As the possibility of a no fly zone in the skies over Syria grows, does the U.S. and its allies need to consider upgrading their air combat capabilities? Loren Thompson argues that the potential for conflict highlights the need for stealthy, fifth generation fighters, such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
In a piece for Forbes.com, Thompson argues that the older, less stealthy F-16 and other fourth generation aircraft may not be enough of a match for the more advanced surface to air weaponry that could be used in a potential Syrian conflict:
The U.S. military, especially the Navy, has spent decades developing equipment and tactics that can help fourth-generation fighters deal with the threat posed by integrated air defenses. For instance, the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet built by Boeing and Northrop Grumman is equipped with some stealth (“low observable”) features, which when combined with stand-off jamming aircraft and imaginative tactics can make it reasonably survivable against today’s threats. Unfortunately, there is no way of making an older fighter as survivable as a fifth-gen aircraft.
The main reason why is that the airframe, on-board electronics and propulsion system all must be designed from their inception with survivability in mind to get optimum results, and many of the relevant technologies simply didn’t exist when the older planes were first conceived. So with scenarios like a Syrian no-fly zone now arising, Pentagon planners have to think hard about what their fighter investment strategy should be for the immediate future.
If they keep splitting their fighter buy between the fifth-generation F-35 and older, less survivable fighters then they run the risk of filling the force with hundreds of planes that can’t cope with tomorrow’s threats. They also undermine the economies of scale made possible by focusing all fighter investment on a single production line — a concentration of resources essential to reducing the cost of each fifth-generation fighter to a point where it is affordable for all overseas allies.