Chair Force Engineer

Monday, February 06, 2006

Off the radar screen

The New Mexico media is abuzz with rumors that the Air Force's F-117's (all stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico) will be withdrawn from service by 2009. Understandably, New Mexicans are upset that this unique plane and the jobs it brings to the state may soon be gone. At the same time, the Air Force must do what it can to stay within budget while meeting its needs.

As the Air Force aqcuires new stealth planes like the F-22, the faithful old F-117 is becoming a redundancy. It was a point design meant to penetrate the most dense threat environments and put two laser-guided bombs on target. Meanwhile, the F-22 can defeat any airplane ever built in a dogfight, in addition to striking targets, and it can do it at faster speeds than the F-117.

That doesn't mean the F-117 is totally replacable. The F-22, for instance, does not have a laser target designator built into the airframe. If the F-22 were to deliver laser-guided bombs, it would have to carry them externally (bad for keeping the plane masked from radar) and would need another aircraft or a combat controller on the ground to shine a laser on the target. While the F-22's GPS-guided bombs will prove adequate for most targets, there are still applications where laser guidance is desirable.

To the best of my knowledge, the F-117's capabilities will not be duplicated until the F-35 comes into service in the 2010 time frame. The F-35 will have a built-in laser designator and stealth features. Still, its weapon bays are sized for smaller 1,000-pound bombs, not the 2,000-pounders usually carried by the F-117.

When Holloman does lose the F-117, the base's manned fighters will be dedicated solely to the training of the German Luftwaffe. While it is rumored that Holloman will take on a greater role in training NATO air forces, it's clear that this state probably lacks the Air Force assets to support three Air Force bases. With Cannon losing the F-16's of the 27th Fighter Wing, the last active combat wing in the state will be the National Guard's 150th Fighter Wing (F-16's) at Kirtland. The Defense Department will then face the hard choice of closing Cannon (and cutting off over 20% of the local economy) or trying to find a new mission for the base. It would make sense to close either Cannon or Holloman when 2009 rolls around; the decision would eventually fall on which base offered the best facilities for Luftwaffe training.