Eyes to the Sky Part I: An Air Force Built for the 21st Century

 /  Jan. 4, 2017, 4:32 p.m.


As the United States and its coalition partners swept into Iraq and Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, the immense power of a highly sophisticated air force was on display. A combination of over one thousand ground-based aircraft and six carrier strike groups conducted over one hundred thousand sorties in the opening phase of the war, targeting Iraqi military forces, aircraft, and infrastructure. Following the conclusion of the air campaign, it was estimated that half of the Iraqi military had been neutralized. This astonishing success was achieved before a large-scale ground operation was even launched. Through Desert Storm, the United States Air Force demonstrated American military might to the world, cementing America’s status as the sole superpower. In fact, since the Second World War, American air power has been representative of American military supremacy.

In the post-World War II era, the power and capacity of the United States Air Force has increased American security and facilitated America’s global military hegemony. While the US possesses the largest air fleet of any of the world’s nations, its dominance of the skies has not been the result of numbers alone. Although it is necessary to maintain a large force to adequately spread around the globe, technological superiority and an unrivaled personnel training regiment have ensured that the United States has always had the possibility to control any airspace it deemed necessary. Additionally, the US Air Force’s logistics system,  consisting of tanker and cargo aircraft, has prevented the geographic isolation of the United States from impacting US military operations. No other nation shares the US Air Force and Navy’s capabilities to conduct a single full-scale ground war across the globe, let alone conduct two. When the president of the United States orders a military operation, American forces’ ability to maintain air supremacy over a battlefield and transport the necessary troops and equipment to the warzone is never in doubt.

However, in recent decades, the US Air Force’s dominance of the skies has eroded. With the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations confident that the era of peer-on-peer confrontations has come to a close, and low-technology land wars becoming the preeminent type of conflict, the White House has neglected to modernize the air force. Modernization programs have been canceled prematurely, or ignored entirely, in the name of a new generation of warfare in which expensive, advanced technologies are no longer necessary. This has resulted in an air force fleet that is significantly smaller than it was just a decade or two ago. The US Air Force is projected to have as few as twenty-six tactical air squadrons (compared to the 133 that were available during Operation Desert Storm) in the near future; its aircraft are twenty-seven years old on average; and its fleet has below satisfactory readiness levels. The combination of having vastly fewer aircraft than are needed for deployments, and the aircraft that are available being significantly less capable than modern technology allows, has left the US Air Force ill-equipped to deploy appropriate resources for twenty-first century missions.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the false sense of security provided by the “peace dividend” has placed the United States Air Force, as well as its peer military branches, in an incredibly difficult situation. With nations such as China and Russia modernizing their air force fleets and weaponry and deploying surface-to-air missile systems such as the S-300, S-400, and HQ-9 in Iran, Syria, Kaliningrad, and the South China Sea, new threats have emerged. Perhaps the most concerning of these threats is the deployment of S-400 SAMs to Kaliningrad, which gives Russia the ability to significantly impact NATO air operations over much of Eastern Europe.

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Recent world events and strategic shifts have culminated in a US Air Force that is rapidly declining to a state in which its global air supremacy is no longer a given. Maintaining the America’s capability to control the skies over any possible battlefield should be the government’s most important national security priority. For this reason, President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to rebuild the US military could not come at a more critical moment. If the president-elect truly intends to rebuild the US Air Force fleet and reestablish its capabilities, the administration must re-think how the military acquires new weapons systems, invest significant resources in modernizing the bomber fleet, reconstruct a fighter fleet with extensive air-to-air capabilities, and acquire support aircraft and technologies for the twenty-first century.

Rethinking Acquisitions:

Over the last quarter century, the United States military has suffered from a plague of significant cost overruns. Many of these cost overruns have resulted in the premature cancellation of both highly capable and incredibly necessary acquisition projects. Unfortunately, a significant number of canceled programs resulted from a self-fulfilling prophecy within the Defense Department acquisition community and congressional armed services committees.

Cost per unit prices typically consist of both the production costs of each unit and the distribution of both fixed costs and research and development expenses among the ordered units. As a result, the cost per unit of any acquisition project is highly dependent on the number of units ordered. Too frequently, upon the occurrence of one hiccup in the acquisition project, the size of the acquisition is cut to save money. This results in the per-unit cost of the project increasing, because the original research and development expenses are now distributed among the smaller number of units being produced. Subsequently, more units are canceled as the per-unit cost appears increasingly unbearable. In this situation, the project loses the cost advantages of economies of scale.

This very scenario occurred with the B-2 stealth bomber. Initially planned for a production run of 132 aircraft with an estimated cost of less than $1 billion per aircraft, the program was scaled down to 21 aircraft with a per-unit cost of $2.2 billion. This cost effect also extended throughout the B-2’s service life as the same maintenance equipment was bought and the same mechanics were trained for fewer aircraft.

