Advanced fighters are not the whole answer to air power challenges
Retired Col. Thomas Ehrhard, in his Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study “An Air Force Strategy for the Long Haul,” wrote that the U.S. faces three primary existing and emerging strategic challenges that are most likely to preoccupy senior decision-makers in the coming years: “defeating … Islamist radicalism,” “hedging against the rise of a hostile or more openly confrontational China and the potential challenge posed by authoritarian capitalist states” and “preparing for a world in which there are more nuclear-armed regional powers.”
These challenges demand far more than one-size-fits-all national defense structures where our combatant commanders plan and the services provide for a single force structure that can cover the range of military operations from disaster relief through insurgency to nuclear warfare. For the Air Force, the focus of this discussion, the nation is not well-served by the almost fanatical pursuit of hundreds, maybe thousands, of short-range fighter aircraft augmented by unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), such as the Predator and Reaper, which have made such a contribution over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ehrhard’s report maintains that the Air Force is building what he calls a “ ‘middle-weight’ force structure that is much too sophisticated and expensive for low-end or irregular conflicts, while also lacking needed capabilities to address challenges at the high end of the military competition.”
There is no argument that fighters such as the new fifth-generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II make a vital contribution under the right circumstances. These circumstances are:
å Bases that are 500 miles or nearer from targets, and that are secure from short- and medium-range attack capabilities, including nuclear, biological and chemical as well as terrorists/insurgents.
å Partner nations that are willing to provide these close-range bases on their territory, an increasingly equivocal proposition as political necessity and alliances shift and they realize that their territory will be targeted by America’s enemies.
å A fairly advanced conventionally armed adversary with more or less traditional operational strategies, such as China or North Korea (which almost guarantees that adequate bases will be threatened).
å An adversary with airpower capable of threatening U.S. air operations and thus requiring a robust U.S. air superiority capability.
Note that Afghan insurgents operating in populated areas and in small mobile cells are not generally profitable targets for conventional air attack, as the continuing drumbeat of protest over civilian casualties and resulting severe restrictions of U.S. air operations point out. Advocates of Predator UAVs are quick to insist that these weapons are highly effective in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, where such operations predominate, as they have proven to be, and demand that their numbers be greatly increased and capabilities improved as a result.
At the other end of the range of military operations against more sophisticated military capabilities, the current stock of UAVs would be extremely vulnerable and as a single force element incapable of delivering the high volume of firepower likely required in many conflicts. Of course, this does not eliminate their usefulness in selected instances.
However, the Air Force “fighter mafia” that has dominated service leadership since at least the early 1980s has bet their hats, spats and swords on fifth-generation fighter aircraft as the dominant, and, if left totally to them, almost exclusive air combat force element for at least the first third of the 21st century.
But it is my belief that fighters and UAVs, even if considered together, leave much capability to be desired. Of the three challenges presented at the opening of this discussion, the fighter/UAV combination can manage perhaps one and a half: the Islamist radicals to the degree they can be found and advanced military capability threats that are within effective fighter operational range from bases that are hardened enough to withstand attack from those advanced enemy forces.
I have previously pointed out in these pages that it is important to remember the reason the Air Force is a separate service and its members wear blue uniforms instead of green ones — and that is the ability to rapidly project power globally and rapidly, meaning reaching an objective in minutes (perhaps even seconds) or hours. An Air Force structure dominated by short-range fighters, no matter how advanced, and UAVs does not fit the bill here.
Of course, this does not consider vital airlift requirements. Suffice it to say that this is as much a part of rapid global power projection as any other element.
Until recently forced to give ground by congressional action, Air Force leaders would not give up, or even willingly cut back, on their single-minded drive to build both the F-22 and the F-35 (variants of the F-35 will be acquired by the Navy, Marines and several international partners). “Fill the fighter gap” was, and really still is, the clarion call heard down the halls of the Pentagon and Air Combat Command headquarters. And filling that gap was described as requiring 1,763 F-35s for the Air Force alone, plus the original request for 340 F-22s. These are admittedly very capable aircraft that are far superior to the legacy counterparts such as the F-15 and F-16 they are to replace, but they come at a substantial cost of approximately $122 million each for the F-35 and somewhere around $145 million for the F-22. This would provide 2,100 aircraft with a combat range of only around 500 miles. Because of this, they must operate from increasingly scarce forward bases that are more vulnerable every day to enemy action, from terrorist infiltration to missile borne chemical, biological or nuclear attack.
Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are officially the raison d’être of all military operations nowadays. And everyone is jumping on that bandwagon despite its implications for those folks in South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and who knows where else who look to us to honor our commitments with forces of a different kind. That force would be required to operate from long range (especially in the Pacific region), possibly with minimum notice against a wide variety of targets, including mechanized ground forces as well as advanced combat aircraft and sophisticated air defense systems that would be encountered during missions deep into enemy territory.
