We have to build multi-role aircraft today. Our budgets are too limited to allow the luxury of dedicated fighters and separate, dedicated strike aircraft. Plus, the flexibility of multi-role aircraft gives us a huge advantage in that we can switch seamlessly between roles and “mass” aircraft for any given task. A carrier air wing of 40 Hornets can be 40 strike aircraft or 40 fighters or any combination thereof.
In fact, the next generation of aircraft is even more multi-role than just strike and fighter. The F-35 can be a strike, fighter, electronic warfare, surveillance, intel, UAV controller, and many other roles. Yes, the future of naval aviation is in good hands and clearly headed down the right path.
Okay, then, let’s all give ourselves a pat on the back and call it a day. This is just a short, feel-good post, I guess.
Well, come on, now, you’ve been following ComNavOps long enough to know that this isn’t the end of the post.
Let’s look closer at the multi-role aircraft issue.
Let’s start with the easiest aspect which is budget. We have more than enough money for whatever we want as long as we spend it wisely – which we aren’t doing. So, budget is not a real justification for multi-role aircraft. We could build dedicated fighters and dedicated strike aircraft (we’ve done it in the past and we can do it again) if we wanted to and if we would follow the common sense approach that we’ve laid out in previous posts. We covered this before so I won’t go over it again. If you’re unsure of how we do this, go back through the archives.
Now, let’s look at the self-escorting myth. When multi-role strikefighters began appearing, the scenario was put forth that the aircraft would be self-escorting, able to switch from air-to-ground (A2G) to air-to-air (A2A), efficiently dispatch enemy fighters, switch back to A2G, strike their targets, switch back to A2A, and return home triumphantly, probably having bagged a few more enemy fighters on the way home. Unfortunately, unless we’re fighting an enemy whose air force is barely flight worthy, let alone combat capable, this is simply not true.
To illustrate the exception clause, a Navy flight of Hornets did exactly this during Desert Storm. Two F/A-18Cs from VFA-81 on the
were on a strike mission when they were intercepted
by two MiG-21s. The Hornets shot down
the two MiGs and continued on their strike mission. So, why were they able to accomplish this? Because the Iraqi aircraft and pilots were
hugely overmatched. The MiG-21 is a
1950’s era aircraft and the Iraqi pilots were found to be exceptionally poor
with no understanding of modern jet combat tactics. The American pilots and aircraft had every conceivable
That’s the exception. Now, let’s look at the peer combat case. What if the MiG-21s had been, say, MiG-29s flown by pilots as good as ours? In that case, the Hornets would have been badly outgunned, overloaded with bombs, unable to maneuver, and, basically, sitting ducks. Of course, they could and would have jettisoned the bombs to regain their air to air maneuverability. However, jettisoning the bombs means a mission kill for the strike mission and a failure as a self-escorting strikefighter. Even then, they would be at a disadvantage because they would have only a minimal A2A loadout since most of their hardpoints would have been bombs and fuel tanks. So, the Hornets would not only be a mission kill but, likely, an actual kill.
Self-escort is a myth. If you load up on strike weapons you can’t carry A2A weapons. If you’re up against a competent enemy you’ll have to jettison your bomb load to maneuver – a mission kill at the very least. Self-escort sounds good on paper but is a myth.
Let’s move on and look at the multi-role myth. In previous posts, we’ve noted that a multi-role platform can’t be as good as a corresponding single role platform because the multi-role platform isn’t optimized for any single role. In a head to head match, a multi-role strike fighter will lose to a single role aircraft every time. Multi-role strikefighters are jacks of all trades and masters of none. Look at the F-35’s anemic A2A performance – at best, it’s as good as an F-16. How will an F-35 fare against Russian or Chinese stealth fighters? Not well. Or, let’s keep it in house for illustrative purposes. How would an F-35 fare against an F-22? No one knows but, presumably, not well.
Okay, so the F-35 is a second rate fighter but what about as a strike aircraft? Again, it’s a poor fit as a pure strike aircraft, having a very small internal weapons capacity and limited range.
How about the multi-role F/A-18 Hornet? In A2A mode, it compares poorly to the Su-27, MiG-29, or any of the more modern Russian and Chinese stealth fighters. The Hornet is a nice peacetime aircraft but would perform poorly in peer combat against even its own generation of aircraft.
As we’ve previously discussed, multi-role is fine for non-combat applications but is a disaster waiting to happen in combat.
Let’s look at other roles within the multi-role spectrum.
Surveillance is supposed to be one of the F-35’s strong suits. However, the F-35 radar is miniscule compared to, say, the E-2 Hawkeye or P-8 Poseidon. It just can’t see very far with any usable resolution. It even fares poorly in surveillance when compared to a MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aircraft just due to the Triton’s vastly superior endurance and, hence, area coverage even though the Triton would not have a superior radar.
Let’s consider electronic signal intercepts and analysis (ELINT/ESM). The F-35 is supposed to provide ELINT data back to other platforms. However, the F-35 would be hard pressed to even match the long since retired ES-3A Shadows of the early 1990’s. There’s simply a limit on how much equipment you can pack into a single airframe.
Even the most cursory evaluation makes it readily apparent that multi-role combat aircraft are a waste of resources in war. So many people want to compare the F-35 to legacy MiG-29s or Su-27s when they should really be comparing the F-35 to the Sukhoi PAK-FA and Chinese J-20/31. These are the opponents against whom the F-35 will be matched and will justify its price tag, if it can, and it is these opponents against whom the mediocrity of a multi-role aircraft will become apparent. Let’s also be honest about enemy aircraft. I don’t know the performance characteristics of the PAK-FA, J-20, or J-31 nor am I even sure what their intended roles are. Perhaps they are being designed as compromised, multi-role aircraft, too. In that case, it will be an even match. However, from what I’ve read, my sense is that these enemy aircraft are much more focused on aerial superiority as opposed to our do-everything designs.
One closing note … My denigration of multi-role combat aircraft and preference for single function aircraft does not mean that a single function aircraft cannot have a secondary function. The F-14 Tomcat was built as a pure fleet interceptor but was able to be converted into a decent attack plane. The P-47 was built as a pure fighter but was able to adapt to the low level attack role. The F-22 was built as a pure air superiority fighter but may be adapted to an attack role as time goes on. The point is that an aircraft should designed, built, and optimized for one role and one only. Other roles, if they can occur, are a fortuitous benefit but should, in no way, drive the design.
Strikefighters are a failed myth.