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Air superiority and national security–two concepts that go hand-in-hand

"There has not been a single soldier or Marine who lost his life in combat due to a threat from the air in over 56 years."

Let that statement sink in for a minute. The reason we’ve not lost a single soldier or Marine to enemy air is we’ve maintained such a dominant edge in both technology, ability and numbers that no enemy has been able to challenge our dominance of the air over any battlefield on which we’ve fought since Korea.

The military defines air superiority as "that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”

But that dominance and superiority in the air are in serious jeopardy.  In our drive to cut budgets, we are about to cut capability instead of costs.  And that could result in a serious threat to the war fighting ability of our military and  eventually threaten our national security.  There is a developing fighter gap and if it continues as it is presently proceeding, it may be unrecoverable.

A short digression to make a point.  There are two basic types of fighter aircraft in our inventory today.  One is the air superiority fighter. Its job is to establish and maintain air superiority so that opposing aircraft don’t pose a threat to other air operations and our ground forces.  Imagine how difficult the use of attack helicopters would be in support of ground operations if the enemy was the superior force in the air.  So that air superiority fighter works to keep the skies clear of enemy fighters to allow the second type of fighter to work under that umbrella.  That’s something we’ve successfully done for 56 years.

That second type of fighters is the strike fighter which is usually a multirole fighter with a mission of support for ground operations. They can deliver close air support or go deep and hit key targets that will help cripple the enemy’s ability to fight.

At the moment, we have a fleet of 4th generation air superiority fighters (F15’s, etc.) that numbers about 800.  Those fighters have reached the end of their service life and technology has advanced such that their effectiveness has been badly degraded.  The F-22 Raptor, a 5th generation air superiority fighter, was developed to replace the aging 4th generation fleet, and the original plan was to buy 700 of them.

The aircraft is expensive at over $300 million a copy, but it is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world and maintains our edge over would be competitors/enemies. But with cuts in the budget becoming a priority, the Defense Department made the decision to limit the number of F-22’s it would buy to 187 and then shut down production. 187 5th generation air superiority fighters doesn’t even begin to replace the 800 4th generation fighters we have.  In fact, the Air Force has conducted over 30 studies which all agree the bare minimum that the Air Force needs to maintain a minimal air superiority capability is 260 F-22s. But the last F-22 has been made, the production line is shutting down and the high paying jobs it created going away.

We’re seeing much the same scenario played out with the other critical player in our fighter future – the F-35. Designed as a multi-role joint strike fighter, the F-35 brings advanced stealth and other technology to the strike fighter role.  As with any developmental aircraft it has had its share of problems, but now seems to be on course to fulfill the promise it holds to deliver an aircraft superior to all the other strike aircraft in the world.

But again, we see talk about cutting capability in the name of cutting cost.  The promised number to be purchased both by the US and it’s 7 partners continues to shrink.  We’re being told we can’t "afford" the F-35. The real question, given the possible ramifications of having too few survivable air superiority or strike fighters is can we afford not to buy them?

Certainly we can "upgrade" the non-stealthy and aged 4th generation fighters. But the emergence of competitive 5th generation fighters in Russia (T-50) and China (J-20) mean that as soon as the competitive aircraft are fielded, our pilots flying those old fighters are essentially cannon fodder and our ground troops become vulnerable.

While it is certain cutbacks in defense spending are necessary, they must not jeopardize our military’s survival or our national security. 5th generation air superiority and strike fighters are critical to both.

Those making the hard budget decisions to come must remember the opening line above.  Air superiority and the ability to deliver ordnance and survive are critical tasks that cannot be "cut" for austerity’s sake.  And we must ensure our military not only has the best fighters we can produce, but enough of them to do their mission of keeping our nation secure.

[First published in the Washington Examiner]



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29 Responses to Air superiority and national security–two concepts that go hand-in-hand

  • This is a very hard question.  I’ve read very passionate, well-informed writers on both sides.
    We are also at some point in a transition phase from manned to unmanned fighters, with very clear advantages going to unmanned aircraft as the limitations of humans are removed from the battle-space proper.  Where we are on that curve is a big question to me.

  • Terribly off-topic, but…
    “Our God is woman, our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts.”
    An arms race I TOTALLY support…

  • We could’ve been using the Wright Brothers planes and that initial statement would still be true of most of our military engagements over the course of the last 56 years.  Given the limited utility of that mega-expensive technology, then, the question is whether the extraordinary cost can be justified by those limited benefits.

    • I knew many would miss the point. 

      Our air supremacy is the reason we’ve never lost a soldier or marine to enemy air power.  Its also the reason we can underfund our other military aspects. 

      Without that air supremacy, Naval and Ground operations would be extremely costly.  Both financially and in terms of US lives lost. 

      • That opening statement is too much like the “can’t have too much water nuclear reactor” skit on SNL. 

      • I think jpe’s contention isn’t that air superiority is overrated, just that it was extremely easy to achieve for most of the last 56 years.