So, if it is the Air Staff’s intent to divest itself of everything but the ability to provide close air support for ground forces, let’s go back to wearing green suits. The requirement for air superiority and close air support for ground forces are minimal in Iraq and Afghanistan but could be substantial somewhere else in the future. That alone does argue for maintaining the ability to assure air superiority, but from the context of a far more balanced force structure.
National political and military planning guidance warns of the emerging capabilities of our potential adversaries, including at least some advanced conventional capabilities. Their anti-access operations could include use of weapons of mass destruction; short- to medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles; anti-ship mines and antiaircraft weapons to interdict deploying forces; terrorist and special forces attacks; and direct information system attacks through computer viruses, information alteration, deception and psychological operations. The friction, uncertainty and public concern these activities could cause would be likely deciding factors in U.S. participation. And let’s face it, the more we build a ground support air force, the fewer options we will have on the world stage beyond committing that force into harm’s way or doing nothing.
An effective global U.S. military strategy will require:
å Immediate access to the conflict area to act before an adversary can consolidate gains or even complete preparations to act.
å Rapid action over global distances as forward bases are less available.
å Accomplishing tasks that will make a real difference in the situation as soon as we get there, which means reducing consolidation and preparation to a minimum.
å Minimal casualties and collateral damage in order to preserve public support and freedom of action.
U.S. forces may be forced to operate at longer ranges from their targets. The April 2000 Final Report on Strategic Responsiveness made a strong case for strengthening Air Force global responsiveness. But it also stated that because of the increasing availability of WMD and access-denial tactics, “Even less in the early 21st Century can the Air Force make the strategic assumption that forward basing will be available or accessible in future operations.” This assessment hasn’t gotten any better since 2000.
Barry Watts, in his 2005 CSBA paper on Air Force long-range strike capability, wrote that “the evidence argues that the institutional Air Force is neither taking — nor planning to take — the near-term steps to ensure that the U.S. will have the long-range strike capabilities the country will need in the mid- to long-term.” But still, (barring a major change in policy, which could possibly in fact be in the offing) the 21 existing B-2s is all the new global range strike capability we will get — the production line has been closed.
An enhanced fleet of intercontinental range, stealthy, manned and unmanned aircraft is necessary to assuring U.S. rapid global offensive capabilities. Watts argues, and I agree, that “a crucial challenge likely to be unmet” by failure to provide a true global strike capability “is neglecting to hedge against the rise of Asian powers and the spread of nuclear weapons.”
The bottom line is that the Air Force has been very busy trying to build a short-range air force in a long-range world. But the days of “bare base” deployments where everything needed to operate a short-range fighter squadron or wing from forward locations is hauled into a host country and set up with immunity from hostile action are coming to a close in many areas of the world.
A BRIGHT SPOT
There is a potential bright spot here. On Dec. 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We are probably going to proceed with a long-range strike initiative coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review and various other reviews going on. We’re looking at a family of capabilities, both manned and unmanned.” Note that the term he used was probably, which is far from a definitive directive, and even that was from the secretary, not from senior Air Force leaders. It is also interesting to note that, unlike all in the past, the current QDR process is focused within the Office of the Secretary of Defense with only minimal direct service participation. It leaves one to wonder if Air Force refusal to back off its myopic pursuit of its fifth-generation fighter force structure is at least partly to blame. Much remains to be seen here.
To be sure, with administration support, Congress has halted production of the F-22 air superiority fighter at 187 aircraft and threatens to stanch the buy of F-35s to far less than the 2,443 requested by all the U.S. services.
Advocates of both aircraft who lament the loss of some of these admittedly very capable systems would have a valid argument for larger-scale production if the planes could operate at longer ranges from bases not vulnerable to keep-out strategies from a wide variety of targets, including insurgent cells operating from populated areas, but they can’t. This does not argue for their elimination entirely but does strongly suggest that they be included within a larger force structure that is not a “middleweight” surrogate for a true global aerospace force that provides for strong high-end war fighting (including major conventional and nuclear warfare) as well as low-end capabilities (including against terrorists and insurgents operating from rugged and urban terrain).
This force would surely include low-end specialist UAVs such as the Predator as well as global-ranging strike aircraft (some potentially unmanned) such as an advanced B-2 or the new aircraft that Gates mentioned. In the middle would be the fifth-generation fighters that would operate against moderately capable adversaries and serve as a “swing force” for other higher- and lower-end contingencies as needed, but certainly not 2,600 of them. Let’s get real.
GROVER E. “GENE” MYERS is a senior defense and homeland security consultant and a retired Air Force officer.