The unsurvivability, obsolescence, and uselessness of legacy aircraft

Despite China and Russia continually developing, producing, fielding, and exporting advanced fighters and Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) around the world, some anti-defense groups (e.g. POGO, NTU, the Center for American Progress, TCS) and their “analysts” who fancy themselves as defense issues experts, like Winslow Wheeler, Pierre Sprey, Larry Korb, Ben Freeman, and Mia Steinle, ridiculously claim that stealthy aircraft are unneeded and that old, obsolete teen series fighters (the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18) and obsolete bombers (the B-52 and B-1) can deliver air superiority and strike enemy targets safely.

They are dead wrong, and we should not be surprised, because virtually all people who propagate such ludicrous claims are anti-defense hacks who seek to weaken and gut America’s defense. POGO is co-funded by George Soros and was founded by self-proclaimed pacifist Dina Rasor, who said in 1981 “I find weapons repulsive”. Mia Steinle is an advocate of America’s unilateral nuclear disarmament.

So let’s see why their claims are utterly false. The two combat roles most frequently expected of combat aircraft are 1) air superiority and 2) deep strike/penetration.

Remember that even today, with most potential adversaries being equipped with advanced (or even upgraded legacy) Russian and Chinese SAM systems and fighters, which are proliferating globally, US aircraft would, in any plausible war, operate in heavily defended, heavily contested airspace defended by such SAM systems and fighters. This situation will only get worse in the future.

So let’s see how legacy aircraft would perform these two crucial missions.

Air superiority

The most common advanced fighters American pilots will encounter will be variants of the Flanker family (Su-27/30MKI/KI/MKK/MKV/33/35/J-11), the J-10 Sinocanard, and, beginning in the 2020s, the Sukhoi PAKFA, the Chengdu J-20, and the Shenyang J-31. Less likely to be encountered are MiG-35s and JF-17s, with zero orders outside Pakistan.

All US legacy fighters will be decisively outclassed by these aircraft.

The F-16 and the F/A-18 are decisively inferior to all of these aircraft in all parameters, including those relevant for BVR combat (radar power and range, countermeasures, max speed, max altitude, radar signature, heat signature) and those needed for WVR combat (the thrust/weight ratio, the wing loading ratio, countermeasures, etc. A partial exception is the Su-33 and older variants of the Su-30, which are not representative of the threat anyway. Moreover, the F-16 and the F/A-18 have little fuel capacity, allowing Flankers, the MiG-35, and the JF-17 to simply run them out of fuel or deplete their fuel reserves so badly that they’ll have to egress home, and then, shoot these American aircraft down.

The F-15 barely achieves parity against the Flanker family, being a little faster and flying at a higher altitude tham most Flankers and the J-10, but it has an even larger radar and IR signature than other legacy aircraft and is otherwise as inferior to the Flanker family and the J-10 as are the F-16 and the F/A-18.

These deficiencies cannot be overcome with upgrades. They are inherent to these fighters’ design.

A comparison of the F-16 to current and some prospective threat aircraft was made, and the F-16 was found to be decisively inferior on all counts to almost all competitors, except the Su-33 and, on a lesser scale, the Su-30.

If the US uses F-15s, F-16s, or F/A-18s (or a mix of these types) against modern Chinese or Russian fighters, the vast majority of them will be easily shot down from long range with radar-guided, infrared-guided, or anti-radar-homing BVR missiles such as variants of the AA-12 Adder. The large radar signatures of these aircraft will make it easy, and if they use their radar, they will also be easily detectable for IR detection systems. Furthermore, flying at higher speeds and altitudes than the F-16 and the F/A-18, Russian and Chinese fighters can send their missiles farther than these legacy American aircraft can.

The few F-16s and F/A-18s that would survive the BVR slaughter would be disposed of by the Russians or the Chinese easily in WVR combat, as both types have much higher wing loading ratios, much inferior T/W ratios, and much weaker climbing capability than any forementioned threat aircraft except the Su-33, found today only in Russian Naval Aviation.

The F-15 would fare much better against pre-PAKFA, pre-J-20 fighters, owing to its high (by today’s standards) T/W ratio of 1.15:1 and a relatively low wing loading ratio (385 kgs/sq meter), but will be decisively outclassed by the PAKFA, the J-31, and quite possibly, also the J-20.

