Airpower is America’s asymmetric advantage, and they are giving it up without a fight

davis_monthan_boneyardRetired A-10s, F-15s and C-5s at AMARG, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ.
From SC Fiasco‘s Flickr photostream.

The last time an American soldier died due to enemy aircraft fire was April of 1953.  Since then, US forces have prevented every other enemy air force from providing close air support to their own troops.  This is a remarkable achievement, to say the least; the American air aegis is a tremendous advantage in warfighting and logistics.  Without it, other aircraft that have no air-to-air capability—like UAVs, transports, and most helicopters—would be easily picked off.

But air dominance is not an American birthright, as an editorial and detailed article in this month’s Air Force Magazine point out.  It exists because of superior technology, superior doctrine and superior numbers.  But US policymakers have been mortgaging the Air Force’s future for several decades, and the slide is now terminal.

Today’s air dominance force was structured primarily to accommodate an older concept of joint operations. It viewed major combat operations and dominant maneuver—to use the joint term—as the culminating points of any campaign. The campaign had four notional phases—deter, seize the initiative, dominate, and stabilize. However, Phase 3—dominant maneuver—was the centerpiece. In the past two years, however, joint doctrine has gone through a major change. The doctrine writers have expanded it; it now comprises six phases of war—i.e., shape, deter, seize the initiative, dominate, stabilize, and enable civil authority.

The change affects more than the phases of war. Reflecting recent experience in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, the Joint Staff estimated in a recent update to its joint doctrine for operations that irregular warfare in the later phases of a campaign could require a level of military effort as great as—and perhaps greater than—what is needed for so-called major combat operations.

This declaration constitutes a seismic shift in American military thinking. In theory, the power to wage irregular warfare might get the same priority in force tasking as Phase 3 dominant combat operations has received in decades past. It is forcing a re-evaluation of air dominance needs.

This joint doctrine revision, written into Joint Pub 3-0 in February 2008, has not downgraded military preparation for more-conventional type of war. Rather, it has simply created a need to expand forces in all directions. The doctrine is a campaign planning guide, not a strategic planning handbook, but the basic point is clear enough: The demand for air dominance, and therefore its tasking, has never been broader. The bad news is that the Air Force is facing shortfalls in nearly every phase.

— Rebecca Grant. “Losing Air Dominance“, Air Force Magazine, December 2008.

The short version is that through the 1991 Gulf War, USAF noticed that its non-stealthy fighter communities all lost an aircraft or two (and some, several) to Iraq’s integrated air defenses, whereas the stealth fighters did not.  USAF then decided to forego additional procurement of existing fighters in favour of an all-stealth combatant force.  It would reach this state via a three-part plan:

Shrink but continually update the fleet of current fighters, buying no more of them; develop the F-22; and add a less expensive multirole stealth fighter to eventually replace the F-16 and the A-10.

The air force originally planned to replace its F-15s with half as many F-22s.  But the air force didn’t do a good job linking its three-pronged plan to the Raptor sales pitch.  As a result, successive administrations have slashed the F-22 buy down to a fraction of the original figure:

  • George H.W. Bush’s SecDef cut the F-22 projected buy from 750 to 680 aircraft.
  • William Clinton’s SecDef cut the projected buy twice, first down to 442, then 339 aircraft.
  • George W. Bush’s SecDef cut the buy to 183, where it remains today.

The prognosis is not good.

By spring 2008, time was running out. F-22 production was starting to wind down; fresh orders would be needed if the line were to stay intact into the term of a new President. The post-Gulf War plan was now in tatters. Lt. Gen. Daniel J. Darnell, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff, air, space, and information operations and plans and requirements, testified in April 2008 that the truncated F-22 buy and a major stretch-out in F-35 production would leave USAF short of its force structure requirements.

Darnell estimated a gap would open in 2017. By 2024, USAF would be short of its requirement of 2,250 fighters by some 800 aircraft. This would leave USAF with an insufficient number for two major theater wars and other taskings as laid out in the national military strategy completed in 2005.

The startling conclusion was not so much the shortfall itself, but the fact that financial decisions of the early 2000s had been made without regard for reconciling requirements and strategy. The Pentagon did not present supporting analysis for the decisions in PBD 753. There was no announcement that the future threat had changed—just that the future should stop being such a problem for Pentagon planners.

— Rebecca Grant. “Losing Air Dominance“, Air Force Magazine, December 2008.

The only good news for USAF is that the third prong in its plan, the F-35 or JSF, is still being developed, and the hacking away at its budget has been relatively modest.

What US policymakers fail to account for is that for the nation-state, strength quite literally grants freedom of action.  The United States (and many great powers before it) can issue security guarantees and project force globally because very few opposing powers are willing or able to resist.  When American power projection starts looking like an also-ran alongside near-peer competitors, American allies are either going to defect or be cowed into inaction by aggressive and opposing regional powers.

We have the luxury of fighting wars of convenience, like Iraq and Afganistan, because the likelihood of fighting and losing a war of survival was (at least until recently) quite low.  American weakness translates directly into toothless American security guarantees.  Which will ultimately end in greater American casualties, as hungry predators move to take advanatge of critically weakened allied prey.  And a succession of American administrations have certainly done their best to make it all possible.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
2 Responses
  1. Paul Jané says:

    I don’t even know that I’d consider the prolonged development of the F-35 as good news, given that the per unit costs are hovering awfully close to those of the F-22, which is shocking for an aircraft that doesn’t seem to have any outstanding capabilities. At those prices, you might as well just buy F-22s and have something to show for it.
    (And don’t get me started on the comedy factor of the JSF replacing the A-10…)

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    Don’t forget the oddities of government accounting, too. Prototype and low-rate initial production are not as efficient as full-rate production, and parts costs are much higher. Plus, from what I recall, the entire program R&D costs are factored into the existing inventory’s per-unit cost on the books.
    So if you build only 16 aircraft of the type, you divide all your R&D costs a mere 16 ways. If you build 2,000, then you get to divide it up between the 2,000 aircraft. This is part of what makes the B-2 Spirit the most expensive bird in the inventory. Yes it’s pretty expensive to begin with, but the initial buy was cut down from a hundred odd to just 16, and so those 16 aircraft are, in terms of blue book value, the most expensive, largely due to the development costs.
    If they stick to the 2-3,000 unit F-35 buy, the program costs can get amortized over a few thousand aircraft, and they will be a lot less expensive (per unit) than the prototypes cranked out right now.