US air dominance coming to an end but not for reasons conservatives cite

Yes, US air dominance is coming to an end. But it is not because of J-20, PAK FA or lack of funding. It is because of profound mismanagement of resources and lack of clear understanding of what works and what does not, what is important and what is not.


Stealth is seen as a proof of US technological superiority which allegedly secures its unparalleled advantage in the air. But original stealth fighter was not low-RCS, hugely-expensive construct; it was meant to be very small, very agile aircraft that would hunt down enemy air defenses by using air-to-ground anti-radiation missile. Concept of stealth as it is today was developed in Russia, and, having been brought to US by Russian emigrants during the Cold War, it was adopted by United States and became latest obsession of technologists in the USAF. But it came at the cost: all stealth aircraft produced in United States have suffered major cost overruns and force reductions, with possible exception of F-117.

Many US conservatives want “strong defense”, by which they mean lots of highly expensive weapons. Following arguments are usually made:

  1. non-LO aircraft are unsurvivable in face of modern air defense systems
    1. in Vietnam, US lost 8.400 aircraft
    2. Soviet SAMs took heavy toll on Israeli aircraft in 1973
  2. mobile SAMs are largerly invulnerable to SEAD
  3. stealth fighters are unquestionably superior to non-stealth ones in air superiority
    1. only F-22 can defeat PAK FA and J-20; F-15, Rafale, Typhoon and Gripen can only compete with Flanker family
    2. radar-based BVR combat will dominate air warfare

All these arguments are either misleading or outright false. SAMs are usually even larger and heavier than BVR missiles used by fighter aircraft. Thus, their Pk will be way below even that of BVR missiles – in Vietnam, SAMs did not achieve Pk of more than 1%. While they did manage to shoot down many US aircraft, it had mostly to do with how long war lasted.

Reasons for US losses in Vietnam are several. First, F-4 as well as century-series fighters had very bad situational awareness due to bad canopy design. This meant that they were very vulnerable to aimed gunfire, as well as to SAMs, especially until they received radar warners (and even when they did, radar warner only warned them of being targeted, not wether SAM is in the air and what its trajectory and speed were. Guns were optically aimed, rendering RWR useless). Second, they had high wing loading and low thrust to weight ratio; to make things worse, F-4 and F-105 were very heavy. This made them rather sluggish in maneuvering, rendering them vulnerable to SAMs and AAA. B-52s were particularly vulnerable to SAMs due to their large size. Despite that, 8.400 aircraft figure cited simetimes is wrong. US Air Force flew 5,25 million sorties, loosing 2.251 aircraft, of which 1.737 in combat (out of 2851 aircraft that were lost in combat by USAF, USN and USMC). Loss rate was thus 0,043%. For comparision, USAF F-16 and F-117 in Kosovo war suffered 3 losses while flying 5.800 sorties, loss rate of 0,052%, or 0,034% if F-117 that was only mission-killed and subsequently scratched as opposed to shot down is not counted. F-16s flew 4.500 sorties and suffered one loss, for loss rate of 0,022%.

Assumption that LO aircraft are more survivable in face of modern air defenses is questionable at best. During Cold War, German Cessna managed to land in middle of the Red Square, and in 1989 Syrian MiG succesfully landed on defended Israeli air field. During Kosovo war, F-16 suffered one loss while having flown 4.500 sorties, a loss rate of 0,022%. In comparision, F-117 suffered 2 losses out of 1.300 sorties, a loss rate of 0,15% and shootdown rate of 0,077%, making F-16 3,5-7 times as survivable as F-117. Serb SAMs achieved total Pk of 0,36%, achieving kill or mission kill against 3 aircraft (2 F-117 and 1 F-16) in 845 launches. F-117s themselves had very bad maneuverability, no ECM and very bad cockpit visibility, all due to stealth requirements. Hits on F-117s were achieved by a single SAM battery utilizing low-frequency radar combined with IR SAM cueing; despite improved reliability and performance due to usage of IR seekers on missiles, two SAMs were required to shoot down non-evading, unaware F-117 with no ECM escort.

