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.
But fighters don’t have to shoot down lots of other fighters to prove their worth if their worth is largely symbolic. Their mere presence, combined with the occasional dramatic demonstration of violence, can be adequate for a nation’s strategy. ‘It’s an effective deterrent,’ Larry Lawson, a Lockheed manager, says of the F-22. ‘People don’t want to come out and fight it. It tamps aggression.’
By the same token, the T-50 and other rival jets could serve to diminish the United States’ influence in the Pacific, inasmuch as ‘deterrence’ equals ‘influence.’ Russia and other potential users—India and China are obvious candidates—don’t have to buy lots of T-50s, or any other advanced fighter, for those aircraft to change the world. They just have to be capable of buying them.
That’s good for Russia, as actually building more than a handful of T-50s could prove impossible for its beleaguered defence industry. Russian industry has been so deprived of investment since the demise of the Soviet Union that it can’t reliably produce warships or military robots; Russia has begun importing these weapons from France and Israel, respectively. Indeed, 15 MiG-29 fighters Russia produced for Algeria were so poorly assembled that the Algerian air force insisted on a refund in 2008.
T-50 quality issues notwithstanding, the United States long ago seemed to recognize the potential for new fighters to shift power balances. In the mid-1990s, the T-50 was just beginning development. China, now said to be developing no fewer than three new air-to-air fighters, still relied on thousands of 1960s-vintage aircraft. The US Air Force at the time planned to buy more than 400 F-22s. Even so, the Air Force, along with the Navy and Marines, began developing the F-35, a fighter that could be easily exported because it contained far less secret technology than the F-22—and because the US would still control software and maintenance for all F-35s, owing to its ‘locked’ internal components.
The whole point of the F-35 was to sell it widely, giving the United States greater say over how its allies use their airpower. Today nine countries—including the UK, Australia and Canada—have invested in the F-35’s estimated $40-billion development. In exchange, they get rush deliveries of the jet once it’s ready for full-scale production, beginning in around five years. Other nations might also buy the F-35. Japan is studying the new fighter as a replacement for its Vietnam War-era F-4s. Lockheed estimates sales of more than 3,000 F-35s.
The F-35 represents ‘a new level of coalition interoperability,’ according to the jet’s US program office. More to the point, export of systems such as the F-35 ‘is a reliable national-security/diplomacy tool,’ according to James McAleese, from the Virginia-based defence consultancy McAleese and Associates. By making the F-35 a cornerstone of so many nations’ air forces, the United States cements its diplomatic sway over allies, in the same way that the F-22 has bolstered its deterrence against Pacific rivals.
The projected worldwide F-35 fleet might also make up for the individual jets’ impression of reduced lethality, compared to the F-22, through the impression of sheer numbers. Any way you cut it, for many decades fighters will remain powerful symbols—even more so if Goon and Kopp get their way and the United States develops a new Raptor to balance the T-50.
India Plays Best
One nation stands out as a particularly clever player in the fighter-diplomacy game—India. The South Asian nation, with the world’s fourth-largest economy by some measures, has been able to play all sides. It is mulling the purchase of more than 100 F-35s, though not without reservations. ‘India has been in the past wary of US sanctions, their control on transfer of critical and key technologies,’ says Ashok Singh, an Indian air force wing commander and research fellow at the New Delhi Center for Air Power studies.
For that reason, India is also planning on buying T-50s; ‘lots of them,’ according to analyst John Pike, from the Virginia-based Globalsecurity.org. But quantity’s not the point.
Owning both aircraft would place India at the balancing point between all other military powers in Asia. Owning F-35s plugs India into the US deterrence system, while possessing T-50s makes a powerful statement that India could, and might, buck US leadership, when and where it chooses.
‘India is a might in the making, and this has dawned on the USA,’ Singh says. India will try to acquire high technology, aircraft in particular, ‘until both countries have attained a state of equilibrium.’ That is, equilibrium achieved in part by the grand strategic gestures represented by impressive, but impractical, jet fighters.