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The Last Ace
February 15, 2009 7:36 AM   Subscribe

"American air superiority has been so complete for so long that we take it for granted. For more than half a century, we’ve made only rare use of the aerial-combat skills of a man like Cesar Rodriguez, who retired two years ago with more air-to-air kills than any other active-duty fighter pilot. But our technological edge is eroding. ... Now we have a choice. We can stock the Air Force with the expensive, cutting-edge F‑22—maintaining our technological superiority at great expense to our Treasury. Or we can go back to a time when the cost of air supremacy was paid in the blood of men like Rodriguez." - The Last Ace, a feature article in this month's The Atlantic by author Mark Bowden.
posted by billysumday (63 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't the whole point of being an Ace that the cost is paid in someone else's blood?
posted by biffa at 7:48 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


DISAGREE.

(Though I adore Mark Bowden.)

I see your article, and raise it this one. (Abolish the Air Force.)
posted by dbgrady at 7:50 AM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


We can always print more money. We can't go down to the treasury and print up another Cesar for his family once his blood is spilled.
posted by spicynuts at 7:54 AM on February 15, 2009


Because dogfights are so common in today's wars.

Because there isn't a better use for the billions of dollars sunk into air force shinies (made by air force generals who used to be fighter pilots themselves) like the F-22.

Because that money couldn't be better spent on unmanned drones, which also save lives and are 1/10 the cost.

Keep in mind that drones also have the ability to take ridiculous G-forces that manned fighters can't match, and so they're capable of being superior in combat as well.

Just like manned space flight, meat in a can should not be the paradigm. Unmanned and/or remote is cheaper AND safer.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:01 AM on February 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Don't worry, within a couple of decades most if not all military aircrafts will be remote controlled and the idea of having human pilots will generally seem archaic and way too dangerous and expensive.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:01 AM on February 15, 2009


Unmanned and/or remote is cheaper AND safer.

Unless you're a taxpayer or the target.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:05 AM on February 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


is our technology making us less manly? aging writer ponders his own sagging manhood while implicitly cheerleading the last build-up of yet another culture's self-defeating attempt to achieve total military supremacy over everyone on the planet....
posted by geos at 8:06 AM on February 15, 2009 [8 favorites]


Yeah, this article was a stroke-fest. Kinda made me want to puke.
posted by selfnoise at 8:12 AM on February 15, 2009


Blazecock:

F22 program cost: US$65 billion
F22 unit cost: US$137.5 million

for comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer runs about 22 million a plane
posted by leotrotsky at 8:12 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm wary of putting words in my father's mouth, but he was a career (Canadian) fighter pilot and I'm pretty sure he and most of his colleagues would argue that technological superiority - except in massively asymmetrical cases like USAF v. Afghanistan - is of only limited efficacy without first-rate pilots and superior training. This is, in other words, a somewhat false dichotomy. You need good planes, but you also need great pilots.

As a case in point, he and two of his colleagues played the enemy a few years back in an enormous NATO military exercise. I would describe it in detail, but even though he's retired I think my father would think this was somewhat sensitive info at its finest grain of detail. Anyway, the three Canadian pilots were flying 40-year-old T-33s - the kind of plane you'd find in even the meagre air force of your average third world despot - and by carefully exploiting the NATO naval fleet's reliance on high-tech gizmos and using knowledge of the terrain to their advantage, they more or less completely stymied the mission. With three outmoded training airplanes.

It should be noted that the CAF is widely regarded as one of the best trained air forces on the planet.

Could the same thing have been accomplished with unmanned drones? Dunno. But I know that career military guys are often suspicious of technofetishism as a substitute for human wherewithal for reasons that have more in common with Bruce Scheier's critique of security theatre than with Jerry Bruckheimer-esque macho-pilot homoeroticism (see the volleyball scene in Top Gun for further details on the latter).
posted by gompa at 8:17 AM on February 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I thought we were going more with the flying robots and remote controlled planes.
posted by orme at 8:18 AM on February 15, 2009


by carefully exploiting the NATO naval fleet's reliance on high-tech gizmos and using knowledge of the terrain to their advantage, they more or less completely stymied the mission. With three outmoded training airplanes.

Sounds familiar.

Jerry Bruckheimer-esque macho-pilot homoeroticism (see the volleyball scene in Top Gun for further details on the latter).

That volleyball scene was for the benefit of the female members of the audience. Top Gun is, in many ways, the perfect date movie because it manages to seamlessly switch between blatant appeals to the stereotypical preferences of both men and women.
posted by deanc at 8:24 AM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Now we have a choice.

No, I don't think so. Unless we hold the handle of the cash filled briefcase or carry $50k pizza boxes, I think we're out of the Pentagon decision loop.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:24 AM on February 15, 2009


gompa: Bowden writes pretty explicitly about the limits of technology compared to the limits of individual pilots. His conclusion seems to be that when flying similar models, pilot talent and training is of paramount importance. But that even the best pilot cannot overcome a vastly superior enemy plane.
posted by billysumday at 8:25 AM on February 15, 2009


That volleyball scene was for the benefit of the female members of the audience.

I'd argue it's more multidimensional than that (and the presence of Tom Cruise of course gives it a closeted-queer subtext far beyond what's in the script). But in any case when Slider's doing his victorious oiled-pec flexes, his only audience in the context of the movie is his fellow buff fighter pilots. And the soundtrack? That Loggins tune with the sort of '80s disco bounce to it and the title "Playing with the Boys"? Dude. Come on. It's teh gay.

