Mark A. Bucknam is Chairman of the Department of Security Studies at the National War College in Washington DC. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel, after 30 years of service. A career fighter pilot, he also served in the Pentagon on the Air Staff, the Joint Staff, and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where was the Director for Campaign and Contingency Plans.
America’s ability to dominate the airspace of its adversaries, and to use that airspace for military, counterterrorism, and intelligence-gathering purposes, is a cornerstone of U.S. national security. Cutting-edge fighter aircraft piloted by highly-trained American airmen have been the essential foundation upon which much of the modern- day U.S. security edifice has rested.
Yet America’s repeated airpower successes in the decades since the Cold War ended have lulled some observers, including political decision-makers, into discounting the need to fund the continuous evolution of American fighter-aircraft capabilities. This is evidenced by the dramatically curtailed procurement of F-22 fighters and more recent challenges to the viability and affordability of the F-35. Notwithstanding criticisms that can be leveled against these pricey airpower platforms and expectations that they might soon be replaced by unmanned systems, U.S. security will continue to depend on maintaining its significant edge in high-tech fighters, the weapons they employ, and the well-trained airmen who operate them.
A WINNING TRACK RECORD
America’s superior fighter aircraft technology, employed by highly-skilled airmen, has been essential to the success of U.S. military operations since the 1991 campaign against Iraqi military forces in Operation Desert Storm. As part of Desert Storm, 38 days of coalition air operations took control of the skies over Iraq, pummeled Iraqi military forces and leadership targets, and paved the way for a 100-hour air and ground operation that featured demoralized Iraqi soldiers surrendering to unmanned aerial vehicles. Modern American fighter aircraft, sometimes referred to as tactical aviation or TACAIR, flew over 75 percent of the missions employing ordinance in Desert Storm, and they executed nearly all of the missions employing precision-guided munitions
(PGMs). The extremely low casualty rates among American fighters reflected tremendous advances in technology and extensive training built upon the lessons of the Vietnam War, and honed in years of preparation for conflict against the Soviet Union.
After Saddam Hussein’s forces were ejected from Kuwait in 1991, American fighters spent more than a decade enforcing no-fly zones over portions of Iraq. From 1993 until 1995, U.S. tactical aviation enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia. And in the summer of 1995, a 3-week NATO air campaign against the Bosnian Serb Army— called Operation Deliberate Force and conducted by a force overwhelmingly comprised of U.S. fighters— helped set the stage for the Dayton Peace Accords, ending Bosnia’s bloody 3-year conflict. The near impunity with which high-tech American fighter forces operated over Iraq and Bosnia provided U.S., coalition, and NATO political leaders options to pursue political objectives at acceptable costs. Subsequently, in the spring of 1999, in Operation ALLIED FORCE, NATO airpower—with U.S. fighters executing the vast majority of missions—was an essential element in securing allied political objectives in Kosovo. The success of all three military campaigns— in Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo—hinged on the enormous advantages in survivability, precision, and raw numbers of sorties provided by American fighter forces.
Similarly, the more recent campaigns toppling the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq owed their successes to U.S. fighter aircraft, their pilots, and weapon systems operators. Although bomber aircraft, gunships, attack helicopters, and other military platforms played vital roles at times, the vast majority of combat sorties were flown by American fighters and they delivered the overwhelming preponderance of precision munitions.
While some senior U.S. military officials refer to the years since 9/11 as America’s decade of war, American fighter pilots have deployed and operated through more than two decades of combat, starting with the first Gulf War and continuing to this day. There are two important reasons many observers overlook the first of those two decades: first, conventional U.S. ground forces were not involved in combat operations between DESERT STORM and IRAQI FREEDOM, and second, American combat airpower so dominated its adversaries that the risks associated with those air operations in the 1990s was judged to be low. Employing American airpower—primarily high-tech fighters—was politically expedient and nearly invisible to the public. The characteristics that make U.S. fighters so successful may now risk making America’s airpower advantage a victim of its own success.
A VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS?
In the hands of well-trained airmen, America’s fourth- generation fighters—such as the F-15, F-16, and F/A- 18—possess impressive capabilities and are highly survivable in combat. In addition to the excellent flying performance of these fighters, they are equipped with superior avionics, including radar, radar-warning equipment, sensors for locating and striking targets, and weapons control computers. Furthermore, these outstanding aerial platforms employ increasingly sophisticated weapons for air-to-air combat, suppression of enemy air defenses, and precision attack of ground targets day or night, in good or bad weather. Fighters are smaller and much more maneuverable than bombers and gunships, making them harder to detect and enhancing their survivability. They operate in larger numbers using tactics that can overwhelm or outsmart enemy defenses, and they can typically perform a variety of missions, thus giving military planners greater flexibility than do more specialized aircraft. And, in addition to protecting more vulnerable aircraft, modern high-tech fighters can usually defend themselves. In short, America’s cutting- edge fighter technology has been, is, and will remain essential to success of major U.S. military operations.
