Why increase defense spending to counter China’s stealth fighter?

To those with fond memories of the Cold War, when it seemed that the arms race was a two-nation affair, things are moving in a familiar pattern. Reading Aviation Week & Space Technology in those days left you with your heart in your mouth, as it regularly broadcast the news that Soviet techno-military ingenuity was on the point, again, of overwhelming our own puny and underfunded efforts. “The Soviet Union is producing and fielding inventory aircraft with major performance improvements at twice the U.S. aircraft production rate,” ran one typical jeremiad in June 1982. “The NATO technological lead is decreasing.”

It was never true. Soviet warplanes always suffered from a fundamental deficiency of “short legs” — insufficient range — due to heavier airframes (retarded (deficient metalworking technology) and shorter-lived engines (ditto), not to mention myriad other deficiencies…

If the Chinese have indeed invested the necessarily vast sums that an F-22 lookalike program would require, those disposed to fear the Middle Kingdom need only rejoice. The F-22s now in service with the U.S. Air Force cost at least $355 million each (the total cost is probably higher); it is doubtful whether the F-22 can achieve “supercruise” — the ability to fly faster than the speed of sound without afterburners — for more than a few minutes. Most tellingly, its vaunted stealth performance has proved sadly disappointing. Although it is indeed less visible to tracking radars such as that carried on other fighters or air defense missiles, longer wavelength search radars can detect its presence at considerable distances. In 1999, the Serbs used radar defenses to down one F-117 Stealth fighter and severely damage another.