And on preview, thanks for the clarification, billysumday. I'm waiting for my dead-tree copy to read the whole thing; I was responding to the excerpt in the FPP, which I took to be the sort of thesis statement.
posted by gompa at 8:32 AM on February 15, 2009


I don't buy the argument that we need to keep pouring money into air to air combat. Is any other air force even close to the power of the U.S.? Precision bombing, fine, but I don't think we're doing any good with money in fighter programs.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:46 AM on February 15, 2009


I'm inclined to agree with geos' comment, to me there seems to be an underlying current of Fighters and their pilots are cool, so we should spunk more money on F-22s.

The entire article downplays the huge changes in the way air wars are fought since the inception of the F-15; individual platforms are far more tightly integrated into a network of advanced sensors and systems, to the point where a single airframe becomes almost interchangeable.

Alongside those 200 F-22s, the US Air Force are also buying 1200+ F-35A Lightning II aircraft. While primarily strike aircraft, the F-35 will carry similar quantities of the same weapons that the F-22 can carry, and plug into exactly the same Command-and-Control systems. A thinner wave of F-22s at the start of a future air war will be backed by a large number of F-35s shooting just-as-capable AIM-120 AMRAAMs and AIM-9X missiles.

The article's author also plays a little sleight-of-hand when talking about suppressing SAM sites - only one model of F-15, the -E model strike fighter, would be utilised for ground strike (and F-16s usually carry the burden of SEAD missions in the US Air Force anyway). The F-22 will not be heavily utilised as a strike aircraft, leaving that task to it's better-suited little brother. Any arguments that involve hitting ground targets are arguments for buying fewer F-22s and more F-35s, which are supposedly 1/2-1/3 the price.

Of course, if the US Air Force really wants more "True Fighters" to play with but can't afford more F-22s, they could always call up the Eurofighter Consortium and pick up a bunch of Typhoons, which are often described as "95% of the aircraft for 50% of the price". I'm sure they'd get a nice discount for bulk buying. :-)

On Preview: In line with Gompa's comments above, I've head of more than one UK-US exercise that's gone not-quite-according-to-plan - using knowledge of standard US/NATO doctrine has seen RAF Tornado F2 interceptors (not the best plane by any stretch of the imagination) playing sneaky bastards and popping up where they weren't expected at Red Flag exercises.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 8:47 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does anyone actually foresee a military engagement in which we would face any kind of air force? We aren't going to be going into conventional warfare with Russia or China that's for damn sure. Pretty much everyone else is in NATO. So who in the hell would we dogfight? We're much more likely to face Al Qaeda type enemies long into the future, no? Those types of groups don't have Air Forces, obviously.
posted by spicynuts at 8:50 AM on February 15, 2009


My impression of the article, when I read it in the Atlantic was that it was either a pretty slap-dash and poorly researched effort, that it was gutted by editors, or that it is was an intentionally shallow presentation designed to whet interest in an upcoming book.

For starters, one guess as to which aviation community Bowden blindly relied upon: the article is woefully Air Force centric. There is no mention of the F/A-18 and the JSF receives one oblique mention as a follow-on poorer cousin of the F-22. This despite that it is generally the Navy and its carrier-borne aviation that is the prime tool for American projection of global air power especially in response to crises.

Despite recognizing the change in design goals and pilot skills that supersonic BVR engagements, stealth and network centric warfare bring to the fore, Bowden is strangely hung up on the question of how many F-22 airframes will be produced. He doesn't seem to really understand or accept what his own informants are telling him, which is that the contest is now centered around technology extension and systems integration. He seems to miss the point of the HUD frame cap that he wants to use as a set-piece. He fetishizes the F-22s flight characteristics and dogfighting prowess to the point that he suggests failing to build it will endanger pilots, as though the discussions of weapons like the AIM-120 (AMRAAM) in the article had never happened, and do not threaten to moot dogfighting entirely--despite repeating the old saw that getting into a dogfight in today's environment indicates a tactical failure.

Whatever Bowden's intent was, what the article actually suggests is that the most important element of the F-22 program is it's integration of sensors and weapons on multiple aircraft and its success at implementing concepts of battlespace control and network-centric warfare that the military has been working towards since the beginning of post Cold War transformation (and even before it.)

That is the real breakthrough in the F-22 program, and thankfully it isn't chained to the airframe itself--which while it might be nice to have more copies of hardly makes good sense in the current economy. Using defense dollars to translate and mirror these achievements to/in other systems and services will have a better return on combat effectiveness of the entire force than producing n more F-22 airframes. Or are pilot's lives more valuable than those of a platoon of infantrymen? Unified systems will save more lives of both friendly combatants and civilians. Smart weapons can only be as smart as the awareness of the battlespace permits.

Bowden is dismissive of "updgraded, hybrid" older airframes carrying new systems and weapons--except for when it comes to locating justification of expansion of the F-22 program. But extension of the service life of the F-15 (and F/A-18 as well as some blocks of the F-16) is hardly the poor option Bowden makes it out to be. As he himself states, the Falcon has a perfect combat record. While the widened availability of BVR weapons technology to possible opponents threatens its invulnerability, this hardly threatens to turn the airfract into an underdog.

The strongest argument the article makes, witout really ever articulating it, is an upgrade program to backport the avionics and battlesystems improvements of the Raptor/JSF aircraft to the fourth generation fighters--of which we have a huge number (especially if you include Air National Guard assets.) That and making sure we have a decent supply of AMRAAMs on hand. There is a peripheral awareness towards the end of the article that this is probably what will happen--the proverbial "Wall of Falcons" with F-22s acting as free-roving sweepers or formation managers--but Bowden presents this outcome as a shameful compromise, flying in the face of a pragmatic interpretation of the very evidence he presents.

