Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer, the General who won against overwhelming odds in one of the most important fights in the Battle of Gettysburg, led the 7th Cavalry to the worst military defeat in the history of the U.S. Army at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. While this assessment is debated, one of the reasons for this was that his troops were carrying single shot breach loading carbines while his adversaries carried a variety of weapons, including repeaters. The Springfield single shot breach loader had problems, and the “Indians had superior firepower.” At least a quarter of them had repeaters. In light of the large Indian numerical advantage, this was a lot of firepower.
The disparity was made worse by the fact that Custer left his Gatling guns behind. The Army had selected a single shot breach loader over repeaters because of lower procurement and ammunition costs (“efficient use of ammunition”). They used less ammunition because they fired slower. In the 1860s, the 7th Cavalry had carried seven-shot repeaters. The senior surviving officer from the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Major Marcus Reno, said that “The Indians had Winchester rifles and the column made a large target for them, and they were pumping bullets into it.” Within about 15 years, all modern armies had switched to repeaters. A key factor in the decision to procure a single shoot breech loader was that “Army appropriations were at an all-time low, and a key factor in the Springfield’s favor was its low production cost.” Three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, all of the Springfield carbines were recalled and rebuilt.
This decision is eerily reminiscent of the new Air Force policy of procurement of fighter aircraft, apparently based largely on peacetime operation and maintenance (O&M) costs. Worse still, the performance differences between the guns used at the Battle of the Little Big Horn were much less significant than the difference between the all 5th generation U.S. fighter force that was previously planned and what is now going forward in the Biden administration largely due to its defense cuts. There seems to be a large disconnect between the threat assessment and the objectives of procurement. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall told Defense News that our goal should be to field the kinds of leap-ahead technologies that would “scare China.” This is the right objective, but the new Air Force fighter program is unlikely to achieve this goal.
The Air Force fighter program now seeks to have a “‘four-plus one’: the F-35—which he [Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown] called the ‘cornerstone’ of the force”; the other aircraft including “the new F-15EX; the F-16 or a successor jet”; and “the NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance], plus the A-10.” The Air Force now reportedly plans on the early retirement of the most advanced air dominance fighter in the world, the F-22, and replacing it with a small number (possibly 50-100) of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighters. De facto, the Air Force is planning to replace the F-22 with an F-15EX fighter that has no stealth, no supercruise, less sensor integration and much less maneuverability. It is also replacing some of its previously planned F-35s buys with a new fighter that “…must be affordable to buy and operate and need not be as stealthy as an F-35.”
The reason for the F-22 retirement, according to General Brown, is that the F-22 “cannot be made competitive against the threat two decades from today.” Thus, the Air Force wants us to believe that an upgraded F-22 can’t deal with the 2040 threat, but upgraded pre-stealth fighters can do this despite the fact that the F-22 exceeds their performance in virtually every respect. The Air Force has long said that the F-22 is the best air-to-air fighter in the world and the F-35 is the second best. If so, how can the F-35 survive in the 2040 air-to-air environment if an upgraded F-22 can’t? The F-15EX is no F-35. While its new electronics are very advanced by 4th generation standards, the F-15EX does not have the sensor fusion built into the F-22 and F-35. In the words of Lieutenant General David A. Deptula USAF (Ret.), Major General Lawrence A. Stutzreim, USAF (Ret.) and Heather Penney, “…fourth-generation aircraft, even with advanced avionics modifications like those on the F-15EX, are simply not survivable against modern threats.” Even with its limited stealth, the Russian Su-57 will likely dominate all 4th generation fighters. Unlike 4th generation jets, the Su-57 reportedly has a limited supercruise capability of Mach 1.3.
The Russians are in the process of upgrading the stealth and providing new engines (they are having problems with them) for the Su-57 by 2025, which will enhance its supercruise capability. As Kris Osborn pointed out, “Air dominance against enemy aircraft and air defenses, while of course heavily reliant upon sensor range and fidelity, also requires an ability to maneuver and elude approaching enemy aircraft, something a non-stealthy plane like an F-15 jet is likely to struggle with.”
According to Boeing, the F-15s new fly by wire flight controls “…did not expand its flight envelope…[but] it did improve its agility while reducing maintenance requirements.” Since the F-15 lacks the central element of all 5th generation fighters – stealth—it is much more likely to get into dogfights. Its fly-by-wire upgrade will provide much less of a dogfighting advantage than the thrust vectoring that is now almost universal in the new Russian fighters and which will increasingly be present in new Chinese fighters. Thrust vectoring is very useful in a gunfight.
In 2019, the Air Force was saying that it saw the F-15EX “…as a possible standoff weapons magazine working in conjunction with the F-22.” If we eliminate the F-22, it certainly does not have that role, and the case for the F-15EX as an air dominance fighter is undercut. In these circumstances, it certainly does not have the capability to be our main air dominance fighter. It is not capable of penetrating very heavy defenses. Air Force Magazine estimated that the detection range of a Russian S-400 against it is 195 to 215 miles compared to 21 miles against an F-35. If true, F-15s can’t get into anywhere near glide bomb range without detection, while the F-35 can. In 2019, Air Force Magazine reported, “[The] USAF has said that 2028 is probably the latest the jet [F-15EX] could conceivably operate close to contested air space.”
Reportedly, “Boeing opted to not incorporate low observable features on the Advanced Eagle [F-15EX) primarily because it was not of interest to the Air Force.” This is rather amazing since frontal stealth, while not comparable to all-aspect stealth, could be important. Because of the very limited stealth capability of the Russian Su-57, the Boeing concept for the Silent Eagle might give it an advantage in a beyond-visual-range one-on-one head-on engagement. It would certainly have improved its ability in medium-intensity conflict.
