Next year will mark two important milestones in the history of American aviation. It will be the 100th year since the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, and the 50th year since an American soldier was last killed by hostile military aircraft. The second milestone is nearly as impressive as the first. Americans have enjoyed global air dominance for so long that they now take it for granted.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing. When President Bush was briefed about military spending plans at his ranch in Crawford, Texas last August, Pentagon policymakers told him there was no need to rush in replacing aging fighters, because U.S. air superiority is assured for years to come. That assessment was wrong. Not only are adversaries such as Serbia and Iran acquiring sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down existing fighters, but U.S. forces face increasing challenges in finding and suppressing highly mobile defenders. Even Iraq, supposedly subject to U.N. trade sanctions, has managed to obtain technology for netting its air-defense missiles and radars into a resilient web.
Much of the responsibility for overcoming enemy air defenses in the future will fall to next-generation fighters like the F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Other planes won’t have the stealth, agility, speed and precision to successfully penetrate defended airspace. In fact, it isn’t so clear that even the F-35 could survive the first days of war without support from the stealthier and more agile F/A-22. After all, enemies are likely to come up with a lot of new tricks during the 30-plus years both planes are expected to serve.
That raises the question of how many F/A-22’s need to be bought, given the Bush Administration’s
4-2-1 strategy of deterring forward in four theaters, halting aggression in two, and decisively defeating in one. Proposals to cut the Raptor buy to 239 or 284 planes seem totally disconnected from the way air campaigns are actually fought. Because of the need to set aside fighters for training, testing, attrition and the like, only 63% of whatever number of Raptors are bought will actually be combat-coded, meaning available for combat. So a buy of 239 would yield only 150 combat fighters.
Furthermore, the Air Force is organized into ten Air Expeditionary Forces (AEF’s). At any given time only a portion of the AEF’s are available for overseas deployment. The rest are either recovering from deployment, or getting ready to go. Since the 150 combat-coded Raptors would be spread equally across the ten AEF’s, even if half the units were deployed — a much higher deployment rate than Army or Navy forces — that would still yield only 75 combat-coded Raptors worldwide. Now imagine they’re called on to fight simultaneously in Korea and Iraq, so the force is split.
Is 75 planes really enough to enforce air dominance day and night in two war zones? Of course it isn’t. The lowest prudent production run is 381 planes, which yields one squadron of 24 combat-coded Raptors for every AEF. Anything less endangers global air dominance.
– Loren Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program
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