Hopefully, though, he'll get that permanent invitation to come out to the base, oil up, and smack the ball around with Iceman and Slider he wants.

On preview, that last snark is probably a little uncharitable, but my chief complaint about Bowden's writing is the overly worshipful tone he brings to the characters he portrays--even those he is ambiguous about--as though he's worried he won't be invited back to the clubhouse. It's there in Bringing the Heat and it's there in Black Hawk Down.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:52 AM on February 15, 2009 [15 favorites]


I'm astonished by how little interest the author paid to unmanned craft; I suppose that makes sense since the USAF has lagged the other services in paying attention to robotics.
posted by rbs at 8:56 AM on February 15, 2009


Make that the Eagle has a pefect record, not the Falcon. Whoops. And I wanted to mention the Air Force's own B-52 makes a pretty good argument for the utility and success that can be found in maintaining best-of-breed designs from previous eras long after new generations have been developed.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:56 AM on February 15, 2009


The entire article downplays the huge changes in the way air wars are fought since the inception of the F-15; individual platforms are far more tightly integrated into a network of advanced sensors and systems, to the point where a single airframe becomes almost interchangeable.

I thought that was discussed at the end of the article, when the author talks about how in the F-22, a pilot can see every friendly fighter, every enemy plane, and every unknown plane in a clear three-dimensional display, unlike in the F-15. And also how a ground unit can coordinate an F-22 fleet as an entire unit instead of individual fighters. But something could be getting lost in translation, because you seem to know a lot more flight jargon than I do and I could have read it incorrectly, or you could be talking about something distinctly different when you say "single airframe" because I don't really know what that is.

I don't buy the argument that we need to keep pouring money into air to air combat. Is any other air force even close to the power of the U.S.?

Well, this is the entire premise of the article. The difficulty of the decision of whether or not to upgrade to F-22s is due to the fact that 1) we don't really want to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a new line of fighters but 2) other air forces are starting to improve their fighters to the point that they rival if not equal the US fleet.
posted by billysumday at 8:58 AM on February 15, 2009


snuffleupagus: great comment, good to see the other side of the ball.
posted by billysumday at 9:02 AM on February 15, 2009


I thought that was discussed at the end of the article, when the author talks about how in the F-22, a pilot can see every friendly fighter, every enemy plane, and every unknown plane in a clear three-dimensional display, unlike in the F-15.

The article does touch on this, but as snuffleupagus touches on (and far more eloquently than I did), it misses a fundamental point - the systems that allow the F-22 to do this aren't unique to the F-22 - F-35 can do this as well for less money, and you could spend money on upgrading older aircraft like F-15, F/A-18 and F-16 and get a similar capability for better value-for-money. Once you have that capability spread out across aircraft types, it doesn't make a huge amount of difference if you substitute one aircraft type (Airframe, in this context) for another. Things are moving more and more to the point where it doesn't matter which aircraft type fires the missile, the idea is to get that missile to a certain point in space at a certain point in time.

And also how a ground unit can coordinate an F-22 fleet as an entire unit instead of individual fighters.

Coordination of fighters is usually conducted by AWACs (Airborne Warning and Contol) aircraft, which can manage huge numbers of aircraft and ground units - there's nothing special in the F-22 about this.

US/NATO Forces operate network-centric systems that can feed the data required out to units who need it. But again, this isn't unique to F-22 - Link 16 is a NATO-wide standard for interchange of data between military units and allows e.g. a pilot in one aircraft to see target information from another friendly unit without having to turn on his own radar and give away his position.

But something could be getting lost in translation, because you seem to know a lot more flight jargon than I do and I could have read it incorrectly, or you could be talking about something distinctly different when you say "single airframe" because I don't really know what that is.

Sorry. "Airframe" is usually used to discuss aircraft structure (as opposed to engines, systems like radar, etc), but in this context I'm using it to mean "Aircraft Type". If you have a situation where you need an aircraft to do something (be at point X and fire a missile at target Y), in most cases it doesn't matter if the launch aircraft is an F-22 or an upgraded F-18E. There are few situations that would require the launch aircraft to be an F-22. Hence substitution of an F-22 Aircraft/Airframe with an F-18E Aircraft/Airframe.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:24 AM on February 15, 2009


This mefi thread wont matter in ten to fifteen years when we have robots fighting robots. It definitely won't matter in 2045 after the Singularity hits and we have to start fighting the robots. It definitely definitely won't matter after that when we are being used as drones to fly the planes because our master robots have deemed themselves to be better than us.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:27 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


The difficulty of the decision of whether or not to upgrade to F-22s is due to the fact that 1) we don't really want to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a new line of fighters but 2) other air forces are starting to improve their fighters to the point that they rival if not equal the US fleet.
Maintaining technological superiority, previously on metafilter.
posted by deanc at 9:28 AM on February 15, 2009


On one hand, I want air superiority. On the other hand, I don't want to spend the entire GDP to buy a single airframe because that's all we can afford. At some point the numbers involved get to be so small that the program economics get silly. (See, for example, the B-2.) There really should be some sort of acceptable middle road and perhaps the mix of a small number of F-22s and a whole bunch of (much cheaper) F-35s is the right answer.

