Even if the existing Russian-built MiG-29 and Su-27 and the new European-built Eurofighter are the F-15’s rough equivalent (which is disputed), no aircraft that the Russians, Chinese, or Europeans build would probably survive when flown against an F-15E with upgraded avionics and missiles and piloted by a well-trained American air crew. Russian aircraft are reasonably good, but Russia’s economic crisis severely limits the quantities that can be purchased and the all-important training given to pilots. China is modernizing its antiquated air force slowly, and its pilots receive substantially less training than do U.S. pilots. The Iraqi Air Force was decimated by the Gulf War, and the Iranian and North Korean air force’s are antiquated. In the future, destitute rogue states will not be able to afford to buy MiG-29s, Su-27s, Eurofighters, or French Rafales in large quantities to contend with the very large U.S. Air Force.
Moreover, no nation in the world can integrate its air operations the way the United States can. The U.S. airborne warning and control system (AWACS) is an unparalleled device for providing early warning of an attack by enemy fighters and acts as a tremendous force multiplier in air-to-air combat. Thus, the absence of any future near or medium-term threat from an enemy air force comparable to the U.S. Air Force renders the advance capabilities of the F-22 unneeded.
If the Air Force needs anything (and its dominance in Kosovo and the Gulf War indicates that it might not), it needs more ground attack capability. The F-22 only belatedly added a such a capability. In order to maintain its stealth, the F-22 can carry only two precision-guided munitions internally.
For attacking targets on the ground, larger bombers with greater payloads are more efficient than smaller fighter aircraft. Furthermore, large land bases in close proximity to any conflict — which are used by fighter aircraft like the F-22 — are becoming vulnerable to attacks from enemy ballistic missiles. Bombers have a much longer range than tactical fighters and can operate from bases in theater farther from the conflict or even from bases in the United States. Yet the need to pay for the costly F-22 has caused the fighter generals who run the Air Force to put off introducing a new bomber to replace the aging fleet until well into the next century.
At a per unit cost of $187 million per aircraft, the F-22 would be the most costly fighter aircraft ever produced (almost four times the $47 million of an F-15E). Because of problems in development, the aircraft’s cost has more than doubled and its schedule has slipped. For an aircraft that will be used primarily for attacking ground targets (in the absence of many significant air-to-air threats), the F-22 is exorbitantly priced and not optimally designed for the mission. The United States already has two expensive stealth aircraft designed explicitly to attack targets on the ground — the F-117 strike aircraft and the B-2 bomber — and only needs a small “silver bullet” force of such aircraft to take out dangerous enemy ground-based air defenses and to destroy other targets before such defenses are obliterated. (And the United States certainly doesn’t need a stealthy F-22s to escort such stealthy ground attack aircraft to their targets.) Once enemy air defenses are destroyed, non-stealth strike and bomber aircraft can take over the bulk of the air-to-ground missions.
If the U.S. Air Force deems that it needs improvements in tactical fighter aircraft before the Joint Strike Fighter begins to be built in six years, an upgraded F-15E flown by the best trained pilots in the world can remain dominant in air-to-air combat against any adversary for the foreseeable future. In an age when success in warfare depends more and more on electronics and precision weapons, quantum improvements in the air platforms that carry such devices are less necessary. In addition, unlike the F-22, the F-15E was designed primarily to attack ground targets and only secondarily to fight other aircraft. Thus, an upgraded F-15E aircraft fits better with U.S. needs in a post-Cold War world than does the exorbitantly priced F-22. The money saved by terminating this $70 billion prehistoric bird of prey could be put to better uses.