Overkill from the Air


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 roguestates such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, which are largely antiquated ordevastated by war, represent a minimal threat. Yugoslavia’s air force isalso mostly obsolete, but until a few days ago it did have 15 relativelymodern MiG‐​29s. U.S. fighters have already destroyed about half of them.Although the Russian defense industry can still produce some qualityaircraft, Russia’s economic crisis severely limits the quantities purchasedand the all‐​important amount of training given to pilots. China ismodernizing pockets of its antiquated air force only slowly, and its pilotsreceive substantially less training than do U.S. pilots.

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

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

Realistically, the F‑22 and F/A‑18E/F should be cancelled and the JointStrike Fighter (JSF) delayed.

The United States no longer needs the expensive F‑22 stealth fighter thatwas designed primarily to provide air superiority against a significantopposing air force. In the future, it is improbable that any likelyadversary could defeat an existing F‑15E with upgraded electronics andmissiles. (In an age when success in warfare depends more and more onelectronics and precision weapons, rapid improvements in the air platformsthat carry such devices are less necessary.)

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

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

By purchasing the F/A‑18E/F, the Navy is giving up range at a time when itneeds to be increasing it. Increasing threats from coastal mines, dieselsubmarines and anti‐​ship missiles that can be fired from coastal batteriesor small ships mean that aircraft carriers will have to remain farther andfarther from shore. Thus, an aircraft with a longer range than theF/​A‑18E/​F is needed to reach inland targets that are farther and fartheraway. A Navy version of the stealthy F‑117 aircraft could substitute in thestrike missions of the F/A‑18E/F. The existing F/A‑18C/D would probablysuffice 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 tomodernize its air services until after 2010. In fact, if the F‑22 and theF/​A‑18E/​F are produced now in large numbers, they will be obsolete if asignificant threat arises in 20 or 30 years. The JSF‐​currently scheduled tobegin production in the middle of the next decade‐​should be delayed untilafter 2010.

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

Ivan Eland

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