However, despite being the aerospace game myself, I'll freely admit that I'm not an expert on this topic and I wouldn't dream of suggesting that I could do a better job of figuring this out than the people who have spent decades working on the problem. Being smart in one area doesn't make me an expert in everything, and it surely doesn't prevent me from falling into the "Simple, Obvious, and Wrong" trap. (See, for example, most of the public commentary on manned space flight.)
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:28 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice Guy Mike: thanks for the follow-up comment. It seems like, taking into account your comments and the comments by snuffleupagus, that the F-15 really can be modified and upgraded at a much cheaper cost and would still be a very amazing aircraft. The problem in the article is that Bowden tries to make the F-15 out to be an archaic fighter plane with the computational ability of an old Atari set, but the fact is they have been upgraded to the point that they are nearly as efficient as the F-22s would be - am I getting your take right?
posted by billysumday at 9:34 AM on February 15, 2009


Because dogfights are so common in today's wars.

Let's not get ridiculous. Cesar Rodriguez may have had more air-to-air kills than any active-duty Air Force pilot, but did you happen to catch the actual number?

Three. Three kills.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:36 AM on February 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


F22 unit cost: US$137.5 million

for comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer runs about 22 million a plane


There's not a direct comparison between those two aircraft. The Reaper is a surveillance/ground attack aircraft and the F-22 is an air superiority fighter, a different role would require a very different aircraft with a different price tag. However, the point that drones are much cheaper than manned aircraft is a good one.

snuffleupagus nailed it in his comment.
posted by Mcable at 9:39 AM on February 15, 2009


Nice Guy Mike: thanks for the follow-up comment. It seems like, taking into account your comments and the comments by snuffleupagus, that the F-15 really can be modified and upgraded at a much cheaper cost and would still be a very amazing aircraft. The problem in the article is that Bowden tries to make the F-15 out to be an archaic fighter plane with the computational ability of an old Atari set, but the fact is they have been upgraded to the point that they are nearly as efficient as the F-22s would be - am I getting your take right?

Almost, but not quite - there's a fixation on the aircraft type, again. What I'm saying is that the actual aircraft type is a just a small part of the machine. With the right upgrades, and the right tactics, and most of all, with the right integration with all the other pieces, you end up with the $OLDER_AIRCRAFT_TYPE, when plugged into your forces, is at the point where the overall capability of the forces you end up with is the same but at a lower cost.

The US have been one of the drivers in the idea of capability-driven upgrades - rolling updates to existing aircraft to widen their capabilities at lower costs than designing entirely new aircraft - a good example would be the upgrading of F-14D Tomcats to given them strike capability during the first Gulf War (?). The new UK Harrier GR9 upgrades are similar, incorporating new weapons and systems onto an existing platform.

I'm not saying that new aircraft types aren't required, but with the phenomenal cost of designing entirely new platforms, you do need to be smart about mixing new types and upgrades to get the best value for money.

If you hadn't guessed by now, yes, I do work in the industry. Please note that everything I write is my own opinion and not necessarily that of my employer or client governments or their forces.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:51 AM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


BTW, The last American ace was Steve Ritchie. The next to last was Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Yes, that one.
posted by Mcable at 9:52 AM on February 15, 2009



>BTW, The last American ace was Steve Ritchie. The next to last was Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Yes, that one.

And not this one, who coincendentally was prominently featured in Bowden's Bringing the Heat.

posted by snuffleupagus at 10:13 AM on February 15, 2009


Part of the reason we have so few dogfights is that our pilots/planes are so much better than any body else's. That's kind of the point of the article.
posted by empath at 10:56 AM on February 15, 2009


Good read, but the avoidance of drones is fairly conspicuous. When air-to-air drones finally enter the fray, they'll be much more effective, on a tactical level, than any human piloted aircraft could hope to be, just because they'll be lighter, smaller, and able to handle acrobatics that a human body can't.

Of course, how secure and free-from-communications-interference those drones will be is another question-- and will probably become the question.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:12 AM on February 15, 2009






I love reading about this kind of stuff, but, damn, that is some fanboy-style writing.

Also, who are we to blame for sentences like this:

"All of the avionics on the F‑22 were designed from the ground up, and are fully integrated."

As opposed to what? Are the avionics on the F-15 designed from the sky down? cobbled together from chewing gum and baling wire? NOT integrated?

I mean, in the context of the original ad-copy-like paragraph, Bowden is implicity comparing the, oh let's call it the user interface of the F-22 to the F-15. But his preceding examples of the F-15's cluttered and confusing UI make it clear that the UI is aggregated from various data inputs, not new control surfaces. Is 'avionics' used generically to refer to control systems in general?

This was just one of the bumpy instances of what I take to be either poor editing, which has subtracted context, or poor authorial word choice, which has subtracted either accuracy or communicativeness. I found myself secondguessing the uses of words throughout the article and the experience, combined with the technofetishizing tone of the piece, undermines the author's larger intent.

Unless, as noted above, that intent involves getting some special flight privileges.
posted by mwhybark at 12:04 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Because dogfights are so common in today's wars.
that comment nailed it.

predator drones? sure. new ground attack aircraft (=the JSF)? okay. an even larger fleet of F22's than we already have (127 aircraft) at a unit cost of US$137.5 million? fuck off. that's not money well spent, that's just stroking someone's ego.

