by Michael Durao
December 7, 2010

Although air superiority has been taken for granted by the United States in its recent counterinsurgency actions since the end of the Cold War, the development and acquisition of fighter jets meant to ensure the control of airspace – and, as a result, reliably deliver close air support to ground forces more capable of tangible, strategic victories – has remained a multi-trillion dollar aspect of defense spending across the globe.  This is in part a result of the inherent complexity of aircraft compared with other military hardware, but it is also-being subject to an unstoppable technological momentum derived from a desire for more capable airspace control, one that will always continue regardless of the acquisition policies of one nation or transnational faction.  This paper will set out to demonstrate that momentum on a worldwide scale through study of the ongoing development and acquisition of 5th generation fighter jets, and that the technological system of the US defense industry has taken on an autonomous role that is ill-prepared to meet foreign technological momentum.  For the sake of clarity, the components that I use to set 5th generation fighters apart from their 4th and 4.5th generation counterparts are active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for stealth through low probability of intercept (LPI) scans to prevent hostile passive detection of its own radar emissions plus low-radar cross section (RCS) airframe design including internal ordinance bays for stealthiness against hostile active radar scanning.  By that definition, the 5th generation currently includes the American F-22A Raptor and F-35A/B/C Lightning II, will include the Russian/Indian T-50 PAK-FA when it enters operational status in approximately 2015, and will include the Chinese J-XX a few years after the PAK-FA goes into production.  Technological momentum refers to the idea set forth by Thomas P. Hughes that moderated the dogma of technological determinism, suggesting that technologies interact with societies as both causes and effects themselves.  In showing the reality and ramifications of technological momentum in this field, I will focus on the initial race to outperform the 4th generation, the cancellation of the F-22 Raptor in favor of the F-35 as an instance of technological autonomy run amok in the American political system and defense industry, and the continued development of 5th generation fighter technologies overseas as a demonstration of the current American system’s futility in preventing technological momentum outside of its legal and geographical jurisdiction.

The first area where technological momentum in fighter development becomes apparent in the history of 5th generation fighters is in examining the F-22’s origins as part of the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program.  Beginning in 1981, the United States Air Force (USAF) began studies into replacing its relatively new F-15 Eagle high-tier fighter in response to the new Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighters, which were generally regarded as almost on par with the USAF’s inventory and expected to eventually be outperformed by indigenous Soviet stealth and aerodynamic developments (GlobalSecurity.org).  This is where the F-22 began as an effect of technology – Soviet 4th generation fighter jets, which were themselves an effect of the USAF’s development of its own 4th generation fighters.  However, actual flight testing of the YF-22 prototype and its rival YF-23 Black Widow II did not begin until 1990, at which point the Cold War was rapidly marginalized as the USSR’s fall appeared increasingly inevitable, and while the Gulf War a year later involved air combat, most of the Iraqi aircraft encountered were mediocre 3rd generation craft shot down by USAF F-15s with no friendly air-to-air losses. 

For the time being, though, the ATF program was merely research and development with four airframes, relatively cheap compared with acquisition programs and far from the public and political spotlight.  But when the YF-22 was chosen as the victor of the ATF competition it came time for acquisition, and the USAF campaigned hard to procure a high-tier, advanced fighter that provided no significant benefit over the F-15 in recent conflicts such as intervention in Somalia and peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, especially after Serbian MiG-29s spectacularly failed in combat against F-15s in the latter (acig.org).  As a result, the USAF changed its marketing of the F-22 to Congress and the craft became a cause rather than an effect, an influence on political aspects of society.  

First, the F-22 was renamed the F/A-22, with the A standing for “attack” and mimicking the Navy’s naming convention for its multirole F/A-18 aircraft.  The F-22, however, has never been intended for multirole capabilities and its ability to carry a small inventory of bombs was an afterthought.  More notably, the plane was reverse adapted into a jobs program with significant support from the heavily unionized aerospace industry.  This drove bipartisan support that continued well into the 2000s, with Republicans supporting the craft for its ability to project power overseas while Democrats bowed to union interests, as evidenced by Chris Dodd’s pleas for its continued acquisition (senate.gov), even joined by Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein (Kaplan).  Reverse adaptation being defined by Langdon Winner as “modifying … needs in accordance with the requirements of planning,” this occurred in the form of the F-22 becoming a response to a manufactured need for defense and aerospace jobs after its initial cause became irrelevant.

When Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense, he entered the office with a desire to transform the US military into a force tailored to fighting insurgencies, not large-scale conflicts against other superpowers.  He described this as “matching virtue to necessity,” (Donnelly and Schmitt) a literal inversion of the definition of reverse adaptation.  While Bush was indecisive on the matter, Obama’s 2009 defense budget limited F-22 procurement to 187 airframes.

The great irony here is what a thin, unconvincing facade of technological control Gates’s actions erected.  He prevented further building and procurement of Raptors, but the money and resources went directly into the F-35 instead (Kaplan).  Obviously the F-22’s price was not the issue as the F-35 is over double the cost of the Raptor at nearly $300 million per airframe (FY2011 Budget Estimates) in addition to being less capable.  Gates exerted control over one application of technology, but he has not altered the procurement system whatsoever: the F-35 is yet another jobs program, just one that promises more jobs at an even greater expense.  As a low-tier fighter rather than high-tier, the F-35 has always been planned to be produced in more numerous numbers than F-22s, though not in the wildly disproportionate amount the current plan calls for.  Nearly 2,500 F-35s will be produced for the US military alone (PBS Newshour), and several hundred more will be sold to export customers in NATO and elsewhere.  It is also made even more unkillable than the Raptor by its subcontracting being an international affair, especially threatening heavy investment by the British defense industry in the jet and Italy’s contracted agreement to produce F-35s for all other NATO customers.

F-22 production, meanwhile, was originally planned as 1,000 fighters overall during the Cold War, but realistic plans for more adequate Raptor acquisition today call for half that number to better replace the USAF’s F-15s.  It is also subject to a ban on exports imposed by Congress because the plane is so advanced, meaning production would definitely end after all USAF orders are filled.  The F-22 is a victim of all of these circumstances, and while Robert Gates may have successfully capped the program at 187 airframes the broken system of military Keynesianism continues to manufacture need for the sake of jobs rather than meeting threats.

And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.  A year after its funding was cut off, the “Cold War relic” outpaced the relevance of the impotent F-35 when Sukhoi unveiled the T-50 PAK-FA prototype in early 2010.  Developed jointly between Russia and India, the T-50 is a high-tier air superiority fighter intended as Russia’s first foray into the 5th generation.  While the plane’s performance is still unknown to the West, some notable defense commentators had already declared the F-35 unable to counter the T-50 based on knowledge of its avionics suite and higher air-to-air payload well before the first prototype had flown (Kopp and Goon).  Were this development limited to Russia and India it would be irrelevant, as direct conflict with either nation is unlikely, but the PAK-FA’s true virtue is its low price tag, promoting widespread proliferation of aircraft that can easily outmatch anything short of a Raptor.  At approximately $100 million per airframe, Vietnam is expected to be the first export customer (Johnson), and other nations expressing interest such as Venezuela, Algeria, and Egypt are far from superpowers; further technology transfer following PAK-FA acquisition by small states is to be expected.  The threat of widely proliferated 5th generation air superiority fighters is heightened by the planned Chinese J-20, which will likely see even more exports when it enters service in the 2020s (Gertz).

What the PAK-FA and J-20 demonstrate is that the inertia of technological momentum cannot be stopped, especially in defense technologies.  Much like the proliferation of nuclear arms due to their strategic value, the paradigmatic advantages offered by 5th generation aircraft over any aircraft from the 4th generation ensure not just air superiority, but air dominance if a foe is not similarly well-equipped, and the allure of such military dominance will inevitably be worth investing in to someone.  However, despite these real strategic concerns the American defense industry has grown into an even more uncontrollable mess than it was in the Cold War, and after two decades without meaningful weapons technology development in the East those charged with oversight of procurement are more concerned with jobs generated – a manufactured goal meant to keep the system running – than their stated goal of deterring aggression with superior hardware.  Very soon, as PAK-FA exports begin, the US will be faced with a technological threat that it has the means but not the political will to address.  As the unnecessary and inept F-35 becomes the costliest weapons program in history (PBS Newshour,) efforts to bring about that will present the nation with an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the autonomy and political control of the defense industry.  The real and tangible threat of PAK-FAs wantonly sold around the world will be the result of an unstoppable technological momentum, and it can only be met with recognition that hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on securing defense sector jobs and buying thousands of fighter jets made to fight current counterinsurgencies – unwinnable conflicts that will likely be abandoned before the end of the decade – are not the solution.

Michael Durao is an Beowulf Associate who's analytical expertise is focused on aerospace platforms.  His particular concentration lies in the analysis of the capabilities and proliferation of Eastern air defense and air-to-air systems, defense acquisition reform, and the evolving paradigms of 21st Century warfighting.
Works Cited

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