Test pilot Jon Beesley — one of only two men on the planet to have flown both the F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor — says aerial combat is not two gunfighters facing each other in the middle of the street, drawing pistols, and shooting it out.
“That’s High Noon, that’s Gary Cooper,” says Beesley, 59, a grandfather of 16 and a former Air Force fighter pilot who now test flies experimental and prototype fighter-aircraft for Lockheed Martin. “Air combat has always been about stealth; about being able to get into position to kill the other guy — preferably unobserved — and if you are observed, being able to outmaneuver him.
“Ever heard of fighter pilots wanting to come out of the sun or the clouds? That’s why they want to do it. They don’t want their opponent to see them. That’s stealth.”
It is that stealth, superior air-combat training, platforms that outperform all others, and sheer numbers of aircraft that have enabled America to dominate the skies above every battlespace in which U.S. forces have been engaged for nearly 60 years.
But that air-dominance — which Air Force officials say far too many Americans take for granted — has increasingly become a hyper-costly proposition.
Take America’s hottest new fighter aircraft programs: Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, a now 10-year-old super-stealthy air-supremacy fighter designed to replace the F-15 Eagle; and the not-yet-operational also-stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Both fifth-generation fighters. Neither of which competes with the other. Meant for different missions they are, rather, designed to compliment each other.
The F-22 was built for speed: Though her numbers are classified, she can outrun, outclimb, and outmaneuver any fighter aircraft a potential adversary might be able to put up against us.
According to Beesley, “F-22 was designed to supercruise [Mach 1.5 without afterburner] and for air-dominance. It has thrust-vectored engines, strong maneuvering capability at all speeds. And it is exceedingly maneuverable at supersonic speeds.”
Basically, nothing on earth can touch it much less see it.
Problem is, the $130-million-plus Raptor was capped at 187 airplanes in recent Defense spending cuts.
Then we have the F-35, the first-ever aircraft designed to replace four existing aircraft from three services:
• The CTOL (conventional takeoff-and-landing) variant for the Air Force will replace the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the “tank killing” A-10 Thunderbolt.
• The STOVL (short takeoff-vertical landing) variant for the Marine Corps will replace the AV-8 Harrier “jump jet.”
• The carrier takeoff-and-landing variant for the Navy and Marine Corps will replace the F-18 Hornet.
Because it is designed as a family of three warplanes — and 70-80 percent of each variant is common to the other two — the F-35 is said by Lockheed officials to be extremely cost effective throughout the life of the program, about 30-plus years. One jet in three versions means one assembly line instead of three.
Though not as expensive as the F-22 and though cost-estimates vary based on a variety of factors, the price of an F-35 is anywhere from $60 million to $90 million per copy (just under $50 billion to $60-plus million if looking at the 2002 baseline estimates), with the CTOL fighter on the low end, and the more expensive models being the increased bells-and-whistles STOVL and carrier jets.
Granted, she’s not as fast as the F-22 nor is she quite as maneuverable at supersonic speeds, but the F-35 can carry more weapons and run a broader range of missions than the F-22.
The F-35 is amazing in action: Able to simultaneously fight at least eight enemy planes, and, at the same time, lock-on to as many as 16 enemy ground targets. She can track literally hundreds of targets for 360 degrees and at tracking distances that — though classified — far exceed the distances of the legacy jets. And like the F-22, there is nothing out there that can outfight F-35. Except the F-22.
So which of the two would win in a dogfight? Difficult to answer, says Beesley who states that “subsonically, the F-35 and F-22 are very much the same airplane. Supersonically, the F-22 is in its own realm, but to think that somebody else can go out there and dance with the F-22 is just not true.”
Nevertheless, the F-35 is not designed to be an air-superiority fighter, and so when I suggest it not be billed as such, Beesley suggests “That may be a naïve point of view,” adding “those who attack the air-superiority capabilities of the airplane use a benchmark that’s way above everybody else.”
According to Beesley, one must first define what is meant by air supremacy. “If air supremacy means there not being anybody out there that does a specific role better than me — hence air supremacy — then we have a challenge and build an airplane around that role,” he says. “If we talk about my ability to go out in my airplane and engage and destroy the enemy, control the skies in many aspects, then the F-35 is very much an air-superiority airplane.”
Beesley adds, we already have F-22s, “have had them since the turn of the century.” But we need numbers, he says, “because some potential adversary might have tremendous numbers.
“Yes, the F-22 can fly higher and faster, and it has longer reach. The F-35 advantages are — because of the affordability that has been driven into the design — you get to have more than one airplane. Also, the F-22 is a marvelous example of integrating advanced avionics systems, but it’s based on technology that’s more than 10 years old. So, in many ways, the mission systems on the F-35 will be a strength and an advantage. And both airplanes have a distinct advantage over other fighters in a close and beyond-visual-range fight.”
Wrapping up my conversation with Beesley, I ask two basic questions.
First, how theoretically might we make the F-35 like the F-22?
“We might put a smaller weapons bay in it,” Beesley says. “We might lengthen the airplane, increase the wingspan, make the tail a bit bigger and put in two engines. Then it would look remarkably like the F-22.”
Second, if the F-35 is not designed to be an air supremacy fighter and the F-22 has been capped at less than 200, there is a concern that the Russians, the Chinese, or who knows who else might be able to put up fighters in great numbers that will challenge our air supremacy in 10-20 years. Will we be able to knock down anything any potential adversary might put up?
“Yes, as far as I know,” says Beesley. “There would have to be some quantum step in technology beyond anyone’s imagination for it to be otherwise. Some of it is just basic physics and these things are very hard to do.
“Does that mean it [the F-35] can presently defeat anything that we can see? Yes.
“Can we defeat anything we can project they can do? The answer is also, yes.
“Can it defeat anything anybody else could imagine? Probably not. But that’s because people have wild imaginations. Still, it’s very hard to build low-observable fighter airplanes. Without that capability it does in fact become something like a High Noon-fight situation. But remember, air combat is when you can’t see anybody until you’re in a phone booth with them.”
The F-22 Raptor became operational in 2005.
The F-35 was officially christened the Lightning II in 2006. The first Lightning was the old P-38 Lightning, also a Lockheed-built airplane, of World War II fame. That Lightning shot down more enemy planes (including the plane transporting Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto over the Solomons) than any other U.S. warplane in the Pacific theater.