The US Air Force has two air-superiority fighters in their stable in the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, but when looking to bolster the fleet with purchases of a new (old) jet for the job, it was the Eagle, not the famed Raptor, to get a second lease on life.
That really begs the question: If America can buy new F-15s, a design that’s nearly 50 years old, why isn’t it looking to build new F-22s instead?
By most accounting, the F-22 Raptor remains the most capable air-superiority fighter on the planet, with its competition in China’s J-20B beginning to shape up and Russia’s Su-57 still lagging a bit behind.
The F-22 really is still at the top of its game … but that doesn’t mean building more actually makes good sense.
The F-22 and F-35 are fighters with 2 very different jobs
While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely seen as the most technologically advanced fighter in the sky, it was designed as a sort of continuation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s multi-purpose architecture, with an emphasis placed on conducting air-to-ground operations.
The older F-22 Raptor was intended to serve as a replacement instead for the legendary F-15 Eagle, as the nation’s top-of-the-line dogfighter.
While both the F-22 and F-35 are 5th-generation jets that leverage stealth to enable mission accomplishment and both are able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat operations, they each specialize in a different aspect of air combat and were intended to serve in very different roles.
America will undoubtedly be flying F-35s for decades to come, but it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that the F-35 will replace the F-16 as the Air Force’s workhorse platform.
The F-22 was canceled because America didn’t need a stealth air-superiority fighter for the War on Terror
The Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 F-22s to develop a robust fleet of stealth interceptors for the 21st century. But as the United States found itself further entrenched in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations against technologically inferior opponents, the need for advanced dogfighters became far less pressing.
With ongoing combat operations in multiple theaters to fund, the F-22 program was shut down in December 2011 with just 186 fighters delivered. Today, nearly a decade later, the F-22 exists in precious few numbers, despite its fearsome reputation.
Now the United States faces concerns about its dwindling fleet of F-22 Raptors that were once intended to replace the F-15 outright. Only around 130 of those 186 delivered F-22s were ever operational, and today the number of combat-ready F-22s is likely in the double digits.
With no new Raptors to replenish the fleet as older jets age out, each hour an F-22 flies anywhere in the world is now one hour closer to the world’s best dogfighter’s retirement.
The future of the Air Force, as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has plainly stated, doesn’t include the mighty Raptor. But America needs an air superiority fighter that can stand and swing with the best in the world, and as capable as the F-15EX Eagle II may be, it lacks the stealth it would need to survive an open war with a nation like China or Russia.
With the NGAD program still years away from producing an operational fighter, America’s air-superiority mission now runs the risk of not having the jets it needs for a high-end fight if one were to break out – as unlikely as that may be.
The production facilities and supply chain for the F-22 were cannibalized for the F-35
As simple as just building new F-22s may sound, the truth is, re-starting the F-22 production line would likely cost the same or potentially even more than simply developing an entirely new and potentially better fighter.
Lockheed Martin cannibalized a great deal of the F-22’s production infrastructure to support the ongoing production of the F-35, meaning it wouldn’t be as simple as just re-opening the plants that had previously built Raptors.
In fact, Lockheed Martin would have to approach building new F-22s as though it was an entirely new enterprise, which is precisely why the United States didn’t look into purchasing new F-22s rather than the controversial new (old) F-15EX.
Boeing’s new F-15s are considered fourth-generation fighters that are sorely lacking in stealth when compared to advanced fighters like the F-22 and F-35, but the Air Force has agreed to purchase new F-15s at a per-unit price that even exceeds new F-35 orders.
Why? There are a number of reasons, but chief among them are operational costs (the F-15 is far cheaper per flight hour than either the F-35 or the F-22), and immediate production capability. Boeing has already been building advanced F-15s for American allies in nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, so standing up a new production line for the United States comes with relatively little cost.
The F-22’s production line, on the other hand, hasn’t existed in nearly a decade.
In a report submitted to Congress in 2017, it was estimated that restarting F-22 production would cost the United States $50 billion just to procure 194 more fighters.
That breaks down to between $206 and $216 million per fighter, as compared to the F-35’s current price of around $80 million per airframe and the F-15EX’s per-unit price of approximately $88 million.
Does that mean it’s impossible to build new F-22s? Of course not. With enough money, anything is possible – but as estimated costs rise, the question becomes: Is it practical? And the answer to that question seems to be an emphatic no.
The US Air Force has invested a comparatively tiny $9 billion into its own Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program – aimed at developing a replacement for the F-22 – over the span of six years (2019-2025).
If the new NGAD fighter enters service on schedule, it may even get to fly alongside the F-22 before it heads out to pasture. So while the Raptor’s reign as king of the skies may soon come to an end, it may not be before America has a new contender for the title.
Last month, Dr. Kevin O’Connor, physician to the president of the United States, delivered a “charge for the graduates” – a brief commencement speech – to graduating students of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, where he is also an associate professor and senior medical advisor.
Dr. O’Connor, who was appointed physician to then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2009, has remained the personal physician of the now-POTUS since that time. He was appointed the official physician to the president upon Joe Biden’s inauguration in January of 2021.
Dr. O’Connor is also one of the country’s handful of battlefield medical experts who have changed the face of combat medicine over the past two decades-plus, through the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC).
In his brief speech, Dr. O’Connor spoke to the graduates about “building their brand,” or becoming the professionals and humans they desire to become following the end of their formal education.
By way of example, O’Connor recounted a story told by Navy SEAL Adm. (retired) Bill McRaven on St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah, Georgia, at a Hibernians Society dinner, “a few years back.” (Full disclosure: This author was also present for the dinner and speech.)