Nevertheless, high-tech military hardware, particularly fighter aircraft, has long had its detractors. In the run-up to the first Gulf War, television networks and other media outlets found no shortage of doomsayers predicting rampant failure of modern weapon systems from the U.S. Army’s M-1 Abrams tanks and AH- 64 Apache attack helicopters, to the U.S. Air Force’s F-15s and F-16s. Events proved those critics of high- tech weaponry wrong, yet some of the same critics have reemerged to drone once more against the unacceptable risks of depending on cutting-edge technology. To such critics, every setback or delay associated with pushing the boundaries of technology is seen as proof that systems are too complex to work or will prove too expensive.
Even before the 1991 Gulf War, the so-called Military Reform Movement offered in all seriousness the proposal of scrapping expensive high-tech fighters such as the F-15 for more numerous, low-tech aircraft such as the F-5 and even propeller planes reminiscent of the P-51s and P-47s of the Second World War. One shudders to think how such low-cost aircraft and their American pilots—assuming that in an all-volunteer force sufficient numbers of pilots could be found to operate such technologically inferior planes—would have fared against Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991, much less the more capable forces of the Warsaw Pact countries. To succeed in large-scale modern-day conflicts, or to be politically useful in more limited combat operations, U.S. fighter aircraft must possess capabilities and a degree of survivability that provides a very significant advantage over America’s potential adversaries.
As today’s budget cuts force the Department of Defense (DoD) to tighten its belt, TACAIR is likely to become a prime target. During the last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 2009 and 2010, sacrificing TACAIR was a bill-paying option of first-resort. Tactical aviation was seen as an area in which the United States possessed such superiority that it could afford to be cut without excessive risk to the nation. Notwithstanding the need to make tough choices, during the QDR military force planners seemed to offer options for cutting fighters without regard to any limits to such cuts. Among the multitude of QDR studies, none examined the effects of such cuts on America’s ability to execute its existing war plans or fulfill the needs of its global defense posture. As a consequence, the U.S. Air Force predictably found itself directed by DoD to cut fighter squadrons, then chastised at every turn when it did so. Air Force leaders were rebuked whenever the elimination of a particular squadron contradicted the force-posture aims of DoD policymakers, the force requirements of combatant commanders, or the imperatives of politicians whose Air National Guard forces were affected.
Undoubtedly, new studies are already underway for the 2014 QDR, and the design of those studies will impact decisions about how many and what type of fighters to buy. The most challenging high-intensity scenarios will feature potential adversaries with sophisticated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The value of fighter aircraft in such scenarios may be steeply discounted due to the limited range of fighters and the vulnerability of their bases. Of course, aerial refueling of distant land-based fighters and the basing of fighters on aircraft carriers would mitigate these limitations.
If these mitigating measures are deemed insufficient, suggesting the impossibility of operating effectively anywhere within hundreds of miles of an adversary’s borders, then one should pause to consider exactly what political objectives one might hope to achieve and by what means. What is the point in having a scenario that
admits no military solution as part of a defense review intended to reach decisions about force structure and strategy?
AN ERODING EDGE
But the truth is that America’s fighter overmatch could quickly erode. In late-February 2004, U.S. pilots flying the latest-model of the F-15C Eagle—America’s premier air-to-air fighter at the time—were somewhat surprised and chagrined at the results of Cope India, a mock combat exercise against the Indian Air Force. American pilots reported being impressed by the skills and tactics of the Indian pilots and more than a little concerned about what they observed from India’s highly-capable Russian-made Su-30MK fighter aircraft. Of the 17 different types of fourth-generation fighters in the world, America fielded four. One of these, the F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame, is no longer in use. Reassuringly, the United States military still fields nearly 2,000 fourth-generation fighters and America leads the world in deploying fifth-generation fighters, with 186 F-22s in service today and hundreds of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft scheduled to begin entering the inventory in the next few years. By comparison, Russia and China—with the 2nd and 3rd largest air forces, respectively—each field just over 500 fourth-generation fighters and have only recently begun testing prototypes of their fifth-generation fighters.
