Friday, January 19, 2007

Today's Reading Assignment

"The Death of U.S. Airpower," a commentary by Loren Thompson of UPI, reprinted at the Air Force's "Aimpoints" web site.

In reality, the situation isn't quite as dire as Thompson would have you believe. In terms of tactical proficiency, precision strike, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and quality of personnel, the U.S. Air Force has no peer. But Mr. Thompson is correct in noting that much of the Air Force's fleet of fighters and support aircraft is getting long in the tooth. That means lower mission-capability rates and high maintenance costs, with less money for other programs, such as recapitalization of the aircraft inventory. Naval aviation is experiencing similar problems; with retirement of the F-14 Tomcat (and no replacement for the A-12 program), the Navy has been forced to use the F/A-18 Super Hornet as an "all purpose" platform. Make no mistake; the Hornet is an exceptionally capable jet, but it's still, at heart, a fourth-generation fighter that (like the F-15 and F-16) no longer has a commanding technological edge over potential opponents.

That because the rest of the world has been closing the technology gap, while the U.S. decided against building the Navy's A-12, and slashed the F-22 program. The latest generation of Russian FLANKERs and the European Typhoon (Eurofighter) are just as capable as our F-15s and F-16s; the active-radar missiles they carry are comparable to our AMRAAM. The IR-missiles they carry are better that similar U.S. models. Fortunately for us, the tactics gap is still relatively wide, but there are examples (India comes to mind) of nations that can employ late-model fighters in a highly effective manner. Other countries--including China--may be able to close the gap as well.

The solution, of course, is finding enough money to fund key programs in the Air Force and the Navy aviation community. That's not to say that aircraft or aviation O&M programs should move ahead of funding for ground forces, or their planned expansion. It's a balancing act, something that's proving difficult--even in an era of $500 billion dollar annual defense budgets.


Mike H. said...

Right, no air superiority no ground superiority. In this day and age at least.

Andy said...

It's all BS. The US has often fought with inferior equipment - WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam. We always made up for it with superior training, tactics, logistics and intelligence. Equipment will only take you so far - just ask any third-world country with 4th-gen fighters like Mig-29's. They'd get slaughtered by our 4th gen fighters because we dominate in training, tactics and battlespace awareness.

The true revolution is in information sharing technology where targeting data can be quickly and seemlessly relay from a variety of sensors and platforms to shooters. There's simply no comparison between that technology and the voice or low-data rate GCI control most of our adversaries use.

Unknown said...

Good points all...

A few responses; on the issue of UCAVs, they make perfect sense, except for the fighter pilots who run the USAF and tactical aviation in the Navy. They are determined to preserve some sort of manned fighter into the middle of this century, to help perpetuate the fighter mafia. Don't worry, the UCAVs will be built, and eventually assume primacy in air combat, but as long as you've got fighter pilots who are flag officers, it will be an uphill fight.

On the price issue, there are a variety of factors at work. First of all, we typically start with a "low ball" figure that isn't realistic, and it's sold only to secure political support for the program. Everyone knows the cost will go up as the service adds more bells and whistles and the inevitable "cost increases" are factored in. Making matters worse, if the planned "buy" decreases, the cost per unit goes up, and we're seeing that with the F-22. The same holds true for aircraft that can't be exported (the F-22 again), so production costs can't be spread over domestic and export versions. Against those realities, it's no wonder a single F-22 costs at least $300 million.

As for purchasing foreign technology, that's been proposed on many occasions. Early in this decade, as our deficiencies in helmet-mounted sights (MHS) and IR missiles became apparent, there was an effort to buy Israeli-built HMS for U.S. F-15s and F-16s, along with the Python-V missile, the most lethal IR-missile/HMS system in the world. That was ultimately rejected, because it wasn't a U.S. produced system. We opted instead for the AIM-9X, and an American-produced HMS. Our stuff is good, but I'm not sure I'd put it in the same category as the Israeli system. This "problem," BTW, was the result of the USAF and USN putting too much emphasis on AMRAAM in the 80s and early 90s. They believed that short-range IR missiles were becoming obsolete; with medium-long range, active radar missiles (like AMRAAM) we could kill everything BVR and never have to go to the merge. Nice theory, but it rarely works that way in practice, when ROEs often require a visual ID, particularly in the early stages of a conflict.

If we had bought the Israeli HMS and Python-V five years ago, we'd have the world's best active-radar missile and the finest IR missile (with a HMS) for virtually our entire fighter fleet. But, because we opted to buy American, the AIM-9X and U.S. HMS are just reaching our fighter community. No real impact in the War on Terror, but it's something to think about in a potential showdown with the PRC.

Finally, the seamless integration (and use) of sensor-to-shooter technology holds great promise, but we're not there yet. Moreover, our potential adversaries (read: China) are developing technologies to target our sensors, potentially denying the data the shooters need to destroy their targets.

Good comments from everyone, thanks for your participation.