In his speech to the graduates, O’Connor recounted how McRaven spoke about being a young SEAL officer when he was assigned to the insular, and still relatively new, SEAL Team 6in the early 1980s.
At the time, ST-6 was commanded by the legendary (and infamous) Richard “Dick” Marcinko, the unit’s first commanding officer. Marcinko was known for all kinds of inappropriate, and at-times illegal, behavior, as well as for running ST-6 in a bullying, capricious, and tyrannical style.
At one point early in McRaven’s time there, Marcinko attempted to humiliate McRaven through some asinine and pointless tasking, as Marcinko was wont to do at the command.
By that point, however, McRaven professed that he had grown sick of such treatment – and Marcinko’s behavior – and he flat out refused to comply with Marcinko’s order.
Marcinko does, however, discuss firing McRaven, essentially over the two having vastly different leadership styles.
McRaven was indeed fired from ST-6 for taking his stand against Marcinko and subsequently fretted over the incident and what it would do to his still-burgeoning career.
O’Connor told the story as a way of illustrating how McRaven – at the time – was not the Adm. Bill McRaven he would later become: Navy SEAL flag officer, special operations author and historian, National Security Council appointee, and commanding officer of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) when it executed the Osama Bin Laden raid.
No, then he was just Lt. McRaven, standing up to a bullying senior officer and refusing to accept things the way they were at SEAL Team 6 at that time.
In other words, McRaven was “building his brand.”
O’Connor would go on to tell the graduates that he was not charging them with the responsibility of becoming “great,” as they built their own brands going forward. Rather, he was challenging them to be good.
“Honor where you came from by being and doing good,” he concluded.
As a fighter pilot, I have a lot of respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished. His ability to not adhere to dogma has allowed him to revolutionize two industries through SpaceX and Tesla.
Much like a physicist, he relies on first-principle science to solve problems, which allows him to see things from a fresh perspective. However, he is wrong about the fighter jet era being over.
“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.
“It’s not that I want the future to be this. That’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”
As a fighter pilot, my job is to not fall in love with the aircraft I fly, but to use it as a tool to accomplish a mission. We are constantly looking for ways to optimize our lethality while minimizing risk.
If there is a better way to accomplish a mission, then it is our duty to use it. While I agree with Elon Musk that the future is drone warfare, I think we’re a lifetime away from seeing a fully autonomous Air Force.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have fundamentally altered the way we train and fight. I’ve integrated with them extensively over my career and seen first-hand how valuable they are.
Their persistence is unmatched – an MQ-9B recently flew for nearly 2 days without having to refuel. The sensors they carry are equally impressive, due to the weight savings from not having to keep a pilot alive. Perhaps most important, though, is that they don’t put human lives at risk.
It’s important to understand that these UAVs are not autonomous – there is someone, usually half a world away, controlling every move by the aircraft. They are a lot more, in effect, like scaled-up radio-control aircraft than they are like robots.
As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective.
As Elon Musk is finding out, making an autonomous vehicle is incredibly difficult. While Tesla’s autopilot can navigate reasonably well on highways, they have a much harder time in the city. There are so many edge cases (problems that only occur under extreme circumstances) involved in city driving that are nearly impossible to predict.
When several of these one-in-a-thousand events happen simultaneously, the car’s autonomous software becomes overwhelmed. Remember, these cars are operating in a highly regulated environment where the rules are clearly defined.
Combat is the most dynamic environment imaginable. The fog and friction of war prevent a full understanding of the battlefield.
In addition, the enemy is specifically targeting your weaknesses. Teslas don’t have to fight state actors that are specifically trying to make them crash.
Imagine a city that is more like “Mad Max,” where there are adversaries painting street lines into telephone poles and shining lasers into the car’s cameras – they wouldn’t go a block without being disabled.
The same is true for an autonomous drone – it not only has to be able to make decisions on its own, but it must overcome an adversary that is specifically targeting its weaknesses.
And that is where the human brain thrives-coming up with dynamic and creative solutions to undefined problems.
The current Venn Diagram of manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities is so far apart that neither is close to being replaced. The future is finding ways for both to operate as seamlessly as possible.
The US Air Force just started taking delivery on the new F-15EX Eagle II in March of this year, but the jets already found their way into a massive force-on-force war game held in Alaska last month.
Thus far, only two F-15EXs have been delivered, and both saw action during the exercises.
The war game, dubbed Northern Edge ’21, saw the new F-15EX integrating with the older air-superiority workhorse F-15Cs they’re slated to replace, as well as the fighter’s fifth-generation counterparts in the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
It also accompanied F-15E, or Strike Eagles, which are versions of the famed fighter designed specifically for air-to-ground engagements. The two F-15EXs flew alongside a force of as many as 50 jets as they closed with and engaged an aggressor force of similar size and capability.
“Northern Edge is an essential event for operational tests,” said Col. Ryan Messer, 53rd Wing commander.
“It is one of only a handful of exercises that combine great power competition-level threat complexities with the joint interoperability necessary to realistically inform our test data.”
Officially, the Air Force has not released any figures to indicate how well the newest fourth-generation fighter performed, but they did acknowledge that the F-15EXs both successfully shot down opponents and took losses themselves over the course of some 33 sorties during April and May.
The intent wasn’t to see if the F-15EX could dominate in an air-to-air environment, so much as to throw America’s airpower assets into a realistic approximation of a fight with a highly capable near-peer opponent like China.
That means the new F-15s weren’t just hunting down other fourth-generation jets in their air-superiority role, but likely also had to contend with low-observable or stealth platforms among their opponents.
