Introduction: This rather lengthy article addresses what I see as a potentially very serious problem with current U.S. military policy. This analysis is intended to be apolitical, in that all administrations since Reagan have pursued more or less unwise policy. Beginning with G.W. Bush, downright dangerous military policy decisions have been implemented. President Obama, who I suspect is not especially enamored of the military, has changed little even to the extent of retaining Bush's Secretary of Defense (SECDEF), Robert Gates.
The U.S. military is the best trained, best equipped in the world, but it is not the largest. Pakistan has more troops, not well trained or equipped, as do China and Russia, better trained and equipped. Even North Korea rivals us in numbers and we were clearly outnumbered in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). As we learned to our dismay in Korea and Vietnam, sufficient numbers can overwhelm even the best equipped and trained army. What makes the difference is air power.
This detailed discussion of American air power may seem a bit sanguine and warlike to some of you. I assure you I am not a war lover. However, this is a hostile world with adversaries who would like nothing better than to replace us as the world's superpower. China and Russia are assiduously enhancing their military power with only one logical purpose--to overpower us. Even North Korea, the mouse that roared, has somewhat unrealistic ambitions of world power.
The jihadists work to defeat us using cowardly terrorism while developing and/or buying nuclear weapons capability. All the UN's rhetoric and threats won't stop them. While we all yearn for peace, unfortunately Scripture is correct when it talks of wars and rumors of wars. So long as there is ambition and ruthlessness in the world, there will be danger. If we lower our guard, rest assured that someone will take advantage of the opening and we will find ourselves at the bottom of the hill looking up.
The purpose of the following is to demonstrate the significance of air power to our overall military power, and the danger posed by current policy. I have concentrated on the U. S. Air Force (USAF) in part because it is larger than Navy Air and also because I know it best, being a former Air Defense Command interceptor pilot during the Cold War years, defending your skies from Red aggression. I never fired a shot in anger, which I guess says something for deterrence.
Discussion: The USAF is far and away the most lethal military force in the world today. The firepower it can bring to bear is simply awesome. Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) bombs, from 500 lb. to 2000 lb., are precision guided via radar, infrared (IR), global positioning system (GPS), TV and even totally self-contained inertial guidance if all else fails. The JDAM system is a strap-on package containing the guidance electronics and sensors, guiding the bomb via movable tail fins. There are also two versions of a 250 lb. Small Diameter Bomb (SDB I and II) with built-in guidance designed to minimize collateral damage. There is also a new 30,000 lb. Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) bunker-buster designed to destroy the deepest buried facilities. (Rumor has it that it was developed in part for use against Iran's buried nuclear weapons development facilities.)
The subject of bombs unfortunately would not be complete without mentioning nukes. The Navy has their Trident sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) launched from nuclear submarines called "boomers". Each missile Mark IV warhead contains 8 multiple independently-guided re-entry vehicles (MIRV) carrying 100 kiloton W76 warheads.
The Air Force has three gravity bombs, the B53, an older 9-megaton weapon; the B61 (see photo) with adjustable 100-500 kiloton yield; and the most recent B83, with a 1-2 megaton yield. In addition, the sole Air Force ICBM is the inertial-guided Minuteman III which was originally designed with 3 MIRV warheads but now reduced to one 400 kiloton warhead by treaty.
B61 Gravity Bomb (Nuke)
Added to the JDAM and SDB's is a panoply of air-to-ground (AGM) missiles fired by attack aircraft at ground targets. There are many dozens like the AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-83 Bulldog and AGM-114 Hellfire, all precision guided by various means. The Hellfire AGM was one of the the primary weapons that demoralized the crack Medina Republican Guard Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The Medina tried to maneuver under cover of an intense sandstorm when their tanks and other armor began blowing up around them without warning, victims of radar-guided Hellfire missiles and JDAM. Wholesale defections followed and the Medina was not a factor in OIF thereafter.
The key to effective use of air power is something called Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). This capability sets the USAF apart from every other air power in the world today. Other nations have effective aircraft, some--mainly Russian-built and sold to anyone with the money--are very good, and some, like India, have very well-trained pilots. (They defeated us with their Russian-built aircraft in a fairly recent joint exercise. Our most potent fighter, the F-15E Strike Eagle, was not a participant.) Our ISR capability involves highly specialized non-combat aircraft such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint (signals intercept and intelligence), E-8 Joint STARS (Surveillance Target Attack Radar System--ground situation information), E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System--air warfare detection and control) and RC-135U Combat Sent (very secret--enemy radar detection and analysis). Photos of the Rivet Joint and AWACS are shown below.
RC-135 Rivet Joint (Note antennas on top and bottom of fuselage and vertical stabilizer)
E-3 AWACS with radome
The most intriguing category of air power today is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), so-called pilotless aircraft. Originally designed for purely ISR capability, the first of the Air Force UAV's (the Army has several very small, hand-held UAV's) was the RQ-1 Predator, still a mainstay as the MQ-1 armed UAV. (The prefix "R" indicates reconnaissance use; the "M" prefix designates missile-carrying or armed.) Along with its larger and more lethal big brother, the MQ-9 reaper (see photo), these aircraft are equipped with multiple sensors and have the valuable capability of loitering over a target area for 24 hours or more, transmitting TV, radar and IR pictures back to a ground control site for analysis. Recent upgrades allow information to be accessed by ground units directly.
