In a surprise move, President Donald Trump has reportedly approved the sale of an upgraded F-22 Raptor variant to Israel, with a number of sources alleging Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed the sale to Israeli authorities during an official visit to Israel, which raises the question, can Australia and other allies like Japan get their hands on the platform?
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas air frames during the First World War, to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War.
The latest two generations of fighter aircraft combining advanced avionics, sensor systems and equally advanced weapons systems, in conjunction with survivable, agile and high-speed airframes and now low observability characteristics ranging from specialised shaping to radar absorbing and scattering materials, serve to establish these aircraft as the pinnacle of these earlier designs.
While platforms like the F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia's Su-27 and Su-30 series and China's own J-10 and locally 'developed' carrier-based Su-30-based J-15 will all serve as the bulk of most contemporary air forces, fifth-generation aircraft are growing in proliferation and capability as the dawn of a new era reshapes the modern aerial battlespace for many nations, including Australia.
Designed from the outset to be the world's premier air superiority platform, building on the impressive legacy established by the F-15 Eagle series, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor combines 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 to provide an uncompromising fifth-generation air combat capability for the US Air Force, albeit in an exceptionally limited number.
It is as a result of this perfect synthesis of capabilities and technologies incorporated into the Raptor, combined with congressional concerns about espionage undermining the platform, which precluded it from wide-spread export to key US allies, including the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan and Israel.
Despite this, US Air Force Colonel Brian Baldwin, Group Commander 13th Air Expeditionary Force, who is in Australia to participate in the 2019 Exercise Talisman Sabre, has 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.
This export ban, combined with shrinking post-Cold War budgets and a lack of credible peer competitor platforms and capability saw the original US Air Force order of 750 units cut to 195 and ultimately 187, which also saw the unit price rise beyond what was sustainable, even for the US, in turn paving the way for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family to fill the role.
However, it is appears as if that is all about to change, as Toi Staff and Judah Ari Goss of the Times of Israel, Nazir Magali of Saudi-backed Asharq Al-Awsat and Robert Gottliebsen of The Australian are reporting that US President Donald Trump has officially signed off on the sale of upgraded F-22 variants to Israel, that is, a platform combining the best technology of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, with the best technology of the F-22 to produce what would be the world's undisputed air superiority aircraft.
A major turn of events
Many US allies have lobbied albeit unsuccessfully for export access to the F-22 Raptor, including Israel, which ironically was the original point of concern for Congress leading to the initial export ban, however it appears as though the request by the United Arab Emirates and a continued backing by the US to help maintain Israel's technological edge over regional competitors is the driving force behind the major back flip in US defence export policy.
Staff and Goss state, "US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told Israeli officials during a visit to Israel this week that the Trump administration has approved selling F-22 stealth fighters to the Jewish state, according to a Friday report in a Saudi-owned newspaper.
"US President Donald Trump okayed the sale of the F-22 Raptor and precision-guided bombs to Israel, the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported, citing senior sources in Tel Aviv."
Building on this, Staff and Goss add, "Israeli defence officials asked to buy the F-22 — one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets — to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region after the US agreed to sell F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Tuesday.
"Israel had previously expressed interest in buying the F-22, but the US declined. The US halted production of the fighter in 2011 and legally barred its sale to foreign countries. Trump would not be the first American president to recommend selling the F-22 to Israel. In 2001, at the end of his second term, then-president Bill Clinton similarly came out in favour of providing Israel with the aircraft, but left the decision ultimately in the hands of his successor, George W. Bush, and Congress."
It is expected that the platform on offer to Israel will not be the same aircraft that rolled off Lockheed Martin's production lines at Fort Worth between 1992 and 2011, rather the aircraft proposed is expected to be what Australian journalist Robert Gottliebsen refers to as a revamped "Australian proposal" first championed by AirPower Australia and later Japan as both lobbied the Australian and US governments, respectively.
This proposal would see the combination of both the F-22 and F-35 to deliver a "best of both worlds" option for Israel, which Gottliebsen explains: "Japan is believed to have put forward the 'Australian proposal' that the best of the JSF be incorporated in the revamped F-22 but it was not accepted by the US. But the US has been reviewing its total defence situation and discovered that too much effort and money has been spent in the wars in the Middle East and not enough in developing in matching the giant technology strides that are been made by both Russia and China.
"Australian defence officials have constantly stated that the US is not prepared to sell the F-22 to Australia or any other country and that it is too expensive. If the offer to Israel is confirmed by the US House of Representatives, it breaks down the first barrier. At the same time, the cost barrier has been substantially reduced.
"It is vital for the nation that we actually recognise the JSF’s problems and put our hand up for an F-22 that incorporates some of the brilliant technology in the JSF."
Gottliebsen goes further detailing the challenges and opportunities in jumping on board with the proposal, stating, "It is vital for the nation that we actually recognise the JSF’s problems and put our hand up for an F-22 that incorporates some of the brilliant technology in the JSF.
"If we can achieve that goal it will transform the air defence of Australia are and make us a much safer nation. The first hurdle is the US election and then there are lots of hurdles in Congress. But the decision is so sensible that it may appeal to both parties. And the Democrats will be reminded that back in the Clinton presidency they approved the sale to Israel of the F-22. But under the Bush administration it lapsed."
By our powers combined
In response to the rapidly changing global environment and air combat capabilities, allies in Japan, the UK and across Europe have initiated the development of their own fifth and 'sixth'-generation fighter aircraft – Japan in particular has been one of the most vocal aspirants of a potential lax in America's ban on the Raptor – beginning the collaborative development of a replacement for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force's (JASDF) fleet of F-15J.
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 publicly 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.
Recognising the increasing proliferation of fifth-generation technology and the emerging peer competitor capabilities and previous attempts at acquiring the F-22, both Japan and Australia are well positioned to support the reopening and modernisation 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 by Japan and Australia.
Such collaboration with two widely respected US allies and industrial partners already established within the existing F-35 supply chain, provides an opportunity to spread the costs, however it should be noted that the acquisition is not without risk, as both Japan and Australia would need to at least match the US order of 194 air frames – even in a combined manner – bringing the second production run to 388 airframes.
This proposal would result in a unit cost for the US, Japan and Australia of approximately US$105 million per aircraft, without accounting for any proposed Israeli acquisition or broader alliance partners.
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 programs of their own, would further reduce the costs associated with reopening the line and acquiring new Raptor air frames.
Australian procurement could mean enjoying a highly capable, interoperable and future-proofed air frame operated by Japan, a key regional ally, and potentially 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.