“If you go into any large force exercise and you come back with everybody – with no blue losses – I would probably say that your threat is not as robust as it needs to be, in order to get the learning,” Lt. Col. John O’Rear of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron said.
O’Rear would not offer details into the incidents in which the F-15EXs were notionally shot down, but he did offer a little insight into the types of threats the new fourth-generation fighter was unable to counter.
In what should come as little surprise, the Eagle II seemed to suffer at the hands of attacks from significant distances, where its lack of stealth likely made it easy pickings for low-observable jets. If that was the case, the F-15EX was almost certainly not alone in this failing.
“In this kind of environment, most of your blue ‘deaths’ are probably going to be outside of visual range, just because of the threat we’re replicating,” he explained.
A lack of stealth can make a fighter far more susceptible to these beyond-visual-range attacks, where aircraft and air-defense systems can identify a fighter on radar and launch a missile at it well before the two opponents can actually see one another.
Missiles often travel at speeds faster than five times that of a combat aircraft, making them challenging to react to, let alone outmaneuver. This vulnerability to attack is one of the biggest arguments in favor of an all-stealth fleet of fighters that grew to prominence after the Air Force chose to order new F-15EXs.
But as headlines that followed have since demonstrated, America’s only in-production stealth fighter, the F-35, is extremely expensive to operate and still has a number of issues to be worked out, making it not only a poor fiscal choice, but even a bad tactical one for many missions.
In order to have the amount of firepower the Air Force needs at a cost it can afford, the branch will be forced to operate stealth and non-stealth aircraft in conjunction with one another for decades to come.
While practically all modern fighters are considered “multi-role,” or able to handle both air-to-air and air-to-ground engagements with varying degrees of expertise, each jet has a specific role its intended to excel in.
The F-15C and F-15EX, along with the stealthy F-22, are all considered air-superiority fighters, or aircraft that specialize in engaging other fighters. The F-15E and, to a slightly lesser extent, the F-35 are both aircraft that specialize in engaging ground targets.
The F-35, often referred to as a “quarterback in the sky” by pilots, is also often tasked with managing the battlespace, using its onboard computing power and significant situational awareness to coordinate other jets in the fight.
The F-15EX boasts improved cockpit displays and a greater degree of situational awareness than its F-15C predecessor, but for all intents and purposes, will continue to operate in the same capacity.
The F-15EX may be the newest fighter in the Air Force’s stable, but it was able to be thrown directly into this sort of testing thanks to the platform’s long and illustrious pedigree.
The F-15 airframe has been flying for 48 years under the flags of the United States and a number of its allies. During that time, the air superiority fighter has accrued an incredible 104-0 dogfighting record against other aircraft, having never lost a scrap with another fighter on record.
The United States stopped purchasing new F-15s around two decades ago, but allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not only continued to purchase the aircraft over the intervening years, they invested billions into improving it.
As a result, the United States was able to kick start new purchases of an advanced version of the F-15, complete with 20 years’ worth of ally-funded upgrades, for significantly less than it would have cost to pursue a new non-stealthy fighter. The result is quite possibly the most capable fourth-generation fighter the world has ever seen.
But despite its increased power, payload capabilities, sensor suite, cockpit systems and more, the F-15EX is still operating at a significant disadvantage in a near-peer conflict like the one Northern Edge simulated.
Capable as it may be, the Eagle II lacks stealth, making it a target for long-distance attacks from both other fighters and ground-based air defense systems.
Modern electronic warfare systems employed by enemy defenses also make things that much tougher for all pilots, including those aboard the new F-15s.
“At Northern Edge we’re assessing how the F-15EX can perform in a jamming environment, to include GPS, radar and Link 16 jamming,” said Maj. Aaron Eshkenazi, F-15EX pilot, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
“The other main goal is assessing the EX’s interoperability with fourth and fifth-generation assets. With more than 60 aircraft airborne during every vul (vulnerability period – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm) at Northern Edge, we’re putting the jet in the role it will perform in once it’s fielded, and seeing how it does. So far, it’s been performing really well.”
While nations like Russia continue to struggle with fielding nuclear-propulsion in missiles, the United States was already testing a nuclear-powered bomber all the way back in 1955, in the form of the massive Convair NB-36 Crusader.
The bomber carried a 1-megawatt, air-cooled nuclear reactor that hung on a hook inside its cavernous weapons bay that had to be lowered through the bomb bay doors into shielded underground facilities for storage between flights.
Believe it or not… it only gets crazier from there.
In theory, a nuclear-powered bomber could literally stay airborne for weeks at a time (if not longer) and could reach any target on the planet without the need to land or refuel.
Today, in the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles with truly global reach and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can be fired from 70% of the globe, keeping a bomber in the sky for weeks on end seems ludicrous, but for a good portion of the Cold War (specifically from 1960 to 1968), that’s exactly what America did.
Operation Chrome Dome and similar efforts saw the United States keep three nuclear-armed B-52s on alert status 24 hours a day, flying routes over the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pacific near Alaska.
A nuclear-powered bomber carrying nuclear weapons could do the same with less logistical support and would only need to land or be resupplied for the sake of the crew. In the early 1950s, such a bomber would have been an absolute game-changer.
Based on the B-36 Peacemaker
The B-36 may have been a Cold War bomber that went out of service before the end of the 1950s, but in terms of sheer scale, this massive bomber has no equal to this very day.
With a 230-foot wingspan, the B-36 still holds the title for longest wingspan of any combat-coded aircraft. Its wingspan was so big, in fact, that you could lay a B-52 Stratofortress’ wings over the B-36’s and still have room to throw a Super Hornet on the end for good measure.
