Well, lookie here. It turns out that POGO/CDI anti-defense hack Winslow Wheeler has made an ass of himself not only in the US, but in Canada as well.
In March 2011, as Operation Odyssey Dawn (the war against Qaddafi’s Libya) was going on, Wheeler falsely claimed that the war had “proven” that stealthy aircraft were not needed, putatively because Libya’s air defenses were “a joke”. He furthermore claimed that “stealth is a passing fad”.
Leaving aside the fact, drawn from many decades of America’s experience with wars and weapons, that it is unwise to make predictions about what will be needed in possible future wars based on past wars, Wheeler is totally wrong, and that is easy to prove.
Libya’s air defenses were weak indeed (as were Iraq’s in 2003), but that’s irrelevant, because the Libyan type of conflict is becoming less frequent and will rarely be seen in the future.
That’s because advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (such as the S-300VM/PMU, the S-400, the HQ-9, the Tor-M1 and the Pantsir-S1) and fighters (e.g. the J-10, the various variants of the Flanker, the Eurocanards, and the JF-17, along with missiles superior to American ones) are now proliferating around the world in large numbers, as are AWACS and tanker aircraft. These are available for anyone able to pay for them. Here, I will not list all of these advanced weapons that the Russians, the Chinese, and others have accumulated and continue to procure; articles detailing them are available here and on AirPowerAustralia.
This trend will only aggravate in the future as the Russians and the Chinese develop and deploy even better and more lethal SAMs (e.g. the S-500), fighters (e.g. the PAKFA, J-20, and J-31 5th generation stealthy fighters), and A2A missiles.
The only aircraft that can survive against such advanced SAMs and fighters are stealthy aircraft – i.e. ones with a tiny radar signature. No other aircraft stand a ghost’s chance of surviving against such Russian and Chinese weapons, as their huge RCSes would make them easily detectable from hundreds of kilometers away for ground- and ship-based, and from over 80 miles away for Russian/Chinese fighter radar, especially the Zhuk and Irbis-E higher power aperture AESA radars installed on Russian fighters. Quite simply, stealthiness determines survivability more than anything else, and survivability is the sine qua non of any weapon platform. If you can’t survive a fight, you’re useless and can only serve as a practice target for your enemy.
This is true of all American legacy aircraft (with the partial exception of the F-15C/D, but only if employed against Flankers and the J-10), including the Super Bug frequently suggested in Canada as an alternative for the F-35.
None of these legacy aircraft can survive in contested airspace – i.e. airspace where the enemy is a country equipped with modern fighters and/or IADSes and thus capable of contesting control of the airspace – or in Canada’s and America’s own airspace against Russian fighters escorting their bombers.
In such environments, legacy aircraft, including the Super Bug, would be liabilities, not assets, as they would drain more capable platforms (such as the F-22) away from other missions.
Thus, nonstealthy aircraft are useless for any kind of warfare other than COIN wars, where the only opponents are insurgents or a primitive country like Libya unable to seriously contest control of the air. (It appears that this is the only kind of warfare Wheeler wants the US and Canadian militaries to be able to fight.)
The vast majority of future wars will be fought against adversaries equipped with advanced fighters and IADSes, and thus requiring stealthy aircraft. Such engagements can be fought on the home court or abroad.
At home, the US and Canada need, and will continue to need, to defend their airspace against Russian bombers, their cruise missile payloads, and their escort fighters. Most recently, the Russians used MiG-29s and Su-27s as escorts, but in the near future, they will use the Su-30, Su-35, and the PAKFA. As Dr Carlo Kopp rightly says, “The Russian Bear may no longer be driven by Communist ideology, but it hasn’t lost any of its strategic teeth ,or its appetite for confrontation.”
Such missions will require fighters with superlative radar, aerodynamic and kinematic performance, a long combat radius, superlative persistence, two engines, a very low radar signature, and a respectable missile payload.
Expeditionary wars against adversaries armed with advances IADSes and fighters will require fighters with exactly the same characteristics, plus long-range stealthy bombers capable of operating from bases thousands of kilometers away from the target and away from China’s MRBMs and land-attack GLCMs. It will need to deliver significant (20,000 pound class) payloads to targets thousands of kilometers away and return to base on internal fuel, as friendly tankers will be at risk from enemy “tanker-killer” long range A2A missiles. Most importantly, though, it will need to be very stealthy in order to remain hard to detect for enemy radar, especially when operating in the Chinese and Russian meat-grinder networks of IADSes (if you thought that North Vietnam’s network, with over 8000 downed American aircraft to its name, was deadly, you haven’t seen anything yet).
As Jamestown’s Dr Carlo Kopp writes:
“China’s air defense system is maturing into the largest, most capable and technically advanced in Asia, and will be capable of inflicting very heavy attrition on any aircraft other than upper tier U.S. stealth systems. Until the U.S. deploys its planned “New Generation Bomber” post-2020, the United States will have only 180 F-22 Raptors and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers capable of penetrating the PLA’s defensive shield. This may not be enough to act as a credible non-nuclear strategic deterrent.”
(Before you invoke VHF “counter-stealth radars” such as those the Russians have deployed: these radars’ wavelength, which is no more than ca. 1 m for all but the Nebo radar, and 2 m for the Nebo, is too short to detect large stealthy aircraft like stealthy bombers. Furthermore, radar absorbent materials can still hide a large, heavy plane like a bomber from radar; unlike fighters, bombers can be coated with many heavy layers of RAMs.* Moreover, other than the Nebo, VHF radars are all too large, too heavy, and too cumbersome to be easily transportable, meaning their mobility is very low. Moreover, even the Nebo’s tracking range for a plane with a 1 m2 RCS is just 65 kms. The F-22 has an 0.0001 m2 RCS, and the NGB will almost certainly have a similar if not smaller one. In short, as AirPowerAustralia admits, they’re no panacea against stealthy aircraft.)
Only stealthy aircraft can survive in such an environment.
So, what aircraft do the US and Canada need?
As for bombers, the choice for the USAF is clear: to develop and deploy, in large numbers (larger than 100), as fast as possible, the Next Generation bomber and retire its unsurvivable, obsolete B-1 and B-52 bombers. They have already outlived their usefulness.
Regarding fighter aircraft, the answer depends on what kind of warfare the US and Canada plan to participate in. If the two countries plan to fight only COIN wars and defend their own airspace, the best choice would be an F-15C/D with the APG-63(V)3 or the APG-82 radar, a Eurocanard, or the F-15SE Silent Eagle, which has the APG-82 radar. It would, however, leave the US and Canada defenseless against PAKFA escort fighters (if Russia uses them to escort its bombers) and exclude American and Canadian pilots from any environments in wich such advanced aircraft, or any advanced IADSes, are present.
If the US and Canada want to have fighter fleets capable of operating in any airspace, in any environment, and of defeating any enemy, the only choice is the F-22 Raptor, or to be more precise, evolved and enhanced variants of this aircraft.
* However, that does NOT mean that bombers without a stealthy planform, such as the B-52 and the B-1, can evade radar if coated with RAMs. They cannot, because their unstealthy shape makes for splendid radar wave return, and RAMs do not solve this problem. Moreover, modern Russian IADSes use pairs of conventional X-band and VHF radars, meaning that if one radar fails to detect a plane, the other will try to. If you fly a B-52 or a B-1 (or any other nonstealthy plane) into contested airspace, it will inevitably be detected by a conventional X-band radar, even if a VHF radar doesn’t see it. If you fly a stealthy heavy bomber like the B-2 into contested airspace, the X-band radar won’t see it, and neither will the VHF radar.