I strongly disagree with the argument that air superiority is at stake and even question that it's all that crucial beyond the direct battle anymore. apart from russia and china (and perhaps india) there isn't an air force in the world that has the manpower to put up a real fight for air superiority against the US right now and given that only the US has stealth technology the deck is stacked significantly. those orderly military forces the US is likely to oppose are no threat as all - look to the iraqi air force or the serbian or any arab country you'd like to put on a "you're next list."

the F22 and such fighter-bombers are completely irrelevant in counter-insurgency battles like the one the US is seeing at present. they can only do more harm to such a mission in the long run (by antagonizing the affected population via collateral damage) and don't deter the enemy much. I recommend david kilcullen as excellent further reading on this topic.

an entrenched-army vs. entrenched-army battle like the ones both sides envisioned during the cold war calls for these kinds of weapons. the highly individual guerilla warfare of the present day does not. I consider the F22 the modern day equivalent of the British Redcoat uniforms. great legacy, many sentimental feelings about them but just excessive for contemporary warface and thus withdrawn from combat in 1914.

don't get me wrong, I love the F22. it's a damn cool plane but damn cool is really all it is. it's a toy that's fun to have but just with a porsche 911 GTIII there really isn't any rational reason to buy it beyond that it's fun to drive. well, you want to spend my money but you're not letting me fly that thing, so I'm gonna oppose this one.

don't even think about raising the douchebag "think about the jobs" argument. that's asking for a job-training, education and job-security debate and you know you're gonna lose that one.

posted by krautland at 12:07 PM on February 15, 2009


Here's another thing: Bowden characterizes the incremental feature additions to the f-15 as a detiment based on usability issues. He also characterizes the incremental rollout of piece-by-piece feature upgrades to opposing aircraft as a key strategic advantage of the opposition fleet.

Not that it can't be both, mind you. It's simply that his deployment of the arguments appears to me to be slanted.
posted by mwhybark at 12:14 PM on February 15, 2009


We only assume American air dominance, because we never had any dogfights with the Russians.
The common Western assumptions about Russia (and the USSR) were that they were somewhat backwards in technology compared to the West.

However, the Russian engineering approach was simply different than the West's.

We tend to over-automate and thus increase risk-failure rates, while the Russians (and Soviets) had a "keep it simple stupid" approach. Furthermore the Russians tended to make their products more durable.

For example, at an F-16 airbase, one will see a crew of broom pushers on the runways as our planes were vulnerable to debris getting into the engines causing a drastic failure.

But...a Mig or Sukhoi could for practical purposes take off or land in a large pasture.

And don't underrate the Russian pilots, look at there relatively safe commercial aviation record since the breakup of the USSR...
posted by americana at 12:52 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


That Loggins tune with the sort of '80s disco bounce to it and the title "Playing with the Boys"? Dude. Come on. It's teh gay.

It's a little off the subject, and it's yet another RiffTrax thing, but really, the track for Top Gun contains a long section where Kevin Murphy sings a completely made-up Kenny Loggins song. It's brilliant.

I get the feeling that the thing that must be done to really put budget expenditures into perspective is not to report them in raw dollar values, which are all so high as to not fit into the imagination, but to put them in terms of other things. How much does it cost to build the average school? To repair the average road? To research the average new drug? How much did it cost to fund the moon program?

How many (or what portion of) a moon program does an F-22 cost? How many bridges-to-Alaska is that?
posted by JHarris at 1:03 PM on February 15, 2009


I'm an aeronautical engineer, and I enjoy arms porn as much as the next boy, but the F-22 is the most blatant case of a flying White Elephant you can imagine. NATO would do just as well dumping it and the F-35 and the Eurofighter and the Rafale, and just make do with the considerably cheaper Gripen as an airframe, investing the spare money in upgrading its avionics, and buying communications equipment and a shitload of combat drones to go with it.

As for the USA losing the "technological edge", pleaase, come on! The US spends as much in its armed forces as the rest of the world put together. If you are "losing your edge", then you are definitely not spending your money right.
posted by Skeptic at 1:27 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


BTW, with the crisis and the new US Administration and shit, we can look forward to plenty more preposterous shilling and lobbying in favour of the F-22 and other similarly doomed projects as the contractors boost their PR spending to try to save their bacon.
posted by Skeptic at 1:30 PM on February 15, 2009


Or we can bloat the Air Force structure with the asinine CDC system. Question: A device with four lines going into it, used for telephonic communication? Telephone. Oooh, that CDC question just screams 21st century Air Force enlisted structure to me.

Caveat: The F-22 is domestic U.S. product. It's not a Vornado fan, made in America; or a Coleman cooler hailing from Wichita, Ks (USA if you don't know your states); but it is a domestic product. When you buy *anything* from a slave country; you subordinate free countries everywhere; all for the sake of saving a few dollars... Call the F-22 "stimulus" and do something other than moan and point fingers. How very Obamaistic!
posted by buzzman at 2:03 PM on February 15, 2009


buzzman If you are going to spend your money (and your children's, and your grandchildren's) in stimulating the economy, then it is a good idea in doing it in useful things. Like roads or bridges to somewhere, schools, healthcare, or even, if you really want it, efficient weapons. To spend it in a fighter that is three times as expensive as the next closest thing (the F-35), offering only one tenth more real capability (and I'm being charitable), is worse than dumb: it only keeps the pigs feeding at the trough.
posted by Skeptic at 2:11 PM on February 15, 2009


Some very good points above.

Reading Nice Guy Mike's comments and some the responses I think it should be pointed out that the F-15, as clunky and demanding as Bowden makes its sound, has been favorably compared to the MiG-29 in terms of pilot workload--indeed, the usual explanation for the F-15's flawless record vs. the MiG-29 that was its Warsaw Pact nemesis had instrumentation that was even more complex and demanding/distracting than the F-15's, such that even its well-trained Soviet pilots were hard pressed to fly the aircraft to its performance limits while sustaining the cockpit task-load that combat would involve.

The F-16 observed the lessons of these issues with the Eagle (and the Fulcrum I suppose) and the Falcon's 'glass cockpit' was much touted, as were its HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) controls. Even so, the operation of the Falcon's various air-to-air and air-to-ground radar modes and management of its contextual display systems is not a simple matter. It has Link 16, but that alone doesn't provide the level of situational awareness that the Air Force claims the F-22 will have. The final evolution in Warsaw Pact systems shows that they observed this lesson as well--the final series of MiGs and Sukhois had much improved electronics, integrated helmet-mounted sights and were capable of some limited over-the-shoulder shots and other neat tricks (theoretically). The Warsaw Pact BVR radar missiles were for some time more advanced than ours (and as far as I know still maintain parity.)

