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Are we headed to an unrecoverable fighter jet gap?

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Opinion Zone,Bruce McQuain

"There has not been a single soldier or Marine who lost his life in combat due to a threat from the air in over 56 years."

 Let that statement sink in for a minute. The reason we've not lost a single soldier or Marine to enemy air is we've maintained such a dominant edge in both technology, ability and numbers that no enemy has been able to challenge our dominance of the air over any battlefield on which we've fought since Korea.

The military defines air superiority as "that degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, sea, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”

 But that dominance and superiority in the air are in serious jeopardy.  In our drive to cut budgets, we are about to cut capability instead of costs.  And that could result in a serious threat to the war fighting ability of our military and  eventually threaten our national security.  There is a developing fighter gap and if it continues as it is presently proceeding, it may be unrecoverable.

 A short digression to make a point.  There are two basic types of fighter aircraft in our inventory today.  One is the air superiority fighter. Its job is to establish and maintain air superiority so that opposing aircraft don't pose a threat to other air operations and our ground forces.  Imagine how difficult the use of attack helicopters would be in support of ground operations if the enemy was the superior force in the air.  So that air superiority fighter works to keep the skies clear of enemy fighters to allow the second type of fighter to work under that umbrella.  That's something we've successfully done for 56 years.

 That second type of fighters is the strike fighter which is usually a multirole fighter with a mission of support for ground operations. They can deliver close air support or go deep and hit key targets that will help cripple the enemy's ability to fight.

 At the moment, we have a fleet of 4th generation air superiority fighters (F15's, etc.) that numbers about 800.  Those fighters have reached the end of their service life and technology has advanced such that their effectiveness has been badly degraded.  The F-22 Raptor, a 5th generation air superiority fighter, was developed to replace the aging 4th generation fleet, and the original plan was to buy 700 of them.

The aircraft is expensive at over $300 million a copy, but it is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world and maintains our edge over would be competitors/enemies. But with cuts in the budget becoming a priority, the Defense Department made the decision to limit the number of F-22's it would buy to 187 and then shut down production. 187 5th generation air superiority fighters doesn't even begin to replace the 800 4th generation fighters we have.  In fact, the Air Force has conducted over 30 studies which all agree the bare minimum that the Air Force needs to maintain a minimal air superiority capability is 260 F-22s. But the last F-22 has been made, the production line is shutting down and the high paying jobs it created going away.

 We're seeing much the same scenario played out with the other critical player in our fighter future - the F-35. Designed as a multi-role joint strike fighter, the F-35 brings advanced stealth and other technology to the strike fighter role.  As with any developmental aircraft it has had its share of problems, but now seems to be on course to fulfill the promise it holds to deliver an aircraft superior to all the other strike aircraft in the world.

But again, we see talk about cutting capability in the name of cutting cost.  The promised number to be purchased both by the US and it's 7 partners continues to shrink.  We're being told we can't "afford" the F-35. The real question, given the possible ramifications of having too few survivable air superiority or strike fighters is can we afford not to buy them?

Certainly we can "upgrade" the non-stealthy and aged 4th generation fighters. But the emergence of competitive 5th generation fighters in Russia (T-50) and China (J-20) mean that as soon as the competitive aircraft are fielded, our pilots flying those old fighters are essentially cannon fodder and our ground troops become vulnerable.

While it is certain cutbacks in defense spending are necessary, they must not jeopardize our military's survival or our national security. 5th generation air superiority and strike fighters are critical to both. 

Those making the hard budget decisions to come must remember the opening line above.  Air superiority and the ability to deliver ordnance and survive are critical tasks that cannot be "cut" for austerity's sake.  And we must ensure our military not only has the best fighters we can produce, but enough of them to do their mission of keeping our nation secure.

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