More than 25 years ago, toward the end of the war in Vietnam, the US armed forces began introducing a new generation of tactical aircraft. The F-111 and the A-6 flew in the 1960s. Most of the fighters, including the Air Force’s F-15, F-16, and A-10 and the Navy’s F-14 and F-18, entered service in the 1970s. The Marine Corps AV-8B came along in the early 1980s.
The development cycle then shifted to emphasis on strategic systems through the 1980s and mobility systems in the 1990s. Meanwhile, other nations went to school on our tactical aircraft from the 1970s. Today, at least half a dozen advanced foreign fighters have begun to gain parity with–and in some instances, spot advantages over–their US counterparts.
For example, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, a former F-15 demonstration pilot, told the Congressional Airpower Caucus in March that he flew the Russian Su-27 a few years ago and found it “the equal of any F-15 in terms of engine thrust and airplane maneuverability.” The follow-on Su-35 has better avionics than the Su-27. In certain engagements, it might beat an F-15.
Initially, the services laid plans to introduce the next generation around the turn of the century with eight separate fighter modernization programs.
That was not to be. The armed forces in the 1990s were taking massive reductions, and the defense budget had gone south.
The revised plan was to replace eight types of aircraft with three: the Air Force’s F-22 air-dominance fighter, the Navy’s F/A-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter to be operated by the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines. Production was to be spread out over 25 years.
The time is now upon us for a funding decision, however, and a clamor has arisen about cost and need. The Pentagon is accused of building an unaffordable “bow wave” into future procurement programs and creating a funding “spike” in the outyear budgets. A January 1997 Congressional Budget Office study exploring options to terminate one of the three fighter programs or reduce quantities by as much as 50 percent was accorded great attention on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in official Washington.
These expressions of dismay seem overwrought. There is no bow wave. The cost of the three fighter programs fits well within the ceiling of the current defense budget proposal. All three aircraft are fully funded as far ahead as the Future Years Defense Plan reaches. Over the six years of the FYDP, these programs consume only 10 percent of the Pentagon investment account (which includes both research and development and procurement). At no point over the next 20 years do the tactical airpower programs exceed 18 percent of the investment account.
The imputed budget spike is, in actuality, the normal upturn in a procurement cycle that bottomed out in 1995 when the Air Force bought no tactical fighters at all. The combined cost for the F-22 and the Air Force share of the Joint Strike Fighter will be about four percent of the USAF budget, compared to six percent of the budget spent on the F-15, F-16, and A-10 in the previous round of fighter modernization.
In testimony to Congress, General Fogleman passed up an invitation to seek funding for Air Force aircraft at the expense of production for the other services. He said the nation needs balance in tactical airpower modernization. He left no doubt, however, that the F-22 occupies a special place on the requirements list.
Without the F-22 to ensure control of the air, it is questionable how much the F/A-18s and Joint Strike Fighters would be able to accomplish, to say nothing of the ground forces, who depend on air superiority for survival.
“You will not be able to achieve air superiority nor will you ever come close to air dominance if you are operating with equipment and weapons that are on parity with what the other guy has,” General Fogleman told the Congressional Airpower Caucus.
The Air Force heads into the opening decades of the twenty-first century with its tactical aircraft requirements necked down to two programs, one for air dominance and one for stealthy, precision attack. That is about as short as we can afford to cut it.
US military doctrine is predicated on “full spectrum dominance.” That depends to a great extent on the quality of our airpower and its ability to control the skies, halt an invading enemy in his tracks, and cut off his strategic options.
We have let more than 20 years go by since our last round of tactical aircraft modernization. As we have seen already, other nations do not stop producing new fighters just because we do. The inroads they have made during the lull in US fighter development are not insignificant.
The United States has held the upper hand in tactical airpower so long that we may imagine that our leadership is automatic. That is a dangerous misconception.
In theater conflicts of the future, somebody will control the air and, by means of airpower, dominate the battle. If we do not step up to the requirement for the next generation of fighters, it may not be us.