ARLINGTON, Va., March 31 (UPI) -- The best place to be for evading surface-to-air missiles and moving through enemy fighters is at high altitude and high speed. Just how high and how fast depends on the threats.
Against today's fighters, air speeds of Mach 0.8 -- eight-tenths of the speed of sound -- or greater and altitudes above 35,000 feet are usually sufficient.
The problem emerges about five to seven years in the future, as advanced modifications to adversary fighters, missiles and onboard systems begin to change the equation.
Fighters need stealth to get around surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. Air Force's Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor brings a unique advantage because it was designed to claim the ultimate sweet spot for air combat. That is the zone centering on an altitude of 50,000 feet and a sustained speed of Mach 1.6.
Analysis suggests that the F-22 Raptor operating at Mach 1.6 and 50,000 feet or higher will be twice as successful at defeating air-to-air threats in 2015 and beyond.
This is the prime operating regime for the F-22. In actual operations, an aircraft using afterburner can reach the sweet spot. However, the F-22's unique advantage is that it can operate in the sweet spot without afterburner. That allows the F-22 to stay there longer and at less risk.
Against advanced threats, flying fast delivers many advantages. The F-22 can engage other fighters from longer distances and still expect the same probability of kill. This ability becomes vital when F-22s are outnumbered and must contend with two, four or eight adversaries en route to striking a surface-to-air missile target, for example. Of course, the F-22 will rely heavily on shared information available to other platforms like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, but executing combined air and surface strikes will call for all the stealth, speed and maneuverability advantages which belong to the F-22.
The F-22's deterrence qualities will be even more important about a decade from now.
However, that is also when air-combat fleet size will begin to show a serious impact on the force.
The F-22 has a design life of 8,000 hours, a typical mark for a land-based fighter. Carrier-based fighters often have shorter design life due to the stresses of catapults and arrested landings.
Design life is the set of engineering trades that balances sturdy structure with aerodynamic qualities. Over time, the airframe will accumulate fatigue and stress and enter a red zone where the risk of major structural failure becomes unacceptable. Fighters typically have a shorter design life than cargo or other mobility aircraft.
Part 14: The factors that determine how long air superiority combat fighters stay in service.
(Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit public-policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)