The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is supposed to take a twenty year view of the threats to U.S. security and the requirements for U.S military forces. One of this QDR’s assumptions is that the United States can afford to take risk in the area of conventional forces in favor of investments in irregular warfare and homeland security capabilities. The reason that this risk is tolerable, the argument goes, is because the United States has such overwhelming superiority almost across the board in conventional forces. The idea that the U.S. military has and will retain conventional superiority has been pushed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The Secretary used this assertion to justify canceling the F-22 Raptor, America’s premier fifth-generation air superiority fighter. The QDR does propose selective investments in capabilities to address the emerging threat posed by advanced anti-access and area denial capabilities.
As a career intelligence official and former Director of the CIA, Secretary Gates knows well the Intelligence Community’s (IC) checkered track record in predicting the future. The IC failed to predict the 1992 fall of the Soviet Union. More recently, in 2007 the IC published what now seems to be an erroneous National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. Yet, the Secretary and the QDR have concluded that there is little risk to this country’s conventional military superiority.
Woops. This past Friday, a couple of days before the QDR is scheduled for release, the Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi held the maiden flight of its fifth-generation fighter, the T-50. The “Raptorsky” looks like the F-22 and clearly is intended to challenge the American ability to impose air dominance on any adversary. The T-50 is expected to go into production around 2015.
It is unlikely that the T-50 will be the true equal of the F-22. But it doesn’t have to be. Gates’ decision to halt production of the F-22 at 187 and to reject potential export opportunities for the aircraft means that there will only be about 150 operationally available (combat coded is the military term) aircraft to cover the entire world. Russia alone could easily deploy several times that many. In addition, Russia has already made it clear that the T-50 will be available for export. India is a major investor in the T-50 project and could buy up to 250. Russia has been a major provider of advanced fighter aircraft and other military equipment to China. It is not too far fetched to think about a world in 2025 in which the 150 F-22s must face up to 1,000 T-50s.
The clear lesson of the T-50s maiden flight is that central assumption of the 2010 QDR, that this country’s ability to dominate the air domain will remain unchallenged for the next twenty years, may not be accurate. As a result, the choice to take risk with the future of U.S. air power is questionable policy. So too, is the decision to halt production of the F-22 and, in particular, not to pursue opportunities for export sales.
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