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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Former Air Force Commander: F-16s Aren’t Enough to Beat Russia and China

F-16. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Throughout history, building a better weapon usually meant improving its physical structure — a longer and sharper spear, or a shield made of tougher materials.

This dynamic has also held true for military aircraft. For example, the updated design of the P-51 Mustang, deployed by the United States during World War II, gave it significantly greater range than previous fighters and helped deliver victory to the Allies.

More recently, the lightweight, agile F-16 operated up to the limits of human performance, undergirding U.S. air power through the Cold War, Operation Desert Storm, and the War on Terror.

But our adversaries are beginning to catch up to our longstanding physical advantages in the air. To stay ahead of them, we must focus on our technological superiority — the hardware and software that goes on the aircraft, which has functionality our adversaries are not yet close to developing.

In other words, it’s instructive to think of aircraft today as the “box” that contains our military capabilities — and not the end capability itself. In fact, the same systems that make aircraft like the F-22 cutting edge can improve performance in older “boxes.”

That kind of thinking informs what gearheads like me do when we fix up classic cars. When I was a squadron commander at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, 15 years ago, I spent my free time working on a classic ’55 Chevy: installing a modern engine and transmission, safety equipment, suspension, air conditioning and a great radio. After I finished, it had all the bells, whistles and performance capability of a modern car while maintaining its classic look.

Or take a recent example from the military arena. In 2015, during the Syrian civil war, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 entered Turkish airspace. An American-made Turkish F-16 engaged it and shot it down. Both airplanes first went into production decades ago. They’re both good planes.

But in the intervening years, the U.S. has been constantly working under the hood of the F-16, upgrading it with improvements to sensors and weapons. Those technological upgrades to the systems on the jet have enabled its superiority over the Russian aircraft.

Advanced systems give pilots greater awareness of their surroundings and the potential threats they face — making them more likely to achieve their mission objective and come home safely.

When operating in a contested environment, what’s going on behind an airplane can be just as important as what’s ahead. The right high-resolution infrared sensor system can give a pilot a 360-degree spherical view of his airspace. These systems collect real-time imagery from cameras mounted around the aircraft and stream it to a helmet-mounted display. They can passively detect missiles for the pilot, autonomously track targets and even give the pilot the ability to see in pitch black.

With this technology under the hood, pilots flying a high-stakes, day-into-night mission can confidently avoid and counter enemy fire from any angle.

Or consider lightweight, air-cooled radar systems that can provide superior situational awareness in the battlespace using one-third less power than conventional radar. Armed with digital beam steering technology and interleaved targeting, these compact systems can help a pilot accurately detect enemy aircraft from great distances without slowing down.

That’s particularly important on missions when a plane or helicopter may have space, weight or power constraints — for example, on a transoceanic crossing where conserving fuel is paramount.

Or think of precise, software-based GPS navigation and landing systems, which can facilitate landings on aircraft carriers, near enemy territory, or in desert or swampy terrain, regardless of adverse weather conditions. These systems can enable peacetime missions like emergency relief flights delivering supplies to islands hit by typhoons — or safe returns following engagement with an adversary.

Every one of these cutting-edge systems can be mounted on existing aircraft and next-generation platforms, from rotary wings to fighter jets, instantly improving survivability and lethality. They’re analogous to software that can be installed on multiple kinds of hardware. And they’re at the heart of our strategy for sustaining U.S. and allied air dominance at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

The U.S. military can stay ahead of our adversaries by making sure that under the hood, our aircraft make the most of our technological edge.

Dr. Dan “Bat” Manuel is Chief Architect for Department 22 at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. Bat has led multiple advanced program activities for the Air Force, commanded the Air Force’s only B-2 Operational Test Squadron and spent eight years as an instructor and evaluator for the B-2 bomber.

Written By

Dr. Dan “Bat” Manuel is Chief Architect for Department 22 at Raytheon Intelligence & Space. Bat has led multiple advanced program activities for the Air Force, commanded the Air Force’s only B-2 Operational Test Squadron and spent eight years as an instructor and evaluator for the B-2 bomber.



  1. Steven

    August 24, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    It’s as if the title is for a completly different article…

  2. GhostTomahawk

    August 24, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    Of course the F16 alone isn’t enough to beat Russia or China. But let’s not get it twisted. The US doesn’t need 5th Gen planes to win. A combined and approach is more than enough. America has become decadent and unwilling to accept losses in military campaigns due to the drubbing we handed Iraq twice. That won’t happen with Russia.

    But we don’t need to fight either one to get them on their knees. Embargo. Embargo. Embargo.

  3. TG

    August 25, 2022 at 12:37 am

    Um… sure. But really, why should I care?

    The United States is being invaded by endless hordes of third-world refugees, because the rich want cheap labor. The military is not only not defending the country – it’s actively assisting in the invasion! So why should I care if the F16 is or is not better than some other fighter jet, it simply does not matter to me.

    Right now this nationI would be better off if we got rid of the entire US military. What’s the worst that could happen? We could get invaded????

  4. Eric-ji

    August 25, 2022 at 10:53 am

    First, I agree with Steven’s post. Title & text mismatch.

    Second, we don’t really know what we’ll need when we are actively involved the next shooting war. We can speculate, extrapolate, but what we’ll need to actually win is unknown at this time.

    Right now ‘networked everything’ seems the way to go. And if our opponent is able to take out the network? And so on.

    Flexibility, creativity, and innovation will win the next shooting war the US finds itself in. All we can do is try to be prepared, then respond as best we can.

  5. P Hardy

    August 25, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Just make sure it doesn’t add weight. Add lightness if possible

  6. Squidward

    August 25, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    Nice commercial. Bat works for Raytheon.
    Do drones next. Get an ex general who works for General Atomics.

  7. LG

    August 25, 2022 at 6:03 pm

    This is BS…The F-16 Fighting Falcon will fly circles around ANYTHING Russia and China have in their inventory and I dont care how advanced thier planes are.
    Chinese and Russian fighters are 2/3s bigger and slower and are flying seaguls compaired to the F-16…

  8. Deacy

    August 26, 2022 at 7:40 am

    The weak link in any modern combat aircraft is the meat servo. Get them out of the cockpit, majorly reduce weight because of it and build the airframes to take 20 g’s. RPV and no pilot on the planet could keep up with it. The day of the fighter jock is long since over. F 16 was outdated the day F22 came on line anyway.

  9. Eldragon

    August 29, 2022 at 10:37 am

    It’s only the U.S. who uses the word ‘adversary’ against everyone who rejects their hegemony. It’s not the Russians or the Chinese who wants to rule the Word and impose their will using their military might. How many countries the U.S. has destroyed in the last 25 years?

  10. Tom Schoon

    August 29, 2022 at 2:21 pm

    ‘Clickbait’ FORSHAME,FORSHAME what a blatant misleading title! The author neither said nor implied anything remotely close to what your headline promised.

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