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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Divergent Thinking: How Best to Employ Fighter Aircraft - The American Approach Part I

Image 1: F-35 with F-22

Author's note: Because viewers have expressed a desire not to be overwhelming with content all at once, this article will be broken into two parts. 


Part II of the Divergent Thinking: How Best to Employ Fighter Aircraft series will examine the American model of fighter employment. As explained in part I, the fighter employment doctrine of any country is typically dictated by the following factors:
  1. National security objectives: regional vs. global power projection, countering anti-access (A2) threats, etc.
  2. Strengths and weakness of its defense industry - specialization, experience of aerospace firms, access to intellectual capital, etc. 
  3. Constraints to military budget and existing support infrastructure for assets and personnel 
The purpose of this series of articles is to account for the divergent reasoning behind the employment of aircraft within different countries, specifically the United States and Russia. In particular, this article's goal is to explain why the United States opted for the mass deployment of the fifth generation F-35 over 4th generation alternatives.  As established in part one, any comparison between the F-35 and its probable competitors must account for other factors aside from performance based specifications. While performance based specification have a critical role in any evaluation, without understanding how the aircraft was intended to be used in conjunction with understanding the training of American pilots receive, one cannot draw meaningful conclusions regarding the potential combat effectiveness of the F-35.  The mass deployment of the F-35 is a procurement strategy that is best tailored to the specific the national security objectives of the United States given the constraints of its defense industry, and budget. As with the Russian model, It is difficult to understand the American method of fighter procurement and employment without first understanding the broader strategic challenges the United States will face over the next two to three decades.

National Security Objectives

The threats posed by rogue nation states and non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, will likely persist over the next two three decades (Clapper, 2013). However, the growing economic and military development within the People's Republic of China is beginning to take priority over the aforementioned threats in terms of dictating the overarching national security strategy for the United States. Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, China's military has sought to acquire a range of anti-access of capabilities to deny a foreign power, namely the United States, from intervening in a regional conflict. The following are all examples of anti-access weapons: short range ballistic missiles, long range cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, sea mines, diesel electric attack submarines, GPS jamming systems, and surface to air missile systems.

China's efforts to develop anti-access capabilities gained momentum after the third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996) and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999). During the third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the United States sent two carrier strike groups into the Taiwanese strait in support of Taiwan. In Kosovo, the Chinese embassy was an unintended target of the US bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. In both of these events, the Chinese military concluded it lacked any viable options to respond to US military actions (Erickson, 2013). The current Chinese strategy of employing anti-access weaponry is largely the result of the Chinese military establishment's aim to produce a set of viable military options to the PRC leadership in the event of hostilities with the United States.

Image 2: The three main components of ASB's design. (Image Credit: Department of Defense, 2013)

As a result of China's growing anti-access capabilities, power projection into the Western Pacific is much more difficult for the US and its allies. In response to China's growing anti-access capabilities, the United States formed the Air-Sea Battle(ASB) operational concept. ASB is not a "war plan" in the event of hostilities with china, rather the ASB concept provides a framework that enables US forces to effectively operate even in highly contested anti-access environments, such as the Western Pacific. In effect, this enables the United States to maintain a credible military deterrent against nations employing extensive anti-access strategies and equipment. Mark Gunzinger and Chris Dougherty from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments provide a good summary of the US Air-Sea Battle concept:

"Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed an unprecedented ability to project military power with few constraints to its freedom of action in all domains—air, sea, undersea, land, space, and cyberspace. Today, the diffusion of advanced military technologies to potential adversaries, particularly the proliferation of precision-guided munitions and nuclear weapons, combined with the adoption of novel concepts of operation, has enormous implications for America’s future ability to project power abroad.

Air-Sea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, a report released by CSBA in 2010, offered a diagnosis of the problem specific to the Western Pacific and proposed a candidate operational concept for projecting military forces to the region despite China’s possession of a robust A2/AD battle network. AirSea Battle recommended that a U.S. military operational concept designed to 'set the conditions at the operational level to sustain a stable, favorable conventional military balance throughout the Western Pacific' should account for the region’s specific geographic and geostrategic features, including the strengths and weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the capabilities of America’s allies and partners." - Mark Gunzinger and Chris Dougherty, 2011

Image 3: US air bases in the Pacific (Image Credit: Washington Post)

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) 2010 report, an authoritative DOD review of US strategy, recommended the deployment of 10-11 theatre strike wings to the pacific (720-792 aircraft) alongside 6 dedicated air superiority wings (432 aircraft). The F-35 will comprise a substantial portion of these deployed aircraft over the next decade. Both the USAF and USMC will give the Pacific stationed units priority in the deployment of the F-35. Gen. Herbert J. "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), announced the F-35 will be stationed from four of the most important Pacific air bases: Misawa (J), Kadena (J), Kunsan (SK), and Osan (SK). Carlisle also indicated that the USAF sought to increase its presence in Australia with the addition of a rotational force of bombers, tankers, and fighter aircraft (Defense News, 2013). The presence of F-35 aircraft at these bases would significantly increase the US military's deterrent in the region. Numerous high value PLA military facilities are within the unrefuled combat radius of the F-35 from both Osan and Kunsan including targets within the Beijing and Shenyang military regions.

Unrefueled combat radius of F-35A = 593 nautical miles (nm) or 1,093 km
Kunsan to Beijing = 527.5 nm (976 km)
Osan to Beijing = 537 nm (994 km)

Budget & Strength's of Defense Industry

The national security concerns of the United States and the framework in which it employs its military, Air-Sea Battle, dictates how its financial resources and defense industry are best utilized to fulfill its needs. Despite the doom and gloom discussions regarding sequestration, American military spending currently accounts for nearly 40% of the global total at $682 billion dollars (Time, 2013). The entirety of funding provided to the USAF alone, $140 billion dollars in 2013, is larger than the official PLA budget for its entire military or more than twice as large as the current budget of Russia's military. As far as the constraints of military funding are concerned, the United States military is afforded an unparalleled level of flexibility in terms of procurement options. This level of procurement flexibility has tangibly altered how the US aerospace industry designs military aircraft. 

Rather than opting for a specialization in low-cost fighter aircraft with high production figures, the US defense industry has been able to invest more money into the individual aircraft while also producing the aircraft in large numbers as a consequence of the US military's considerable budget. While the current $103-$98 million dollar price for the F-35 is likely to significantly decrease as production rises, even the most optimistic projections do not indicate the unit production cost of the F-35 will be as inexpensive as current Russian 4.5 generation aircraft (Defense News, 2013). However, the large military budget of the United States enables it to procure the more expensive F-35 on a large scale despite the higher unit cost. As a consequence of this fact, the USAF plans to field a largely 5th generation fighter force over the next two decades unlike the Russian air force. The financial resources and intellectual capital required to design and produce stealth aircraft in significant quantities is a trait that is largely unique to the United States. In total, the US Military plans to procure 2,243 F-35 aircraft by 2037 for a cost $396 billion dollars (Selected Acquisition Report, 2012). 

Image 4: F-35 production line 

In many methods of evaluation, the US defense industry maintains a significant advantage over its Russian, Chinese, and European counterparts in the areas of stealth technology, avionics, sensors, and software. While this statement is likely to be initially perceived as a thoughtless expression of American nationalism, this assertion is both empirical and objective in nature. The current technological edge attributable to the higher level of funding available to research and development within the United States. Defense Department research in development (R&D) composes more than half of all publicly funded R&D spending in the United States or $70 billion dollars in 2013 (Sargent, 2013). Several historical examples exist that corroborate the impact of American R&D spending in regards to its technological advantage. The development of Actively Scanned Electronic Array (AESA) radars by the United States is a relevant case study: 

"The US DoD recognized the need for a better antenna technology more than two decades ago. A new technology, using the phased array concept but with a miniature transmitter and receiver in each antenna element, was seen to be the answer to the limitations of existing technologies. Known as active phased arrays or AESAs, these antennas became the holy grail in the radar community...The enabling technology for AESAs is the Gallium Arsenide Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuit (GaAs MMIC) or microwave circuit on a single chip. GaAs MMICs would permit the low cost mass production of AESAs, with high reliability and repeatability.  Gallium Arsenide is however a finicky material to make chips from and it took almost two decades for the fabrication technology to move from expensive botique manufacture to industrial strength mass production...At this time the US are leading the pack by a large margin in AESA technology, with the EU and Israelis trailing." - Kopp, 2012

Comparison of Russian Zhuk ME to US AESAs: 

"The first observation any Western radar engineer will make is that the Zhuk ME with 652 TR channels has between 50% and 70% of the TR channels of a comparably sized US radar, which is typically in the 900 to 1200 single TR channel module count class. This is a byproduct of the packaging technology available to Russian industry, which is a generation behind the US and EU in this area. That is no accident insofar as the US invested vast sums into the development of high density packaging techniques suitable for the thermally challenging environment of the AESA antenna." - Kopp, 2012

Image 5: Advances made in US transmit receiver module designs in the late 1980s

As a result of substantial early R&D investment into AESA radars, the United States currently maintains a significant lead over its major competitors. The first mass produced fighter deployed AESA radar by the United States, the Northrup Grumman AN/APG-77, entered service in 2003. In comparison, the first European mounted AESA, the Thales RBE2, entered service with French Rafales in 2013. The Russian Zhuk-AE will be the first operational Russian AESA with the deployment of the Mig-35 in 2016 1 No reputable source has confirmed the deployment of a Chinese fighter mounted AESA radar as of October 2013. 

Despite the recent Russian, European, Chinese, and Israeli advances in AESA technology, the United States will likely continue its advantage in radar technology as a result of its substantial advantage in R&D. The United States is already years ahead of its competitors in the next significant development in radar technology, Gallium nitride Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuits (Defense News, 2013). 

"GaN-based MMICs is unsurpassed — revolutionizing the design of radars by creating not only higher performance but also lower system cost. With over 5 W/mm of power density, GaN RF amplifiers can provide more than 5X the power per element of GaAs in the same footprint." - Raytheon, 2010

In summary, the resources allocated to US Defense R&D over time exceeds that of most nation's military spending in their entirety let alone foreign military R&D, it would be an unexpected result if the United States was not technologically ahead in these aforementioned technology areas. As part II will examine, The modern American fighter employment model favors low observability and heightened situational awareness over supermaneuverability. This philosophy is not only evident within the F-35 design but also within the F-15 silent eagle and Super Hornet Block III. These 4.5 generation designs feature improved avionics and a heavily reduced radar cross section but neither has been upgraded with supermaneuverability traits such as thrust vectoring engines in contrast with Russian 4.5 generation designs. As a result of the proficiency of US firms in the aforementioned technological areas, it is natural that the US military's current method of fighter employment attempts to capitalize on its technological advantage in the areas of stealth, avionics, sensors, and software through low observability and heightened situational awareness.



1 Despite the fact that the first Russian AESA was unveiled in 2008, Russia has yet to be physically install an AESA into operational Russian fighter squadrons as of 2013. Russia plans to deploy the 5th generation PAK FA in 2016 as well, although this estimate was judged by the author to be overly optimistic


  1. Very Informative Matt, Great job once again, I hope you don't mind me saying, but I trust your articles alot more than Karlo Copp's Anti-F35 rantings.

    He has good insights on aircraft that he likes, like the F-22 and anything built by Sukhoi, but when he hates something, boy does he hate it. he even states that the F-35s Max AB thrust is 40,000lbs, its 43,000lbs and 45,000lbs by block 6 standard, infact PW tested the F135 to 50,000lbs and I believe future F-35 upgrades can be put to that standard.

    However, I dont entirely agree that the US de emphasizes Super maneuverability in favor of Stealth and S.A.

    Russia may have many types of Thrust Vectoring Super Maneuverable War planes but in reality they have very few on operational service,

    There are about 14 operational Su-35s and around the same number of Su-30s
    That puts their entire TV capable aircaft to about 30 planes. But this may have something to do with the Budget constraints you mentioned

    Compare that to America's fleet of more than 180 Super maneuverable TV capable F-22s

    Furthermore I think TV is just one way to achieve Super Maneuverability, Internal Weapons bays, Aerodynamic design, Wing Loading, Body Lifting Characteristics, AOA performance Post Stall capability also contributes to overall maneuverability.

