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Overnight Open Thread | Main | Monday Morning Economic Briefing
June 07, 2010

Air Superiority In the Modern Age (tmi3rd)

This month's Air & Space has an article titled "The Last Gunfighter". In the article, it talks about the downsizing of the air superiority fleet- specifically, the F-15 and its replacement, the F-22- and goes on to quote a significant training officer as saying that if there aren't enough dedicated air superiority fighters in the air, it will invite offensive fighter sweeps by opposing air forces.

My thoughts below... as usual, this is a long post.

Right now, there are just short of 500 F-15s (including the multirole F-15E) in the fleet, and a planned total of 187 F-22s. Part of the plan with the F-15 fleet is to have them take on more multirole missions (air-to-ground in addition to air-to-air).

One very valid point is that significantly less time will be spent training for air-to-air engagements. Given the conflicts the US has fought in in the last 30 years (Gulf of Sidra, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Iraq I & II- and don't forget the Iraqi no-fly zone), it is not a nonsequitur to say that aircraft need to do lots of things well.

That said, you didn't hear about too many air-to-air kills by F-16s in Iraq- and the Air force didn't claim any! Here is a list of the air-to-air kills from Desert Storm, and I was not able to find any kill lists from Iraq II. Doesn't mean they didn't happen; just means I couldn't find it.

Going down the list, 2 kills are credited to the F/A-18, 2 are credited to the A-10, one is credited to the F-14, and one is credited to the EF-111 (an unarmed F-111, and the Mirage chasing it ran out of gas and crashed). All other kills are credited to the F-15.

So what?

There are a few lessons to come out of Iraq I & II that tell an interesting story. The first and most obvious story is that the long-term hero of both conflicts is the A-10. The most pressing need, once the sky was swept clean of enemy aircraft, was for close air support. Done properly, that mission is flown often below 300 knots air speed, and the -16 and -18 aren't really designed to do that. The aircraft that the Air Force hated then and hates now picked up the torch from the A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam and remains simply awesome in its role. Hang a whole bunch of bombs and air-to-surface weaponry on it, load up the cannon, and go. Long live the Warthog.

Another key element of the story was the proper use of stealth aircraft in air defense suppression. Against fairly modern air defense radars, the F-117 and B-2 took the Iraqi air defense network out of the game, and the majority of the coalition aircraft losses were a result of man-portable surface-to-air missiles.

Finally- and the subject of the post- is the air-to-air factor. Between the Iraq conflict (which in the air started in 1991 and is more or less wound down over Iraq) and the Israeli use of the F-15 and F-16, the opponents of both air forces learned the hard way that there is no adversary like the F-15. The Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot pitted the Israeli Air Force against Syrian MiG-21s and -23s, and the histories written indicate that the Syrians may have had inferior equipment, but they also failed to train their forces to do anything smart with them.

So let's move ahead to Iraq. The F-15 accounted for 36 of the 39 fighters downed, and the F-16 didn't get onto the scoreboard until enforcing the no-fly zone. That's not to diminish the performance of the F-16, but more to note the F-15 excelled precisely because it was allowed to stick to its job.

For offensive fighter sweep missions, one can make a strong argument that stealthy aircraft are desirable. Given the -22's combination of radar stealth and its infrared suppression technology, it's a very hard aircraft to kill from distance, and even harder to kill in close. The problem is, they aren't cheap (well over $130 million an aircraft), and under current circumstances, we're only going to see maybe 150 in service to replace 500-750 F-15s.

The -35 is struggling to get off the ground as a project at this point. The projected replacement for the F-16, it's currently overweight, proving hard to assemble, and it's also being screamed for by at least a half-dozen air forces whose aircraft are aging and need replacing. It is also noteworthy that only one variant has an inboard cannon- somewhat essential for a dogfighter. There are Lockheed engineers who are referring to it as "Aardvark Jr." in honor of the disappointment that the F-111 turned into.

There are plans for better than 2000 F-35s, but until they're rolling off the assembly line, they're vaporware. They're also projected to cost possibly as much as $122 million per unit.

Both the -22 and -35 are designed to be multirole fighters, but the -22 has abandoned none of the lessons learned from the F-15. The -35, on the other hand, seems to not expect to have to strafe anything... or figure out how to remain stealthy while hanging stuff off its wings (making it much less stealthy)... or how to be a lightweight fighter. It's made of plastics, so it can be pierced by a rifle bullet. That means its definition of close air support will also involve it flying no lower than 10,000 feet- as opposed to the 500 feet that the A-10 (which it is slated to replace) can cheerfully operate at.

So what does one do about this? Russia has fielded the capable MiG-29 (and I'll bet you didn't know MiG had to go out of business) and the very impressive Su-27, -30, and -35. There are rumors that China is expected to field its first fifth-generation fighter by 2018. In addition, the US F-15 and F-16 fleets are pretty old birds, with many well over 4000 hours (the projected life of the aircraft).

The discussion also comes back to the quote from the training officer- will foreign air forces be willing to commit their first-line fighters to an offensive fighter sweep against US forces, expecting to win?

Well, tmi3rd's take on it is the following:

1) Hopefully, if future administrations don't get in the way of it, the F-22 force will be expanded to at least 300 aircraft. I'm not sure that more than that is possible economically.

2) It's anyone's guess what will happen with the -35. Right now, it seems like way too many resources have been committed to it for it not to roll off the assembly line, and probably in numbers close to current projections. Still, I would like to see its numbers come down to somewhere much closer to 1000 aircraft at most. Especially as applied to the Navy and Marine Corps, the -35 is intended to replace the role of the F-18C/D, not the E/F Super Hornet. This is a more logical route, which leads us to

3) Return to the dedicated roles that have worked so far. The Air Force wanted and got the best air-to-air aircraft historically fielded- the F-15. They wanted and got the hands-down best close air support aircraft ever built- the A-10. The Air Force doesn't really want to be responsible for close air support- no problem. Give the Army the green light to solicit bids for the next close air support aircraft- and reopen the A-10 assembly line in the short term.

The close air support mission does not require stealth other than infrared suppression (to ward off shoulder-fired missiles). For most situations, the close air support guys are going to come in once air superiority has been achieved. It requires a large payload, good strafing capability, a laser designator, and the ability to fly low and slow and loiter for hours on end. Part of that can be done by UAVs, but you need a butt in the seat over the battlefield for a lot of things.

The US armed forces are taking a hell of a gamble by staking their entire existence on the problematic F-35, and the attempt to make a one-size-fits-all aircraft is a bad idea.

Have at it!

This post approved by the management. Open Blog has not been declared.

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posted by Open Blogger at 12:58 AM

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