December 1, 2005  

The Air Force’s ‘Big Five’

During the Reagan military buildup of the 1980s, the Army made impressive progress in its modernization efforts by identifying its five most important new programs, and never missing an opportunity to highlight the “Big Five.” These programs — the M1 tank and Bradley fighting vehicle, the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and the Patriot air defense system — were the centerpieces that gave continuity to the Army’s post-Vietnam transformation. If the Air Force today were selecting the five programs most crucial to its success in the emerging operational environment, which five should it pick?

1 The F/A-22 Raptor. This fighter, despite its bad press, is indispensable to preserving global air dominance.

People who aren’t pilots sometimes assert that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be just as good, but I can’t find anyone in the Air Force who feels that way. In fact, in behind-the-scenes discussions last year, the Air Force offered to give up 600 Joint Strike Fighters to get 200 more Raptors. I think that’s a deal that policymakers ought to take, because despite its stealth and information technologies, the JSF can’t match Raptor in speed and maneuverability — things likely to matter when you’re trying to outrun next-generation surface-to-air missiles.

2 Tankers. The Air Force simply must get moving on replacing hundreds of Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers that are more than three times the age of the commercial airliner fleet.

It’s disgraceful that we ask Air Force pilots to operate planes so old that no civilian airline would consider putting them into service. We don’t really know when corrosion and technological obsolescence will begin taking a fatal toll on these tankers, because no one has ever operated jets for this long. But when that day comes, if there aren’t a lot of new tankers in the fleet, we can forget about projecting air power in places like the Western Pacific — Navy and Air Force planes alike depend on them.

3 Space Radar, formerly Space-Based Radar. This offers the closest thing we are likely to get to persistent global reconnaissance in this generation.

The failure of senior war fighters to stand up and insist they need such a constellation for tracking surface vehicles and generating all-weather imagery shows a real lack of imagination. Fortunately, Air Force leaders grasp the transformative potential of Space Radar, so the question is whether they can tell that story convincingly to a skeptical Congress.

4 High-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance UAVs. Drones such as Global Hawk and an extended-range Predator have been vindicated by military operations in Southwest Asia and elsewhere.

But it still isn’t clear whether war fighters will acquire them in adequate numbers to realize the full value of their persistence, precision and responsiveness. In particular, the Air Force needs to press ahead with plans for a Global Hawk that can collect both imagery and signals intelligence for days at a time.

5 An AWACS replacement. This program, designated E-10, has gotten a cold reception from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s advisers because they deem it a threat to Space Radar.

But with the Army and the Navy willing to give up their electronic aircraft to a joint solution, E-10 recommends itself as the one airframe that can satisfy virtually any mission objective. Restructuring E-10 as a common sensor platform would advance the Air Force’s role as the lead agent for joint reconnaissance while saving the Army and Navy billions of dollars.

— Loren Thompson