The military trains for combat, but can it handle the scrutiny of the public?
Recent changes in military aircraft have battle-hardened the armed forces to public scrutiny. We got up-to-speed on the basics of military aircraft last week. Here, we’ll dive into the basics on some of the current aircraft controversies.
A-10: To retire, or not to retire
The A-10 Warthog fleet has accumulated a lot of mileage, and the Air Force no longer wants to keep it in service. Although we don’t have any other dedicated Close Air Support (CAS) fixed-wing aircraft, the Air Force has two reasons to cut the A-10:
First, the A-10 would not likely survive any serious threat from the air. It can terrorize anything on the ground, but can’t fly fast enough, or stay invisible enough, to keep up with a fighter.
Second, the Air Force believes that our fighters can support our forces on the ground well enough. Fighters already strike at ground targets, and advancements in 5th generation technology makes them highly capable at providing accurate, fast, and reliable coverage.
But what about cost?
Critics come from many different angles. Some believe that the A-10 has relatively low cost to other fighters that would get called on for the CAS job. For example, the F-35 will take on many of the CAS roles currently assigned to the A-10, and some estimates put flying the A-10 as costing 1/8th of the cost of flying the new F-35. If you could get a job done for 87.5% off, wouldn’t you take it?
In response to this cost issue, some have proposed developing even cheaper (often propeller driven) aircraft to handle CAS in permissive environments. Most people find this idea hard to swallow. It feels like (and sort-of is) a step backward in capability, and the amount of permissive environments that exist continually shrinks with the proliferation of cheap anti-aircraft missiles.
Loss of expertise
The military also needs to consider the expertise issue. If the A-10 goes, so will many of the pilots and support personnel that operated it. These people compose the best source of knowledge and experience for how to operate CAS missions, and if we lose them, we’ll largely “forget” and need to “relearn” how to perform effective CAS. A plan to retain as much talent as possible should accompany any plan to decommission the A-10.
Some also have personal reasons to push to keep the A-10. After all, the A-10 just has a lot more character than other planes. With its huge nose-mounted Gatling gun firing depleted uranium shells, and it’s two large engines on its tail, it’s immediately far more distinguishable than other aircraft. Who wants to give up the most interesting plane in the sky? Add to this a lawmaker who is a former A-10 pilot presiding over a district for which the A-10 provides many jobs, and you have a few other reasons people might fight to keep the A-10 in service.
F-35: Will it be a Lemon?
Few weapons have ever stirred so much controversy as the F-35, and for good reason. With a project cost exceeding $1.5 Trillion and an initial unit cost of ~$100M per plane, the F-35 can’t hope to avoid all scrutiny. It doesn’t help that the F-35’s deployment is years behind schedule, with many bugs and design flaws still needing fixes. Accusations of cronyism and incompetence abound.
Although critics harangue the cost and schedule, they don’t miss any questions about the F-35’s capabilities. First, the F-35 has under-performed on maneuverability. Early tests suggested that the F-35 might not maneuver as well as older F-16’s. This means that in a classic dogfight, an F-35 can expect to get shot down by the planes it should replace.
However, the lack of maneuverability may have been the result of limitations programmed in to the fly-by-wire system. Some suggest that developers programmed in limitations to how hard the plane could maneuver as they figured out the true limitations of the aircraft.
Further, the F-35 relies heavily on tech-assisted methods to identify and engage the enemy before the enemy knows it exists. The plan for the F-35 centers around staying hidden with advanced stealth, and using advanced finding techniques to launch missiles at enemy aircraft before it knows what hits him (referred to as Beyond Visual Range combat, or BVR).
Related to the focus on BVR, critics accuse the F-35′ of having inadequate armament. Although some news reports highlight the statistic that the F-35 can shoot 55 rounds of bullets (called its “cannon”) per second, Lockheed didn’t design the plane with a focus on the cannon. Since it can only hold 180 rounds, the F-35 can only shoot for just over 3 seconds. For comparison, the F-22 holds 480 rounds, and the F-15 holds the most at 940 rounds (both able to fire at ~100 rounds per second).
Since the F-35’s design focuses on engaging from afar, the small magazine might not cause any problems, but critics worry that we will end up with a repeat of the F-4. Thinking that new guided missiles would replace any close combat, and that tight dogfights wouldn’t happen with their newfound ability for supersonic flight, McDonnell Douglas originally designed the F-4 without any cannon at all. This resulted in many lost opportunities to shoot down enemy fighters. Critics worry that the lack of a larger cannon magazine will inhibit the F-35’s ability to operate just as it did the F-4.
Multi-role vs. dedicated aircraft
It’s not just individual hardware issues that give critics doubt, it’s also the grand strategy behind the F-35. Lockheed designed the F-35 as a multi-role fighter, meaning that it should hold its own against enemies on the air or ground. Unfortunately, this means making capability sacrifices that a dedicated air superiority or attack plane doesn’t need to make. It’s fair to wonder if a multi-role fighter can realistically be expected to beat a dedicated Air Superiority fighter, or cover friendly ground troops as effectively as a dedicated attack plane.
Real Pilots weigh in
Despite all the worries of the armchair pilots, real pilots seem to like the F-35. Reports with pilot interviews might involve commentary on technical glitches, but complaints usually get drowned out by the praise and comfort pilots feel with the F-35. The F-35’s real test will come when it has time in real combat, but for now most pilots seem to prefer flying the F-35 over other aircraft.
B-21: What does it cost?
The Air Force currently flies 3 bomber airframes: the B-52, B-1, and B-2. The Air Force introduced the B-52 in the 50’s, and it looks a lot like a grey 737 (the type of plane you’ll usually ride for domestic commercial flights). The B-1 debuted a bit more recently (in the 80’s), but can’t claim to have much more than what you would expect from a plane designed to drop bombs. The B-2 came in the late 90’s, and makes heavy use of stealth technology to enhance its survivability. To keep its radar cross-section low, the B-2 looks like one big wing.
The Air Force would like to upgrade its bomber fleet. The B-52 is (really) old, the B-1 doesn’t provide many of the capabilities that would help in modern wars, and it wouldn’t make sense to buy more B-2’s given the way tech has advanced. Thus, the Air Force issued a development contract to Northrop Grumman.
The air force has disclosed the unit cost of the plane (a healthy $550 million), and the development costs associated ($23.5 billion), but the overall contract size (which includes the family of systems required to support the bomber) remains classified. Some lawmakers (such as senator John McCain) have protested the secrecy, but movements to disclose the contract cost have failed by a wide margin.
Why is the cost secret? The B-21 will rely heavily on stealth and other secrets to be effective, and costs can reveal more than they intend. The air force contends that revealing the overall contract cost could reveal vital information about its capabilities. This could lead to better prepared enemies, and easier reverse engineering.
The Debates Continue
There are plenty of other controversies going on. Armchair pilots argue over whether operating the B-52 is actually more or less expensive than modern aircraft, whether the B-21 should actually be called the B-3, and if the Army should have access to more fixed-wing aircraft. Hopefully this overview and last week’s primer are enough to get you started in the discussion.
Keep seeking truth.
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