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Flying Not Quite as High

Our threatened airpower.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By MICHAEL AUSLIN
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The release of the Obama administration’s defense budget in January makes clear just how the president intends to reshape the U.S. military. For starters, the Army will shrink 14 percent by 2017, the Marines will decrease by 20,000, six Air Force fighter squadrons will be deactivated, and the Navy will make do with fewer ships. Putting skin on this skeleton is the Defense Strategic Guidance, released in January at the Pentagon. Most significantly, the document calls for a shift of resources to Asia and promises that America will “maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged” by states like China and Iran. Yet in Secretary of Defense Panetta’s own words, U.S. forces will have to do this while facing “profound challenges” and relying on “low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieving national security objectives. 

Photo of a fighter jet

Unfortunately, the president’s goals cannot be met by the ends he proposes. In particular, the administration’s plans will demand a much greater role for the airpower capabilities of both the Air Force and Navy. Yet under current plans both services will see their qualitative and quantitative air edge over competitors shrink, as they lose airplanes, operate an aging force, and face greater threats from adversaries. 

Already the functions of the Air Force underpin everything America’s Joint Force does, from surveillance to transport, and from close combat to cyber defense. Airpower advocates point to the sea- and land-based air destruction of Saddam Hussein’s military in the 1991 Gulf war, the 1999 Allied Force air campaign against Yugoslavia, and last year’s action in support of the Libyan rebellion as proof of how airpower can overcome an enemy’s order of battle, command and control, and warfighting spirit. At the same time, airpower dominance allows us to deploy minimal numbers of combat ground forces and reduces civilian casualties and collateral damage. 

The success of Western airpower in recent wars, however, had a foreseeable result: Potential adversaries are investing in systems that prevent access to their airspace. During the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the U.S. Air Force faced a Russian air defense “no-go zone” that it could not penetrate or could have penetrated only at unacceptable cost. The lesson is simple: To survive an attack on your homeland or forces, deny the United States control of the air. 

Russian-made sophisticated multi-layered integrated air defense systems (IADS) present the greatest threat. These comprise rapidly deployable and movable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and launchers, engagement and acquisition radars, over-the-horizon radars, high-speed data links and computer networks, variable wave radio frequency transmitters, and the like. The most advanced systems can track and engage targets out to 250 miles, thereby pushing Western air forces farther out from enemy territory. The missiles an adversary can field will almost always outnumber the planes that the U.S. Navy and Air Force can put in the air. These IADS are already deployed by China and Russia, and countries such as Iran and North Korea continue to invest in air defense systems. Even older model mobile SAMs can be lethally accurate and difficult to destroy. 

In addition, advanced Russian and Chinese tactical fighter aircraft, such as the Su-30 and its variants, and one day fifth-generation models like the PAK-FA or J-20 can provide a formidable air-to-air capability that will interdict U.S. planes far away from the field of battle or critical command and control nodes. These integrated defenses will threaten U.S. military planners with the prospect of unacceptable losses. Indeed, the likelihood of inflicting massive casualties on American ground troops and air forces may well serve to deter American intervention in the first place. 

The bad news for the Pentagon is that it has few arrows in its quiver. Not only will the Air Force shrink by 500 planes from previous plans, but existing IADS in Russia and China already may prove impermeable to all U.S. airplanes except the F-22 stealth fighter and B-2 stealth bomber. Older U.S. fighters, such as F-15s, F-16s, and carrier-launched F-18s, would be at high risk if tasked with penetrating such airspace or destroying such IADS. And despite superior training, our pilots will be coming up against increasingly modern and advanced fighters in U.S. warplanes many of which are 30 years old. 

There will be only up to 140 combat-capable F-22s, after the Obama administration and Congress killed production of the plane in 2009. It is unclear, moreover, how survivable the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be in heavily contested airspace, given its slower speed and constricted performance relative to the F-22. Our few B-2 bombers—we have only 20 of them—operate from extreme intercontinental distances, thus reducing the number of sorties they can carry out against multiple targets. As for standoff weapons such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, it is a needed part of the U.S. arsenal, but cannot be retargeted once launched, and thus is of less use against mobile SAM launchers. Nor does the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) revolution change things, as today’s remotely piloted drones cannot survive in highly defended airspace. 

Yet the president’s plans will almost necessarily make us more dependent on airpower. If the Obama administration wants to rely on airpower for future U.S. military success, then the already delayed and increasingly expensive F-35 must prove to be survivable within the IADS envelope; if not, then the Pentagon should trim the planned number of F-35s and restart the F-22 line (despite the cost), further enhancing the F-22’s air-to-ground attack capabilities. The Air Force must also build a stealthy and survivable next generation Long Range Strike Bomber in sufficient numbers (at least 200) to carry out any global mission. The military also needs to invest in better electronic warfare capabilities, such as that represented by the Navy’s EA-18G Growler. And, as the recent loss of an unmanned spy drone over Iran showed, we need to develop better advanced stealthy remotely piloted aircraft for reconnaissance and attack missions and electronic jamming. 

Warfighting is becoming more risky as authoritarian regimes modernize their forces. If the United States wants to retain the ability to respond successfully to crises across the globe with a leaner and more cost-effective force, then our leaders must recognize that maintaining control of the air is the starting point for U.S. military supremacy.

Correction: According to Raytheon officials, the new Block 4 Tomahawk missiles have a two-way data link that allows them to be retargetted mid-flight.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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