These aircraft can be equipped with a range of AGM missiles, including the ubiquitous Hellfire. The Reaper was developed from the Predator to carry heavier armament loads. The Predator, of course, was originally intended only as an unarmed ISR platform and so has limited ability to carry armament.
MQ-9 Reaper fully armed
USAF UAV's are controlled by pilot-trained operators in often distant central control facilities either back in the U.S. or at Central Command (CENTCOM) regional headquarters.
The most interesting and mysterious of the UAV's is the shadowy RQ-4 Global Hawk (see photo). Shadowy not in terms of appearance but in mission. The Hawk is equipped with multiple sensors, both imaging and signals intercept, the most potent of which is high resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar(SAR) that can penetrate cloud-cover and sandstorms, and Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) imagery at long range with long loiter times over target areas. It can survey as much as 40,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of terrain a day.
RQ-4 Global Hawk
The jet-powered RQ-4 can fly at altitudes as high as 65,000 feet and loiter for 30 hours. A Global Hawk set a long-distance flight record for pilotless aircraft of over 8,000 miles.
It is likely that it was a Global Hawk's SAR that detected Saddam's Medina division moving under cover of a sandstorm, resulting in its destruction. (Synthetic aperture radar uses a specialized fixed array of computer-switched small antenna elements to control the radar beam, allowing very precise focusing and beam control. Penetration of obscurations is enhanced by the ability to stop the beam and bombard a target or repeatedly and rapidly scan back and forth over a small area.)
A recent modification program, called Block 20, equipped the Global Hawk to carry armament, including missiles and bombs, changing its designation to MQ-4.
Before leaving the subject of UAV's, there is one more worth mentioning. There is a new entry in the game, designed and built by the fabled Lockheed (-Martin) Skunk Works, their advanced projects facility guided by Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, a true aeronautical genius, for many years. Johnson died in 1990. The Skunk Works (from Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip) produced such aerial classics as the U-2 and SR-71 spyplanes, the latter being arguably the greatest aircraft ever built, and the F-117 stealth fighter. The latest product of this now Kelly-less operation is the RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy, super-secret UAV shown in the photo below. It is a flying wing design, popular for years among aircraft designers because of its low drag characteristic resulting in greater fuel efficiency. Little specific information is known except that it is designed to be nearly invisible to radar. My guess from its appearance is that it will soon become the MQ-170, carrying a significant bomb load. My point in showing it is to demonstrate that pilotless aircraft development is a very active and expanding Air Force program.
The two primary advantages of UAV's are their long mission duration capability and the fact that no human lives are in harm's way, this being a very politically-attractive feature. SECDEF Robert Gates is madly in love with UAV's as they have proved invaluable in Southeast Asia. The problem I have is that he is neglecting other elements of air power, primarily manned aircraft like fighters, bombers, tankers and tactical transports. UAV's may be of great value and the wave of the future, but they have significant limitations. They cannot perform many necessary roles outside of ISR, except some limited tactical bombing missions and close air support (CAS) activity. Limitations include the absence of mechanisms for instant judgement and handling emergencies. They obviously cannot function in an air superiority role, at least for the foreseeable future.
Our current premier fighter is the F-15E Strike Eagle (see photo). It is a substantial upgrade of the earlier F-15 series, which first flew in 1972, 38 years ago. The most numerous "C" and "D" models date from 1978 and are well beyond their design lifetime. The more recent "E" model dates from the 1980's.
F-15E Strike Eagle, fully loaded
The new Russian Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E is generally considered to be the performance equal of the F-15E, some claim better. The Russkies, as is their long-standing practice, are selling it to anyone with the money. They are working on even more advanced aircraft. Make no mistake, the Russians build very good fighters.
The average age of all USAF aircraft is in excess of 26 years, some over 50 years old. Due to heavy use in Southeast Asia and domestically as part of Operation Noble Eagle, a constant airborne combat air patrol (CAP) instituted after 9/11 and flown by the National Guard (it has only recently been cancelled and replaced by aircraft on 5-minute alert), many are well beyond their design flight-hour lifetimes. The level of heavy usage is reflected across the board to include especially tankers like the KC-135 and tactical transports like the C-130.
The entire F-15 fleet, except for the Strike Eagle, was grounded not too long ago when a Missouri Air National Guard F-15C broke in half in mid air due to fatigue at a junction weld in a critical structural longeron. While the construction of the longeron was judged inadequate, fatigue due to heavy use was definitely a factor. Expensive repairs of many F-15's and the scrapping of a few were necessary before the fleet was again allowed to fly. The U.S. was very vulnerable at this time as our remaining F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters were too few to react to an attack.
We do have a clearly superior so-called 5th generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor (see photo). It is a fully-stealthy (nearly radar-invisible) air superiority and CAS fighter. It incorporates an amazing avionics package that allows it to automatically detect threats and coordinate an attack with other F-22's. It also can communicate and integrate information in real time with ground units and ISR aircraft like the AWACS.