The evolution of these systems to the level they have reached in the F-22 is transformative, moreso than the ability to supercruise or perform high-alpha maneuvers (other features that are commonly used to identify fifth generation fighters. ) It's not glamorous to talk about, but the Air Force is increasingly about 'putting weapons at a certain point at a cetain time' as mentioned above.

The whole question of drones can be instructively considered here. In a certain way, we are both already there and not there yet.

Active radar missiles like the AIM-120 are drones in a certain basic sense. Our fighters launch smaller, automated aircraft at each other which intelligently guide themselves to their designated target and self-destruct when it comes into range of their warheads. They will follow the aircraft through violent maneuvers, track it and predict its flight path to fly lead pursuit, etc. Similarly, our JDAM weapons (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) consist of our traditional array of iron bombs, essentially unchanged since Vietnam, with GPS guidance kits and large fins strapped to them such that they are converted to automated gliders. The aircraft that carry them become "bomb trucks"--they can fly at a high altitude and speed to anywhere within the spatial envelope in which Newtonian physics says the bombs will have enough energy to glide to their targets, release them, and fly away. The pilot doesn't even have to overfly the target, as they typically would to deploy a self-designated guided weapon (i.e. using onboard laser, radar or optical sensors.) The pilot simply releases the weapon in the vicinity of the target and the bomb dutifully pilots itself to the GPS fix loaded into it before release. It doesn't really matter if it comes off the wing of a Falcon, Hornet, Eagle, the launcher of a Raptor or JSF, or out of the bomb bay of a B-52 or B-1. This is especially not glamorous to talk about. But it is something that higher-ups do understand, as is evident in the great successes that have been achieved in the past by retrofitting newer guidance pods and weapons to older craft, successes that have been used to promote development of the technology used in the F-22 itself. (I think what NGM is thinking of, specifically, is the LITENING pod .)

On the other hand, having drone fighters or, especially, ground attack/support aircraft that can be flown from a bunker with the same situational awareness and responsiveness (which not only means combat effectiveness but safety to friendly forces and civilians) that a real pilot has is probably some ways away--there's a lot of technology that has to happen to make that reliable. As was mentioned upthread by darth_tedious, reliability and security of the control link alone would be really problematic even provided you could make the telepresence good enough. For those wondering, developing AI fly combat autonomously w/o a reliable control link is even further away (and kinda scary. Scarier yet in the ground attack scenario. Skynet!)

We're likely to need some manned aircraft for certain tasks for some time--but not for all of them, and not necessarily in the same familiar configurations and kinds of numbers we have seen. (Which I have mixed feelings about--as do many others who nevertheless reach the same conclusion.) Upgrading older aircraft is ultimately a way to keep more of them around than we could justify via any other means. A handful of bunker-controlled 'dispensable' drones accompanying slimmed down formations of manned fighters with control of the drones weapons might also be something to think about, as things develop over the next generational iterations.

(FYI -- there have been other discussions of the future of air combat vis a vis unmanned aircraft previously, such as in this AskMe and in other threads I'm not finding right now.)

Some brief responses to other comments:

NGM -- the Gripen is a pretty nice (and affordable) option as well. Not that there's any danger of the USAF or USN ever seriously considering acquiring a non-indigenous fighter in any real numbers (i.e. for anything other than to serve as aggressors in training.)

Empath -- what we're getting at is that at this point it's more about the enhancement of the weapons and the supporting systems that the aircraft carries, and cultivating the pilots' skills in effectively bringing them to bear first that will increasingly dictate superiority, rather than the race to improve aeronautical performance or to produce larger numbers of aircraft ( i.e. having 'more,' 'better' aircraft.) So rather than having as many of the absolute best performing aircraft that we can make, we might be better off producing a few of those and then using some of the new components to upgrade the large fleet of aircraft we already have to maintain their superiority. The goal is to have them operating together, all sharing data and carrying advanced weaponry such that they form an Unstoppable Voltron The Likes of Which No One Has Seen Before.

mwhybark -- the breathless but somewhat clumsy use of terminology is one of the stylistic elements of the article that provoked my somewhat severe response. I do think that to a certain extent Bowden uses language he doesn't really understand well enough in an effort to impress the reader or dress up the story. For instance, he makes mention of an F-22 engaging a MiG "while staying outside of the WEZ." [Weapons Engagement Zone -- the volume of space in which one aircraft can theoretically be targeted and attacked by another, as defined by attackers sensor and weapons capability.] This is rather poor usage at best--the point is that the MiG is in the F-22's WEZ far before the F-22 enters the MiG's WEZ. One cannot attack from outside of one's own WEZ. Duh. Considering this is one of the central points the article needs to communicate to inform the reader and to advance its argument, its unsettling that Bowden (or the editors) fumble it so messily. There are other examples. So, I right there with you on that one.

Now, to address your actual confusion--there is some modularity of systems on 4th generation aircraft. A newer aircraft might use the radar developed for another, the engines, etc. Some of these systems (i.e. the radar and the related fire control software) that would be part of the avionics suite are thus not designed "from the ground up" for the aircraft (and there's also the retrofitted systems on some of the types the F-22 was expected to replace.) Of course, these adopted components are re-designed and integrated instead. Of course, saying so would detract from the effectiveness of the bombast. As would pointing out that subsequent 5th generation aircraft will integrate systems developed 'for' the F-22. The ground-up aspect is there because it's the firstborn of its generation, and much of its innovation was centered around those systems. Aside from that, it's marketing jive.


