How to Defeat the F-22

Turns out, the much vaunted USAF F-22 fighter has a weak spot. A Wired article talks about how the F-22 is great at Beyond Visual Range (BVR) fighting, but is too heavy to do well in a close-in turning fight. While things have changed a lot, this reminds me of a bit of Viet-Nam era history.

F-22 kicks out a flare, knowing that he can’t out-turn the Luftwaffe fighter.

You see, back in the day, the USN bought the F-4B (this one, not that one) as a fleet defense interceptor, meaning that it was designed to keep Soviet bombers away from the task force while the carrier launched a nuclear strike. That being the case, the best armament was a heavy, long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM), like the Sparrow. It also meant that guns would be of little use. The USAF, enamoured of the AAM idea, bought the gunless aircraft as its primary fighter. Along came the Viet-Nam war, and we found that AAMs were not as reliable as we thought, and that a supersonic fight soon degenerated into a low-subsonic furball. Two years into the conflict, the USAF F-4Cs were equipped with 20mm gun pods — high drag, low accuracy, insecurely mounted weapons.


12th TFW F-4 over VietNam with centerline gunpod

They were novel enough that the 366th TFW at Da Nang (where I was, with the 20th TASS) took their new squadron patch and logo from them.

Even the patch shakes

It wasn’t until two years after that that the F-4E appeared, carrying an internal centerline gun. Only about 15% of the air-to-air kills in VN involved guns, but who knows how much higher that number would have been if the F4-E had been available four years earlier.

The current situation is not exactly like Viet Nam, because the F-22 does have an internal 20mm gatling. On the other hand, its relativly high wing loading — understandable tradeoffs for stealth, supersonic cruise, and internal carriage — makes it not nearly as nimble in a low-speed turning fight. “But”, you say, “we don’t do that any more, because, you know, technology. We’ll kill them BVR, just like the…” See?

The problem isn’t just technology, either. It’s politics, and Rules of Engagement, and quite rightly. I’m not sure we’ve ever fought full weapons-free BVR, because we’ve never been really sure that we knew who that blip was. It’s embarrassing to shoot down an airliner. If the USSR was still around, and NATO was going toe to toe against clouds of Warsaw Pact fighters in Central Europe, yeah, I can see it. If it’s us involved in some kind of altercation between China and the other China over the Formosa Straits, with Dreamliners full of tourists headed from Japan to Singapore passing through, maybe not.


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