Linköping, Sweden

A three-day airpower conference at the Swedish Air Force base at Malmen this summer covered all the usual wonkish territory: defense budgeting and procurement cycles. Weapon systems development. Projections of total life cycle costs for owning and operating specific models of military hardware. Geopolitical trends in Europe and Asia and the role of the Atlantic alliance in the next decade. Prospects for NATO enlargement now that Ukraine appears to be falling back into the Russian orbit.

The presentations were delivered by an international dream team of military officials, politicians, industry experts, retired senior flag-rank officers, veterans of the NATO campaign in Kosovo—proving if nothing else that the Swedes are world-class organizers. But there was a whiff in the air, if not of decline, then of the end of an era.

For going on 70 years, U.S. armed forces have maintained—and still do​—a worldwide footprint that is commensurate with our global responsibilities. Washington is still the only capital in the world where when an international crisis breaks out the country’s leadership can ask, “Where is the nearest aircraft carrier?”

During the Cold War, the celebrated Soviet military thinker Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov saw that the technological prowess of the United States was gradually eroding the numerical advantages that the Soviet Union enjoyed in combat units, tanks, planes, etc.—and in an almost endless capacity to turn out not terribly sophisticated but extremely reliable and rugged weapon designs. But the U.S. advantage was not simply technology. It was what a highly sophisticated defense industrial sector could do for America’s strategic capability. The threat, as Ogarkov correctly saw it, was “the American capability to fight a protracted conventional military conflict at almost any place on the globe of its choosing.” In plain English: power projection.

One has to question if that capability still exists. U.S. and NATO forces find themselves severely tested in trying to maintain force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the situation is going to get worse before it gets better owing to the decreasing future force levels of the European partners the United States has come to depend on.

It therefore behooves the defense policymakers in the United States to ask, “Are we buying the right hardware?” Donald Rumsfeld is famous for observing that “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” The armed forces we might wish to have at a later time will not get built, however—as pointed out at the Swedish conference—if decisions about weapon systems get made based on criteria that have little to do with national security.

Airpower is a case in point. Despite China and Russia both being in the process of developing heavy, twin-engine next-generation fighter jets, the Obama administration canceled production of the Lockheed Martin F-22. The U.S. Air Force could be accused of asking for too many of these jets, but cutting off production at the 187 units currently scheduled seems anemic compared with the Air Force’s 800-plus McDonnell-Douglas F-15s—the aircraft the F-22 was ultimately designed to replace.

The key to U.S. airpower strategy for more than 35 years was to maintain a “high-low” mix of fighter aircraft. This meant having a twin-engine, long-range fighter on the high end (the F-15, later to be replaced by the F-22) and a lighter, single-engine fighter on the lower end (the F-16, later to be replaced by the F-35).

This created a division of labor in which the higher-end aircraft operated as an air superiority fighter or a long-range, deep strike platform, while the lower-end aircraft flew close air support missions for infantry and were the dogfighters, designed for an “inside the furball” up-close fight with a formation of enemy aircraft.

The other advantage of this two-tiered arrangement was that it gave the United States a sophisticated, expensive plane like the F-15 that could be sold to those allies who had the industrial base and/or economic prowess to support its operation—Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Singapore. At the same time the cheaper, easier to operate F-16 could be sold to almost anyone—in this case 25 other air forces around the world.

The plan for the future now appears to be one of placing all of our chips on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While the aircraft incorporates some features from the F-22—stealth technology, an internal weapons bay, an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar—what it is now being called on to do is to replace a score of older-generation aircraft, and to take over many of the missions being flown by the F‑15 today.

John Paul Vann, one of the unsung American heroes in Vietnam, used to have a saying that “a compromise means putting a right and a wrong together and getting neither. War is much too serious a business for that.” Russians are fond of saying that “a compromise makes a great umbrella but a terrible permanent roof to live under.” For all of its wondrous attributes, the F-35 is a compromise on a number of levels and is unlikely to live up to its billing.

Aside from not having the power, range, and weapons carriage capability of the F-15—nor being an even match for the Russian and Chinese aircraft it might face in a conflict—it is not going to be the easy-to-repair, economical to operate aircraft that the F‑16 is. “A number of these F-35s being acquired by foreign partners could end up being parked in hangars and not flown very much, because no one will be able to afford to fly them. It could financially break some of the air forces that are slated to procure it,” said one senior analyst from the Jane’s Information Group.

The culprit—once again back to the Swedish forum—is that decisions on future tactical airpower have been made almost entirely on political grounds. Canceling F-22 production did not save any real sums of money​—the big development bucks had already been spent. But, as one Lockheed executive told me, the administration needed a win, and going after the F‑22 program was “an easy target.”

The result has air forces from Australia to Canada—and many points in between—asking if “the army that they will have” when the next conflict takes place will be the one they want. And the F-35 is not the only problem. The Brits are trying to figure out how they can afford their current commitments, plus add two aircraft carriers to their navy. Many nations are also asking how they need to structure their air forces in a world where they are being called upon for expeditionary operations.

Unfortunately, building the best hardware for future conflicts at a reasonable price is something the U.S. military seems to have forgotten how to do. There is a modern-day plane that is economical to acquire and operate and can be bought in large numbers, but it is called the Saab JAS-39 Gripen and is—well, you guessed it—made in Sweden. No small wonder that the Swedes put on this conference: to try to impart to everyone else what they have already learned about how to build effective, affordable airpower.

Reuben F. Johnson is a veteran aerospace reporter.

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