The B-2 is just one example of this self-fulfilling prophecy, which also includes the F-22, Zumwalt-class destroyer, Seawolf-class submarine, and many others. In the name of saving money, the number of orders for a project is slashed, but the per-unit cost of the acquisition project balloons, resulting in even fewer units being produced. In order to adequately supply the US military with advanced technologies and weapons system, Congress and the Department of Defense will have to resist the urge to cancel sophisticated programs after every hiccup and realize that the most efficient use of taxpayer funds is to see production runs through to the end.

The Strategic Bomber Fleet

Originally designed as a strategic nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union, strategic bombers have become incredibly valuable conventional assets for the US military. For decades, the B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers have formed the backbone of that fleet. Although they have fulfilled their roles admirably, the B-52 is no longer adequately suited to carry out the advanced missions of the US Air Force, and must be replaced by a modern successor.

Initially built in the 1950s and 1960s, the B-52 is serving well beyond its intended lifespan. A huge, cumbersome plane, the B-52 is not capable of fighting in airspace that is becoming increasingly contested as more nations, such as China, Russia, and Iran, deploy advanced surface-to-air missile capabilities. Additionally, in accordance with the typical mistakes of weapons system acquisition, the B-2 stealth bomber was not acquired in adequate numbers. In the current situation, only a few B-2 bombers are capable of conducting operations at any given time. This is a dangerous lack of capability because the B-2 is the only aircraft in the United States military’s inventory with the stealth capabilities and payload capacity (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) necessary to launch opening strikes on peer adversaries or attack targets such as the Iranian nuclear program.

Due to the strategic bomber fleet’s current condition, the air force wisely conducted a request of proposals program for a next-generation bomber. Less than a year ago, the air force selected Northrop Grumman to produce the B-21, a future stealth bomber that has been termed a “sensor-shooter.” Capable of penetrating environments containing anti-access/area-denial weapons systems deployed by Russia and China, and of carrying all of the military’s munitions, including the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the B-21 is integral to the nation’s future military operations. The Trump administration must ensure that the B-21 does not fall into the same cycle of production cuts and per-unit-price increases as so many other military acquisition programs have. It must ensure through Department of Defense appropriation requests and congressional negotiation that the B-21 program is primed to at least complete its 80–100 unit production plan, if not increase the possible production run to the 174 aircraft that combatant commanders have deemed necessary.

The Fighter Fleet

Another key component to the future composition of the air force is the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 is a stealth fighter aircraft which possesses an impressive range of maneuverability, unmatched dogfighting capabilities, and a radar signature the size of a marble. In training exercises, the F-22 has repeatedly demonstrated a kill ratio significantly higher than those of other dogfighting aircraft. In one case, several F-22 fighters shot down over one hundred targets with no losses, and in another simulation, one F-22 eliminated eight F-15s. A single F-22, according to the Air Force, possesses the same capabilities as four F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Unfortunately, this extraordinary fighter program fell victim to the plague of acquisition cuts.

Originally planned to encompass 749 jets, the program was cut to the air force’s minimum requirement of 381 aircraft, and then terminated by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates after 187 aircraft were produced. This has left the air force significantly under-equipped for high-end airborne combat, with the head of Air Combat Command saying, “We don’t have enough F-22s. That’s a fact of life. We didn’t buy enough.” With only 123 of the 187 aircraft combat coded, six F-22 squadrons were created, each of which contains only twenty-three aircraft compared to the typical fighter squadron loadout of twenty-six aircraft. With so few squadrons available, none are based overseas and only a few aircraft can deploy on a temporary basis. Ideally, the Air Force would have the capability of permanently deploying at least one squadron of F-22 Raptors to Japan, Germany, and the UAE, while maintaining the majority of the fleet within the United States.

Because of the F-22 preeminence, expanding the program is the most important step that the US Air Force must take to ensure continued dominance. Even with the advances made by Russia and China, the F-22 remains the undisputed champion of air combat. Capable of taking on any enemy fighter aircraft, the F-22 Raptors are so vital that the Trump administration should immediately begin production on a new generation of F-22s in order to finally arrive at the 381 aircraft the air force deems necessary. Unlike many other acquisition programs in which new technologies are developed and produced, restarting F-22 production is not reinventing the wheel. F-22s can be built on F-35 airframes and integrate F-35 computer technologies and radar. The repurposing of existing technologies would limit potential cost overruns and save an immense amount of time.

In addition, this production run could keep the military aircraft industrial base afloat. Previously, the biggest impediment to restarting the F-22 production line was its projected cost. It was estimated to be prohibitively expensive to produce new parts and technologies and reassemble the F-22’s massive supply chain. This is simply not the case.  At the moment, the future of Boeing’s defense production line is in doubt, but by bringing the next generation of F-22s to St. Louis, the main sub-contractor from the original production line, Boeing’s defense unit can be revitalized and the plane produced at a reasonable price (Lockheed Martin is occupied at its Fort Worth Production Plant with the F-35). Following the completion of the original production line, Lockheed Martin created videos explaining the entire manufacturing process for the plane. This should streamline the process of training new technicians. Additionally, as stated earlier, many of the parts for the new generation F-22 could be taken from the F-35, which is currently in production, or kept the same from the original model. Reviving the F-22 production line and creating a next-generation F-22 Raptor is an obvious decision for the incoming administration and should be among its first goals upon assuming office. If the US Air Force meets its target of 381 F-22s, there will be no doubt who controls the skies.