Those dimensions are impressive today, but it’s important to remember that when the B-36 first entered into service in 1948, America would still be flying the B-29 for more than another decade.
The Peacemaker’s name was derived from what the bomber was specifically designed to do: hold a nuclear gun to the world’s head. With a 10,000-mile range, the B-36 could depart from American airstrips and deliver 86,000 pounds of nuclear hellfire to targets on other continents.
For modern context, that’s 15,000 pounds more than America’s current go-to nuclear bomber, the B-52. ICBMs were being developed during the B-36’s tenure, but during its short operational lifespan, America’s mighty Peacemaker was seen as the world’s ultimate method of nuclear weapon delivery.
Propelling the massive B-36 across the Atlantic ocean was the responsibility of six Pratt & Whitney 3600 hp, R4360-53 radial piston engines working in conjunction with four General Electric 13,500 lb thrust J47-19 turbojets. That coupling of radial piston engines and turbojets gave it a top speed of 435 mph and its aforementioned spectacular range and payload capabilities.
But Russia’s first atomic bomb test in 1949 had put the United States on notice. It was no longer the undisputed nuclear heavyweight it had been for the previous four years. America needed a powerful and attention-grabbing new weapon that would assure its dominance over the Soviet Union and any other potential threats on the horizon.
It was with that aim that the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project and subsequent Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) program were born.
America wasn’t just going to use nuclear weapons to destroy its enemies. It was going to use nuclear power to fly them there.
How do you make a nuclear-powered bomber go?
You can’t simply hook a nuclear reactor up to the B-36’s existing radial piston and turbojet engines, so fielding a nuclear-powered bomber meant some significant modifications to a standard B-36 airframe. But Uncle Sam wasn’t in a hurry to give up a perfectly good strategic bomber for the experiment.
An opportunity arose, however, in 1952, when a tornado struck Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. Among the damaged vehicles and facilities was a B-36 that would need significant repairs to re-enter service. Convair suggested using the airframe for nuclear propulsion testing, rather than rehabbing it back into operation, and the Air Force agreed.
Before concerns about actually propelling a bomber with nuclear power could be addressed, Convair and the Air Force had to confirm two things. First, they needed to find a nuclear reactor that could meet the aircraft’s power output needs and fit within the bomber’s middle weapons bay. Second, they had to make sure that the reactor wouldn’t irradiate the crew during their long-duration bombing flights.
In an effort to find a reactor that would work in a nuclear-powered bomber, the Air Force began testing them, alongside power conversion methodologies, as early as 1944.
Eventually, a system called the HTRE-3 was chosen, thanks in part to its ability to easily transition between chemical propellent and nuclear power. That meant the system could take off and land using chemical fuels and then, once the reactor was at proper operating temperature in the flight, switch over to nuclear propulsion for the long haul. This redundancy made the aircraft more reliable, but was largely due to concerns about mishaps during take-off and landing.
The reactor weighed in at a whopping 35,000 pounds, and rather than being firmly fastened to the bomber’s fuselage, it was hung on a hook in one of the aircraft’s bomb bays. While seemingly unusual, this approach allowed crews to disconnect and lower the reactor into shielded underground facilities for safety in between test flights.
The reactor would power four GE J47 nuclear-converted piston engines generating 3,800 hp, which were then augmented by four additional 23.13 kn turbojet engines that produced 5,200 lbs of thrust.
The HTRE-3 was a direct-cycle system that pulled air into the compressor of the turbojet and through a plenum and intake that led to the core of the reactor where the air served as coolant. From there, the super-heated air would travel into another plenum that led to the turbine section of the engine before exiting as exhaust out the back.
How do you make a nuclear-powered bomber safe to fly in?
In order to keep the crew safe, reactor shielding made out of cadmium, paraffin wax, beryllium oxide, and steel were devised, but the shielding proved ineffective in testing, so a new approach that coupled layers of protection on the reactor with additional protective layers on the crew cabin was developed. This approach, dubbed Shadow Shielding, not only worked better, it ended up being significantly lighter.
But that wasn’t the end of the crew protection. Perhaps the biggest structural change to the B-36 was the swapping out of the entire crew and avionics cabin in favor of a huge lead and rubber-lined compartment designed for a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and the addition of two onboard nuclear engineers. Windows in the crew cabin were a foot thick in some places and made out of lead glass to protect against any possible radiation exposure.
The crew compartment was so well shielded that you could barely hear the engines running from inside, prompting many to liken flying the nuclear-powered bomber to operating a submarine. It measured slightly shorter than the original crew cabin, and after its installation, the nose landing gear was adjusted six inches forward to create more room for an escape hatch.
All told, the new crew compartment weighed in at an impressive 12 tons. The rear cabin was not intended to house crewmembers, so cameras and an internal CCTV system were installed to visually monitor the reactor and its mated systems.
In order to capture any radiation that might escape from the aircraft as it flew, water tanks were added to the bank. Water absorbs radiation thanks to its hydrogen-rich composition, making it a cheap and effective means of radiation shielding. However, it’s not the lightest material for the job, so it tends not to see use in aviation or space applications. In a bomber with the huge payload capabilities of the B-36, however, water tanks were no problem.
With the new cabin and extensive modifications to the weapons bay in order to house the reactor, the burgeoning nuclear-powered bomber was different enough from the original Peacemaker to earn an entirely new designation. And just like that, the NB-36 Crusader, what was to be America’s first-ever nuclear-powered bomber, was born.
