Unfriendly F-22 Fire

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Air & Space Power Journal / USAF

At $358 million a copy, it’s fairly easy to find folks in the Pentagon critical of the value-added of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter. It’s a little tougher to find someone in the Air Force to take on the $67 billion program. Really tough to find a fighter pilot willing to do so.

So Lieutenant Colonel – and not only an F-22 pilot, but an F-22 test pilot, and F-22 squadron commander – Christopher Niemi will be raising eyebrows with his precision-guided fire against the F-22 Raptor in the latest issue of the Air Force’s own Air & Space Power JournalIt’s a gutsy, clear-eyed piece. He doesn’t disparage his plane so much as the way the Air Force created it.

Niemi was one of the first 10 Air Force pilots tapped to fly the fifth-generation fighter on Dec. 11, 2001, two months after 9/11. “When there are only 10 pilots in the entire Air Force that get selected for a chance like this, there has to be luck involved,” he said at the time.

Air Force photo / Lt. Col. Kenneth Hoffman

Niemi talks to reporters during his F-22 unit’s visit to Australia in March 2011.

Last year in Australia, he touted his plane’s prowess. “Where you really get a sense of speed is when you’re dogfighting in close,” Niemi said during a visit Down Under from his Alaska base. “That’s when you really get a sense of the privilege you have in flying the airplane.”

But Niemi makes clear in his 30-page article that he believes the Air Force blew it when the foe the F-22 was designed to fight – the Soviet Union – disappeared. Instead of retooling the fighter for a changed world, the Air Force – led by fighter pilots from 1982 to 2008 – stuck to its plans for a hyper-sophisticated stealthy war machine, albeit one without an enemy to fight. It has seen no action in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Niemi notes:

The ATF’s [the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the F-22’s original designation] overly-specialized design constituted a fundamental flaw in the uncertain post–Cold War environment. The Air Force subsequently missed the best opportunity to adapt the F-22 when it issued the EMD [engineering, manufacturing, and development] contract without modification to ATF requirements.

That, Niemi argues, has been a costly mistake. It led the service to sacrifice needed funds to replace its A-10, F-15E and F-16 aircraft on the F-22’s altar. Now the F-35 – designed to replace those three planes – is in deep trouble:

Despite massive cost overruns and schedule delays, the Air Force continues to hope that the F-35 can solely recapitalize 1,770 aging F-15Es, F-16s, and A-10s. However, continuing developmental problems and the emerging national fiscal crisis threaten to undermine this strategy.

Stealth – the ability of an aircraft to elude enemy radar – is a good attribute. But it should be more of a spice — perhaps even a side dish — and not the entire meal, Niemi suggests:

Although stealth is a powerful enabler for offensive systems, its greatest advantage lies in its ability to dramatically increase aircraft survivability against radar-dependent threats. Consequently, stealth’s utility depends on the presence of those threats. By insisting on acquiring only stealth fighters (regardless of the cost), the Air Force assumes that future adversaries will not counter stealth technology and ignores the fact that many air combat operations continue to occur in low-threat environments. For example, allied fourth-generation fighters operated freely over large portions of Iraq (both in 1991 and 2003), Serbia, and Libya from the beginning of those conflicts.

Niemi’s bottom line is simple: the Air Force’s push for an all-stealth F-22 and F-35 fleet is unaffordable, and should be revisited.

Stealth technology demands significant trade-offs in range, security, weapons carriage, sortie generation, and adaptability. Stealth provides no advantage in conflicts such as those in Afghanistan or Iraq (since 2003), and (despite its obvious utility) it cannot guarantee success in future struggles with a near-peer adversary. Most importantly, the cost of F-22s and F-35s threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force’s fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment. These facts suggest that the Air Force should reconsider its long-standing position that fifth-generation fighters are the only option for recapitalizing its fighter fleet.


If General Motors was limited to a build run of 195 Impalas (approximate number of F-22's built to date) with parts coming in from 46 different states, they'd cost a few million each, or more. Obviously, we'll never be able to afford a production run of aircraft that enjoys the economies of scale on the order of the auto industry. However, USAF/USN needs many more fighters than the country can afford, given our current choices. And that would be true even if the originally planned 750 F-22's had been built.

The history of the A-10 is a good example of how, left on their own, the pentagon generals would have eliminated a highly effective system in favor of more glamorous weapons systems. In all likely hood, nobody made general as an A-10 advocate back in the late '80's. That system was 'saved' by the first gulf war, not the pentagon.

Our procurement system is broken and we should listen carefully to recommendations from line officers like Lieutenant Colonel Niemi.

Retired fighter (no Worthog time!) pilot.

HåvardLarsen 1 Like

Em745@Figure this; IS it sound to get a gun for home protection, which is so widly overpriced that you needed to go to your bank and get huge morgage, which you will struggle with your whole life??Just as US is struggeling with its foreign debt crises..You could buy a much cheaper gun and still being able to defend your home.. get it!?


@HåvardLarsen Like most everything in life, you get what you pay for. Feel free to buy some cheap POS piece off the street. Me, I'd rather have a Sig. :)


Agreed 100% with E_L_P. The ''hasn't seen combat yet" excuse is getting REALLY old! The good Lt. Col. needs to be reminded of a few things:

1. A gun bought for home protection doesn't have to be used to kill a bad guy to prove its usefulness.

2. It's better to have something and not need it, than to need something and not have it.

3. The F-15, also a "Cold War relic," was in service (IOC) for roughly 15 years with the USAF before it saw "real" combat. The F-22 has been in service for ~7 years.

4. F-22/35 will prove their value as strategic/deterrence assets if the PAK-FA and J-20 manage to live up to half their billing.

E_L_P 1 Like

It is sad some still use statements that the F-22 hasn't seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We didn't use nuclear weapons in those wars either, or in the case of Libya: aircraft carriers. So I guess those are useless too. Stop using Operations:USELESS DIRT 1, 2 and 3 as some kind of standard for wars we will fight in the future.


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