Although creating a next generation F-22 is critically important to maintaining US air dominance, the nation must begin looking toward the future. It takes nearly twenty years for a fighter aircraft to go from conception to active duty, which is why the air force has recently begun studies for a “Penetrating Counter Air” capability. Essentially, this is the research stage for the air force’s sixth generation air superiority fighter where the requirements and capabilities for the new planes are established. Because of the timing of the incoming administration, President-elect Trump’s Pentagon team, led by retired Marine General James Mattis, will have the final say regarding what these requirements will be. It is important that in setting these requirements, the Trump administration follows several principles.

First, stealth is not the be all and end all. Nothing can be totally invisible, and with big data and high-speed computing taking on a more prominent role around the world, the ability for stealth aircraft to remain undetected is in unlikely. Because aircraft engines will always emit heat, and radar signatures can never be reduced to zero, increasingly sensitive equipment combined with high-power computing can unmask previously hidden stealth aircraft. As a result, the next administration, while not abandoning stealth, should shift its focus away from stealth technologies for cloaking aircraft, and instead invest in electronic warfare technologies.

The immense capabilities of electronic warfare were evident in 2007 when Israeli fighters penetrated Syrian airspace to destroy the nation’s nuclear reactor. The Israeli aircraft were never seen on Syrian radar screens because electronic warfare technologies were able to access the Syrian integrated air defense system and turn more than twenty surface-to-air missile sites offline. The United States has recognized the importance of electronic warfare technologies, as seen by the acquisition of the Navy’s EA-18 Growler electronic attack aircraft. This FA-18 variant is incredibly effective at full-spectrum jamming of enemy radars, so much so that it can fly alongside the stealth F-35 without compromising its stealth advantage.

These technologies will also be useful in future engagements as drones take on an increasingly important role in warfare. Electronic countermeasures can interfere with the control systems on board drones and prevent their proper functioning. Whereas stealth characteristics can make aircraft harder to detect, electronic warfare systems can make the aircraft impossible to detect. Likewise, since electronic warfare systems are not dependent on stealth characteristics, the advances developed in researching the Penetrating Counter Air can then be integrated into older generations of aircraft.

In addition to possessing advanced electronic warfare capabilities, the aircraft should be designed for high level air-to-air combat. This entails a high thrust-to-weight ratio, impressive maneuverability, and a strong kinetic energy advantage. The Trump administration must remember that an aircraft designed for air-to-air combat can still conduct ground attack missions, whereas an aircraft designed for ground attack has a much harder time adjusting to an air-to-air role. In recent years, the need for a designated dogfighting aircraft has become glaringly obvious. Russia’s deployment of the Su-35 and production of the PAK-50 stealth fighter, combined with its Cold War-level increase of aerial activity, have created distinct possibilities of airborne confrontations. Russia has also deployed aircraft specifically designed for air-to-air combat in Syria. The same advancements can be seen in China where the nation is developing stealth aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31 and conducting aggressive aerial intercepts and exercises. It has also constructed military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, from which the whole complement of Chinese aircraft can operate.

The air force fleet also makes a profound impact in supporting ground operations. The A-10 Warthog has been the go-to close-air support aircraft in the US military for decades. Built to fly low and slow while absorbing direct small arms fire, the A-10 can deliver immense firepower from its enormous GAU-8 Avenger depleted uranium gatling gun and eleven hardpoints. The A-10 was built for the sole purpose of providing close-air support, and it fills its role incredibly well. Many soldiers have described the A-10 has the greatest sight for American soldiers on the ground, and the worst for enemy combatants. Popular Mechanics quoted one former soldier who said, “As a former Army ground pounder, I can tell you there are few better sights than some A10s streaking over.” Though it originally planned to completely retire the plane within the next few years, the air force has elected to push retirement off until 2022, citing the A-10’s immense utility in fighting ISIS. In the meantime, the DoD has begun looking at replacements for the A-10. The A-10 was designed specifically for a ground attack role, and it is incredibly adept at carrying out its mission. Cutting corners and purchasing planes such as the Textron Scorpion that were not designed with the same purpose in mind would be a huge mistake. Consequently, the Air Force should either invest enough money to completely overhaul existing A-10 airframes in order to drastically extend their service lives, or create a replacement from scratch.

Combat aircraft provide the United States the capabilities needed to carry out military action around the world. Although they are great at what they do, fighters and bombers require a vast array of support aircraft to be effective. From tankers that allow aircraft to fly transcontinental missions and cargo planes that ferry equipment to war zones, to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that provide targeting information, the United States Air Force fleet of non-combat aircraft is essential to any military action. In Part II of this article, we will explore the support aircraft and air force technologies needed to ensure effective US action in the twenty-first century.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Will Cohen


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