In February, U.S. fighter pilots participated in their first air-combat exercise with the air force of India. The results were shocking. According to comments made the same month by Representative Randy Cunningham (R-CA), Indian fighters defeated America’s top-of-the-line F-15C fighter over 90% of the time. U.S. Air Force leaders are being more circumspect in disclosing the results of the exercise, but they clearly were stunned by the sophistication of Indian planes and pilots.
News of the exercise was first reported by the well-connected trade publication Inside the Air Force on June 4. The publication’s account noted that U.S. fighters were outnumbered three-to-one in many of the engagements, and that the poor U.S. performance may have been due partly to deficient training procedures rather than deficient technology. But the ability of diverse Indian fighters — Mirage 2000’s, SU-30 Flankers, modified MIG-21 Bisons — to repeatedly defeat America’s best fighter is a troubling development. So troubling, in fact, that it calls into question a core assumption of the Bush Administration’s plans for military transformation.
That assumption, widely repeated by military reformers since the mid-1990’s, is that U.S. military power is so overwhelming the Pentagon can afford to take risks by delaying modernization of Cold War weapons while it pursues development of leap-ahead technologies. Examples cited by policymakers of areas where the U.S. lead is unassailable in the near term include heavy armor (tanks) and air superiority (fighters). We already know from the experience of the Iraq war that heavy tanks have proven far more important to occupation and counter-insurgency operations than anyone expected. Now comes news that third-world countries may be able to challenge U.S. command of the skies.
The Pentagon’s initial take on lessons learned from the Iraq war was so dismissive of traditional warfighting competencies that it barely mentioned air superiority. But even a cursory examination of how U.S. strategy for the conflict unfolded reveals a heavy reliance on air power to compensate for numerical deficiencies on the ground. The possibility of having to conquer some future Baghdad without air superiority should make every general in the Army pause and reflect on what victory might require in the way of casualties and resources.
None of this should come as a complete surprise to policymakers. U.S. B-2 stealth bombers had to fly long-distance missions from Missouri to bomb Serbia during the Balkan air war in 1999 partly because commanders doubted the ability of non-stealthy planes like the F-15E fighter-bomber to safely penetrate Serbia air defenses. Now Russia is marketing surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-20 that make Serbian systems seem like toys (just about any country can buy two dozen SA-20 missiles, launchers, radars and command vehicles for a paltry $110 million — about twice what an F-15 costs). The message from India and from the Balkans is clear: it’s time to get serious about modernizing U.S. fighters.
Find Archived Articles: