05 January 2006

An Air Force PR Dog That Didn't Hunt

Every warplane represents a design choice between a focus on air to air combat (which one describes with a "fighter" designation) and a focus on air to ground combat (which one describes either a a bomber, if the bomb capacity is great and the air to air combat capabilities are virtually nil, or as an attack aircraft, if it has some air to air combat abilities and mixes cannons and bombs in its air to ground combat capabilities).

The F-22 fighter, the newest warplane in the American arsenal, is more fully optimized for air to air combat than any other plane every built. It is widely viewed as the most effective air to air combat aircraft every built. And, a comparison of the bomb carrying capacity of different planes in U.S. service (with year of introduction) is instructive in this regard:

B1-B 60 tons (1984 swing wing, supersonic bomber)
B-52 24 tons (1955 big, slow bomber)
B-2 22 tons (1992 stealth bomber)
F-15E 11 tons (1988 bombing oriented F-15 version)
F-15 10 tons (1977 Air Force air superiority fighter)
F-35C 8 tons (not yet operational aircraft carrier based fighter)
A-10 7.2 tons (1977 close air support "attack" fighter)
F-18A 7 tons (1982 aircraft carrier based fighter)
F-14B/D 6.5 tons (1990 aircraft carrier based fighter, soon to be retired)
F-35A/B 6 tons (not yet operational multi-purpose fighters)
AV-8B 4.8 tons (1969 Marine vertical takeoff and landing fighter)
F-16 4 tons (1980 Air Force multi-purpose fighter)
F-18E 4 tons (1999 aircraft carrier based fighter)
F-117 1 ton (1981 stealth fighter/bomber, weak at air to air combat)
F-22 1 ton (2004 air superiority fighter)

The only manned fixed wing aircraft in military service with a smaller bomb capacity is the AC-130 (introduced in 1966), which is a modified C-130 transport that has artillery sized canons which is uses provides fire support to ground troops, instead of using any bombs.

The F-22 is also very fast, which is good for air to air combat, but not necessarily so good for lingering over a battlefield for hours waiting to find a ground target, as speed tends to be inversely corollated with fuel efficiency.

For an extended period before it was put into service, however, the F-22 was sold as the F/A-22, a "fighter/attack" designation that emphasized its capabilities in bombing targets on the ground in a close air support role, a purpose that the F-22 was designed to minimize. It didn't have zero bombing capabilities, but that was simply not an important purpose for the aircraft's design.

Now, the Air Force has finally given up on the charade of trying to sell the F-22 as a plane as an attack aircraft. "The air force has stopped referring to the F-22 as the F/A-22, although the aircraft will still be able to bomb. But from now on, the aircraft is officially the F-22A." F-22A means, Fighter Model 22, Version 1.0, with subsequent redesigned versions given sequential letters, and thus drops the previous designation.

Of course, none of the P.R. battle over the name of this expensive warplane has ever had any great impact on what the plane actually does, but for people who recognize that the military is spending real money and trying to convince real people on the appropriate Congressional committees to provide them with that money, it is nice to see a little more honesty enter the process, so this development is welcome. Now, F-22 proponents can go back to selling the aircraft as a tool for doing what it does best, instead of trying to sell it as a Swiss Army knife multi-purpose warplane, which it isn't and was never designed to be.

Realistically, the most likely reason behind this redesignation, however, is not a new focus on honestly. Instead, a faction within the Air Force has grown fond of the idea of using the F-22 as a basis for what has been called the FB-22, a larger stealth plane with a bomb payload at the high end of the fighter range, designed as a fighter-bomber similar to the F-15E in the current force mix. But, it is hard to sell the idea that the FB-22 fills a new niche, when you are at the same time trying to tell Congress that the F-22 is already a bomb delivery aircraft. (I'm not convinced at all that an FB-22, which would be extremely expensive per unit, fills a role not already well covered by the F-117, the B-2, the F-22 and a fleet of unmanned combat aircraft (UCAVs) soon to enter service such as the X-45 and/or X-47. An ability to strike targets from the air with cruise missiles or bomb laden stealth aircraft is not a weakness in our existing force structure.)

On the other hand, part of the problem is a lack of designations. Both bombers and smaller fighter aircraft, really come in two categories. Some, like the B-1B, B-2, F-22 and F-117 were designed for a "strike" role, involving hitting critical targets on the ground, such as anti-aircraft batteries, communications facilities and airfields at a time when the U.S. does not control the air and faces hostile resistence that could threaten aircraft that are not capable of avoiding detection in some manner or another (the B-1B is designed to fly very fast and very close to the ground for a bomber and the others are radar evading). In contrast, other attack and bomber aircraft, and other fighters with large bomb bays, are designed to operate at a time when the worst threats to aircraft from the ground have already been removed.

If this designation were added, one might have the BS-1B, the B-52, the BS-2, the F-15E, the F-15, the A-10, the F-18A, the F-14B/D, the AV-8B, the F-16, the F-18E, the FS-22, the S-117, and the AC-130, in the American warplane fleet. This would capture the F-22's strike capabilities, without selling it as an "attack plane" which it is not.

Of course, this still would leave problems. Why isn't the vertical landing F-35B successor to the AV-8B called the FV-35B? And, should the F-35, which has more stealth capabilities than non-stealth aircraft, but less than the F-117, B-2 and F-22, be permitted to carry the strike designation? Clearly, no system is naming aircraft is perfect.

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