Commentary

Overkill from the Air

By Ivan Eland
April 5, 1999

The air war over Serbia and Kosovo is demonstrating a couple of things. The first is widely understood by the military but not by politicians: you can’t win a war using air power alone. The other is that, when it comes to air power, the United States is the preeminent nation in the world.

The Cold War has been over for a decade, and the air services of rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which are largely antiquated or devastated by war, represent a minimal threat. Yugoslavia’s air force is also mostly obsolete, but until a few days ago it did have 15 relatively modern MiG-29s. U.S. fighters have already destroyed about half of them. Although the Russian defense industry can still produce some quality aircraft, Russia’s economic crisis severely limits the quantities purchased and the all-important amount of training given to pilots. China is modernizing pockets of its antiquated air force only slowly, and its pilots receive substantially less training than do U.S. pilots.

Nevertheless, even as American fighter planes are once again putting their unchallenged superiority on display for all to see, the Pentagon and its friends in Congress are moving ahead with plans to build three new types of fighter aircraft.

The Department of Defense plans to buy F-22s for the Air Force, F/A-18E/Fs for the Navy and Joint Strike Fighters (a family of aircraft built for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps). The cost of those three programs is gargantuan-more than $300 billion. Despite short-term budget surpluses, huge unfunded liabilities in the Social Security program will constrain defense budgets in the decades to come. Budgetary problems aside, the United States does not need to buy all three types of aircraft to maintain its substantial advantages over the air services of other nations.

Realistically, the F-22 and F/A-18E/F should be cancelled and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) delayed.

The United States no longer needs the expensive F-22 stealth fighter that was designed primarily to provide air superiority against a significant opposing air force. In the future, it is improbable that any likely adversary could defeat an existing F-15E with upgraded electronics and missiles. (In an age when success in warfare depends more and more on electronics and precision weapons, rapid improvements in the air platforms that carry such devices are less necessary.)

With no great power likely to challenge U.S. air superiority for at least 20 to 30 years, the United States needs to emphasize buying aircraft (for example, the existing F-15E) with a substantial capability to attack ground targets. The F-22 would add little to the F-117 stealth aircraft’s ability to penetrate enemy air defenses, but it would cost twice as much as the F-15E. Furthermore, the F-22 depends too heavily on access to forward airfields to be useful in an environment in which potential enemies would probably use ballistic missiles to strike such vulnerable airbases.

The other plane that should be cancelled-a “modification” of the existing F/A-18C/D-is not as capable as the carrier aircraft that it’s supposed to replace. It has less range and fewer air-to-air capabilities than the F-14 air superiority fighter and has less range and can carry fewer bombs than the A-6 ground attack aircraft.

By purchasing the F/A-18E/F, the Navy is giving up range at a time when it needs to be increasing it. Increasing threats from coastal mines, diesel submarines and anti-ship missiles that can be fired from coastal batteries or small ships mean that aircraft carriers will have to remain farther and farther from shore. Thus, an aircraft with a longer range than the F/A-18E/F is needed to reach inland targets that are farther and farther away. A Navy version of the stealthy F-117 aircraft could substitute in the strike missions of the F/A-18E/F. The existing F/A-18C/D would probably suffice for future Navy air-to-air missions because the threat is low.

Because of a lull in the threat environment, the United States can wait to modernize its air services until after 2010. In fact, if the F-22 and the F/A-18E/F are produced now in large numbers, they will be obsolete if a significant threat arises in 20 or 30 years. The JSF-currently scheduled to begin production in the middle of the next decade-should be delayed until after 2010.

The minor war in the Balkans notwithstanding, we live in a threat environment in which three new tactical fighter programs can be whittled down to one with little adverse effect on U.S. security.

Ivan Eland is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.