The NB-36 Crusader made 47 recorded flights with its reactor onboard
Because the HTRE-3 propulsion system was designed to function under chemical power before and after leveraging its nuclear reactor, the system was perfectly suited for test flights that relied entirely on that chemical fuel while testing the reactor’s operation in flight.
The NB-36 Crusader first took to the skies in 1955, followed closely by several support planes keeping close tabs on the nuclear-powered bomber as it flew over a barren test range in New Mexico. One of those planes carried U.S. Army paratroopers who were tasked with the unenviable job of immediately securing the area in the event of a crash.
In each flight, the NB-36 would take off and fly using chemical propellant, with the reactor then powered on as though it would be providing propulsion. Convair and the Air Force monitored the reactor’s performance relentlessly, collecting data about power output, stability, and the safety of the crews on board.
In total, the NB-36 Crusader spent some 215 hours in the skies over New Mexico and Texas and flew for a total of 89 hours with the nuclear reactor at full burn, proving without a doubt that a bomber could fly while running producing nuclear energy onboard.
But as potent a weapon as a nuclear-powered bomber could be, the world was changing around the NB-36 by the time it was flying.
Killed by ballistic missiles
By 1959, the United States was already fielding the SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile, which was also developed by Convair. The SM-65 had a range of nearly 9,000 miles and required no aircrew for delivery.
A year later, the USS George Washington (SSBN 598) successfully test-fired the first Polaris A1 Fleet Ballistic Missile with an operational range of a thousand miles. Suddenly, the United States had both ground and sea-based alternatives to its still maturing Crusader.
The NB-36 could have been the world’s first and only operational nuclear-powered bomber, but despite the tests proving that nuclear propulsion was feasible, it still just wasn’t very practical.
Like other programs that relied on nuclear propulsion (including the positively insane Project Pluto that would have spewed radiation out the back as it lobbed atomic bombs at targets along a pre-programmed course), the risk of nuclear propulsion simply outweighed its practical value. At least, it did when there were more conventional alternatives that could do the job as well or better.
Capable as the NB-36 may have been, any crash could have quickly resulted in a nuclear incident, making it a questionable choice for flight operations over US soil.
It would have almost certainly also raised eyebrows among allies and enemies alike if the United States were to commence patrols with it in or near foreign airspace. Had it offered some capability that was as essential as it was unique, that political and diplomatic strife may have been worth it, but it simply wasn’t with missile stockpiles beginning to form.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy officially canceled the NB-36 Crusader program, and with it, America’s dreams of fielding a nuclear-powered bomber.
After nearly two decades of counter-terror operations around the world, the United States military has recently begun shifting its focus away from this form of asymmetric warfare and back toward the potential for near-peer conflicts with nations like China or Russia.
Despite maintaining the most powerful military apparatus on the globe, this pivot won’t be without its challenges. Over the past 19 years, the United States military has funneled the majority of its funding into combat operations and new technologies that support the counter-terrorism endeavor.
During this time, national opponents like China have had ample opportunity to observe the way America’s military operates, and find cost-effective methods of countering the US’s most significant strengths.
In 2015, for instance, both China and Russia established space-specific branches of their armed forces tasked with replicating some of America’s orbital strengths (like a GPS satellite constellation), but also with finding ways to mitigate America’s established orbital dominance.
Put simply, it’s cheaper and easier to interfere with or destroy technology than it is to replicate it, and America’s enemies have leveraged that simple logic to great effect in recent years. Today, it’s believed that both Russia and China operate semi-autonomous orbital assets that can already spy on or potentially even destroy satellites that are currently in orbit.
But while America has maintained the lead in orbital technology, it has apparently fallen behind in some weapons technologies that saw reduced focus throughout these many years of fighting terror organizations – namely, weapons technologies intended for use against technologically capable opponents.
Hypersonics, as one pressing example, are a rapidly developing field of extremely fast (higher than Mach 5) weapons that, to date, no air defense system can counter.
While both China and Russia claim to have operational hypersonic weapons in their arsenals, there’s one weapon that has wreaked more havoc in American military strategy than any other: China’s hypersonic DF-21D anti-ship missile.
Why is the DF-21D such a threat?
The DF-21D is a hypersonic anti-ship missile employed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The platform itself is a medium-range, road-mobile ballistic missile. Once launched, the DF-21D follows a similar arc to that of an intercontinental ballistic missile, flying high into low earth orbit before deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle that can reach speeds as high as Mach 10 during its guided descent phase.
Existing missile defense systems simply can’t intercept a target moving that fast, making it all but impossible to stop one of these missiles once it’s been fired.
While the DF-21D’s speed makes it a clear threat to US Navy ships, it’s the missile’s range that poses the biggest problem. The DF-21D has an operational range of about 2,000 kilometers, or a bit more than 1,200 miles.
By placing these platforms along the Chinese coastline, the PLA has been able to establish an area-denial strategy, sometimes referred to as an area-denial “bubble,” or a 1,200-mile circle around each missile that enemy ships can’t enter without being within range of the weapon system.
It’s important to note that while these missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, the sheer kinetic force of a Mach 10 impact would be enough on its own to sink many ships, and when coupled with an explosive warhead, could conceivably take even a massive Nimitz-class supercarrier out of the fight with a single shot.
The strategic implications of China’s ‘area-denial bubble’
China’s area-denial bubble that extends some 1,200 miles from their shoreline poses a significant challenge for America’s conventional wartime strategy of using aircraft carriers as a means of force projection.
The US Navy maintains a fleet of 11 supercarriers, each capable of delivering more firepower than many entire nations could manage. One Nimitz-class carrier is capable of accommodating as many as 130 F/A-18 Super Hornets, or as many as 90 aircraft of varying types, along with a massive 6,000 service personnel.
