Paths to Air Dominance

Nov. 1, 2005

For the public, the wars and subsequent stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have accentuated the actions of US ground forces, but airpower has been a key behind-the-scenes factor all along. Air warfare will, if anything, grow even more critical to American military operations in years to come.

Modernization of the combat Air Force is not only a strategic necessity, but it is also a fiscally sensible course of action.

So said a wide variety of speakers at AFA’s Air & Space Conference held in September in Washington, D.C.

Taking full advantage of new aerospace technology in the form of the F/A-22 and F-35 fighters—as well as some nascent capabilities for future strike and sensor platforms—will provide a greater range of military options for Washington and drive down both the size and cost of the force, presenters said.

Significant new capabilities becoming available in the form of upgrades and munitions will help the Air Force bridge the gap from its existing fleet of aging fighters and bombers to a force of mostly stealthy aircraft in the coming decade.

The stealthy F/A-22 fighter, the Air Force’s top priority, has cleared operational tests, is in production, and is ready for duty, speakers pointed out.

Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of Air Combat Command, said, “I’ll be prepared to declare initial operating capability” with the F/A-22 on schedule in December.

Keys said he expects that, by then, he will have 18 Raptors on the 1st Fighter Wing’s flight line at Langley AFB, Va. By mid-September, the 1st FW had eight F/A-22s, and more were arriving at a rate of “about two every week.” Keys said he anticipated no problem in getting the aircraft he needs to make the declaration.

What IOC Means

The aircraft are not test or evaluation systems but combat-ready fighters, Keys said, and even though the first squadrons will be optimized for air superiority missions, they also will be capable of strike missions with the Joint Direct Attack Munition. His main criterion for deciding whether to declare IOC is the “ability to pick up and go for 90 days” to a deployed location and operate a dozen of the aircraft. The biggest conditional item will be having sufficient spare parts for the war readiness kit that must accompany the unit to a deployment.

“IOC means I can use them,” he explained.

Keys added that he does not need to wait for the conclusion of follow-on test and evaluation, which is now under way and which will continue for many months.

He asserted that the Air Force needs 381 F/A-22s to be able to guarantee air dominance in any conflict from terrorist hunts to all-out war.

“We believe 381, in exchange for 880 fighters” of earlier types, such as the F-15, F-117, and F-16, “is a good investment trade to make,” Keys explained. The F/A-22 requires fewer personnel, fewer tankers, and can operate more frequently than earlier types and so will save considerable money in the long run, he added.

He acknowledged that it has been tough to get full Pentagon funding for the F/A-22, which is challenged within the department by what Keys called “antibodies” that reject the Air Force’s analysis and math supporting the 381 figure, validated over more than a dozen independent reviews. He would rather that, if funding is the issue, arguments not be made suggesting that strategy is somehow driving a smaller fleet.

“If we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it,” he commented, “but the threat doesn’t get any smaller just because you can’t afford to meet it.” He added,”When they tell you, ‘It’s not about the money,’ [then] it’s about the money.”

Keys also said that the required number of F/A-22s varies from scenario to scenario, and it makes the most sense to outfit each of the 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces with a supportable and militarily adequate number of F/A-22s. That means 24 “combat coded” Raptors per AEF, which is what a fleet of 381 will allow, including aircraft for training, test, maintenance, and attrition. Combat coded refers to the number of aircraft available for fighting, once you have deducted a certain number devoted to training, test, maintenance, and attrition reserve.

Keys joked that his toughest problem with the F/A-22 is finding an adversary unit willing to fly against it in exercises.

In fights against the Raptor, said Keys, “everybody dies.”

Maj. Gen. Richard B.H. Lewis, the F/A-22 program executive officer, said the new fighter, despite just emerging from its development phase, is delivering a 78 percent mission capable rate, which is comparable to the rates achieved by today’s “mature” systems. In operational tests last year, the aircraft proved unbeatable when outnumbered 2-to-1 by today’s fighters.

Four Times Better

By 2009, with additional improvements to its sensors and weapons, the F/A-22 will be at least four times better than legacy fighters, Lewis asserted.

Some have argued that the F/A-22 can be replaced with a new-build F-15 equipped with active electronically scanned array radars. Lewis acknowledged the belief in some quarters that a souped-up F-15, armed with standoff weapons, can do the job as well as the Raptor.