The problem with the F-15EX being an air dominance fighter is that it is no longer dominant in the sense that it was in the 1970s and the 1980s. In a 2021 Northern Edge exercise, the F-15EX delivered a less than stellar performance. Business Insider reported that “Officially, the Air Force has not released any figures to indicate how well the newest fourth-generation fighter performed, but they did acknowledge that the F-15EXs both successfully shot down opponents and took losses themselves over the course of some 33 sorties during April and May.” (Emphasis in the original). In its first Red Flag exercise outing, the F-22 achieved a kill ratio of 241-to-two. In a 2017 Red Flag exercise, the F-35 achieved a kill ratio of 20-to-one. According to then-Air Combat Command chief General Mike Holmes, the new F-15EX ECM system “won’t make an F-15 into an F-35 or F-22, … [but] it makes it a whole lot better and it expands the envelope where it can operate quite a bit . . .”
The September 2021 issue of Combat Aircraft quoted an F-18 (roughly comparable to an Air Force F-16) pilot as saying that the F-22 ECM broke his radar lock and that in “hyper maneuverability mode,” it “suddenly performed a black flip” and ended with its gun aimed at the F-18. While the F-35 is not in the same class as the F-22 regarding maneuverability, it reportedly has “some eye-watering ‘open moves’ – maneuvers that conventional fourth-generation fighter cannot follow.”
Colonel (USAF, Ret.) Mark Gunzinger, Director for Capabilities and Assessments of the Mitchell Institute, has argued it is necessary to “. . . broaden the analysis from just peacetime operating costs…to what’s really is required to fight a conflict.” He points out that instead of one or two F-35s, we would use 5-7 non-stealthy drones and “we are going to lose a couple.” The same is probably true with regard to non-stealthy manned fighters against the most advanced air defenses. It is one thing to lose drones and a very different thing to lose manned fighters.
A case can be made for the F-15EX as a long-range interceptor for CONUS defense, for use in low-intensity conflict, and as a long-range strike aircraft that can be protected in hardened shelters and attack heavily defended targets with stealthy JASSM-ER and hypersonic missiles. The ability of fighters to launch hypersonic missiles is important in high-intensity conflict. Without the F-22, the assertion that the F-15EX could be the basis of the “loyal wingman” concept does not appear to be viable against adversary 5th generation aircraft. A claim that advanced ECM capability is a replacement for stealth against advanced air defenses does not appear plausible. ECM can augment stealth against advanced defenses but not replace it. Without stealth, the aircraft would be too vulnerable to adversary stealth fighters.
Potentially much more significant than the decision to procure the F-15EX is that the Air Force is apparently changing its attitude toward 5th generation fighters. In 2020, the Air Force reduced its goal from 100% 5th generation fighters to 60%. In 2021, the decision to retire the F-22 early was announced. The Air Force is moving toward replacing part of the planned deployment of the F-35 with a less stealthy system despite very serious threat developments. This is literally going in the opposite direction of almost every major Air Force in the world.
The threat does not justify reduced stealth. The Russians have widely deployed the very capable S-400 system, the still more capable S-500 system is nearly operational, and an improved version will be operational in about five years. China also has the S-400, and Russia is trying to sell it the S-500. Russia is procuring the Su-57, which should outclass all 4th generation fighters, and has displayed a model of the Su-75, which is likely to be Russia’s first true stealth fighter. It may be produced for service in Russia, but at this point, it is export only. Russia has a pattern of producing aircraft for its own use originally designed for export.
Short of an economic collapse in Russia, it will develop and deploy new systems in the next 20 years. One Russian political leader has talked about the capabilities of the S-600 and the S-700. The Chinese J-20 is already likely more stealthy (i.e., low observable) than the Su-57. The J-20 is hardly the end of the Chinese fighter development program. A new version of the J-20 has just appeared with new engines and reportedly will have a low supercruise capability. The Chinese have the S-300; the Chinese made HQ-9 and the S-400. The Chinese have the resources to increase the stealth level of its Air Force faster than Russia can. There are clearly going to be new Russian and Chinese fighters and SAM systems that we do not know about from open sources.
We don’t know how much about of a reduction in stealth the Air Force will accept in the “F-16 replacement” compared to the F-35, but any reduction will make it easier for the Russians and the Chinese to catch up, and their air defenses will get better. Moreover, every billion dollars in R&D spent on this new fighter will cost the Air Force the ability to buy a dozen or more F-35s.
The F-22 and F-35 were designed to work as a team. The main function of the F-35 was to be a strike fighter. The NGAD will almost certainly be a great aircraft, but 50-100 aircraft is a silver bullet force. A procurement number based on the “Loyal Wingman” concept is risky. It may work well, but it is premature to depend on it for air-to-air combat. In addition to potential cyber vulnerabilities, there is the threat of communications jamming. If the Air Force produces only 50-100 NGADs, it will probably be reluctant to spend a lot on updating them. This has been the pattern with the F-22, which has never been given an LWIR sensor, improved engines, or a helmet-mounted cueing system.
Secretary Kendall is correct that it is necessary to “scare” the Chinese in order to deter them. China is more likely to be impressed by our stealth capability than our O&M costs. China’s O&M costs will always be lower than ours because their manpower costs are lower. Concerning the NGAD, Air Combat Command Commander General Mark Kelly has said that the technology for the NGAD is there and that our “adversaries on the other end of this technology will suffer a very tough day and tough week and tough war.” He also pointed out that we better do this “before someone like the Chinese fields it and uses it against us.” If China can potentially beat us to NGAD like capabilities, it is foolish to have the only other fighter aircraft under development to have less stealth than the F-35.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.