As far as SAMs go, all stealth aircraft in US service can be easily detected by HF and VHF radars. As a result, B-2 and F-22 are just as survivable as B-1 and F-15; former even less so, since it uses terrain-following radar when on penetration mission, one which spans entire B-2s leading edge and can be detected over the horizon (F-22 can at least shut down its own radar). To counter these radars – and modern VHF radars are mobile – small number of highly expensive stealth aircraft is not adequate. What is required are large numbers of small, cheap, agile fighters armed with anti-radiation missiles.


While US Air Force indeed is “geriartric”, as Heritage Foundation puts it, that is not due to lack of funds. Long-range strike missions (or strategic bombing) that Foundation advertises have never proven effective, and most important missions were always transport and supplying of troops, close air support and air superiority. Heavy bombers were only ever effective when employed either directly in support of troops, or in SEAD missions, carrying cruise missiles.

As shown previously, stealth can hardly be called “revolution”. It is simply an evolution of belief that technological superiority can be decisive on its own.

Heritage Foundation warns of proliferation of precision weapons which could enable US opponents to deny US basing ability, but it proposes old solutions, such as building a B2 replacement, reopening F-22 line, building advanced UCAV for penetrating enemy air defenses, continuing F-35 program as planned,

UCAVs have proven useless in air defense environment, despite first UAV flight dating to before first manned flight. Even in relatively permissive Lybian air space, manned fighters had to go in first and supress air defenses so that UAVs could operate.

Foundation’s praise of F-35 is completely undeserved. Combat simulations it cites were ordered by Lockheed Martin and USAF and can thus hardly be called reliable. F-35 can indeed carry missiles and bombs at maximum supersonic speed, but this speed (Mach 1,6) is less than those of Eurocanards in air-to-air configuration with external weapons. At the same time, F-35s EW systems are of about same capability as Dassault Rafale’s at best, and “over-the-shoulder” missile shots F-35 can perform are well within Rafale’s capabilities.



Instead, main problem for USAF is USAF itself. USAF as it is relies on following assumptions to operate effectively:

  1. aircraft quality can beat aircraft quantity
  2. air bases will remain safe from the attacks
  3. future combat will be BVR centric

Unfortunately for the USAF, these assumptions are outright false. In air-to-air combat, stealth fighters rely solely on promise of radar-based BVR combat: namely, assumption that BVR missiles will be effective enough to allow stealth fighters to destroy several times more numerous non-VLO opponent at BVR. However, F-22 costs 260 million USD flyaway, and F-35 costs 200 million USD flyaway. Most expensive non-VLO fighter, Eurofighter Typhoon, costs 130 million USD flyaway; Saab Gripen C costs <40million USD. Thus for each F-22, one can buy 2 Typhoons, while each F-35 costs as much as 5 Gripen Cs. F-22 and F-35 will be lucky to fly one sortie every two days; Gripen and Typhoon can fly 1,5-2 sorties per day. Thus, for same amount of money, F-22 will be outnumbered by Typhoons 6:1 to 8:1; F-35 will be outnumbered by Gripens 15:1 to 20:1. Yet historically, 3:1 was the usual limit where quality could compensate for a quantity.

With these numbers, even perfect missile Pk would not be enough for stealth aircraft to defeat equal-cost force of Gripens. But BVR missile Pk was never perfect. Even against utterly incompetent opponents, Pk was never above 50%. Against competent opponents, it was never above 10%. With 10% Pk and 6 BVR missiles each, 12-aircraft squadron of F-22s would shoot down 7 opponents, assuming that all missiles were launched. This is nowhere enough to secure a victory against a more numerous opponent.

