About that 2008 RAND study by John Stillion

Those who seek to deeply cut and weaken the US military, including its air combat arm, sometimes cite the 2008 RAND study by Dr John Stillion and Scott Perdue that calls the F-35 “double inferior” and says that the F-35 “can’t climb, can’t turn, can’t run.” This is used as a  pretext for massive defense cuts, including wholesale cancellation of the F-35.

But while the study does say that (and also says many other uncharitable things about the F-35), the “defense cutters” are once again  proving how dishonest they are by again engaging in selective quoting. The study does criticize the F-35 sharply, but it also says that the F-22 and the F-15E are capable of competing against, and defeating, the newest Chinese and Russian designs. The study’s results were reported in a slide presentation here, and on page 81, it says:

“Only US fighters potentially superior to advanced Flanker variants like Su-35UB are:

  • F-15E and F-22A
  • But Su-35 has vectored thrust engines like the F-22A
  • F-15E does not”

Indeed, the data shown in the graph presented on page 81 demonstrates clearly that the F-22 and the F-15E – and only THESE American aircraft – are superior to all past, present, and planned Russian fighters, including the PAKFA, in aerodynamic performance. They have a smaller thrust loading than the PAKFA, although the F-15E has a somewhat higher wing loading. (The F-22’s TL is the same as that of the PAKFA.)

All other American aircraft are inferior to the PAKFA. The F-15’s wing loading and thrust loading are slightly higher than that of the PAKFA. The small, agile F-16 has the same thrust loading as, but a much larger wing loading than, the Sukhoi stealth fighter.

The Super Bug and the F-35’s three variants fare worst. They have a significantly higher wing and thrust loading than the PAKFA, the Su-35, and the MiG-29M, and even compared to the Su-27 and Su-30, although the F-35C (carrier) variant is on par with the non-PAKFA aircraft in terms of wingloading and slightly outdoes the Su-30 in this respect. But even it is let down by its thrust loading, as are the F-35A and the Super Bug. This is no surprise to anyone, as the F-35 was intended to be a strike aircraft, not an air superiority fighter, and the Marines, along with the Navy, still intend for it to be exactly that. They don’t dream of flying the F-35 to gloriously take on hordes of Flankers, PAKFAs, and J-20s.

Thus, what this study demonstrates is that while the F-35 is not a true fighter and is inferior (in terms of A2A capability) to the latest Russian fighters, the same must be said of the Super Bug and (at least partially) the F-16, and the only US fightertype that can successfully compete against any Russian design is the F-22 and, on a lesser scale, the F-15.

I repeat: the F-22, and to a lesser degree, the F-15, are the ONLY American aircraft today that can take on and defeat any Russian or Chinese fighters. Nothing else will substitute for them.

That is no surprise to anyone knowledgeable about military aircraft: the two types are, and have always been, air superiority fighters (albeit ones also capable of a significant ground attack). They were designed, and always intended, to be that. To fight other aircraft, plain and simple. They are mission-oriented planes.

A good ground attack aircraft like the F-35 will never be a good air superiority fighter.

Reading the study and other available literature, one can easily discern the characteristics necessary for a successful air superiority fighter.

The aircraft must, first and foremost, offer:

  • Excellent aerodynamic and kinematic performance, and that requires two powerful engines as well as a design that results in a high thrust to weight ratio, and a wing loading and thrust loading ratio that are as low as possible; and results in an excellent max speed and service ceiling;
  • A long combat radius;
  • Stealth technology (shaping, radar absorbent materials, relatively low heat emissions, relatively low radar wave emissions that could be detected by enemy sensors);
  • A respectable missile payload (8 or more A2A missiles);
  • Supercruise technology;
  • Ability to fool enemy sensors and missiles with e.g. decoys, chaff, or flares; and
  • An ability to break away and run from an engagement if it goes sour.

Only the F-22 (and, excepting the stealth and supercruise tech requirements, the F-15) fulfill all of these requirements. Both have a top speed of ca. Mach 2.5, a service ceiling of 65,000 feet, superlative aerodynamic and kinematic performance, and two powerful engines. The F-22 can carry 8 missiles in its stealth mode and more in the nonstealth mode; the F-15 can carry 11.

Only the F-22 fulfills all of the USAF’s requirements for air superiority – for now and for the decades to come – and it is absolutely needed in larger numbers than 187. But of course, that is a fact that the Gates OSD, the Bush and Obama Administrations, the lamestream media, defense cutters don’t want you to hear. When studies such as Dr Stillion’s and Mr Perdue’s points out that only the F-22 can do the job, they cherry pick quotes that are bad for the F-35, but fail to mention positive evaluations of the F-22. Just like they do with analysis produced by Air Power Australia.

And if Secretary Gates thought that by killing the F-22 he would placate the F-35’s enemies, he was dangerously wrong. Anti-defense liberals used him as their useful idiot. They gladly welcomed the F-22’s termination, but, in line with their “replacement technique”, as soon as the F-22 was killed, they turned their guns on the F-35 and they now call for its cancellation. I’m willing to bet any amount of money that if it were killed, then as soon as its cancellation was announced, they’d turn their guns on the Super Bug. They simply don’t want the US military to have any modern weapons at all. That’s their only goal.

Last but not least, Secretary Gates’s prediction that by 2020 the Chinese would have no stealthy fighters and would have only a handful by 2025 while the US would have over a thousand by 2025 will now UNAVOIDABLY be proven wrong, possibly by a wide margin.