The US uses these carriers to deliver huge amounts of firepower to any region of the globe, using carrier-based aircraft to deliver ordnance to targets extending out hundreds of miles.
It’s that “hundreds of miles” part that is the real issue here. The US Navy’s workhorse fighters are F/A-18 Super Hornets, which are currently undergoing a massive overhaul that will offer a similar increase in capabilities to the previous shift from Block I Hornets to Block II Super Hornets in 2001.
However, even with these Block III Super (Duper) Hornets, the ranges these jets are capable of engaging targets at are still far too short to compensate for China’s area denial bubble.
Block III Super Hornets and F-35Cs come up short
The Navy’s current Block II Super Hornets have a combat radius of approximately 500 miles while carrying a full weapons payload. That means these jets can take off from a carrier, fly 500 miles to engage a target, turn tail, and fly 500 miles back to their ship.
The forthcoming Block III variant of these fighters will add conformal fuel tanks (additional fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft) which will allow them to carry 3,500 pounds of additional fuel, which will increase their fuel range by approximately 300 miles, or combat radius by 150. That means the top-end fourth-generation fighters employed by the US Navy in the near future will need to be launched within 650 miles of a target to be able to engage it.
The Lockheed Martin F-35C (carrier variant) offers about 10% more fuel range than the Block II Super Hornet, making its combat radius approximately 660 miles. Again, that mark falls far short of China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile’s range, at better than 1,200 miles.
This means that, in a best-case scenario, the U.S. Navy would have to park its carriers about 650 miles off of Chinese shores to be able to target shoreline assets, which places it well within China’s area-denial bubble. The minute an American carrier comes closer than 1,200 miles from Chinese shores, we run the risk of losing it to a DF-21D strike.
Put succinctly, this single missile platform has effectively neutered America’s most potent form of force projection: its fleet of supercarriers.
Increasing the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft
The US Navy is currently developing a carrier-based drone refueler called the MQ-25 Stingray. Originally developed to serve as a low-observable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (or armed drone), Boeing was able to convert their platform into a carrier-based refueler when the Navy began to recognize the importance of pulling more mileage out of existing fighters.
On August 30, 2018, the US Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to continue development on the platform, and the drone took its first test flight just over a year later in September of 2019. The Navy intends to purchase a total of 76 Stingrays from Boeing, and according to the Pentagon, they may be able to extend the range of carrier-based aircraft by as much as 400 miles.
This increase in range is substantial – but isn’t substantial enough to allow carriers to launch sorties from outside China’s area-denial bubble. It’s important to note that the Navy’s fighters can’t refuel over the target, so each jet needs enough range to make it back to where the MQ-25 can reach them after delivering ordnance.
While there are current concerns about the MQ-25 program being delayed by external issues within the Navy, a spokesperson from Naval Air Systems Command recently confirmed that they expect to reach initial operating capability for the MQ-25 sometime in 2024.
Finding alternatives to carriers
There are a number of initiatives in development aimed at offsetting the strategic advantage China maintains in the region through their area-denial strategy, but thus far, no single effort that has been discussed publicly will do it on its own.
The US Marine Corps has had a great deal of success launching F-35Bs (short take-off, vertical landing variant) off the deck of smaller “flat-top carriers” the US refers to (for legal reasons) as amphibious assault ships. These vessels would likely be called aircraft carriers by other nations, but are significantly smaller than the Navy’s Nimitz or Ford-class supercarriers – making them a more difficult target to locate and engage.
It’s important to recognize the significant challenge accurate targeting will be for China’s DF-21D. Aircraft carriers may be massive, but against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, they’re practically tiny and can move at around 35 knots (40 miles per hour) with the throttle open.
In order to hit one on the move, China intends to employ supersonic drones to locate and transmit targeting data back to the missile. A smaller target (in the form of an amphibious assault ship) does make effective targeting even more difficult.
Other efforts include creating austere airstrips for F-35Bs on land masses inside China’s area denial bubble. These hastily cleared airports would allow heavy lift helicopters to deliver fuel and ordnance for F-35Bs to land, resupply, and take off once again.
However, these hasty airstrips, like a stationary aircraft carrier, would have a short shelf-life inside the range of China’s ballistic missile arsenal.
Support from the Air Force and the Army
While the US Navy and Marine Corps have both been working tirelessly to find ways to extend the reach of America’s carrier strike groups, it may be the Air Force that would need to lead the way in a conflict with China.
Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming B-21 Raider is expected to be the stealthiest bomber ever to take to the skies and will offer global strike capabilities similar to that of its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.
The B-21, then, may come to the Navy’s rescue by flying long-distance bombing missions over Chinese shorelines, engaging DF-21D and other hypersonic anti-ship platforms to clear the way for America’s carriers to sail close enough to begin launching sorties of their own. However, because the DF-21D is road mobile, it’s likely that it will be difficult to be sure where these platforms are. That’s where the Army may be able to help.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently let the cat out of the bag about a new program under his purview called “Vintage Racer,” which is a previously undisclosed hypersonic weapon that, unlike the hypersonic missiles employed by China and Russia, aims to solve problems through data collection and lots of brainpower, rather than brute force alone.
Vintage Racer closes with targets at hypersonic speeds, making it just as difficult to defend against as China’s own hypersonic missiles, but once it reaches a target area, the platform deploys a loitering system that uses its own sensors to find hidden or moving targets in the area. Once that system spots a mobile missile platform, it can then engage and destroy it.
Could a new fighter solve this problem?
