The latest model, the F-15E Strike Eagle can do it all, from taking out enemy fighters to delivering precision guided bombs.
You’ve heard the figure of speech “coming home on a wing and a prayer”, right? That was just a figure of speech until 1983, when an Israeli pilot’s F-15 lost a wing in a midair collision and he made a safe landing despite the damage. We can say that we’re going to replace this plane, but these are some very big boots for any successor to fill.
F-15 coming in with only one wing
The F/A-18 Hornet and its big brother the F/A-18E & FA-18F Super Hornet are successors to the F-14 Tomcat you recall from Top Gun. The F/A-18A first flew in 1978 and the platform remains in development through today. This twin engine supersonic all weather fighter/bombers has the heavy duty landing gear and tail hook necessary for carrier landings. The F/A-18D and F/A-18F models are tandem, or two seaters, while the others are single seat machines. The Marine Corps operates some of our F/A-18 inventory, but they use them from air fields - there is not enough room for them on the helicopter carriers of the Expeditionary Strike Group. We’ve taken delivery of about a thousand of these planes, lost about a hundred, and an additional hundred are on order.
F/A-18C single seater
F/A-18F two seater
This is where it gets interesting. The next plane is the F-22, a fifth generation fighter. It was meant to replace the F-15 and many of the land based F/A-18s, but things … change.
The F-22 Raptor was the intended upgrade path from the F-15, a preproduction version called the YF-22 first flew in 1990, and the current machine first took flight in 1997.
The particulars around the Raptor’s development are important to understand from a policy perspective. When initial production began the intent was to produce 750 units and completely retire the F-15. Due to rising costs and no credible opponent for this fifth generation fighter Congress capped acquisition at 187, resulting in a cost of nearly $340 million per plane. The incremental cost of additional planes would have been $138 million, but President Obama’s first threatened veto was part of shutting down any further expansion of this system.
Here things get murky and complex. The big value of the F-22 is that it includes capabilities of the RC-135 Rivet Joint and the E-3 Sentry AWACS. In English, this plane carries a great deal of the Rivet Joint spy plane functions as well as the Sentry’s command and control capabilities and can cruise without afterburners (very fuel efficient) at nearly twice the speed of sound.
Even one of these planes included in a package of other aircraft on a strike mission completely redraws the battle field, dramatically tilting it in favor of our pilots. Instead of leaving two big, slow four engined specialty aircraft in the rear where they would require covering fighters of their own, the F-22 leads the charge, putting advanced monitoring and command/control functions right in the midst of the action.
So there you have it - some 3,300 aircraft by my admittedly sketchy count based on public data, while writing this I discovered that there appears to be some legislation that requires us to keep 2,250 fighters in operation(!), which I will explore further in the future, and we’ve got the usual muddle of politics and operational concerns surrounding keeping many different types of aircraft working as a coherent system.
One thing is starting to become clear to me - if the F-22 can be cut, other big ticket programs can be cut, like the F-35B. And if that happens we have no need to build any of the America class assault ships.
F-35 Lightning II
This is an iterative process. No one in the defense industry really wants a bunch of Cheeto dust encrusted bloggers knowing what things cost, how they all fit together, and what the underlying assumptions are behind their acquisition.
I want to see that change. Some key assumptions that are becoming painfully obvious involve a partial collapse of the banking sector which will drastically affect our economy, peak oil, and climate change. We’ll still need a national defense program … but many of our presumed foes will fall away in the face of these changes, while new challenges will arise.