At the same time, these assumptions have led to decline of US air force. Fighter inventory has – as most conservatives have correctly noticed – gotten old, mostly because of failures of procurement plans based on nothing more than wishful thinking. These plans called for 650 VLO F-22s and 3.000 LO F-35s – instead, end force will most likely be 180 F-22s already procured plus 500 – 700 F-35s. These will fly 340 – 510 sorties per day, barely more than what Armee de’l Air can fly (currently consisting of 73 Rafale and 167 Mirage fighters, capable of flying a total of 360 to 480 sorties per day). Even the original procurement plan called for replacement of 1.256 F-15s with 750 F-22s, which is even worse as 750 F-22s would only have been capable of flying 375 sorties per day, compared to 1.200 that F-15 were able to support. Such force reduction, no matter how more capable new system is, is always a huge disadvantage.


J-20 is far less of a threat than scare-mongers in US suggest. It is large and heavy LO aircraft; as such, in visual-range combat it will be at disadvantage, and it won’t make enough appearance in the combat zone to be noticed in military terms. Gripen E, Rafale and Typhoon will all have exhcange ratio advantage over J-20, and even fighters without IRST, such as Gripen C and F-16A, will be a tough nut for J-20 as long as they have good RWR and MAW.

Some have gone so far as to state that J-20 signals an end to America’s air invincibility. But this “invincibility” was simply a combination of superior numbers and incompetent, underequipped opponent; J-20 or not, war between US and China would have shattered that invincibility on first day of air combat. F-22 was never going to shoot down enemy at 50 miles; longest-ranged BVR victory in Gulf War I happened at distance of 18 miles, and that was against aircraft with no ECM, no RWR and incompetent pilots. J-20 is not a game changer; it does not strengthen Chinese air power but weakens it. However, perception is always important, and even when incorrect, it can have a major impact; thus J-20 is indeed strengthening Chinese political position, in large part thanks to disinformation campaign sponsored by US themselves after the Gulf Wars.

J-20 itself is, like F-22, based around promise of radar-based BVR combat. But even disregarding rather uninspiring combat performance of radar-guided missiles, using active sensors in combat is suicidal. Radars have always been vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles, and stealth fighters are no exception. Radiation-emitting targets can be easily hit in any weather, as long as missiles can reach them. Radar also does not provide for a reliable IFF identification of opponent; only visual sensors, such as IRST, do. If opponent uses radar himself, however, he can be relatively easily identified, especially of “opponent” in question are United States, which use fixed set of frequencies intended to provide an all-weather capability. If J-20 does not shut down its radar, it will render its radar stealth superfluous and also cause itself to be vulnerable to attack; if it does, it will still render its radar stealth superfluous by being forced to rely on IRST, and/or engage in visual-range combat; in all cases, it will be at disadvantage against aircraft such as Eurocanards due to its weight, size and powerful radar.


But F-35, aircraft that USAF planners count on to fill the gap, is utterly useless in air combat. It is too heavy, has huge wing loading, bad cockpit visibility, high drag, low thrust-to-weight ratio; consequently, it has low turn and roll rates (ignore USAF’s propaganda statements) and is unable to challenge modern fighters in air combat – which was always a visual-range combat as long as both opponents were somewheat competent. It is equally vulnerable to SAMs and AAA, not only due to lack of maneuverability but also because of fuel-surrounded engine.


Air bases also are not safe from the attack. They never were; from World War II on, attacks on air bases were an unforgiving reality. F-22 and F-35 are both short-ranged fighters, requiring air bases close to areas of conflict, which are thus vulnerable to enemy attacks. Resultantly, even if they do turn out to be stealthy in the air, lack of stealth on the ground due to reliance on easily-found air bases will doom them in the war.

21 thoughts on “US air dominance coming to an end but not for reasons conservatives cite

  1. I think the J-20 is some sort of propaganda tool, to push US MIC into even more expensive, more useless (=stealthy, laser, etc) systems. The chinese air force of the future will consist of 200+ J-10 and ca. 130 Su-30MKK and 200+ Shenyang J-11 plus 200+ Xian JH-7 fighter-bombers. There’s no way that the famous J-20 will be build in significant numbers, say more than 200 airframes.

    While stealth is mostly useless against a capable air opponent with RWR-missile-cueing capability, the J-20 may reduce the effectiveness of US Aegis defense system. The large size of the J-20 is suited for long range missions, mostly over the pacific.

