Despite China and Russia continually developing, producing, fielding, and exporting advanced fighters and Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) around the world, some anti-defense groups (e.g. POGO, NTU, the Center for American Progress, TCS) and their “analysts” who fancy themselves as defense issues experts, like Winslow Wheeler, Pierre Sprey, Larry Korb, Ben Freeman, and Mia Steinle, ridiculously claim that stealthy aircraft are unneeded and that old, obsolete teen series fighters (the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18) and obsolete bombers (the B-52 and B-1) can deliver air superiority and strike enemy targets safely.
They are dead wrong, and we should not be surprised, because virtually all people who propagate such ludicrous claims are anti-defense hacks who seek to weaken and gut America’s defense. POGO is co-funded by George Soros and was founded by self-proclaimed pacifist Dina Rasor, who said in 1981 “I find weapons repulsive”. Mia Steinle is an advocate of America’s unilateral nuclear disarmament.
So let’s see why their claims are utterly false. The two combat roles most frequently expected of combat aircraft are 1) air superiority and 2) deep strike/penetration.
Remember that even today, with most potential adversaries being equipped with advanced (or even upgraded legacy) Russian and Chinese SAM systems and fighters, which are proliferating globally, US aircraft would, in any plausible war, operate in heavily defended, heavily contested airspace defended by such SAM systems and fighters. This situation will only get worse in the future.
So let’s see how legacy aircraft would perform these two crucial missions.
The most common advanced fighters American pilots will encounter will be variants of the Flanker family (Su-27/30MKI/KI/MKK/MKV/33/35/J-11), the J-10 Sinocanard, and, beginning in the 2020s, the Sukhoi PAKFA, the Chengdu J-20, and the Shenyang J-31. Less likely to be encountered are MiG-35s and JF-17s, with zero orders outside Pakistan.
All US legacy fighters will be decisively outclassed by these aircraft.
The F-16 and the F/A-18 are decisively inferior to all of these aircraft in all parameters, including those relevant for BVR combat (radar power and range, countermeasures, max speed, max altitude, radar signature, heat signature) and those needed for WVR combat (the thrust/weight ratio, the wing loading ratio, countermeasures, etc. A partial exception is the Su-33 and older variants of the Su-30, which are not representative of the threat anyway. Moreover, the F-16 and the F/A-18 have little fuel capacity, allowing Flankers, the MiG-35, and the JF-17 to simply run them out of fuel or deplete their fuel reserves so badly that they’ll have to egress home, and then, shoot these American aircraft down.
The F-15 barely achieves parity against the Flanker family, being a little faster and flying at a higher altitude tham most Flankers and the J-10, but it has an even larger radar and IR signature than other legacy aircraft and is otherwise as inferior to the Flanker family and the J-10 as are the F-16 and the F/A-18.
These deficiencies cannot be overcome with upgrades. They are inherent to these fighters’ design.
A comparison of the F-16 to current and some prospective threat aircraft was made, and the F-16 was found to be decisively inferior on all counts to almost all competitors, except the Su-33 and, on a lesser scale, the Su-30.
If the US uses F-15s, F-16s, or F/A-18s (or a mix of these types) against modern Chinese or Russian fighters, the vast majority of them will be easily shot down from long range with radar-guided, infrared-guided, or anti-radar-homing BVR missiles such as variants of the AA-12 Adder. The large radar signatures of these aircraft will make it easy, and if they use their radar, they will also be easily detectable for IR detection systems. Furthermore, flying at higher speeds and altitudes than the F-16 and the F/A-18, Russian and Chinese fighters can send their missiles farther than these legacy American aircraft can.
The few F-16s and F/A-18s that would survive the BVR slaughter would be disposed of by the Russians or the Chinese easily in WVR combat, as both types have much higher wing loading ratios, much inferior T/W ratios, and much weaker climbing capability than any forementioned threat aircraft except the Su-33, found today only in Russian Naval Aviation.
The F-15 would fare much better against pre-PAKFA, pre-J-20 fighters, owing to its high (by today’s standards) T/W ratio of 1.15:1 and a relatively low wing loading ratio (385 kgs/sq meter), but will be decisively outclassed by the PAKFA, the J-31, and quite possibly, also the J-20.
