Cold War Transition, Part II: The Air Force

Part I (Army),here

The United States Air Force has been the poster child for avoiding the cold war transition. Perhaps more than any other service, the USAF has insisted on purchasing weapons and promulgating doctrines that would be just as applicable in 1978 as in 2008. The capabilities have changed, but the mind set has not.f-22-1.jpg The “fighter mafia” within the Air Force, still aglow after its decades-ago triumph over the “bomber mafia,” has acquired more and more technologically advanced fighter planes, such as the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Advanced Strike Fighter, brimming with Mach-speed capability and stealth features, and designed to dominate the air against any and all comers.

The problem has been several fold. First, there aren’t any “comers.” There are no rivals to the United States for air superiority anywhere in the world. The Russian Air Force is a generation out of date, with pilots who get little in the way of training flights. The Chinese Air Force is better, but is a handmaiden to the dominant Chinese Army. Nowhere in the world is there an air force that could offer a sustained challenge to the current USAF, let alone the next generation. Second, the programs have fallen prey to the same procurement issues that dogged the Army and Navy. A lack of effective contractor oversight, allied with the continual addition of expensive new features by the Pentagon far into the acquisitions process, has sent the price of new planes skyrocketing. An F-15 Eagle, the previous generation air superiority fighter, cost about $43 million dollars per plane (in 1998 dollars). The F-22, its successor, costs roughly $187 million (2006 dollars), about four times as much.

Third, and most important, the Air Force is vulnerable to a revolutionary transformation now underway, one which the top brass of the service are ignoring or downplaying. Like the battleship commanders in the 1930s tried to ignore the rise of the aircraft carriers until it was too late, the current Air Force is trying to sideline a paradigm shifting air weapon that could displace most current planes. I speak of the unmanned aerial vehicle, remotely controlled by a ground-based controller. UAV-Hellfire-Missile.jpgUAVs have continuing and spectacular advantages over manned planes. Keeping pilots alive and comfortable requires a lot of equipment and weight in current planes. It limits the maneuvers they can undertake. It shortens the time those planes can be aloft. UAVs suffer little from those limitations. They can be smaller, maneuver more quickly, and be in the air longer. At the moment, UAV development is still deeply in its infancy, akin to manned flight in the years after the Wright Brothers carefully lifted off from Kitty Hawk. But it will progress rapidly, as did aviation. Within the next few decades it is likely that unmanned planes will have displaced manned planes as the dominant aerial weapon. Other countries, like India think so.

If the Air Force (like the Navy) stays locked into its Cold War mindset, it risks getting leapfrogged by countries like India or China. Neither of those is likely to catch up to the United States in conventional planes, so they have every incentive to try a game-changing play by committing wholesale to UAVs. Low-cost remotely controlled vehicles could present a serious threat to American air superiority and air operations through sheer numbers, let alone the advantages that each UAV would have in maneuverability and range. And the United States military has gotten deeply used to having air superiority; so used to it that they now assume it to be the case. Such an ominous scenario is not likely anytime soon, but in the medium term it is all too likely. The Navy discovered the dominating value of carrier aviation on December 7, 1941, much to America’s cost. It would be wise for the Air Force to avoid such a similarly harsh lesson.