    As the chinese didn’t go for a all-stealth force, for good reasons, neither do the russkies or indians. The PAK-FA may have a reduced frontal RCS, but with round, metallic engine shrounds and a washboad underfuselage, there’s no way it is “stealthy” in the US MIC sense. But it will be a very good aircraft, with large internal fuel capacity. And while the russians are buing more Su-35 in the meantime, the indians will buy more than 100 rafales.

    The bottom line is, the US is the only nation where stealth is seen as an necessary item, thereby ruining the air force.

    BTW, good post.


    1. @ Segelboot:
      One could really get the impression, the chinese strategy was to start a one-sided arms race, with the projected aim to win this race, because the opponent runs out of money first. So it´s basically the same idea the US already used in the Cold War to defeat the USSR. Now they have to take care, that they don´t become the victims of this strategy, too…


    2. US is not the only nation where Stealth is looked at as ncessary.

      Nearly everyone else that can afford it (and US will sell to) is buying or trying to buy F-35. For whatever reason.

      Also U.S. is not going for all stealth force. About 400 F-15’s C,D,E’s will be kept and upgraded. Navy has/is purchasing roughly 600 F/A-18 E, F, G’s.

      If full force of over 2000 (combined for all US branches) F-35’s is not purchased, than U.S. will probably upgrade or new build many F-16’s and F-18’s to make up. I expect mostly F-16 as many upgrade designs are being thrown around.

      Also U.S. has large capability to store aircraft (in protected storage) that can be later returned to service if needed. Never been needed yet.

      Ps. Money is not what we think it is. Not when we can print as much as we want. And most of it is electronic anyways. It is just a means to move trade and consumption. As long as the value compared to other monies is kept and people are willing to accept its value it serves its purpose.

      what really matters in anything is what is produced. Production of goods and services has limits as do manpower and natural resources. Money is just paper that can be printed (and now created electronically) endlessly and serves to increase economical activity.

      Cost should be measured as follows:

      Since labor and resources are limited, what are we giving up on producing to produce this.


  2. I would look at “stealth” as more of a symptom than a cause of a declining air force. Look at the radar missiles, jamming pods and stealth as products compared to alloy wheels, sound systems and gps navigation in the auto industry. Lockheed Martin is no more than a business like Chevrolet, trying to make a profit by employing clever marketing strategies.

    If stealth had not been chosen as an essential technological “must have” then something else would have been. And the USAF, and other air arms involved would have invested in some other kind of miracle wunder waffen. And then they would have a vested interest and defend their investment with the same vigour that they defend stealth with today.

    The industry is churning out mediocre weapons and the military has failed to recognise that marketing is the only real science that these big corporations are leading in.

    We need competition between contractors to encourage innovation. ww1 and ww2 were the most incredible periods of innovation because the countryside was dotted with small aviation firms competing against each other and the enemy to create superior products. They had to be frugal with resources and had to make sure that their aircraft actually worked in combat. And they had to develop, prototype, demonstrate and deploy in a matter of months.
    Contrast this with Lockheed Martin, who are still working on the f35. This aircraft has been in development since 3 years after I was born. And it could hardly be called “frugal with resources”.
    And it doesn’t work!

    In conclusion…
    I don’t doubt that the American defence force is full of fantastic, creative and innovative people who can believe that technology will conquer all enemies. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of the people engaged in promoting these ridiculous stealth aircraft are utterly convinced that they are doing what’s best for their countries defence. I know that Lockheed Martin has many highly qualified personnel with great ideas for why their products are worth what they claim.
    They should all ponder on history before looking to the future.

    Sorry for writing a novel.


    1. Other “miracle” likely wouldn’t have been as expensive as stealth, but you are correct that it is just a symptom. In Vietnam, “miracle” were radar-guided missiles. And it isn’t just military that is getting fooled by corporations, take a look at any forum where there is discussion about military aviation, you’ll have few members parroting LMs and USAFs statements.