The problem with that argument, Lewis said, is the fact of modern surface-to-air missile defenses linked with good-quality, fourth generation fighters. Against such a threat, even an enhanced F-15 would have to fire standoff weapons from such a distance that mobile targets would have ample warning and time to move to a safe location. This will waste weapons and lengthen air campaigns, he added.

Conversely, stealthy—and very fast—aircraft such as the F/A-22 will be able to penetrate defenses and attack their targets before the enemy has time to defend himself or escape.

Even after they were overtaken long ago by events, old notions of air warfare persist, Lewis continued. He noted that, in Vietnam, the thinking was that a pilot who actually saw a SAM fired at him could probably outmaneuver it.

That’s not true anymore, Lewis said, noting that modern SAMs are faster, longer ranged, and dramatically more agile than their 1970s-era forebears.

In Iraq, Lewis noted, well-known examples of fratricide saw Navy and British fighters inadvertently targeted by the Army Patriot system. “The pilots knew what was going on, and they did everything they could to defend themselves.” Lewis said. “They still got shot down.”

The Patriot is comparable to the S-400 system now being sold by Russia, with double the range. A single S-400 battalion—eight launchers and 32 missiles—can be bought for $1 billion, Lewis said. This threat would pose an extremely difficult challenge for the fourth generation fighters that make up most of today’s Air Force.

The F/A-22’s ability to cruise supersonically is an essential feature. If you didn’t buy it for stealth, you’d buy it for speed, Lewis said. He noted that F/A-22s at Langley can get to Washington, D.C., in just seven minutes and be able to loiter in the area for 41 minutes before going home. This marks a vast improvement over F-15s, which would take longer to arrive and would have to refuel almost immediately.

Accept No Substitute

None of the suggested alternatives to the F/A-22 is a true substitute, Lewis said, and they all cost more in the long run. With the advanced radar, a new F-15 would have greater detection range but lack the survivability of the stealthy F/A-22. Raptors are more cost-effective because more of them will survive combat, and each can destroy more enemies.

It takes two to three aircraft to replace the killing capability of the F/A-22, he said. He quoted a similar number for the F-35, for, while the F-35 is stealthy, it lacks the speed and altitude capability that allows the F/A-22 to so dominate air combat. Those capabilities, Lewis observed, are what makes the Raptor “a huge problem” for enemy air forces.

If the F/A-22 program is stopped prematurely, he added, the cost of the F-35 also will spike up, because the two share overhead and development costs. The F-35 has benefitted from F/A-22 engine work, for example, while the F/A-22 will use an adapted version of the F-35’s radar, which is newer than that developed for the Raptor. The cross-pollination has improved both systems.

Lewis said the F/A-22’s cost-to-go is usually misstated.

The “$28 billion sunk cost” on developing the Raptor and building a factory to produce it is gone, Lewis explained, and won’t be refunded if the program is stopped. Rather than dwell on the sunk investment, the better question, he said, is “what does it cost now?”

An F/A-22 at $113 million a copy is a better deal than buying at least two $75 million F-15s to accomplish the same effects, he said. The first 172 aircraft have essentially already been paid for, Lewis noted. Still to come are the ones that take full advantage of an up-and-running assembly line and production efficiencies after amortizing the first batches of aircraft.

“We gave up our cheapest aircraft when they cut us back in December,” Lewis noted. He also said the F/A-22, by virtue of doing the job with a smaller fleet, will “reduce manpower, airlift, O&S [operation and support costs], and [the overall number of] tankers.”

Lewis said the Air Force welcomes the latest DOD review of tacair plans which was launched by new Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon R. England. (See “Washington Watch: England Launches New Fighter Review,” October, p. 12.) “This is good,” Lewis argued. The more people who know about what the F/A-22 and F-35 can do, “the better we can make our case.”

Rear Adm. Steven L. Enewold, the new program manager for the F-35, told reporters at the symposium that he thinks the number of F-35s the Pentagon plans to buy will “come down some.”

While he’s not a participant in the Quadrennial Defense Review, he has been asked to provide the review with data on cost and impacts of killing the program, accelerating it, or eliminating one or two of the three variants.

He also said the Air Force has indicated it may want a larger percentage of the F-35s it buys to be of the short takeoff and vertical landing variety, except that it would be interested in doing short, rolling takeoffs and landings. “The Air Force doesn’t have the vertical landing requirement,” Enewold said.

Keys reported that he still sees a USAF requirement for the STOVL version of the F-35 to be between 200 and 300 aircraft.