Americana -- Russian aircraft were built to endure more primitive operation conditions because they had to. It would have been easier on Russian aircraft designers and producers if they didn't have to meet this requirement, as more weight could have been devoted to other equipment (vs sturdier landing gear or fan blades)--among other design trade-offs. Note that other countries have this requirement for their aircraft as well--notably, Sweden and the SAAB family of fighter-bombers--because the exigencies of their national defense dictate they must. Any feature requirement generally comes at a compromise--either in another area of capability/performance or in cost/feasibility. This isn't something 'better' we just don't do because we don't see the point or are lazy or cheap.

The F-16 does have an irritating problem with FOD that wasn't really anticipated, but it wasn't designed to operate from improvised bases. Forward desert operations are a role it's had to cope with as its mission has evolved post-Cold War. And it's a pretty small blemish on an incredibly successful aircraft design. It's interesting that you'd single out the F-16 for criticism under the KISS principle, as it was honored by the F-16's designers--known as the Light Fighter Mafia--- to a greater extent than in any other recent American program.

So far as discounting Warsaw Pact aircraft--it's not the aircraft that are discounted so much as the inferior doctrine (ground controlled intercept) and aversion to maintaining a competitive tempo of realistic training (due to expense) in the USSR and now Russia/CIS. There were indeed phases of the Cold War in which MiGs were acknowledged to be 'superior' to their Western equivalents when compared purely in terms of the aircraft performance specifications--but this did not translate into air superiority. I think the article even makes some peripheral mention of this.

On preview, much of what Skeptic just said is accurate if put a little more cynically than I would--and it's nice to see another Gripen fan!
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2009 [7 favorites]


We only have so much money. Where our fights are now is on the ground. Rumsfeld had the idea that a smaller ground force coupled with a powerful air component would be enough. He was dead wrong. Being able to crush the enemy at war means that to beat the US, you must fight it after the conventional war is "won."

That's why the Raptor isn't going to be built in the numbers we had hoped--because we can't rely on it to provide the winning of the political goal that each war is really all about. Turns out that for achieving the political goal, there's nothing like the good old infantry.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:12 PM on February 15, 2009


I think you may be muddying the waters a little--the role of advanced aircraft in war vs. occupation--but the point that the infantry is ever essential to both while the F-22 has little to contribute to the latter is well taken. On the other hand, I'm not sure I want a standing military that is primarily organized to carry out long term occupations.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:17 PM on February 15, 2009


snuffleupagus - I quite like the Gripen myself, although (and here I go, falling straight into the trap that I was warning bullysumday about) I'm not sure the performance really puts it into the F-22/Typhoon/Rafale category. Great aircraft, but the capability is slightly behind - for example, I see it as a perfect complement to (rather than replacement for) the Typhoon, as a light fighter. It's arguably a closer spiritual successor to the F-16's cheap, light, "simple" design philosophy than the F-35 that will replace it in most US and NATO formations.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 4:26 PM on February 15, 2009


F22 unit cost: US$137.5 million

for comparison, the MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer runs about 22 million a plane


Just because something is cheaper doesn't necessarily mean the military will spend less. A lower per-unit cost just lets them buy more units.

Also, new technology has higher incidental costs. I'd like to see how much the operational costs are: training remote control pilots and maintenance staff, R&D and upkeep for networking infrastructure and communication security, buying replacement parts for what wears out, etc.

Additionally, I'm wary of efforts to take the human element out of war, as a matter of course. As a species we already fight increasingly vicious and dehumanized conflicts. At least when human beings are on the line, we have to pay for our instincts with blood, and I don't see how a population can understand the true costs and consequences of war when robots are fighting it on our behalf.

We (Americans) have already spent trillions and lost thousands of soldiers on a pointless colonial expedition, on the understanding that we get to fill our SUVs with cheap gas. We can barely muster any outrage at the pointless waste of life, let alone comprehend the financial cost. Sending in the metal ones just seems like making a bad situation worse, by making the voting public more detached from the costs and consequences of its actions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:34 PM on February 15, 2009


A United States job is a United States job. Engineered and made in the US (United States, for those that have forgot; or smeared the last 8 unfortunate years over the entire course and history of our nation; our nation which literally saved the world 65 years ago).

Or. folks can continue at their local POS to consume garbage disposables from slave countries. I mean, Bose; or Magnepan, Paradigm, Martin Logan, whatever. Oh, look at my lovely home! It is chock full of things made by slaves! Oh wait; I don't want to talk about that part. How about I ****ed my brother that manufactures things and my cousin that does engineering by going to the WallyMart (which all Republicans just luv and luv on) to buy cheap wafer thin clothes.

Right now it is not what it is; it is where it is being made. A lot of waste will occur; I'd rather see it happen here; not see the funding going off-shore. Argh.
posted by buzzman at 5:12 PM on February 15, 2009


I am still pissed off we passed on the F-20 Tigershark. Superb airframe, fully updated avionics, and it used maintenance equipment we already had in inventory. One thing people don't realize, that when you buy a new airframe, you buy new engines, and new engine carts, and new generators, new fueling systems... Sure, the planes are expensive, but it's the bundled hardware (and training and retrofitting and inventory tracking upgrades...) that gets you.

