It was dubbed by some defence analysts as a ‘game-changer.’ Earlier this year, Russia’s newest fighter aircraft rolled down a runway in the country’s Far East for its 47-minute debut flight.
The 72-foot-long, twin-engine T-50 fighter bears a striking resemblance to the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, widely considered the most lethal air-to-air fighter aircraft ever produced—so lethal that US law prohibits its export. Yet the United States is buying just 187 F-22s, in order to husband resources for buying larger numbers of the smaller and less powerful F-35 fighters.
The problem, according to two Australian defence analysts, is that in the absence of more F-22s, other US aircraft and ground and naval forces could be ‘slaughtered en-masse in a shooting war’ by enemy T-50s.
The result, suggest Peter Goon and Carlo Kopp writing for the think-tank Air Power Australia, would be no less than a fundamental shift in the strategic balance, as decades of US military superiority crumble—all due to the advent of single weapon systems.
The only solution, Goon and Kopp contend, is for the United States to cancel the F-35, develop a new version of the F-22, and sell the new ‘Raptor II’ to its closest allies, including Japan and Australia. In other words, initiate a regional arms race.
This assessment might seem alarmist, but it’s one shared by lawmakers, military officers and industry officials from the United States and its allies, especially in the Pacific.
High-tech planes, high-stakes posturing, high rhetoric. Welcome to the world of fighter-jet diplomacy. It’s a world where appearances matter as much as substance.
The Fighter Effect
High-performance jet aircraft are unique in the arsenals of world air forces. More than any other weapon—except possibly the aircraft carrier—air-to-air fighters represent power. They have a symbolic effect far outweighing their actual military utility, and for good reason. They are sleek. They are loud. They look and sound like state power. Many nations buy pricey fighter squadrons for their prestige value alone. Why else would Saudi Arabia possess one of the world’s biggest modern fighter fleets?
But dogfighters are rarely used for the purpose for which they were designed, since this involves massive, industrial warfare—a thankfully diminishing likelihood in an age of ‘irregular’ threats such as terrorists, insurgents and pirates.
The F-22, built by Lockheed Martin, has been in service for five years and has yet to fire a shot in anger. In four decades, the F-22′s predecessor, the Boeing F-15, has shot down just 36 enemy aircraft in US service: Thirty-two Iraqi planes and four Serbian ones. Many of the Iraqi aircraft were caught trying to flee to Iran, ironically in order to escape American F-15s.