Lockheed Martin, which makes the F/A-22 and F-35, presented a program describing the results of a classified analysis of how many of the two aircraft are needed. It was intended to mirror similar “air dominance” studies being done for the Pentagon’s QDR, according to Lockheed Vice President Rob Weiss.

Key Enabler

The main conclusion of the study was that air dominance “continues to be a key enabler” for the entire military, regardless of the kind of campaign under way. Another conclusion was that in-service legacy aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 are “at parity with threat aircraft or at a disadvantage” because the overseas designs are increasingly stealthy and fitted with advanced avionics.

The legacy aircraft are “at a significant disadvantage against advanced SAMs,” Weiss said.

Even with advanced radars, legacy types fitted with the latest radar consistently showed “an inability to close the target without being detected.” The result was usually “a mutual kill,” meaning both sides flew to a deadly draw, he explained.

“Unless you start with a stealth design, you can’t get out of a mutual kill situation,” Weiss asserted.

By Lockheed’s calculations, the combination of the F/A-22 and F-35 was “five times more effective than legacy aircraft,” in most scenarios, and could accomplish the same number of targets destroyed with “50 to 70 percent fewer aircraft.”

He added that tankers were a key consideration, insisting that the number of new tankers required to keep a legacy force fueled for combat “is unaffordable” and that the tanker fleet would be less stressed with a smaller fleet of more modern fighters.

Weiss also said the study indicated that the newer aircraft would quicken an air campaign by being able to strike more targets more quickly than is possible today, given new weapons and full-up capability with the F/A-22 and F-35. A longer time in-theater would translate to far more losses, he suggested.

Against a near-peer competitor, the US would need to deploy a combat coded force of 250 F/A-22s and 100 F-35s, Weiss said the study showed. The numbers tip in favor of more F-35s in other scenarios, such as unseating the government of a “rogue state.”

“Overall, the cost of fifth generation aircraft [such as F/A-22 and F-35] is one-third the cost of legacy aircraft,” said Weiss.

If the F/A-22 production run is halted at about 180 aircraft, said Weiss, there will be at least a three-year gap in this nation’s fighter production, an event unprecedented in the post-World War II era. He also said the cost to restart the Raptor line would be “prohibitive.”

End of the Line

“If you stop the F/A-22, you’re not going to restart,” Weiss said, noting the high cost of hiring and training new workers, taking tooling out of storage, and recertifying the thousands of suppliers needed to make the airplane’s parts. Once the suppliers and workers are released, he noted, “they’re gone.”

Regarding future wars, Weiss maintained that “we’re not saying that legacy aircraft can’t do it.” He is, however, saying that it would require substantially more aircraft and a large number of expensive standoff weapons.

Lockheed would need long-lead funding before the Fiscal 2008 budget if the F/A-22 is to continue production in 2009 or later, Weiss said. He reported that the company has shared its data with various Pentagon agencies and departments, and “most people we’ve spoken to are very pleased to have the input.”

Buying new weapons is just the beginning of the process of modernizing the Air Force. Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nev., said it’s the job of his organization to “certify equipment for combat, … find the best way to use that equipment, … teach all the premier schools how to use it, … [and] provide a venue for integrated joint training.” He’s also looking for new and more cost-effective means of honing the force.

Goldfein said the Joint Red Flag exercise at Nellis this spring was a huge success and signaled the beginning of a new era in the way the wargame is run. (See “Red Flag With a Difference,” August, p. 38.)

Goldfein said USAF ran 29,000 sorties, of which some 20,000 were “constructed”—that is, they were computer generated, with missions and players fed into the overall virtual battlespace. Another 6,000 of the sorties were “live,” flown with real crews and real machines, and the rest were virtual sorties, meaning that crews in simulators at widely separated locations were plugged into the wargame and participated by long distance.

The event proved “it can be done,” said Goldfein, who underscored the “real value” of distributed mission operations. The exercise showed a new way to “stress the operational level” of command. Joint Red Flag “has helped us shape doctrine,” he added. The exercise included Navy, Army, and Marine forces, as well as guest units from other countries.

“We’ve just scratched the surface” of applying distributed mission training to combat exercises, Goldfein asserted.

However, despite the value of the exercise, he said, “All training should not be joint training.” Air Force crews must have the chance to practice and develop their own expertise without other organizations looking over their shoulders.

“If we were constantly encumbered by ‘joint,’ we would never do it right,” Goldfein said.