Deep strike/penetration

While the F-15 might stand some chance of surviving in air to air combat against Generation #4.5 Russian and Chinese fighters, it stands no chance whatsoever of surviving in any airspace defended by any advanced SAM systems, or even so much as upgraded legacy Soviet SAM systems like the SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and SA-6.

The SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and the mobile SA-6 were widely exported by the Soviet Union and (together with upgraded domestic variants) still remain in wide use around the world, including in North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, the SA-6 Gammon, being mobile, can easily implement “shoot and scoot” tactics, waiting for an incoming aircraft for hours, concealed, then shooting and relocating promptly. It can relocate in minutes rather than hours or days. Moreover, its powerful radar is hard to jam, and so are the radar of even legacy Soviet air defense systems such as the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5, as shown during the Vietnam war against a variety of nonstealthy, unsurvivable aircraft, some of which (e.g. B-52s) still remain in service. Even when the US military developed countermeasures such as the primitive AGM-54 Shrike counter-SAM missile and jammers, the Russians and the Viets easily developed counter-countermeasures such as more powerful radar, passive anti-radar guidance for SAMs (instead of using radar), and other measures. Thus, throughout the Vietnam war, including during Operation Linebacker II, American losses in aircraft and pilots were significant.

Today, neither jamming nor anti-SAM missiles are effective measures any longer. Modern SAM systems have radars too powerful to be jammed, even with the Navy’s Next Generation Jammer (let alone the ALQ-99), and anti-SAM missiles such as the AGM-88 HARM can be easily shot down by point-defense counter-PGM systems such as the Tor-M1 and the Pantsir-S1, both of which have been exported globally and protect long-range anti-aircraft SAM systems, as well the latter systems themselves.

This means that the only way to survive in any airspace defended by such systems is to be undetected, i.e. stealthy. This requires all-aspect, multi-band stealthy aircraft.

All American legacy aircraft (including the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, AV-8, B-52, and B-1), as well as Generation #4.5 European fighters such as the Typhoon, the Rafale, and the Gripen, stand zero chance of surviving in such airspace. They would be easily detected, even from a long range, by the radar of any air defense systems, even the most primitive ones such as the SA-2 and SA-3, and shot down mercilessly.

Jammers might jam the radar of legacy SAM systems such as the SA-2 and SA-3, but not that of modern systems like the S-300, S-400, S-500, Tor-M1, Pantsir-S1, and HQ-9. Moreover, passive anti-radar homing missiles, even variants of the SA-2 and SA-3 missiles, can home on the emissions of American jammers and thus shoot the aircraft carrying those jammers down, as the Viets repeatedly did during the Vietnam War.

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.”

The only Western aircraft which can survive and prevail in such airspace are the F-22, the B-2, and the planned Next Generation Bomber (if its designers follow stealth shaping rules).

And before you ask: “what about counter-stealth radars?”, the fact is that such “counter-stealth radars” cannot detect the F-22 from more than 15 kms, and cannot detect stealthy bombers at all. Stealthy bombers are too large for “counter-stealth” radars’ wavelength (which is barely 2 meters for the best CS radar, the Nebo SVU; other CS radars have even smaller wavelength) to be detected, and the F-22 can easily stay out of the tiny detection envelope of such systems (with their 15 km radius) while still delivering its munitions to the target. And, with supercruise ability, it’s too fast for enemy SAMs to shoot down.

But nonstealthy aircraft would be easily detected by both counterstealth and conventional radars from a long distance. Any airspace protected by any such radars is off-limits to them.

The only feasible course of action is for the US to produce additional 600 F-22s, produce at least 100 Next Generation Bombers, and retire all legacy aircraft (F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, B-52s, B-1s) ASAP.


