There are those who say it will never happen, but with the revelation that the US Air Force is only capable of deploying 33 combat coded F-22 Raptors at any one time in the face of rapidly modernising peer competitor air forces begs the question, can allies like Australia and Japan push the US to overturn both the export ban and the end of production?
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations.
Contemporary air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War, with recent iterations across the Middle East expanding on the importance of establishing and maintaining air dominance.
However, the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the increasing introduction of highly-capable fourth plus generation combat aircraft is threatening allied air dominance.
These developments serve to establish the potential for a disastrous repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet-designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the end of traditional dog fights.
Today, fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
At the apex of these technology developments is the world's first fifth-generation aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, which was first introduced in the mid-2000s, and was designed to replace the US Air Force's fleet of ageing F-15C/D Eagles.
The Raptor incorporates full-spectrum, low-observable stealth characteristics, supercruise, and super manoeuvrability in an air frame designed to fight, win and maintain US and allied air superiority against even the most advanced enemy integrated air-and-missile defence systems and air combat capabilities.
However, shrinking defence budgets in the aftermath of the Cold War, a lack of credible peer adversary to US air superiority and a Congress-implemented export ban despite requests from Japan, Australia and Israel hindered even America's ability to field a credible fleet of these technological marvels.
As a result of this, the original US Air Force order of 750 units was cut a number of times throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, until it reached 195 and finally 187 Raptors, resulting in the unit price rising beyond what was sustainable, even for the US, paving the way for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family to fill the role.
Despite this, the aforementioned rise of comparable Russian and Chinese fifth-generation air dominance fighters, combined with budget cuts as a result of the sequestration during the Obama years has resulted in the steady decline of the Raptor's availability, stretching an already limited strategic force multiplier at a time when great power competition is on the rise.
'Fight tonight' formula reveals startling decline in Raptor availability
Retired US Air Force General, Lieutenant General David Deptula has declared that the US can now only rely on 33 F-22s to be ready to fight at any one time, shedding a rather startling image of the US Air Force's capacity to establish and maintain air dominance against a peer competitor.
"In 2018, the F-22 mission capable rate was 52 per cent. In 2018, the F-22 mission capable rate was 52 percent. Real-time mission planning assumes 1/3 in the fight; 1/3 preparing to launch; 1/3 recovering [returning/landing]. So one could count on about 21 F-22s airborne in a fight at any one time … across the entire USAF F-22 inventory.
"A surge with adequate preparation could certainly increase this number. When deployed for combat, mission capable rates average well above 80 per cent, so bump up the number to 98 mission-capable aircraft available with about 33 in the fight at any one time,
"We’re already past the point of being uncomfortable with the numbers. There are zero attrition aircraft in the current fleet. Every airplane that is lost has a significant impact on the force," Lt Gen Deptula states.
The limited number and availability of the Raptor, explained by Lt Gen Deptula, was expanded upon by US Air Force Colonel Brian Baldwin, Group Commander 13th Air Expeditionary Force, who was in Australia to participate in the 2019 Exercise Talisman Sabre, who set tongues wagging with statements made to the Australian media regarding allied access to the formidable air dominance platform.
"I wish we had more of them. I wish all of our closest friends could have some. We obviously have to take care of where we take the jet so we keep it as a special capability and it’s a pleasure to be able to bring it down to Australia," Col Baldwin is reported saying at RAAF Base Amberley in south-east Queensland last year.
Recent changes within the US political establishment, notably the election of President Donald Trump, has triggered a major rethink in the policies that govern America's arms exports, opening the door for Japan to engage with major US defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to support Japan's domestic development of a large, low-observable air superiority fighter to replace its fleet of locally built F-15J aircraft.
While Japan has committed to acquiring a fleet of 147 F-35s, including a fleet of 42 short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variants, the Japanese government has remained focused on procuring a fifth-generation air dominance fighter, with or without US help, to counter the growing challenges it faces in its direct region.
This resulted in the development of the X-2 Shinshin, a technology demonstrator that proved Japan's domestic aerospace industry could produce an indigenous stealth fighter design capable of competing with the world's best.
Both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have actively supported Japan's continued development of the Shinshin concept, raising renewed questions about a US commitment to reopening the F-22 Raptor line.
Both Russia and China will continue to develop and enhance their growing fifth-generation air combat fleets – with Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly approving the export of the specialised air superiority Su-57 to China to operate in conjunction with China's domestic J-20 and FC-31 fleets, dramatically impacting the tactical and strategic balance of air combat power in the Indo-Pacific.
Recognising these emerging peer competitor capabilities and previous attempts at acquiring the F-22, both Japan and Australia are well-positioned to support the reopening of the US F-22 Raptor line, estimated to be worth approximately US$9.9 billion for non-recurring start-up costs according to a US Congress report and an additional US$40.4 billion to acquire 194 Raptors for the US Air Force.
What this House Armed Services Committee report fails to account for is an allied acquisition and integration within the advanced Raptor development supply chain – most notably Japan and Australia, which are both widely respected US allies and industrial partners within the existing F-35 supply chain.
The acquisition is not without risk, however, as both Japan and Australia would need to at least match the US order of 194 air frames.
Broader horizons and industrial benefits
While a joint US, Japanese and Australian acquisition of at least 388 airframes would serve as the basis for re-openinig the Raptor line – expanding the export opportunities of the Raptor to include other key 'Five Eyes' allies like Canada and the UK, both of which are currently undergoing an air force recapitalisation, modernisation or research and development program of their own, would further reduce the costs associated with reopening the line and acquiring new Raptor airframes.
An Australian procurement could mean enjoying a highly capable, interoperable and future-proofed airframe operated by Japan, a key regional ally, and potentially both the US and UK, which agreed with the Japanese government in 2017 to collaborate in the joint development of a fifth-generation aircraft to replace the Royal Air Force's Typhoons within the next two decades.
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia's doorstep, combined with similar concerns developing among allies including the US, UK and more broadly the European Union, also raises questions about developing and introducing a highly-capable, high-speed, low observable, air-superiority focused platform to complement the 'low' end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces.
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation's immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid-2030s.