However, these figures are deceptive. America’s fourth- generation fighters have been flown hard, are aging, and are in serious need of replacement. In 2009, the Obama administration, DoD, and the U.S. Senate acted in concert to halt production of the F-22 at 187 aircraft. This number is fewer than half of the 381 F-22s the U.S. Air Force deemed necessary in 2006, and well under one-third of the 650 aircraft the Air Force planned to buy around the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The 2009 decision to curtail F-22 production was based largely on the expected capabilities and numbers of F-35 JSF aircraft that DOD planned to purchase; currently the Air Force is expected to receive 1,763 F-35s, with the Navy and Marine Corps getting 680. Prolonged delays in fielding the F-35 or significant cuts in their numbers could quickly erode America’s impressive advantage in fighters. Moreover, America’s potential adversaries will likely shorten the U.S. lead in fighter technology given the rampant cyber-theft of American technology, including theft from U.S. defense contractors.
Fortunately for the United States, it also has a lead in well-trained airmen who can employ such technologically sophisticated aircraft.
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
America’s fighter advantage depends as much on training and tactics as it does on technologically superior hardware. After the 1991 Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander of all coalition forces, expressed his sense of the relative importance between training and technology in claiming that the superior training of American military forces was such that had the Iraqis and Americans exchanged equipment and fought the war, the American-led coalition would still have come out on top, and by a large margin.
Such superior training does not come easily. It takes two to three years to train a fighter pilot to the most basic level of combat readiness, with additional years needed to train a mission-ready wingman to be a flight lead, and then an instructor. Even an experienced community of fighter pilots can take many months to work out the best tactics for employing new capabilities, new weapons, or performing new missions in aircraft they are already skilled at employing. Reflecting on the implications of those last two sentences, one should readily see the flaws in thinking that the U.S. military could “skip a generation” of technology. Nor could the United States dramatically curtail the number of aircraft in the inventory with the hope of ramping up years later when a threat becomes imminent enough to spur action.
As American and British airmen learned at great cost in World War II, tactics and doctrine developed in the absence of robust training can turn out to be badly flawed. As a result, our airmen died in large numbers, even while flying some of the most technologically- advanced aircraft of their day. Ultimately, however, it was the Luftwaffe that demonstrated the steep cost of neglecting aircrew training; toward the end of the war, Germany possessed plenty of planes, including the first combat jet fighters, but nearly all of its experienced pilots were dead, and Germany had failed to train enough replacements. On D-Day, allied commanders were so confident they would control the skies over Normandy they ordered allied aircraft be marked with broad, highly-visible black and white stripes to avoid fratricide or friendly fire—they no longer worried about the Luftwaffe.
Those who think that drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), will supplant America’s fighter force in the next decade or so should think again. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will certainly play an ever-increasing role in U.S. combat operations for many years to come. As they become more sophisticated, the types of missions they perform will continue to expand. The obvious advantages of UAVs—avoiding the loss of airmen and endurance— make them attractive to military planners and their political leaders alike. As the U.S. Navy conducts flight test operations with its stealthy X-47B UCAV, many observers will likely ponder, as The Economist editors did in 2011, whether the F-35 might be the last manned fighter. However, such unmanned aircraft are not cheap, and they still require human operators.
UCAVs will not supplant manned fighters until remotely-controlled vehicles can eclipse the skills demonstrated by on-scene humans in dealing with flight operations that are complex, dynamic, and inherently unpredictable. No analogy works perfectly, but consider the difficulty of designing and remotely operating a team of machines to play basketball against a skilled NBA team. Now, multiply that by ten such games taking place simultaneously in close proximity to one another. An enormous difference exists between conducting a stealthy raid with a handful of UCAVs and engaging in aerial combat against a capable adversary.
The propensity to undervalue the sophisticated capabilities of human operators as compared to machines calls to mind an exchange that took place more than 30 years ago. In 1981, astronaut John Young, the captain of the first Space Shuttle mission, was challenged by a reporter to justify the need for manned space flight when computers were doing so much of the flying. Young responded with words to the following effect: where else are you going to get a 100-billion-bit computer that can reprogram itself in-flight and will work for forty-thousand dollars a year? Despite advances in computers, Young’s message still rings true. No doubt technology will continue to advance in ways that make UAVs, including UCAVs, more competitive in performing missions that only people can perform well today, but in all likelihood the parents of the last American fighter pilot have yet to be born.
In 1936, John Slessor—a veteran Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot of the First World War who rose to command the RAF after the Second World War—cautioned, “If there is one attitude more dangerous than to assume that a future war will be just like the last one, it is to imagine that it will be so utterly different that we can afford to ignore all the lessons of the last one.” Given the vital role that America’s fighter advantage has played in recent decades in underpinning the nation’s security, it would be not only foolish but dangerous to surrender this edge.