The Air Force we won’t have

For going on 70 years, U.S. Armed Forces have maintained — and still do — a worldwide footprint that is commensurate with our global responsibilities. Washington, D.C., is still the only capital in the world where when an international crisis breaks out, the country’s leadership can ask, “Where is the nearest aircraft carrier?”

One has to question if that capability still exists. U.S. and NATO forces find themselves severely tested in trying to maintain force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, owing to the decreasing future force levels of the European partners the United States has come to depend on.

It therefore behooves the defense policymakers in the United States to ask, “Are we buying the right hardware?” Airpower is a case in point. Despite China and Russia both being in the process of developing heavy twin-engine next-generation fighter jets, the Obama administration canceled production of the Lockheed Martin F-22. The Air Force could be accused of asking for too many of these jets, but cutting off production at the 187 units currently scheduled seems anemic compared with the Air Force’s 800-plus McDonnell-Douglas F-15s — the aircraft the F-22 was ultimately designed to replace.

The key to U.S. airpower strategy for more than 35 years was to maintain a “high-low” mix of fighter aircraft. This meant having a twin-engine long-range fighter on the high end (the F-15, later to be replaced by the F-22) and a lighter single-engine fighter on the lower end (the F-16, later to be replaced by the F-35).

This created a division of labor in which the higher-end aircraft operated as an air superiority fighter or a long-range, deep-strike platform, while the lower-end aircraft flew close air-support missions for infantry and were the dogfighters, designed for an up-close fight with a formation of enemy aircraft.

The other advantage of this two-tiered arrangement was that it gave the United States a sophisticated, expensive plane like the F-15 that could be sold to those allies who had the industrial base and/or economic prowess to support its operation — Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Singapore. At the same time, the cheaper, easier to operate F-16 could be sold to almost anyone — in this case 25 other air forces around the world.

The plan for the future now appears to be one of placing all our chips on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While the aircraft incorporates some features from the F-22 — stealth technology, an internal weapons bay, an active electronically scanning array radar — what it is now being called on to do is to replace a score of older-generation aircraft, and to take over many of the missions being flown by the F-15 today.

Aside from not having the power, range and weapons carriage capability of the F-15 — nor being an even match for the Russian and Chinese aircraft it might face in a conflict — it is not going to be the easy-to-repair, economical-to-operate aircraft that the
F-16 is.

“A number of these F-35s being acquired by foreign partners could end up being parked in hangars and not flown very much because no one will be able to afford to fly them. It could financially break some of the air forces that are slated to procure it,” said one senior analyst from the Jane’s Information Group.

The culprit is that decisions on future tactical airpower have been made almost entirely on political grounds. Canceling F-22 production did not save any real sums of money; the big development bucks had already been spent. But, as one Lockheed executive told me, the administration needed a win, and going after the F-22 program was “an easy target.”

The result has air forces from Australia to Canada — and many points in between — asking if “the army that they will have” when the next conflict takes place will be the one they want. And the F-35 is not the only problem. The Brits are trying to figure out how they can afford their current commitments, plus add two aircraft carriers to their navy.

Many nations are asking how they need to structure their air forces in a world where they are being called upon for expeditionary operations.

Reuben F. Johnson is a veteran aerospace reporter. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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