      1. You can say that again brother. I comment on another blog and whenever I try to point out that there is nothing special about the F-35 and F-22 and stealth I get chewed on by people not knowing what they are talking about and lacking in true information. For example there was one guy that believed IRST can only track one target at a time and that “sensor fusion” was something Lockheed Martin invented for F-22 and perfected for F-35. Whatever argument I gave supported by links and statements that the Rafale was at least equal in avionics and “sensor fusion” to the F-35 he simply ignored. And there was another guy who kept on and on about how the “new” F-35 and F-22 fighters were better then the Eurocanards designed some 30 years ago. He to ignored completely any argument about the Eurocanards being continually improved on since they entered production while the F-22 still has it’s original equipment (that is not even working properly), and the fact that Typhoon, Rafale and F-22 programs were started at about the same time and the aircrafts entered service only a few years apart.
        And don’t get me started on the belief that US is “30 years ahead in stealth technology” or “doing 4th generation stealth” while “European R&D failed completely”. Never-mind the fact that it seams Europe is ahead of US in IRST, infrared imaging technology, assorted sensor technology and EW technology and the fact that Germany was working on stealth fighters in the 80s (check out the MBB Lampyridae and ) and probably simply decided it was not worthed (or was blackmailed by USAF in giving it up).
        Sorry for the long rant but I had to get it out of me, and people here seem a little less intoxicated and inoculated by marketing.


      2. It really depends on the “miracle”. Imagine if they decided that nuclear powered aircraft was to be the next miracle. Well, that would be quite expensive. So would ramjet aircraft.

        I think that the real reason why this is happening is because well, the US government is more or less willing to write what amounts to a blank check to whatever the technologies the industry advertises without taking a serious look at what they really offer. It’s not a results-based environment, it’s more of a revolving door where generals go to work for the defense industry when they retire.

        Then there’s also the conservative movement, which seems to have completely lost its mind. Strength, national strength is now measured by the amount of USD and percentage of GDP spent on defense. There’s a total refusal to acknowledge that the military is a drain on national resources and that money not spent on the military could be spent more productively elsewhere. Even saying that has become totally taboo in US culture.

        Finally, there’s the corporate world, where well, they’ll sell whatever they think makes them the most money.

        There’s no desire to look at history. History tells them what they don’t want to hear. Therefore, they deliberately choose to ignore advice that they do not wish to hear.


      3. “There’s no desire to look at history. History tells them what they don’t want to hear. Therefore, they deliberately choose to ignore advice that they do not wish to hear.”

        That is the main problem. US decision makers have broken their own OODA loop with reality denial.


  3. I still dont know what the J-20 is for…
    What do you think Picard?
    Long range strike fighter(like the F-111),anti-AWACS/tanker,interceptor?
    It just looks to big to be a fighter…


      1. That is questionable, aerodynamics are fairly similar except for canards, but while canards as used on the J-20 do help the pitch rate they don’t really impact the turn rate (canards themselves are not the lifting surface in subsonic though they can help the lift if poperly positioned, which canards on the J-20 are not) and other than that both aircraft have fairly conventional aerodynamics, which means that they are mostly dependent on lift from wings for turning. J-20 seems to be primarly a strike aircraft, much like the F-35, so it can be expected that it will have fairly high wing loading. J-31 seems to be fairly similar to the F-35, but uses two engines and seems to have larger wing, which may result in higher thrust-to-weight ratio and lower wing loading, and thus better maneuverability; still, it is unlikely to match F-22 or Eurocanards.


  4. “That is the main problem. US decision makers have broken their own OODA loop with reality denial.”

    Taking this further, let’s think this over.

    Let’s use my ramjet example of something other than stealth that would cause unit costs to skyrocket. So, instead of building stealth aircraft, they decide that ramjet powered mach 5+ aircraft are the future (or something along those lines). Well, based on that, they’re likely to make something like mach 5+ version of the XB-70 Valkyrie, the XF-108 Rapier, and SR-71s. That in turn, would require of course, new advances in materials sciences (titanium and likely carbon fibre), and would drive unit costs up really high.