With the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. recently claiming that the US Air Force needs to develop a “clean-sheet” stealth fighter that combines some F-35 capabilities with the cost effectiveness of a 4th-generation fighter, it’s clear that the United States no longer sees the F-35 as a solution for every problem.
The Air Force also claimed to have designed, built, and flight tested a “6th-generation fighter” platform that will likely mature into a replacement for the stealth F-22 Raptor via the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program.
So if the Air Force is looking to bolster its own F-35s with a handful of more specialized fighters, what’s to stop the Navy from following suit? Namely, the money.
America’s Defense Department has to compete within itself for portions of the budget, and while the Air Force considers new fighter acquisitions, the Navy is stuck trying to expand the size of its surface fleet to compete with China. America’s Navy has something in the neighborhood of 293 vessels, with many slated for retirement in the coming decades. In order to keep pace with China’s 700+ size fleet, the US Navy needs more ships, and ships are expensive.
But what if the Navy were to find a way to hop into bed with the Air Force’s multiple fighter programs? While trying to cram the word “joint” into a fighter program may give us all a bit of pause (for good reason, after the acquisition nightmare the F-35 has become), if a new jet could solve this problem for the Navy, what would it have to look like?
To be clear – it would be asking a lot. In order to offset the area-denial bubble created by China’s anti-ship weapons, this new jet would need to have a massive amount of range and a tiny radar profile. If we assume the area-denial bubble extends 1,200 miles from China’s shores and the existence of operational MQ-25s for refueling, we can do some back-of-the-envelope math to determine range requirements.
This new aircraft would need to fly 1,200 miles out from the deck of a carrier, and then a minimum of 800 miles back, where it could be refueled for an additional 400 miles. That means the Navy needs an aircraft with a whopping 2,000-mile range … at a minimum. It would also need to be stealthy – in order to survive in the highly contested airspace it would operate in.
While such an aircraft may not be impossible … it is a pretty big ask.
Does this even matter if we don’t go to war with China?
While the capabilities the US is developing with an eye toward China will certainly benefit combat operations in any theater, there’s another important aspect of defense technology development that warrants consideration: diplomatic leverage in the pursuit of deterrence.
Like Theodore Roosevelt’s “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach to diplomacy, military capability is often as much about the threat of use as it is about actual use. When engaged in diplomatic talks, the understanding that warfare is foreign policy by other means is ever-present.
When it comes to aggressive states like China, who are moving to enforce illegal claims over the hotly contested South China Sea, knowing we can’t stop them plays an important role in how they approach the subject in international dialogue.
Likewise, if China is aware that the US possesses the capability to do away with their anti-ship arsenal and begin launching combat sorties in their airspace, it forces them to engage with the dialogue directly. A great deal of foreign policy really comes down to posturing and veiled threats, but threats are only effective when they’re backed by real capability.
From a strategic military standpoint, the most effective way to deter a 21st-century war with China is to ensure America would win such a conflict. In order to get to that point, the capability gap created by China’s area-denial bubble needs to be closed, and right now – that all boils down to fuel range.
In keeping with their efforts to improve branch-wide diversity, the US Air Force (USAF) Air Education and Training Command (AETC) announced interim changes to their dated height standards for Career Enlisted Aviators (CEAs).
The updates come as the result of preliminary information gathered from an ongoing anthropometric study that the Air Force began last year.
The study’s aim is to provide the Air Force with current and accurate data on what is physically necessary for specific Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs). The revised height restrictions, effective immediately, are seen below:
The Air Force announcement will make CEA positions available to a significant portion of recruits entering the enlisted ranks, particularly women, without the need for a waiver.
This comes less than a year after a similar order that removed the requirement for pilots to be over 5’4″ or under 6’5,” the same standard that was applied to enlisted aviation careers.
The Air Force saw the need to update their requirements that were based on a 1967 study that observed almost entirely white male pilots. Much of that old study evaluated the subject’s ability to reach controls while in a seated position, which does reflect operational requirements for many modern CEAs.
“The former policy was not applicable to career enlisted aviators, as the vast majority of CEAs move throughout the aircraft for the duration of the duty day,” said CMSgt Philip Leonard, the Air Force’s CEA career field manager.
The new measure is a boost to the inclusion of women in the armed forces, most notably minority women. Monday’s statement from the AETC cites data from the US National Center for Health Statistics that says 43.5% of US women aged 20-29 (including 74% of African Americans, 72% of Latino Americans and 61% of Asian Americans) are under 64 inches tall. This compares with only 3.7% of American males of the same age.
The Air Force has approved 87% of the height waivers it has processed since 2015, but many applicants may not be aware of the likelihood that they’ll be approved, or may be discouraged from applying in the first place when they see they don’t meet the requirement, as noted by Stephen Losey of Air Force Times.
Expanding the range for eligibility without a waiver encourages the spirit of diversity the Air Force is setting its sights on.
“We’re really focused on identifying and eliminating barriers to serve in the Air Force,” said Gwendolyn DeFilippi last May. DeFilippi is assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. “This is a huge win, especially for women and minorities of smaller stature who previously may have assumed they weren’t qualified to join our team.”
35% of Air Force aviator careers are enlisted personnel. The interim revisions open up those fields to a much more diverse pool of candidates.
Women under 5’4″ can now serve without a waiver as in-flight refuelers, flight engineers, flight attendants, aircraft loadmasters, airborne mission systems operators and airborne cryptologic language analysts, among others.
The study that precipitated the shift in policy is expected to be completed by fall of 2022, and should give the Air Force more actionable data to remove unnecessary restrictions on service members of smaller stature.