Symposium attendees also were given a chance to contemplate a wide range of possible conflicts, requiring a diverse range of military capabilities.

Rebecca Grant of IRIS Independent Research asserted that the Air Force undoubtedly will play an early and leading role in any military conflict of the future because of its sensor aircraft, its cargo aircraft, and its aerial striking power at long ranges.

In any scenario, airmen will respond with AWACS, Joint STARS, reconnaissance aircraft, and, probably, tactical aircraft.

Based on the experience of Operation Iraqi Freedom, airpower offers the option “to start a bit early” with an air campaign before a ground offensive, or to cover the flanks of a ground offensive, substituting for ground forces, Grant said. It also offers a chance to provide “tailored close air support” whether ground forces are engaged in a sprawling battle or “block to block.”

Cargo aircraft also have started taking over some of the convoy missions, and ground convoys “don’t move without … air support,” Grant said.

Airpower supports troops in contact, hunts down terrorists and weapons caches, delivers intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets, and provides “presence” in a flexible way, Grant said. The new fighters, she continued, offer the US the chance to project the same amount of power to a forward base with “a much smaller expeditionary footprint.”

However, the Air Force’s fleet is getting older. She noted that in recent months, mission capable rates have dropped by 10 percent, due to age-related maintenance hassles.

The average age is “about 18 years on the strike platforms,” Grant noted.

The Navy is well on its way to recapitalizing its air fleet, phasing out the F-14s, and replacing them with 235 F/A-18E/Fs so far. For the Air Force, however, the “procurement holiday” is still largely under way, she said. Large numbers of new fighters have not been purchased since the 1980s, and “right now, our nation’s air dominance is somewhat at risk.”

It’s necessary to get on with buying both the F/A-22 and F-35, Grant maintained. “This is our chance to bring true advanced technology into the force in the form of a fifth generation fighter” and reap not only operational advantages guaranteeing US air dominance in any future conflict but also saving money by avoiding expenses in maintenance, manpower, and other support costs.

“Do we really want a fighter production line for advanced aircraft to go cold for a number of years? Or even just dip down?” Grant asked. There are “key questions” about our industrial base that have not yet been addressed by the Pentagon leadership, she said.

Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution sketched out more than a dozen scenarios requiring military involvement by the US, concluding that no one service has cornered the market on the right kinds of forces needed for the future.

While there have been frequent calls for the Pentagon to shift its spending to one or another service that is more likely to carry most of the burden in the future, “I see a pretty strong case for more or less maintenance of the current budget shares,” which rough out to about one-third each to the Army, Navy/Marine Corps, and Air Force, O’Hanlon said.

In his war scenarios, O’Hanlon said there are three wars the US probably doesn’t have to plan too much for. He doesn’t see Russia invading the Baltic countries, nor a Chinese invasion of western Siberia in a grab for resources, nor a Chinese invasion of a unified Korean peninsula.

Instead, the nightmare scenario about which the US should be most concerned is a collapse of the Pakistani government.

With 150 million people—“six times the size of Iraq”—high unemployment, poor education, a significant population of Islamist radicals, and nuclear weapons, a collapsing Pakistan is the “worst case” challenge to US security, according to O’Hanlon.

Given attempted assassinations of President Pervez Musharraf and a strong anti-American sentiment in the population—even among the military—Pakistan is risky, O’Hanlon asserted. The US might have to conduct air strikes to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if the government fell and may also have to “seal off border areas” to keep nuclear weapons from being removed from the country.

Iran is another key danger because of its role in energy markets and potential choke hold on oil shipping lanes, O’Hanlon said.

India, also a nuclear power, has been toe-to-toe with Pakistan in a nuclear face-off within the last few years and has fought four wars with Pakistan to date, O’Hanlon noted. The US might have to enforce an international trustee­ship of the hotly contested Kashmir region, he said.

Another major threat to security is instability in Indonesia—an Islamic nation with a large population, among which are some number of active terrorists—sitting astride major shipping lanes. As a widely dispersed archipelago, Indonesia could see some regions declare independence, or terrorists could attempt to block the Strait of Malacca.

One of the most pressing threats to deal with is the Taiwan situation, O’Hanlon insisted. “We have to do a better job within the military and defense community of planning for this,” he said.

“The stakes are enormous,” he explained, since a confrontation with mainland China would be “the first major war between nuclear powers.” O’Hanlon said US plans overemphasize “quick attacks” on the mainland that could result in nuclear retaliation, probably against US forces.