In recent months, we’ve detailed various efforts to target the Air Force’s F-22 fighter program, centerpiece of the service’s force modernization efforts. The F-22 (nicknamed the Raptor) is the world’s first, true fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth, advanced sensors and supercruise capabilities in an airframe designed to dominate aerial combat, and precisely strike high-value targets on the ground. At $361 million a copy, the F-22 is hardly cheap, but it’s an aircraft that the Air Force considers vital for assuring aerial superiority for the next 50 years.

Critics argue that the F-22 is not only too expensive, it’s completely ill-suited for the Global War on Terrorism, where much of the fighting occurs at close quarters on the ground. They believe that money earmarked for the Raptor would be better sent on the expansion of our ground forces, and improvements in systems/sensors that directly support our troops who are carrying the fight to the enemy. From our perspective, we believe that our forces need both. Obviously, a long war against terrorism mandates upgrades to our ground forces–and the elements that assist them. But cancelling the F-22 would be a grave mistake, allowing our adversaries to close the technological gap and jeopardizing the ability of U.S. forces to maintain air dominance–a cornerstone of our military strategy against an advanced foe, namely China.

But critics of the F-22 smell blood in the water, and attacks on the aircraft have ramped up in recent months. The 20 September 2006 issue of Jane’s Defense Week (subscription required) contains a scathing critique by former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey and James Stevenson, who once edited Topgun Journal, the official publication of the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School. On the surface, Sprey and Stevenson appear to have the background and experience to make such an argument. Sprey made his mark in the 70s and 80s as a member of Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s “fighter mafia,” arguing for smaller, more manuverable aircraft, based on analysis that showed larger, less nimble fighters were more likely to be shot down. During his time at the Pentagon, Sprey played a leading role in the development of both the A-10 ground attack aircraft and the F-16 multi-role fighter. Stevenson, the former Topgun editor, is also the author of books on the Navy’s cancelled A-12 fighter program and the F/A-18.

According to Sprey and Stevenson, there are five attributes that make a winning fighter: (1) pilot training and ability; (2) obtaining the first sighting and surprising the enemy; (3) outnumbering enemy fighters in the air; (4) outmaneuvering the enemy to gain a firing position, and (5) converting split-second opportunities into kills. Based on their analysis, the F-22 is a mediocrity on attributes 4 and 5; it is a liability on numbers 1, 2, and 3.

To support their claims, Mr. Sprey and Mr. Stevenson utilize a blend of half-truths and outdated information. They note that F-22 pilots are only receiving about 14-20 hours of flying time a month–about the same as Navy pilots entering Topgun in the late 1970s. Sprey and Stevenson note that “robustly” trained Topgun instructors, flying “cheap” F-5s and flying 50-60 hours a month, consistently whipped their students–and their USAF breathern flying more advanced F-15s and F-16s. Missing from their analysis is a salient fact: Topgun instructors–like their USAF Weapons School counterparts–are the elite of the nation’s military pilots. By design, Topgun instructors were supposed to fly more each month that pilots from “line” squadrons; if the instructor pilots hadn’t dominated their students and “ordinary” fighter jocks, that would have been a genuine news flash, and the school would have quickly closed its doors.

Sprey and Stevenson also discount the training provided by today’s full-motion, state-of-the-art simulators which are much more realistic than those available 30 years ago. Simply stated, pilots can accomplish a lot more in today’s “sims” than they could in the late 1970s, so some of the training once reserved for an actual sortie can now be accomplished on the ground. True, flying the sim isn’t quite the same thing as strapping on the jet, but ignoring the benefits of simulator training is a major flaw in their analysis.

The Raptor critics also downplay the increased effectiveness of today’s air-to-air missiles, referring (instead) to the Vietnam era, when AAMs–particularly the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow–had a high failure rate, forcing F-4 crews to press in for an IR missile shot (with an AIM-9 Sidewinder), or use the 20mm cannon that was retrofitted to the Phantom. They ignore more recent conflicts, most notably the 1999 air campaign against Serbia. During that conflict, NATO warplanes (USAF F-15s and a Dutch F-16) relied solely on the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM) to shoot down five Serbian MiG-29 FULCRUMs, most at beyond visual range (BVR). Reliability rates for AMRAAM in the Balkans were far higher than the oft-quoted 10-20% success rate for the AIM-7 in Vietnam. But, since AMRAAM data doesn’t suit their argument, Sprey and Stevenson carefully ignore it.

Likewise, they also tend to overestimate the ability of enemy pilots and air defense crews to detect and engage LO aircraft like the F-22. They note that the Serbs managed to down an F-117 during Operation Allied Force, using older radars and surface-to-air missiles. But, once again, they omit key facts, namely that the Serb air defense commander who scored the F-117 kill was considered the best in his nation’s air force, and that NATO planners inadvertently aided the Serbs, by using the same ingress and egress routes time and time again. With better planning–and against lesser-skilled SAM crews–the F-117 would have probably survived its mission, so the “shootdown” over Serbia is not an accurate indicator of how LO aircraft might fare against adversary air defenses.

Sprey and Stevenson also claim that the relative “unreliability” of Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems will make it more difficult for the F-22 to kill hostile aircraft at long ranges, resulting in more short-range dogfights where the larger Raptor is supposedly at a disadvantage. However, those arguments are equally suspect. IFF is but one tool used to identify hostile aircraft, and not the primary mechanism employed in combat, where (it is assumed) that virtually all aircraft will have their transponders turned off, or squawking a secure mode that cannot be correctly process by our fighters or AWACS. In that scenario, other tools, including non-cooperative target recognition, rules of engagement and electronic support measures (ESM) will be used to identify friendly and hostile aircraft. The possibility of mistaken ID (and even fratricide) will always exist–as it always does–but there are more measures for combat identification than IFF.

In short, Sprey and Stevenson are guilty of cherry-picking information to fit their case. With its ability to engage enemy aircraft at long range (and remain undetected), the F-22 has the ability to dominate aerial combat for decades to come, and support a fundamental requirement for our military doctrine. Certainly, the Raptor is expensive, but the supposedly “cost effective” solution (updating our F-15s and F-16s) would only result in a slow erosion of our superiority in the skies. Against adversaries that are rapidly modernizing, it is an option we simply can’t afford, and the savings promised by F-22 critics are illusory at best, dangerous at worst.