10 thoughts on “The unsurvivability, obsolescence, and uselessness of legacy aircraft”

  1. Ok,where do i start…first of all you are right in saying that we need to go to the next generation of aircraft…I do belive in what you are saying and very well..buying new 4th gen. aircraft is waste of money because a new airframe will have to fly for at least 20 years after it is bought…whith emerging treaths this is bad buisness.But them you say that american 4th gen.fighters are outclassed by the Flanker family the J-10 and the JF-17? Are you joking?In case you dont know these «awesome» fighters are 4TH GEN ALSO…The JF-17 is NO treath to any western fighter…the J-10 a knock off of the israeli LAVI that was canceled(because it couldnt do anything that the F-16 didnt do allready) and the Flanker isnt the allmighty treath that APA wants the world to fear.Its a 4th gen fighter in the class of the F-15.
    As for SAMs,the legacy SAMs like the SA-6 can be easely dodged IF the aircraft knows there coming…As for the double digit SAMs i am not so sure(lol).The SA-6 was deadly because of its CW RADAR that didnt activate the western RWR…whem this problem was resolved the efficienty of this system was +/- 5%.
    And mark my words:flying fast and low still poses problems for any SAM in the world(RADARs and IRST cant see past the terrain and need a good LOS).So remmenber that the Strike Eagle WILL penetrate any of todays air defenses in the world…unless they have to fly over the ocean or some plane desert…That one of the reasons why VLO is so important.
    Your conclusion is correct but the way you get there…

    1. Nuno, you’re wrong.

      Yes, American 4th generation fighters, with the exception of heavily upgraded F-15s, are outclassed by the Flanker family and the J-10. The J-10 is a very upgraded Israeli Lavi, and is more capable than the F-16 (not to mention the Super Bug, which is decisively inferior to 3rd generation Chinese and Russian fighters, let alone the J-10, the JF-17, and the Flanker family).

      The Flanker family is even better. Flankers are high speed, high altitude, very agile jets, and their most modern variants have powerful radars such as the hybrid ESA Irbis-E and the AESA Phazotron Zhuk radar, as well as TVC capability. They also have very diverse seekers for both BVR and WVR missiles. As I demonstrated in previous posts, they are more agile, faster, and higher-flying than the F-16 (not to mention the Super Bug). In BVR combat, the F-16 would be shot down easily, having a large RCS while being forced to shoot uphill at the higher-flying, faster Flanker, whose high speed and high altitude greatly increases the nominal range of its missiles. In WVR combat, the F-16 is inferior due to its lower T/W ratio and higher wing loading ratio, as well as the inability to pull 9Gs when fully loaded.

      Only a heavily upgraded F-15 (i.e. one with the APG-63(V)3 or APG-82 radar, jammers, and an IRST) can compete with and defeat the Flanker family. And because it’s a long-range fighter, a Flanker cannot run the F-15 out of gas, but it can do that easily with the F-16, the Super Bug, or even the F-35.

      But the F-15 will be outclassed by the PAKFA, the J-20, and the J-31 when these 5th generation stealth fighters enter service.

      As for air defense systems – even the missiles of legacy SAM systems are more agile than you think, but most importantly, the radars of even legacy Soviet SAM systems are not easy to jam, and all Russian and Chinese Soviet SAM systems (except the SA-2, SA-5, and some variants of the SA-3) are mobile, thus enabling them to hide, shoot, and scoot. The SA-6 is hard to defeat, even if a Western plane has a RWR. That’s because the SA-6 is highly mobile. Thanks to this, and the implementation of “hide, shoot, and scoot” tactics, 22 out of 25 Serbian SA-6 batteries survived Operation Allied Force.

      The radars of the most modern air defense systems, such as the S-300, S-400, and HQ-9 in the long-range AD category, and the SA-19, Tor-M1, and the SA-22 (Pantsir-S1) in the short-range AD category, can detect conventional (nonstealthy) aircraft even if they fly just a few hundred meters above the ground from quite a range. Check the APA website. So no, the Strike Eagle is no longer useful. ONLY stealthy aircraft can survive in defended airspace these days.