During a recent head-to-head exercise against our best "legacy" fighter, the F-15E Strike Eagle, the final "kill ratio" was 109 to 1 in favor of the Raptor. (The "1" loss was during an experimental close-in dogfight exercise, not the F-22's normal tactics.) The F-15 pilots complained that they never saw (on radar) the F-22's until they were "killed". Presently, Raptor units have no opponents to practice against as the F-15 jocks refuse to play.
The Air Force insists it needs 381 Raptors to provide sufficient capability world-wide. DOD under then SECDEF William Rumsfeld granted only an inadequate 181, later increased by Congress to 187. The 187th F-22 just rolled off the assembly line and the current administration has officially terminated the program. The Lockheed-Martin F-22 production facility will now be shut down. Restart would be very expensive and take substantial time to accomplish.
All the eggs have been placed in the basket of the F-35 Lightning II "Freedom Fighter," formerly the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). This is a multi-role stealthy aircraft intended for Air Force (F-35A), Marine Corps (F-35B, intended to replace their AV-8 Jump Jets) and Navy carrier-based (F-35C) use. The F-35B incorporates a large lift fan to provide short-takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) capability. (See photo)
F-35A Lightning II Freedom Fighter
This is a large scale procuerement involving over 3,000 aircraft and many countries who collaborated in its development, production and funding. The DOD likes it because of all the foreign money helping pay for it. (It should be noted that the F-22 is not available to any foreign nation due to its advanced features and capability. That should tell you something.) Unfortunately, the F-35 program is billions over budget and 2 years behind schedule. The egg basket has a hole in it.
So, we have a 5th generation air superiority fighter capped at less than half the strength required to support world-wide operations, supplemented by a less-capable aircraft being sold to everyone except sworn enemies, while the Russians forge ahead designing and building some very good fighters that they will sell to anyone with the money, friend or foe. Meanwhile, our existing legacy aircraft--fighters, bombers, tankers and transports--are as old as 50 years, with the average over 26 years, and are being flown into the ground due to usage rates far beyond design parameters. Replacements are either bogged down in political red tape, well behind schedule or underfunded resulting in slow production rates.
We are rapidly wearing out our military aircraft, with very few exceptions. Some, like the C-130 Hercules, our only large tactical airlifter (the C-17 cannot operate out of unprepared tactical airfields) and our main aerial refueling tanker, the KC-135, a Boeing 707 airliner derivative, average more than 50 years old. A new replacement for the older C-130's, the C-130J, is entering the inventory at an excruciatingly slow pace. Tanker replacement, called the KC-X program, is mired in legal wrangling and political turf wars.
The Air Force awarded a contract for a new tanker to Northrup-Grumman-EADS (European Aerospace Defense Systems, heaquartered in France). The loser, Boeing, sued and the award was thrown out due to Air Force mismanagement of the bidding process. Congressmen are infighting over production in their districts, the net result being there is now no new tanker procurement program while the Air force tries to regroup. If this mess ever gets straightened out, the normal procurement cycle will insure that many KC-135's will be 80 years old and still flying--hopefully. This is a real disaster in the making.
It should be clearly understood that without tankers, almost the entire air support structure grinds to a halt. Combat aircraft typically do not carry sufficient fuel to complete many critical missions, from close air support (CAS) of ground units to bombing missions and supply airlift, and in some cases search and rescue. Loss of effective tanker support would simply be devastating and would--not "might"--would effectively neutralize much of U.S. air power.
Summary and Conclusion: Those who have stuck with me to this point (thanks!) may quite justifiably be wondering what is my point in writing this very long summary on the state of U.S. air power. (I do not claim that this is the entire picture.) Recall that at the beginning I stated that air power is the key element in our military pre-eminence. The problem is that Air Force funding and personnel are being cut by DOD, with threats of even greater cuts in the future. SECDEF Gates and others at the DOD favor UAV's over manned aircraft. UAV's, as described in this article, are increasingly capable and in great demand by Army and Marine ground forces.
While I have absolutely no problem with the increased dependence on UAV's in ISR and CAS (close air support) roles, they presently have no capability in other critical roles such as air superiority, airlift, tankers and strategic heavy bombing. Some of these capabilities may come to pass in the future, but today they are only concepts at best. In addition and perhaps most critically, UAV's lack the intuitive quick-reaction judgement often essential in non-conventional and counter-insurgency warfare that only a human pilot can provide.
I firmly believe that short-changing the most essential element of our military power is somewhere between risky and foolhardy. In this era of tight budgets--except for stimuli and bailouts--diminishing our most valuable military asset opens us to danger from adversaries both present and future. The prime Constitutional imperative is national defense. It must not be sacrificed on the altar of budgetary expediency and political demagoguery.
Make no mistake, we are in a war with a formidable and implacable foe. We also live in a very militarily-competitive world. If we lose to the jihadists or to an ambitious, resurgent China or Russia--or both together--"free" government health care won't do us much good.