Two days ago The Australian published excerpts of a submission made by retired RAAF Wing Commander Chris Mills for a Senate inquiry into the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In the submission, Mills essentially says that the F-35 is not designed as an air-superiority fighter, new Russian aircraft (and, more than likely, future Chinese jets) are superior dog fighters and Australia should seek to acquire the F-22 Raptor from the US instead.

This debate has been going on for a long time, and a few US allies around the region would probably like a few F-22s in their air wings (12 of them just showed up in Japan in response to North Korea's last nuclear test). However, the bar to acquiring them couldn't be higher — not only did they completely stop building the aircraft in 2011, but all the way back in 1997 the US passed the aptly named Obey Amendment banning any foreign government from purchasing Raptor technology.

Not only would Australia have to lobby the US Government to allow the resumption of F-22 production, but also lobby Congress to repeal the foreign sales ban. Australia is a very close defence partner with the US, but this scenario is highly unlikely. Plus, an exception for Australia would put the US in a tight bind with other allies who want the F-22.

Mills is generally right about the F-35, though — it's not designed as an air-superiority fighter, and as the excellent New York Times video above shows, the jet was designed with other missions and less hostile environments in mind. Moreover, the aircraft's strongest suit, its stealth capability, is beginning to look less decisive as radar technology advances. It's also really expensive.

But there is another side of this debate developing: the assumed rules of air-to-air combat may be shifting from speed to sensor capability and payload. As a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found last year, 'advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.' Other than its stealth capability, these are attributes where the F-35 boasts significantly advances. It seems the stealth characteristics that were the big selling point of the F-35 may become second tier, and its sensor and communication capabilities could make it the plane for our time.