While the F-15 might stand some chance of surviving in air to air combat against Generation #4.5 Russian and Chinese fighters, it stands no chance whatsoever of surviving in any airspace defended by any advanced SAM systems, or even so much as upgraded legacy Soviet SAM systems like the SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and SA-6.
The SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and the mobile SA-6 were widely exported by the Soviet Union and (together with upgraded domestic variants) still remain in wide use around the world, including in North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, the SA-6 Gammon, being mobile, can easily implement “shoot and scoot” tactics, waiting for an incoming aircraft for hours, concealed, then shooting and relocating promptly. It can relocate in minutes rather than hours or days. Moreover, its powerful radar is hard to jam, and so are the radar of even legacy Soviet air defense systems such as the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5, as shown during the Vietnam war against a variety of nonstealthy, unsurvivable aircraft, some of which (e.g. B-52s) still remain in service. Even when the US military developed countermeasures such as the primitive AGM-54 Shrike counter-SAM missile and jammers, the Russians and the Viets easily developed counter-countermeasures such as more powerful radar, passive anti-radar guidance for SAMs (instead of using radar), and other measures. Thus, throughout the Vietnam war, including during Operation Linebacker II, American losses in aircraft and pilots were significant.
Today, neither jamming nor anti-SAM missiles are effective measures any longer. Modern SAM systems have radars too powerful to be jammed, even with the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer (let alone the ALQ-99), and anti-SAM missiles such as the AGM-88 HARM can be easily shot down by point-defense counter-PGM systems such as the Tor-M1 and the Pantsir-S1, both of which have been exported globally and protect long-range anti-aircraft SAM systems, as well the latter systems themselves.
This means that the only way to survive in any airspace defended by such systems is to be undetected, i.e. stealthy. This requires all-aspect, multi-band stealthy aircraft.
All American legacy aircraft (including the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, AV-8, B-52, and B-1), as well as Generation #4.5 European fighters such as the Typhoon, the Rafale, and the Gripen, stand zero chance of surviving in such airspace. They would be easily detected, even from a long range, by the radar of any air defense systems, even the most primitive ones such as the SA-2 and SA-3, and shot down mercilessly.
Jammers might jam the radar of legacy SAM systems such as the SA-2 and SA-3, but not that of modern systems like the S-300, S-400, S-500, Tor-M1, Pantsir-S1, and HQ-9. Moreover, passive anti-radar homing missiles, even variants of the SA-2 and SA-3 missiles, can home on the emissions of American jammers and thus shoot the aircraft carrying those jammers down, as the Viets repeatedly did during the Vietnam War.
As Jamestown’s Dr Carlo Kopp writes:
“China’s air defense system is maturing into the largest, most capable and technically advanced in Asia, and will be capable of inflicting very heavy attrition on any aircraft other than upper tier U.S. stealth systems. Until the U.S. deploys its planned “New Generation Bomber” post-2020, the United States will have only 180 F-22 Raptors and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers capable of penetrating the PLA’s defensive shield. This may not be enough to act as a credible non-nuclear strategic deterrent.”
The only Western aircraft which can survive and prevail in such airspace are the F-22, the B-2, and the planned Next Generation Bomber (if its designers follow stealth shaping rules).
And before you ask: “what about counter-stealth radars?”, the fact is that such “counter-stealth radars” cannot detect the F-22 from more than 15 kms, and cannot detect stealthy bombers at all. Stealthy bombers are too large for “counter-stealth” radars’ wavelength (which is barely 2 meters for the best CS radar, the Nebo SVU; other CS radars have even smaller wavelength) to be detected, and the F-22 can easily stay out of the tiny detection envelope of such systems (with their 15 km radius) while still delivering its munitions to the target. And, with supercruise ability, it’s too fast for enemy SAMs to shoot down.
But nonstealthy aircraft would be easily detected by both counterstealth and conventional radars from a long distance. Any airspace protected by any such radars is off-limits to them.
The only feasible course of action is for the US to produce additional 600 F-22s, produce at least 100 Next Generation Bombers, and retire all legacy aircraft (F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, B-52s, B-1s) ASAP.