Upside Down

By lex, on December 2nd, 2010

The US military, at least since World War II, has preferred generally to throw money at combat superiority – especially air superiority – rather than bodies. Certain of our Cold War adversaries used a decidedly lower tech/people heavy approach: “Quantity,” Uncle Joe Stalin mused, “has a quality all its own.”

The Heritage Foundation’s Mackenzie Eaglen and Dr. Lajos Szazdi – try saying that one three times fast – have an interesting article analyzing the implications of losing both qualitative and quantitative advantage in any future air campaign.

Their abstract:

Russia’s development of the PAK FA fifth-generation stealth fighter could challenge American air supremacy, especially if Russia sells the PAK FA to its usual buyers of military equipment. In the U.S., closure of the F-22 production line has severely limited America’s ability to respond to PAK FA proliferation by building more F-22s and potentially selling them to U.S. allies. The U.S. needs to revise its assessment of U.S. air superiority needs and then explore ways to modernize and strengthen the U.S. tactical fighter force.

The article goes on at compelling length, with technical detail to buttress the position.

Now, I have walked the green long enough to remember past threat analyses that were intended as much as anything else to justify the purchase of expensive weapons systems; fighter pilots are ever lusting over groovy new gear, and the defense industry is all too willing to satisfy that lust, given a cost plus fixed fee contract. For example, the Soviet Union’s MiG-23, MiG-25 and even the MiG-29 were once painted as seven feet tall and bulletproof. The first was quick but underpowered, and it bled like stuck pig in a turning fight. The second could go faster than a striped-ass baboon but had a turn radius the size of Texas. The Fulcrum – while being a very capable point defense fighter – had some significant limitations that I won’t bother to go into here.

But there’s little doubt that the PAK FA is on the evolutionary glidepath to being quite a capable fifth generation fighter, one that may ultimately be exported to some rather troublesome regions where we have previously enjoyed uncontested air superiority.

(For those who pooh-pooh the fighter v. fighter campaign as an anachronism, it’s worth keeping in mind that no US ground force has suffered under an air attack enemy air attack since the Korean War. Conversely, friendly strike aircraft operating under the protection of a defensive counter air umbrella are a significant force multiplier to combined force operations. And for those who believe that the US military’s aviation mission will forevermore be limited to one of bug hunting in an assorted variety of pastoral crapistans, remember that those who continue to fight the last war will almost surely lose the next. Finally, for those who think that all military spending is inherently wasteful, it might be wise to consult Plato and consider the consequences of losing – really losing – an important fight.)

So: Ms. Eaglen and the good doctor have some mostly sensible recommendations to ameliorate this threat: Provide funding to retain F-22 tooling, offer export variants to trusted allies, increase investments in current operational flight training against high end threats, fully fund the F-35 line, invest in an alternate F-35 engine to reduce programmatic risk, strengthen pol/mil ties to India,  continue USAF modernization, and deploy a network of counter-stealth sensors.

I say mostly sensible, because taken as a whole the list would be completely unaffordable, even if we had the national will and an imminent threat. Retaining F-22 tooling and offering export variants to Japan, Israel and even Oz (if they could afford it) is a no-brainer. Increased current operations are problematical, however: The more non-combat hours flown against our current inventory, the quicker we hasten their end of useful service – replacements aren’t coming fast enough.

Instead – and I say this as a guy with 20 years and 4000 fighter hours, so it hurts – we ought to invest in that minimum (+) capability that allows us to expeditiously ramp up to top form. High fidelity, networked simulators – I loathed them – will help.

And while it would  certainly be useful to have the world’s largest democracy in partnership with the world’s oldest one,  that’s an easier sentence to write than it is a policy to execute: The Indian polity retains a deep suspicion, not to say antagonism, of any foreign power linked however tenuously to empire, there is a strong and malevolent undercurrent of Marxism always moving below the surface, and Russia and India have long defense ties.

Where the Heritage folks start to lose me is on the issue of “fully funding the F-35 line” and “investing in an alternate engine.” The two goals, however laudable they might otherwise be in a vacuum, are antithetical. Alternate engines will mean fewer airframes because, in the end, all of the money comes out of the JPO’s pot. In any case the whole alternate engine thing has become far too politicized to wind up in a technical analysis, rendering the rest of the paper subject to the “seven feet tall and bulletproof” accusation.

Continued USAF modernization and networked counter-steal sensors are little more than targeted platitudes, in my view.

Still, the authors have a number of great points, which they make it more or less convincingly. It’s too bad that we’ve gone so far down the path of entitlement spending, that we will soon be unable to defend a world position that most of us have taken as a birth right.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, FA-18, Neptunus Lex

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