“We must implement change with a sense of purpose and with the Department of Defense’s strategic position in mind,” added Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, AETC commander. “Enacting this meaningful change ensures the type of agile, lethal and diverse force we need to be.”
Does playing video games and desktop simulators, such as Microsoft Flight Sim, prepare you to become a fighter pilot?
As a fighter pilot, much of our training takes place in a simulator, which is the ultimate video game. Stepping into these rooms, you’re dwarfed by a giant sphere that projects a 360-degree view of your surroundings.
After climbing into an exact replica of the cockpit, a motor then pushes you into the middle of the sphere and it’s fights on – you’re anywhere in the world with any weapons you want and adversaries that can be dialed-up in difficulty as needed. And it’s not just you in there, other pilots are in their own pods fighting alongside you on the same virtual battlefield.
Flying a modern fighter is difficult – these machines are designed to merge man and machine into a lethal combination that can have a strategic level of impact on the battlefield. The stick and throttle alone have dozens of buttons on them.
Most of these buttons can give five or more commands – forward, back, left, right, and down – as well as short pushes and long pushes and multiple master-modes that completely change the function of each button: It’s a PlayStation or X-box controller on steroids.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, my generation was one of the first to have widespread access to video games. Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, N64-I played them all growing up. Using a controller was second nature by the time I got to pilot training.
Now trainers like the T-6 and T-38 don’t have a lot of buttons on the stick and throttle – they’re designed to teach students how to fly. However, the F-16 was a huge jump where we learned not just to fly the aircraft, but to employ it as a weapons system.
There we learned what, at the time, seemed like complex sequences to track targets, launch missiles, and drop bombs.
What I noticed was that my time playing video games allowed me to synthesize information while quickly and accurately passing decisions I made off to the jet. Many of my classmates also played video games growing up and collectively, the feedback we received was that we were a lot more advanced than our instructors were when they were in our position.
Now, a decade later, I can say the next generation, who grew up with smartphones and iPads, have an even greater capacity to process the multiple streams of information coming at them than older pilots like myself. The avionics in jets like the F-35 – which are essentially two large iPads glued together – are second nature to them.
So, to answer the question, do video games help prepare you to become a pilot? The answer is yes, to an extent.
For future fighter pilots out there, I would say a couple of hours a week can help with processing information, making quick decisions, and accurately passing it off to the controls. Anything more is likely a detriment in that it is taking time away from other things you could be working on.
As for the type of video game, it doesn’t matter. Realistic fighter simulators like DCS aren’t any better than Mario Kart: The procedures and tactics in civilian sims are off by enough that it won’t give you an advantage by the time you’re flying the real thing. If it helps stoke the passion, great, that’s the most important trait for success, but not playing them won’t put you at a disadvantage.
Conflict over land is as old as recorded history, but the world has never seen another quite like the Whisky War. Wars have been fought, violently and continuously, over the rights to territories across the globe. In the case of Hans Island, however, the two countries at odds had a different way of staking their claim.
If you’ve never heard of Hans Island, it’s probably because, well, there’s not that much to say about it. The half-square-mile island sits directly in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22-mile-wide waterway that separates the most northern land of Canada, Ellesmere Island, and Greenland, an autonomous Denmark territory.
Hans Island itself lacks any real natural resources or territorial advantages. It’s essentially a giant rock, and the only thing that keeps perpetuating the ownership debate is the fact that it sits within the 12-mile territorial limit of both Canada and Greenland, making it close enough that each country involved can claim it under international law.
It started in 1880, when Hans Island got lost in the shuffle of the British transferring remaining arctic territories to Canada. Due to the use of predominantly outdated, 16th-century maps, the small island was not explicitly included in the transfer, and as such wasn’t even recognized until decades later.
In 1933, Greenland was declared the rightful owner of Hans Island, by the ironically named Permanent Court of International Justice. This organization was dissolved within a few years of this decision and effectively replaced with the UN, and the aforementioned ownership resolution was deemed no longer valid, so Hans was once again up for grabs.
Both World War II and the Cold War took precedence over more trivial conversations, and even after a maritime border negotiation in the early 1970s, the territory still sat simmering on the back burner.
The best part of the history of Hans Island comes in 1984, when Canadian troops visited the island and left behind something distinct to the Great White North, an erected Canadian flag, a sign that read “Welcome to Canada” and a bottle of Canadian Club whisky.
Not wanting to show up empty-handed to the party, Greenland’s minister took a trip to the island soon after, removing and replacing all the Canadian offerings with their own flag, a bottle of Danish schnapps, and a sign that read “Velkommen til den danske ø” or “Welcome to the Danish Island.”
And thus began the first chapter of one of the most neighborly and hospitable disputes (or elaborate drinking games) in history, known as The Whisky War. Since then, there have been continued trips by both sides to collect and replace the other party’s goods, and while what happens to the alcohol when it’s taken off the island has never been confirmed, the assumption is someone is out there enjoying it.
In more recent years, both Canadian and Danish representatives have called for the island to be declared a shared sovereignty, but it remains unclear if and when any official resolution to the Whisky War has been reached. Lawmakers have even cited this ongoing discourse as setting an interesting precedent or subsequently having ramifications for border negotiations, particularly international ones.
All in all, few things make for a better story than two allied countries fighting a battle over land for more than three decades with welcome signs and booze.
Editor’s Note: While the word “whiskey” is commonly spelled with an “E” preceding the “Y” in the United States, the “E” is notably absent from the word in nations like Canada, where this story takes place. There actually is a defined difference between the terms, but colloquially, they are often used interchangeably.