         I think he underestimates both what technology our enemies had, and what would have been made available to them if we didn’t have a clear edge.

  • I’m not sure I agree that our F-15 pilots will be “cannon fodder”…  We still have the best trained fighter-jocks in the world, and I think they would hold their own very well against any Russian or Chinese pilot, no matter what they are flying.
    Just because the platform isn’t the best out there doesn’t change the fact that they have some pretty high-end weapons they can call upon.  I’d put our Air-to-Air missiles up against anything the Russians or Chinese have any day of the week.

    • I’ve read reports of “dog-fights” between our 4th and 5th generation aircraft showed strong performance by the older birds.
      Still…we do have the specter of our experiences in WWII…

    • I’m not sure I agree that our F-15 pilots will be “cannon fodder”…  We still have the best trained fighter-jocks in the world, and I think they would hold their own very well against any Russian or Chinese pilot, no matter what they are flying.
      As much as I respect our troops, its a fantasy to believe the level of the equipment doesn’t matter.  And it matters a lot.  In WWII, although we didn’t have the best aircraft, we had quantity to compensate.  That quantity meant a lot of airborne personnel got expended with those aircraft.   Now we’re talking about compromising quality and quantity.
      That means when we use craft, many won’t come back.  Guaranteed air dominance ensures minimal losses.  Being able to only go ‘toe to toe’ means large losses of men and equipment.
      Its also a shameful argument.  Attempting to implying if you want the best equipment for our men, you somehow don’t have respect for them or their ability.  Its not a sports competition.  We’re not there to show off our men.  We’re there to complete the mission.  To somewhat paraphrase Malone from the 1987’s Untouchables, if they bring a knife, you bring a gun.  If they bring a gun, you bring an RPG, … ad infinitum if you can.

  • The only way these cutbacks work is if we can technologically leap-frog the need for fighter aircraft. I’m reminded specifically of Dale Brown’s “Silver Tower” where a U.S. satellite is equipped with a kick-a$$ laser and once it’s connected with IFF software it just starts shooting down any non-U.S. military aircraft it sees.

  • Another problem with having a limited number of aircraft is that it implies a limited number of qualified pilots, weapon systems officers and ground crews.  The British came within an ace of losing the Battle of Britain NOT because their aircraft or aircrews were inferior but simply because they didn’t have enough pilots.  They pinched pennies through the ’30s and it almost cost them the war.  Shall we take that same risk?

    I also don’t think that the problem is limited to fighter aircraft.  I recall reading that there are serious problems in the Navy surface combatant (cruiser and destroyers) force.  Also throw into the mix:

    1.  We are fielding a new SSN… in tiny numbers.  There is reason to believe that the Red Chinese know all about its capabilities and vulnerabilities due to our lousy security and counter-espionage activities;

    2.  We haven’t fielded a new SSBN since the Ohio (late ’70s vintage) or a new ICBM since the Peacekeeper (retired; the ’60s vintage Minuteman continues to soldier on);

    3.  There is no replacement even planned for the ’70s vintage A-10;

    4.  There is no replacement even planned for the ’70s vintage AH-64 helicopter;

    5.  There are no replacements even planned for the ’70s and ’80s vintage M-1 Abrams and M-2/M-3 Bradley armored vehicles

    6.  Don’t even get me started about the B-52 and KC-135…

    In short, we’ve been resting on our laurels for years, over-confident because our guys rolled Saddam twice without much trouble at all.  We’ve gotten the idea that the toughest opponent we are likely to face is an untrained jihadi with an RPG or a suicide vest.  The Red Chinese are rather more capable; they aren’t ignorant peasants wearing quilted jackets, fur hats, and lugging Russian bolt-action rifles any more.  And there are a helluva lot of them.

    Scott JacobsWe still have the best trained fighter-jocks in the world, and I think they would hold their own very well against any Russian or Chinese pilot, no matter what they are flying.

    Yeah, that’s what the Army Air Corps and Navy thought with regards to the Japs in 1941.  Didn’t work out so well for them until the P-38, F6F and F4U came into service.  For that matter, the Air Force and Navy got a nasty surprise when the MiG-15 showed up and started clobbering Air Force F-80’s and Navy F2H’s and F9F’s, all flown by excellent pilots, many with World War II combat experience.

    American pilots are superb.  Give them plenty of the best tools and they are unbeatable.

    • There’s another thing about American combatants, They have balls.  Example-
      Captain Robin Olds was leading a P38 4-ship from England into occupied France.  Three and four abort for bad fuel, but he elects to press on with a 2-ship.  Olds spots a German formation of Me109s, about 50 of them.  What does he do?  Attack!  He keys the mic and says,”tanks,” as he jettisoned his external fuel tanks.  They each pick a trailing fighter and as Olds is ready to squeeze the trigger, both props quit.  He forgot to switch to internal fuel.  He’s gliding behind an unaware enemy plane pondering whether to shoot or dump the nose get a restart and reenter the fight.  Hey, it’s Olds.  He shoots the guy down.  A Russian, Brit or a German would not have done that.

