The Magazine

The Air Force We Won’t Have … Alas

Is the era of power projection over?

Oct 18, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 05 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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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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