That's just me. I am a cheap bastard, love elegance in design, but adore it in procurement. Killing two birds with one stone isn't good enough. I want six.
posted by Xoebe at 5:19 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


A United States job is a United States job.
except that in a globalized economy is rarely is. aircraft manufacturing? yeah, right. your local taco cart is more american.
posted by krautland at 5:44 PM on February 15, 2009


A United States job is a United States job. Engineered and made in the US (United States, for those that have forgot; or smeared the last 8 unfortunate years over the entire course and history of our nation;

I could talk about the F-35 international workshare but I'm afraid your eyes would pop clean out of their sockets. :-)

our nation which literally saved the world 65 years ago).

Not touching that one with a bargepole - even a network-centric one. :-)
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 8:14 PM on February 15, 2009


our nation which literally saved the world 65 years ago).

Спасибо

Wait, you're from where?
posted by atrazine at 9:18 PM on February 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice Guy Mike: I am afraid that buzzman is just trying to express his preference for the F-22 over the (partly) furrin-built F-35. Oh well (psst, buzzman, that way to townhall.com. You'll feel more at home.)

My point, in any case, is that the F-22, though an impressive piece of military kit, and vastly superior to anything that's going to be around for the foreseeable future, is too expensive and completely redundant. Especially with the F-35 also available.

What are the foreseeable threats to the USAF for the next 30-40 years? Mostly souped-up MiG-29s and Su-27s. Although the latter is an impressive airframe, it's still hampered by old Soviet thinking as a weapon system. What else is there? Chinese fighters? Don't make me laugh: the Chengdu J-10 is a joke. I don't rule out the Chinese building up a viable domestic aircraft industry within the next decade, but they still aren't there so far. As for the Iranians, they're still hard pressed to keep old Shah-era F-4s and F-14s going, and their biggest achievement so far has been to reverse-engineer the F-5. The F-5, fer Chrissakes, cheapass 1950s technology for cash-strapped US allies. Rafales sold by the reckless French to nasty despots? By past form (the Falklands, the first Gulf War, etc.), the first thing the French do with such export equipment is to plant hidden weaknesses in it and to extensively brief their allies before any conflict.

Fact is, a well-organised and -trained force of updated F-16s will be able to deal with anything that the "Evil Empires" of the world will be throwing at Western democracies for the next few decades. And the reason for that is that, they are not even trying anymore. Saddam already showed that the best you could do even with a state-of-the-art air force, if confronted by the Americans, is to bury it. On the other hand, distributing small arms among the Ba'athists (and letting Paul Bremer's incompetence do the rest), may not have saved him from the scaffold, but has kept the Americans busy for the last 6 years. Everybody but the Pentagon seems to have learnt that lesson: you don't fight the US in its own terms.

Chávez' purchase of Su-27s is just a sop to his military machismo: he knows very well that the containerloads of AK-47s he's bought and widely distributed among his faithful will do a lot more harm to any invading force (also, he does not trust his US-trained pilots one little bit).

Instead of spending its "defence" money in big toys' boys to fight non-existent threats, the Pentagon would do better to invest in surveillance drones, infantry comms, body armour, armoured light vehicles and everything it really takes to fight real threats with AKs, RPGs and IEDs...
posted by Skeptic at 2:51 AM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


How many highly trained ground soldiers can you get for $65 billion? I'd ballpark 50,000.

Would a better fighter plane or 50,000 more troops have been more useful in our last couple of wars?
posted by miyabo at 6:30 AM on February 16, 2009




From what I've heard, there's a lot more potential in unmanned drones. Their autopilot programs are getting good enough that they can compensate for the latency of being piloted from halfway across the globe. In fact, the planes are already pretty automated. Dropping a bomb now just consists of flying to the place. The computer opens the doors and drops the bombs when the nav system says it's at the right place. Humans aren't that in the loop as it is, and they lack the small reaction times that give machines an edge.

Since unmanned drones can be smaller, faster and more maneuverable, as well as likely cheaper to build, maintain and pilot (you have to pay a human to risk his life, you just have to pay for hardware and software for a machine). Plus, there's a lot of cooler things you could do with a UAV, such as launching one from a missile or satellite to slip in undetected.

At the same time, though, the fact these cost effective drones are becoming more feasible makes me worry about the future. If they move too fast/are too small to track, they could really cause a lot of chaos.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:10 PM on February 16, 2009


The U.S. pretty consistently puts more money into stuff rather than training. Not that there isn’t good training. But equipment is what keeps the manufacturers happy. Training is a whole other thing. Some of it is outsourced actually. But for the most part, it’s still government programs. Can’t make a dime off that.

Plenty said here about the minutiae of aircraft/air war, I’ve got nothing to add.
I will say though in response to: “We aren't going to be going into conventional warfare with Russia or China that's for damn sure” - that I’m not so sure.
All things remaining constant, I’d be surprised if we didn’t have a limited dust up with China in about 12 years.
I’d suspect Russia to side with us. The other former Soviet states maybe not so much. The situation with Pakistan isn’t going to get better, and right now, thanks to George the Lesser, we’re in no shape to do much about it.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:01 PM on February 16, 2009


(to clarify - the minutiae was a good read I thought. Can't add anything much as I'd like to)
posted by Smedleyman at 8:19 AM on February 17, 2009


There is only a couple of things I would like to add. It has already been pointed out, but a couple of people are comparing different types of fighters. The JSF and the F-22 were developed as two different tools to be used for different jobs. Also the development cycles for these two aircraft were a few years apart. It wasn't a choice between one or the other, even if they wanted to.
Personally, I'm kind of partial to the "creating jobs" argument as I spent two years of my life working on the F-22.
Last, I just wanted to point out the whole "Top Gun is teh gay" thing was covered quite well by Quinton Tarantino.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:41 PM on February 20, 2009


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