A Bad Week for the U.S. Fifth Generation Fighter Fleet; Priceless F-22 Destroyed, F-35 Grounded

F-35 (top) and F-22 Fifth Generation Fighters

Shortly after the first crash of an F-35 fifth generation single engine light fighter, the U.S. military moved to ground its entire fleet of the jets globally. This was shortly followed by similar measures by the Israeli Air Force, and later the British armed forces, both of which rely heavily on the F-35 for their fleet modernisation programs. This cast a shadow over the already highly troubled weapons program, which has faced several serious glitches and performance shortcomings over its short history. The importance of the F-35 to the future of U.S. air power is unprecedented for any single fighter in recent history, relied on heavily for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines with over 2,500 of the jets planned for the future. Flaws in its development therefore have severe implications for the future of the country’s ability to wage war.

Shortly after the grounding of several hundred F-35 jets across the world, news of an arguably more serious nature with potentially more dire implications for America’s air fleet emerged – the destruction of several F-22 Raptor stealth jets on the U.S. East coast at Tyndall Air Force base, Florida, by Hurricane Michael. The F-22 is with little doubt one of the world’s most capable fighters – and was designed as a heavier complement to the F-35 with twin rather than single engines and far superior air to air combat capabilities. Most critically however, and in stark contrast to the F-35, the Raptor is both priceless and irreplaceable – with production lines closed for almost ten years and no American ally producing or ever likely to produce a fifth generation air superiority which could replace jets lost. The F-22 is the most costly fighter jet ever designed, and until the induction of the Chinese J-20 in 2017 was a league ahead of all potential competitors. Any losses therefore represent a considerable blow to American air power.

The F-22 fleet is already heavily overstretched, with just 187 of the 750 jets originally planned ever having been produced due to the Raptor’s extreme cost – particularly in terms of maintenance. When factoring in maintenance costs over its lifetime, each F-22 is expected to cost approximately $750 million over its lifetime – more than the annual defence budgets of most of the world’s countries. The loss of even half a dozen Raptors therefore could be devastating, and losses may well be several times as many particularly considering how delicate the aircraft are and the large numbers situated at the facility. The potential implications are particularly critical given the rapid deployment of advanced air superiority fighters by near peer rival powers – namely China and Russia – which have both developed fifth generation air superiority fighters alongside advanced ‘4++ generation’ jets of their own – all threats which only the Raptor is fit to meet.

The central role played by the F-35 and the F-22 in U.S. war plans against near peer adversaries, in the Asia-Pacific theatre in particular under AirSea Battle, means that the beginning of October 2018 bodes ill for the future of the country’s plans to modernise its air fleet. The full damage to the F-22 fleet remains to be seen, but the military may attempt to compensate for losses either by upgrading its ageing F-15 air superiority jets or redoubling its efforts to develop a sixth generation fighter as quickly as possible to supersede and eventually replace the Raptor. As for the F-35, production is likely to continue to be expanded – though bugs are likely to continue to plague the program while performance shortcomings may well deter a number of potential clients from acquiring the jets in large numbers as they did with its predecessor, the F-16.

thanks to: Military Watch
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