The Air Force historically plans it’s future based on the last or current war it’s fighting. FU Hero’s like Robin Olds were laughed at in the late 50s and early 60s when the Air Force was pumping up SAC and going Nuclear. He claimed we had no conventional capability while senior officers told him that the day of the dogfight was over. Less then 10 years later Col Olds was flying missions over North Vietnam dropping conventional bombs, being shot at by Surface to Air missiles, and hassling with MiGs.
Are we repeating history today? We have more UAV pilots than fighter pilots; an aging (but still capable) fleet of fighters, 180ish F-22s to provide air superiority in the future, and delayed deliveries on the F-35 with multiple issues. The issues are not important I guess, just the same old oxygen system that won’t work and a lack of gas to go anywhere. Fighter Pilots flying F-22s say they are really concerned about how we stack up against the Russians and Chinese in the future. The Russians have developed the SU-50 (F-23ski) and the Chinese are producing the J-20 (F-22 exploited technology).
In the 80s and 90s, most fighter pilots were under the impression we were at least 15-20 years ahead of the commies in technology and capability. I don’t think we can say that anymore. We have put all our eggs in the UAV, Space Technology, Special Operations, and Cyber world to fight the “War on Terror.” It's a war that has no ending or any real victory. What was it General MacArthur warned us about no win wars after Korea? Meanwhile our ability to fight a conventional war and go toe to toe with the Communist block (which apparently no longer exists) is diminishing by the day.
We used to laugh at the North Koreans for only getting a few sorties a month and 50 hours a year. Now our F-22 pilots are surviving on 5-6 sorties per month and breathing oxygen from a system that makes your feel like your sucking air through a soda straw. LOX works, who knew? Not to worry, we have a whopping 180 Raptors to face the hoards of SU-50s and J-20s coming across the fence with nearly the same capabilities. Additionally, we own space and the cyber world and will see them coming. Don’t forget about all those UAVs to use as a force multiplier too, they are superior to manned fighters and can't be jammed and flown into places like Iran to be exploited by our post cold war friends.
What’s the solution? I think Maestro had it right in his “Air Power Insurgency” article he posted a few months ago. We need some current day Billy Mitchell’s and Robin Olds to step up and get the Air Force pointed in the right direction. The techno geeks have highjacked the greatest Air Force on the planet from our roots. We’ve been able to avoid World War III thanks to our ability to spank any hostile forces into submission from the air and owning surface to the moon. Our troops on the ground have not been hit by enemy air since the Korean War; it would be nice if we could keep it that way.
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So why don't we have a better fighter force? I think its because of 3 reasons. First, our fighter forces are massively expensive. Second, we have lost the ability to articulate the need for both high and low-end forces because our strategy is (or has been) so ambiguous for so long. Third, our fighter forces are treated as strategic assets rather than tactical assets.
The cost issue means that we always get promised one thing, but then receive ~70% of the capability, in ~70% of the quantity, for ~140% of the cost; all with far more demanding MX constraints than we were warned to expect. Reference the cost figures on the F-22 and F-35 (look them up from the Congressional Research Staff reports).
The strategy issue makes us unable to prioritize our limited funding. Too much here to even go into, but no one can really seem to be able to articulate a realistic and actionable defense / mil strategy. Boyd once said "a lot of people say the Pentagon doesn't have a strategy. It does. Don't do anything to interrupt the money flow. Whenever possible, add to it." I'm not a conspiratorial guy (the Pentagon is where thousands of great patriots work) but Boyd ominously links the first and second problems. Our strategy is one of buying weapons, not preparing for war. Different process, different result. Gen Mosley could no better articulate the need for 600+ F-22s than I can dismiss the need for specialty aircraft like the A-10 or OV-10. In the absence of a strategy, we're putting too many eggs into too few baskets.
The third issue was covered by Mark Clodfelter in "The Limits of Airpower." Our fighters have become essentially strategic forces used by ultra highly centralized C2 systems. I think it is interesting that so much of this goes back to FM 100-20 (1943) when early air power theorists pointed to the "penny packet" approach of Op Torch in North Africa to say that airpower should always be centrally controlled by an airmen. I read some interesting accounts of Torch. As one of the U.S.'s first major campaigns in WWII, a lot of mistakes were made on all sides. If airpower got better over the course of the war, it was not because centralized control fixed a problem, it was because airman (and soldiers, sailors & Marines) figured out what they were doing. Indeed, some of the best airpower results were found when the central C2 structure chopped tac-air assets directly down to lower echelons. There's a time for strong central control, and there's a time for decentralized control. There's a time for centralized execution, and a time for decentralized execution. It all depends.