    And the F-35 shows good marks on most of those traits, We cant say until we see the Block 3 do airshows, but Im pretty confident that the F-35 will show a good degree of super maneuverability, maybe not on par with the Raptor and the Su-35 but certainly better than the Super Hornet which is quite impressive in the maneuvering department

    I remember Billy Flynn saying that the F-35 handles like the F-18 HARV or the TV equipped F/A-18 he flew in the past

    Anyway hope you can find that article and add it to your mix, again I enjoy reading your articles ans look forward to more

    See you at


    1. Thanks Michael. I will explain my reasoning more in part II. The F-35 is not a flying brick, the way critics describe it you'd think i'd be something like a C-5 Galaxy :) Kopp is certainly an "interesting" author. His work on surface to air missiles and radars is really impressive but he is biased on the F-35. In terms of maneuverability, It varies from what metric you compare e.g. thrust to weight ratio, wing loading, etc. but I have more or less concluded the F-35 will be "competitive" with most 4th and 4.5 generation aircraft but its certainly not exceptional like the F-22 or Su-35. And frankly it doesn't need to be to be an effective aircraft given its stealth, level of situational awareness, and its mission. I've found a lot of pretty convincing anecdotes from Raptor pilots where stealth and situational awareness, not maneuverability, won the day (which will be in part II). Your point is interesting on supermaneuverability, I haven't really seen a satisfactory definition that definitively explains, in quantitative performance specifications, when an aircraft becomes worthy of the "supermaneuverable" designation. I don't believe there is one.

  2. "This philosophy is not only evident within the F-35 design but also within the F-15 silent eagle and Super Hornet Block III. "

    I think you meant Block II.

    BTW - I'd be interested to here your explanation on why F-22 required both supercruise and super-maneuverability and the F-35 20 years later does not need those capabilities especially after capping F-22 procurement at less than 200 aircraft.


    1. On SuperCruise (SC):

      The F-22’s main job is Air Dominance that requires it to react to contacts across a wide area of responsibility. Given this, it’s ability to stay supersonic on the way to the intercept point without using AB saves on gas and gives the enemy less of a chance to detect with IRST.

      The F-35’s main job is a striker. For the most part its targets are known and ingress/egress routes do not require supersonic for most of the flight. The CBR (Cost-Benefit Ratio) favors SC for the F-22 because it directly affects the F-22’s main mission. The CBR hurts the F-35 as SC would not help the F-35 in a vast majority of its missions.

      On SuperManeuverability (SM):

      Again, going back to the F-22’s main job of Air Dominance and SC, SM helps save fuel at high speed and high altitude by not having to use control surfaces as much thereby reducing drag. The F-22 also lacks an HMD so it is forced to get the target in it’s forward cone in order to achieve a IR lock for its sidewinders.

      The F-35 has an IRST, EODAS, and an HMD which when combined with its mission set preclude the need for the F-22’s level of SM, especially when CBR is taken into account.

    2. Not sure that makes total sense. I thought the plan for F-22 included an HMD but they ran out of time and money. So the plan was to have SM, and HMD, and supercruise.

      With only 186 or so F-22s with a fairly bad FMC rate doesn't it seem like we need more air dominance fighters. Why is F-35 good enough?

      Also, the F-35 can't shoot AIM-9X from internal stations so if you go with a HOB shot you now have a non-stealthy F-35. How does that make sense?

    3. Not sure of the history of the F-22 and the requirement of a HMD. I do know however that cockpit mapping has been a big issue and only recent advances in non-magnetic mapping may fix this.

      However, even without the HMD, the F-22 excels at its Air Dominance mission which focuses on BVR rather than WVR combat, hence the reason why the lack of a HMD does not affect it.

      I think you are confusing terminology. Air Dominance (aka Air Supremacy) is not the same thing as Air Superiority. Also note that LM did not invent the term as it has been around since 1973.

      Per the NATO Glossary, here is what Air Supremacy is: “That degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference. 01 Feb 1973”

      Per the NATO Glossary, here is what Air Superiority is: “That degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force. 01 Feb 1973”

      The F-35 is completely capable of the traditional “Air Superiority” mission but would obviously not keep up with the F-22 in the “Air Dominance/Supremacy” mission.

      As far as internal 9X goes, they are developing an internal launch rail for the 9X due in Block 4 or 5 (no definite schedule announced). Besides, the AIM-120C7&D (which are internal) are designed to do HOBS shots.

  3. This got me thinking, what is a more effective way to complement HOBS missile? The HMD of the F-35 or the Super Maneuvering Charactaristics of the F-22?

    If you ask me whats more useful overall, Id say SM, since you can use it to complement all your weapons, RGM, IRGM and guns, also you can use SM for defensive purposes as well, unlike HMDs which have only one purpose.

    1. Again, look to the mission set & technology of the fighter in question to determine if SM makes sense. In the F-22’s case, it does due to the mission and lack of HOBS supporting avionics (helmet, EODAS, etc).