The J-20 will, absent significant slips or problems, enter service before 2020 (the PLAAF’s Deputy Commander says it will achieve IOC in the 2017-2019 timeframe). China’s aerospace industry has never suffered the same cost overruns or delays as the US industry, let alone those of the F-35, so there’s no reason to believe that they can’t field the J-20 by 2019.

Given China’s significant, and rapidly growing, military budget, its industrial capacity and prowess, its large workforce, the low cost of the J-20 compared to the F-35 and even the F-22, and the fact that it will be exported to foreign countries, China will probably have more than “a handful” of stealthy fighters by 2025 – probably even hundreds.

In other words, Gates will almost certainly be proven wrong on the first part of his claim, and will likely also be disproven on the second part.

It’s sad that this kind of technological hubris and ignorance about defense issues has sparked one of the most foolish defense procurement decisions in US history.



20 thoughts on “About that 2008 RAND study by John Stillion”

  1. This is true, but RAND study also shows the need for a cheaper aircraft to support the F-22. F-22 is a scalpel, but military also needs a mace, and Rafale or Gripen would be ideal for that role. Numbers matter.

      1. I know. But if the F-35 programme continues on the way it is going now, they may find their hand forced. Unfortunately, even then a procurement of the F-18E/F may be the more likely option due to US’ internal politics (read: corporate bribes to the politicians).

      2. Forget about it. If politicians have their way, the Super Bug production line will be closed within a few years.

      3. So they’re working hard to make the F-35 only option avaliable (I know that tools for the F-22 production were supposed to be kept in the working order, but I’m not sure wether reactivation of the production line is still realistically possible).

      4. It probably isn’t as it would be too expensive to reopen. And yes, the DOD, since the Gates years, has been doing everything it can to kill every alternative to the F-35 – the F-22, F-15, F-16, Super Bug, the list goes on. Also, the Navy’s planned UCLASS will, under current plans, be nothing but another flying sensor, not a strike jet.

        Thus, LM will have a $1T-$1.5T monopoly on America’s fighter fleet for the next 50 years. May God save America… from herself.

      5. Problem with the F-35 seems to be that it isn’t primarly a weapon system but rather a corporate welfare project. Something I found:

        It is essentially cancel-proof because 1) F-22 was cancelled under the excuse that the F-35 can take over its mission, and now politicians etc. don’t want to admit they were wrong, 2) as you pointed out, all alternatives have been killed (though the F-16 production is continuing for foreign customers), and procuring foreign fighters is a big political no-no, 3) F-35s production is spread out over the large number of US states, which is one of causes of its cost rise but also made it very hard to cancel.

        This is about the F-16:
        Looks like production will continue through the 2020. Considering that first F-16s were produced in 1975, that’s quite a lifetime.

      6. What politicians fail to realize, though, is that components for the F-22 were also being produced in 44 states, and if a new, really good fighter (or strike jet) were to be developed and built, again, lots of companies from dozens of states would be involved as they would be in a supply chain. Ppl just don’t realize that there are, or can be, many alternatives to the JSF.

      7. There is also a political weight of the military to be considered. Navy to my knowledge doesn’t really like the F-35, but the USAF wants a stealth fighter (or as it happens, a tactical bomber with meagre self-defense capability), and the USMC wants the STOVL aircraft.

      8. The USMC has long wanted a STOVL a/c. It was them who convinced the DOD to back the failed AV-8B Harrier in the 1970s and 1980s.

      9. Yes, I know. But entire premise of STOVL is faulty, as STOVL aircraft cannot operate from unprepared air strips and have to to have runway to take off… so there is no reason to choose STOVL over STOL.

      10. True, but tell that to the Marine Corps, whose obsession with having their own air force independent of the Navy goes back much further, to 1942, the time of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

      11. Which makes me wonder could the Gripen E with F-414EPE take off from the amphibious assault ship, especially if latter is fitted with catapults.

      12. Amphib assault ships are too short, and most importantly, carriers – both big and small ones – are way too vulnerable in an era of cheap anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that have ranges measured in hundreds, or in the DF-21D’s case, thousands of kms.

      13. Theoretically, they can simply sit outside missiles’ range, but that a) requires very long range aircraft on board and b) does nothing to counter a threat of AIP / DE submarines.

      14. And making matters worse, these missiles’ range is very long – especially that of ASCMs carried by a/c and ships. The Klub, in fact, can be carried anywhere around the world by things as innocently-looking as “civilian” container ships, and the Klub’s manufacturer (Agat) even markets and sells such ships armed with Klub missiles!

      15. If so, then not only the carriers but all large surface ships might become too vulnerable… looks like submarines are the way of the future, though frigates at least should be kept for peacetime patrol duties.

      16. Cruisers and destroyers can defend themselves, especially if equipped with PAAMS, Aster, lasers, or railguns. But CGs and DDGs are needed all around the world, and every CG or DDG used to escort a carrier is a vessel that cannot be committed elsewhere.

  2. I really like the way you make the single engine f16 less sound capable than a f35.
    I always led to believe it was a excellent A2A combat jet with ground attack added later. Amazing how history gets rewritten all the time to suit some authors agenda!,

    1. The F-16 was indeed originally intended as a Lightweight Fighter (LWF). But that is precisely why it’s more capable than the F-35: far lighter, far better fuel fraction rate, a heck lot less maintenance downtime, lower flight hour cost, better maneuverability.

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