Friday, July 18, 2008

Air Surperiority: Yesterday's Problem, or Tomorrow's?

John Gapper of the Financial Times has written an excellent piece on the F-22, the question of air superiority and the economics of the procurement process:

America’s air force misses the target

By John Gapper

Say what you like about the F-22, the world’s most advanced and expensive fighter jet, it is obviously fun to fly. One of these $350m aircraft dipped and fluttered around the sky above the Farnborough air show this week in a bravura show of agility.

The F-22 is a supersonic stealth aircraft dreamt up at the end of the cold war to impose American air superiority over Soviet fighters. In recent exercises, its invisibility and advanced radar and avionics allowed it to shoot down 80 aircraft for every time that it was hit itself.

The F-22’s party trick is to be able to pivot horizontally in mid-air as it sniffs around for a target. “The sensation is not: ‘Oh, my gosh, the nose is slipping out of control. It is ‘Oh, my gosh, I can get the nose to do what I want,’ ” said Al Norman, the F-22’s senior test pilot.

What impresses the US air force, however, is not what pleases the US government. The F-22 has become a symbol of what Robert Gates, the defence secretary, has dubbed “ ‘next-war-itis’ – the propensity of much of the defence establishment to be in favour of what might be needed in a future conflict”.

Mr Gates wants the US military instead to focus on the “war on terror” and asymmetric conflicts in which it has to work with allies to combat suicide bombers and insurgents in hot, dusty countries. The kind of air support that such campaigns require is helicopters and cargo aircraft, not a 21st-century stealth fighter jet.

As a result, he has stood firm against the USAF’s wish to have 381 F-22s to replace its ageing fleet of F-15s, a Vietnam-era fighter that has been repeatedly patched and upgraded. The US will buy only 183 and intends to make do instead with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a forthcoming stealth aircraft that is cheaper and more versatile.

Mr Gates may be right that the F-22 will prove an unnecessary precaution in the world as we know it and that five squadrons is “a reasonable buy”. But there are two difficulties with his obstinate position, one military and the second financial.

The military problem is that air superiority is something the US takes for granted but is not inevitable. Mr Gates clearly believes the USAF is stuck in the past but he could equally be accused of being stuck in the present. While terrorism is the immediate threat, China’s military rise and Russia’s military resurgence are worries for the future.

Click here for the rest of the article.

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