      The F-35 is not hampered by these issues as it can take a 360 shot MUCH quicker than a F-22 could line up a shot and it’s mission set does not require it to manage large swaths of battlespace using a limited number of fighters.

      I forget the exact adage, but it went something like “A fighter can have range, speed, and maneuverability… you get to pick 2”. This is at the heart of the CBR. They could have made the F-35 a mini-F-22, but it would have lost range and payload in the process which would mean that they would have had to have had more F-35s to get the same job done.

      Remember also that TV was not a requirement of ATF, only SM which Northrup did with just regular control surfaces.

  4. Great Article Matt, Well done.


    Unrefueled combat radius of F-35A = 593 nautical miles (nm) or 1,093 km
    Kunsan to Beijing = 527.5 nm (976 km)
    Osan to Beijing = 537 nm (994 km)

    So are you saying that the F35 can fly 1093 km destroy it's target and fly back 1093km back to base without refueling?

    Because if the max range on the F35 1093km then you half it and it's only got a fly radios of 545km, before it has to
    1. turn back to base or
    2. Air refueling or
    3. Carry Internal Tanks?

    Osan to Beijing, is 994km, so to reach this target the F35 will have to carry internal fuel load in it's bay which limit's the amount of bombs it Carries, which then brings up the effect as to How effective it will be upon a Target.

    The Reason why I ask you Matt, as we have had reports of the Red on Blue that was done a few years ago, that brought up huge concern from Australia with the Range the F35 had.

    For example,
    if the F35 was carry full payload, then the range of the Aircraft was comprised,
    if it had to avoid any Mobile Air defense system, then the mission was comprised due to fuel,
    if the F35 came up against a S30 and engaged it on a booming Run, it was compromised
    If we have to send in our Refueling tanker further into enemy air space it will comprises the tankers
    If the "hostile" enemy has s400 with a range of 450km+ missiles, that will effect the tankers

    My "If's" are what was in the Red on Blue report. Which is a major concern about the F35 program for Australia point of view.

    Don't forget the new chines Ground Radar system the china have built these last 5 years and how far in land they are, i am pretty sure they are well out of reach of the F35 and F22 range.

    B2 would have to clean them up.

    Thank for the article matt. :-)

    1. Thanks Stone :) Combat radius is a universal term that generally means the maximum distance an aircraft can go equipped with weapons and return safely. You'll also see loiter time sometime included in combat radius measurements. In this particular case, it would mean F-35's equipped with two 1,000 lb JDAMS and 2 air to air missiles could hit Beijing and fly back to base while relying only upon internal fuel (no tanks or need of tanker aircraft). The F-35's range really isn't bad, in fact I'd say its slightly above average relative to other fighter aircraft. If you really need to maximize the range you can get, its fine to use drop tanks on the F-35 prior to approaching enemy airspace and switch to internal fuel and jettison the tanks while you approach. A few pilots have floated this idea around for use on the next generation bomber as concerns were going around that it was too small an airframe to have the range of a B-2 but fuel tanks might be used during the first part of its mission where it doesn't need to be stealthy. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by compromised though?

    2. Compromised the success of the mission.

      So it hold enough gas :-) to fight off an attack and complete the mission.

      So the F35 can travel a distance of 2000km straight and then run out of fuel.

      I know the Australian report was very critical of the range of the F35 and wanted the F22 instead.

      Thank for clearing it up.

  5. As always, another great article!

  6. A fighteraircraft is a forces aircraft designed primarily designed for air-to-air combat opposed to other aircraft,[1] having the status of conflicting to bombers and attack aircraft, whose key mission is to attack ground targets. The hallmarks of a fighter are its hurry, maneuverability, and insignificant size next of kin to other combat aircraft.

  7. All of those US bases, with the exception of Guam, are in range of Chinese ballistic missiles. In a war with China, the Chinese will simply use massed ballistic missile and cruise missile attacks to destroy those airbases. So tell me how the F-35, flying from Guam is going to achieve air superiority. Oh and it is not even like the Chinese could use cruise missiles- whether submarine, surface ship, or air launched on day 2 to hit Guam. Short range tactical fighters are nothing but sitting ducks on Day 1 against China. Without safe, nearby land bases to house Air Force tankers, carrier air is going to be real ineffective in a China scenario.