In an opinion piece posted on the Jefferson Policy Journal, Rob Givens, a retired USAF officer and air combat strategist, argues that low observable, or stealth technology, needs to become the baseline for all air combat. He underscores this argument by stressing the need to move away from 4th generation fighters and towards the 5th generation technology of the F-35 Lightning II, comparing the difference to that between wooden and metal warships.
From his piece:
Much discussion is taking place in the defense and political community about the future of tactical combat aircraft. Key to this discussion is the emphasis on 5th Generation aircraft such as the F-35 versus continued purchase of older 4th Generation aircraft and systems like the EF-18.
There are some critics of the F-35 who claim we should continue to put our limited resources toward “tried and true” 4th Generation platforms. Their argument has some merit, but only if they mean to keep our 4th Generation platforms survivable long enough for the F-35 to reach initial operational capability in sufficient strength. A strike package of 4th Generation aircraft requires significant help to penetrate a modern integrated air defense system, and even then only at the maximum acceptable loss rate. Packages of F-15Es, F-16s and F-18s will need standoff weapons and support assets to take down IADs comprised of advanced surface to air missiles and integrated interceptors.
Aircraft like the EF-18 Growler can fill some of the support roles necessary to keep our 4th Generation aircraft viable. But make no mistake, this is a band aid and not a cure for modern airpower. We should only invest in the “Growler” to the minimum level necessary to mitigate the risk to our current
fleet. Any additional procurement, thoughts of staying with a primarily 4th Gen fleet or diversion of resources from the F-35 is as useful as it would have been for the Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to have been made of wood.
Anything that takes away from the F-35 program is wasting money. We should no more consider building 4th Generation aircraft than we considered building wooden hulled warships in 1900. But we are at an interesting crossroads. Eventually, all flying platforms both manned and unmanned will be low observable. The sooner we are there the better, and the less risk we will face. No amount of electronic “options” added to a 4th Generation fighter or flown in support of a 4th Generation fighter will provide the protection.
As a nation we owe those we ask to fight the best possible chance of accomplishing the mission and surviving. For the current threats and our future security needs that means not doing anything that takes away from the F-35.