    Nobody would ask the why. Indeed, it’s interesting to note that during the 1950s, the desire to go as fast possible led to mach 2+ aircraft that sacrificed maneuverability and cruising speed for afterburning burst speed. Wing sweep for example had to get more and more sharp (we’re talking 60 degree+ sweep in some aircraft).

    Of course, there’d be other problems, like bombing at mach 5. How to get the bombs to hit their intended targets within an acceptable CEP? Not to mention, given the fuel consumption, how to get an acceptable payload? Or for that matter an acceptable range?

    Such issues would likely drive an aircraft of complexity every bit as comparable as to say, the stealth aircraft.

    And along the way, people would deny that the technologies being developed were that useful in war. They have an OODA loop all right, but it’s focused on keeping the money flowing inwards.


      1. Thinking about this more, other things would likely have been sacrificed. For one thing, 60 degree+ wing sweep means that the take-off and landing speeds are really high (could be a problem for carrier based aircraft), but even for land based aircraft, you’re looking at a very long runway.

        Wing loading too would likely go up as the complexity increased. In other words, the maneuverability of aircraft would be consciously sacrificed in favor of higher speed.

        On the other hand, some good might come out of it:

        Advances in materials sciences would likely cause benefit in the civilian world as well, provided that the technology was not “classified”. We’d likely see better alloys, advances in composites, etc that could better take high temperatures and have a higher tensile strength to mass ratio. Although it would be cost prohibitive to equip an entire plane with the latest alloys, certain critical parts (ex: where titanium or nickel are used to today) may benefit.
        A culture of designing aircraft with a high fuel fraction would be a necessity (high speeds); maybe advances in hydrogen fuel due to H2’s higher mass to energy ratio?
        I suppose with ramjet and scramjet technology advancing, missiles too will become ramjet or scramjet powered rather than solid rocket and make advances there.
        There would likely be closer cooperation with Nasa and the Esa and some good may come out of it for space travel or perhaps for civil supersonic flight in the long run.

        Okay I take some of what I said back. Stealth technology is unlikely at this time (at least from what I’ve seen) to lead to any such advances in the civilian world or in other military applications. Can you think of anything that stealth could be used for to benefit society? I cannot.

        By contrast, high speed hypersonic ramjet powered aircraft could perhaps lead to some benefit even if it’s use was questionable for strategic bombing (the mission air forces love to do). It would still lead to costly, complex aircraft, but unlike in stealth, there is the potential for benefit.


      2. “For one thing, 60 degree+ wing sweep means that the take-off and landing speeds are really high”

        It also means lower lift-to-drag ratio in maneuvering combat.

        “By contrast, high speed hypersonic ramjet powered aircraft could perhaps lead to some benefit even if it’s use was questionable for strategic bombing (the mission air forces love to do). It would still lead to costly, complex aircraft, but unlike in stealth, there is the potential for benefit.”

        Look at how Concorde turned out. Fastest airliner in the world… but it was uneconomical as it was too hard to maintain. Same would go for hypersonic jets. More is not necessarily better.


      3. “It also means lower lift-to-drag ratio in maneuvering combat.”

        Basically unacceptable compromises. Then again, the Mach 5+ aircraft probably won’t be needing that much – it’ll have more in common with the SR-71 and XB-70 then anything else.

        I wonder though, what would be the most cost effective way to stop such an aircraft (other than destroying it on the ground)? I would hope we can come up with something better than a modern Mig-25 or Mig-31.

        “Look at how Concorde turned out. Fastest airliner in the world… but it was uneconomical as it was too hard to maintain. Same would go for hypersonic jets. More is not necessarily better.”

        4 is the least likely of the comments I made. But 1,2a, and 3 are certainly possible. Higher speeds necessitate better materials, higher fuel fraction, and closer cooperation with civil research organizations (and likely universities as well).

        Especially the better materials, I could seem some uses for civil aviation and maybe the civilian world as a whole.


      4. “I would hope we can come up with something better than a modern Mig-25 or Mig-31.”

        MiG-31 like solution would still be the most cost effective…


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