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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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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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