  2. Are you kidding me?Even the F-105 could dodge the SA-2…a missile coming at you at mach 3 and you are flying at mach0,5…IF YOU DODGE AT ONLY 3Gs IT WIL HAVE TO PULL MORE THAN 30Gs TO GET YOU!
    T/W J-10 – 0,96 F-16C -1,095 -whit chinese avionics its at best annoying to a well trained NATO pilot…
    Many analysts belive the PAK FA is au pair with the F-15 Silent Eagle at best…
    No RADAR in the world can see behind the terrain…thats why Interdition aircraft fly so low…a Tornado or a Strike Eagle WILL illude even the best AA systems in the world IF the terrain allows it(i.e central Europe) .Again over the sea or desert you have a point but not in Europe or Africa…
    The Irbis-E is a PESA radar not AESA…inferior to western RADARs .Zhuk has an AESA version the Zhuk-A but its still not in service and data is N/A…
    The J-20 is problably not a fighter and the J-31 will not serve in the Chinese air force.Its only for export(dont know why…)

    1. I’m not talking only about the SA-2. I’m talking about ALL Russian and Chinese air defense systems. Sure, a Western fighter can evade an SA-2 or SA-3, but not an S-300, S-400, HQ-9, or even an SA-11/17 Grizzly.

      The J-10’s T/W ratio with the WS-10A engine is 1.017:1, just slightly lower than the F-16’s, and its WL ratio is 381 kg/sq m, much lower than the F-16’s 431 kq/sq m WL ratio.
      The Irbis-E is a HYBRID ESA radar, not a PESA, and its more powerful than any other fighter radar in the world except the APG-77 and the APG-63(V)3-4. The AESA Phazotron Zhuk is also a very capable radar (though not as powerful as the Irbis-E) and its already in service on some Flanker aircraft.

      True, no radar in the world can see behind mountains or trees, but over the deserts of Iran or China, or over Chinese cities and plains, there is nothing to hide behind except a few skyscrapers in the cities. Face it: Chinese, Iranian, Russian, Venezuelan, Belarusian, and Syrian airspace are FIRMLY CLOSED to any nonstealthy aircraft. That is not an opinion. That is a fact. You can try flying an F-16 into Chinese or Russian airspace. Then come back and tell me how was it like, if the Chinese release you from the POW camp after they shoot you down. And I hope they don’t torture you like the Viets tortured John McCain.

      The PAKFA is decisively superior to the F-15SE and to all other Western fighters except the PAKFA. The F-15SE, a derivative of the F-15E, has a huge RCS and lacks the ceiling, agility, and maneuverability to compete with the PAKFA.

    2. The J-20 IS a fighter, and is more agile than any other existing fighter except the F-22, the PAKFA, the Typhoon, and the Rafale, as well as being kinematically superior and carrying a larger weapon and fuel load. It’s a fighter every bit as much as it is an attack jet.

      The J-31 WILL serve with the PLA – certainly with the PLAN (it is carrier-capable) and probably also with the PLAAF to provide that service with a mix of J-20s and J-31s.

  3. The WS-10 engine is still not in service,and the chinese have had a lot of problems in the development of that engine.
    As for the J-20 and the PAK FA ,data is still unavalable ,and to think that these aircrafts are superior to a,b or x is a pure theory..
    The J-31 will not serve in the chinese armed forces according to Aviation Week…dont know why…

    1. The WS-10A is already in service on J-10 and J-11 aircraft and is performing very well. The WS-10G, a TVC-capable variant, is now under development and will likely be the final propulsion system for the J-20 and the J-31 (which currently appear to use Saturn AL-31F117S engines).

      A lot of data is already available about the PAKFA, and APA has already done detailed technological, industrial, and strategic analyses of both the PAKFA and the J-20.

      The J-31 will not serve in the PLA? Really? Are you a prophet, Nuno? Why does it have a double wheel on its frontal landing gear, then? Answer: it’s intended for carrier operations. Who else would buy such a carrier-capable jet, if not the PLANAF? And why would the PLAAF not buy it, when its development has consumed at least some national treasure?

  4. You give way to much credit to foreign fighters, and obviously have no general knowledge about the tactics, precision, and technology associated with military aircraft. In addition, low observable stealth is on it’s way out in being the dominant means of protection. A simple google search will show you that stealth is becoming easier to conquer every day. This argument would have been great in 2002 or 2003, but time’s have changed.

    1. I know the tactics and technology associated with/used in military aircraft very well, and far better than you do.

      Stealth technology is not on its way out. It’s here to stay. It’s getting more and more effective and is now being adopted by more and more countries. Just a decade ago, the US had a monopoly on it. By now, Russia and China have flown 3 different stealth fightertypes of their own, all of which they intend to mass-produce.

      Foreign fighters are far deadlier than you and most Americans realize, as I have demonstrated here.

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