  • There is a fine line between pilot and aircraft capability.  As a fighter pilot with over 3,200 hours in the F-4 and F-111 the one thing you can never underestimate is training.  Time and again, flying the F-4 versus the F-15 or F-16 in a multi versus multi scenarios, the F-4s came out the winner.  But when that happened and you stepped back to review the bidding, you saw F-15s being piloted by young captains with an average of 700 hours versus F-4 crews with an avarage of 4,000 hours between the two cockpits.  How could that happen?  Through experience and the fact that we would lie, cheat, and steal, in essence do anything to win.

    Having said all of that, I can also say that we envied those young turks their F-15 Ego Jets and their capabilities and wondered what we could have done with a combination of those jets and our experience.

    The bottom line is this.  You can have the best fighter aircraft in the world flown by the best crews in the world but at the end of the day if the bad guy is drinking beer at what had been your O’Club for whatever reason, then you ain’t shit!

  • I would consider air superiority the more important area to maintain the edge. The ground forces in a pinch can use mortars, artillery, or Javelin missiles against ground targets. But without air superiority, you can’t field recon assets like drones, protect your supply lines and headquarters, or use airborne command and control. Its not just that you’d lose soldiers or marines on the ground. Their effectiveness could be severely degraded.
    The air superiority aspect can also be applied to help foreign allies. For example, Taiwan could probably field enough ground forces by itself, but they probably would need help with air superiority. Its also much easier to quickly move such air units into theater as needed.
    Some of the stimulus funds should have been used to purchase more F-22’s for sure.  But as usual, we are planning to fight the last war.

  • One problem the depletion of our air arsenal is causing is a huge log-jam in pilot schools. My cousin just recently graduated from the Air Force Academy and he qualified for flight school. He is now sitting in the middle of nowhere Texas while he must wait for what seems like an eternity to attend the Air Force’s flight school program in Colorado  which he told me only has around 30 (give or take) people per program. So at the same time we deplete our arsenal, we are depleting the number of qualified pilots as well. Fewer planes means fewer pilots needed.

  • Chinese web users are acclaiming pianist Lang Lang’s choice of tune for a White House state dinner given in honour of President Hu Jintao – a patriotic theme song from an anti-US war film.
    The 28-year-old Chinese virtuoso, who divides his time between China and the United States, has given no indication that he was aware of the nationalistic tinge to his choice at last Wednesday’s dinner entertainment.
    But web users in China hailed Lang Lang as a true patriot for playing “My Motherland”, the theme of a famous 1956 Chinese film called “Battle on Shangganling Mountain” set during the Korean War.
    The movie of the Battle of Triangle Hill, as it became known, features Chinese troops enduring huge hardship before reinforcements arrive and rout their American enemies.
    “It’s deeply meaningful to play this in the United States, but I don’t know if the Americans can understand? Ha ha,” one web user said on leading portal
    “You really voiced our thoughts,” another wrote. “We do not want to see war, but we are really not afraid of war, and to defend our homeland, we are really not afraid of any great powers.”

    Stupidest Office of the Chief of Protocol EVAH

  • The F22 is already out-dated.  We need to start researching and manufacturing remote-control pilot-less strike fighters.  The first nation that does this will have air superiority.  The limiting factor in fighter aircraft is always keeping the pilot alive.  I read somewhere that the last fighter pilot has already been born.  discuss:

    • That’s the probability of 6th gen fighters (both manned and unmanned) – but you have to develop and perfect the 5th gen first as it is from 5th gen experience that 6th gen will grow.

    • Hope to God we never go all in on remote fighters.
      The only way to overcome the ping problem is to co-locate the operators to the planes.  Not always feasible.  And also makes you even more vulnerable to loss of air supremacy if you remote site can get shutdown or worse by their stealth aircraft.
      Even so, maybe you are sitting pretty.  Until your telemetry gets jammed.  Or even worse, hijacked.  Then your airforce is pile of scrap metal until you can figure out a way to get around it, if you can.

  • We have an Idiot, for Radical Organizer-in-Chief.
    Can he really be THAT stupid? (or is it: that much of a traitor?)

  • There are missions assigned the services.  Air superiority is one of them.  The service commitments are based upon assumptions.

    For example, if our policy makers tell us we must defend Europe from Russia, we look at the threat.  How many fighters do the Russians have?  With that number of platforms, how many sorties can they will generate in a day?  What is the probability of kill of our air-to-air missiles? How many missiles must we launch to down their aircraft?  How many aircraft of each type must we have to defeat the threat?  That is a set of numbers which live in the Pentagon and is the basis for the fighter procurement program requirements.

    Without the resources, the DoD has an obligation to inform the President and Congress that we are unable to meet the operational commitments assigned to us.