The air war over Serbia and Kosovo is demonstrating a couple of things. One is a lesson widely understood in the military, but not among politicians: you cant win a war using air power alone. The other is that when it comes to air power, the United States has a preeminence in the world that is unparalleled.
The Cold War has been over for a decade, and the air services of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are antiquated or devastated by war and represent a minimal threat. Yugoslavia sent up a couple of more modern Mig-29s against the U.S. air armada, and they were quickly shot down. Although the Russian defense industry can still produce some quality aircraft, Russias economic crisis severely limits the quantities purchased and the all-important amount of training given to pilots. China is modernizing pockets of its antiquated air force only slowly and its pilots have a level of training that is also substantially less than that of U.S. pilots.
Nevertheless, even as American fighter planes are once again putting their unchallenged superiority on display for all to see, the Pentagon and its friends in Congress are moving ahead with plans to build three new types of fighter aircraft.
The Department of Defense plans to buy the Air Forces F-22, the Navys F/A-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter (a family of aircraft built for the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps). The cost of those three programs is gargantuan-more than $300 billion. Despite short term budget surpluses, longer term demographic trends will cause huge unfunded liabilities in the Social Security program in the decades to come that will act to constrain future defense budgets. But even if did not face such budgetary problems, the United States does not need to buy all three types of aircraft in order to maintain its substantial advantages over the air services of other nations.
Realistically, the F-22 and F/A-18E/F should be cancelled and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) delayed.
The United States no longer needs the expensive F-22 stealth fighter that was designed primarily to provide air superiority against a significant opposing air force. In the future, it is improbable that any likely adversary could defeat an existing F-15E with upgraded electronics and missiles. (In an age when success in warfare depends more and more on electronics and precision weapons, rapid improvements in the air platforms that carry such devices are less necessary.)
With no great power likely to challenge U.S. air superiority for at least 20 to 30 years, the United States needs to emphasize buying aircraft (for example, the existing F-15E) with a substantial capability to attack targets on the ground. The cost of an F-22 will be double that of the F-15E, assuming that no cost growth occurs in the F-22 program. Nor will the F-22 add much capability to F-117 stealth aircrafts ability to penetrate enemy air defenses. Furthermore, in a future environment where potential enemies would probably use ballistic missiles to strike vulnerable forward airbases used by U.S. aircraft, the F-22 depends too heavily on such an infrastructure.
The other plane that should be cancelleda modification of the existing F/A-18C/Dprovides too little improvement in capability for its exorbitant cost. The decision to produce the F/A-18E/F was originally made out of desperation. The A-12 aircraft program had been cancelled, and there was a desire to help out the financially troubled McDonnell Douglas company. The F/A-18E/F is not as capable as the F-14 and A-6 aircraft that it is replacing on aircraft carriers. It has less range and fewer air-to-air capabilities than the F-14 air superiority fighter and has less range and can carry fewer bombs than the A-6 ground attack aircraft.
By purchasing the F/A-18E/F, the Navy is giving up range at a time when it needs to be increasing it. Increasing threats from coastal mines, diesel submarines, and anti-ship missiles that can be fired from coastal batteries or small ships mean that aircraft carriers will have to remain farther and farther from shore. Thus, an aircraft with a longer range than the F/A-18E/F is needed to reach inland targets that are farther and farther away. A navy version of the stealthy F-117 aircraft should be considered to substitute for the F/A-18E/F. The existing F/A-18C/D would probably suffice for future navy air-to-air missions because the threat is low.
Because of a lull in the threat environment, the United States can wait to modernize its air services until after 2010. In fact, if the F-22 and the F/A-18E/F are produced now in large numbers, they will be obsolete if a significant threat arises in 20 or 30 years. The JSFcurrently scheduled to begin production in the middle of the next decadeshould be delayed until after 2010.
The ambitious JSF program intends to develop a family of aircraft that are used for different missions but have parts and systems that are 80 percent common. Because the missions of the three aircraft are so varied, achieving this goal may be a tall order. The Navy wants an expensive stealth aircraft for its carrier decks. The Air Force wants a low-cost aircraft to replace the F-16, A-10, and other aircraft. The Marines want an advanced short-take off vertical landing (ASTOVL) version to use on austere forward airfields.
The schedule for the Navys stealthy JSF, like the other versions of JSF, is too optimistic and should be delayed. Because air support can now be provided by the Navy, the Marine Corps does not need to buy any new aircraft-including the JSF. During the Cold War, the Navys aircraft carriers and the Marines could have been deployed to different places. The Navys doctrine now places a greater emphasis on providing support for the Marines ashore. Because of the vulnerability of forward air bases to attacks by ballistic missiles the Air Force should adopt the ASTOVL version of the JSF.
Thus, in a more benign post-Cold War threat environment, the equivalent of five new tactical fighter programs can be whittled down to two with little adverse effect on U.S. security.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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