There were a number of reasons last week to look up to the sky and wonder about the future of airpower. In a world in which the United States will have smaller ground and naval forces, we will likely become more dependent on land- and sea-based airpower to deter or defeat enemies. The proper employment of air assets as part of a joint force allows for nearly instantaneous response to crises, saves American lives, and can bring pinpoint devastation to an enemy’s forces and command-and-control systems. Yet along with the sunshine, clouds dot the airpower horizon.
Last Tuesday, the last F-22 Raptor rolled off the production line, ending the program at 186 planes, a fraction of the 750 originally planned. The Raptor is widely hailed as the finest air-superiority fighter ever made. Yet the Pentagon has consistently refused to deploy it in combat or for reconaissance duties in the Middle East. Moreover, problems with the oxygen-generation system grounded the F-22 fleet for months this year, and a permanent fix has not yet been found. Yet with all the research and development finished on the plane, each new F-22 was costing just about $150 million. More important, the F-22 is likely the only fighter that retains the ability to penetrate the airspace of any potential adversary, due to its speed, stealth, and operational ceiling. As Iran inches closer to an atomic bomb and tensions in Asia continue, the F-22 served as both a symbol and a guarantor of U.S. control of the skies. Unfortunately, 186 F-22s are far too few to be able to assure U.S. military commanders of the freedom of action they will need in the future.
That brings us to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, initially envisioned as the second half of the U.S. tactical strike force, along with the Raptor. The good news is that, last week, Japan apparently decided to purchase the F-35 as its replacement fighter for the next generation, thus adding to the number of U.S. allies who will be operating the plane in numbers by the next decade.
But the F-35 is plagued by continued development delays and rising unit costs. Most worrisome is a new Defense Department report that recommends slowing down early production of the planes, after identifying eight major design problems. While such a slowdown in production may be a prudent move to ensure the long-term viability of the program, it was a combination of development delays and procurement cuts that ultimately doomed the F-22. If the Pentagon is not vigilant about protecting the rate of development of the plane, its unit costs will rise, thereby increasing the pressure to make further cuts in the buying cycle, and possibly threatening the purchases by U.S. allies and partners. While questions remain as to how well the F-35 will be able to carry out missions designed for the F-22, any significant cut in its final numbers will leave American ability to control the air in serious doubt.
Given problems in manned-aircraft programs, many have argued in recent years for a fundamental shift to remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), also known as drones. The past two weeks have dramatically shown the limitations of such systems. One of the U.S. government’s most advanced spy drones was lost over Iran and captured by the Iranian government. Washington explained that the drone malfunctioned, while Teheran claimed it hacked into the drone and brought it down electronically. Whatever the explanation, some of America’s most sensitive technology is now in the hands of an enemy regime that will very likely share it with Beijing or Moscow, or both. On the heels of this, another U.S. drone malfunctioned and crash-landed in the Seychelles, off the east coast of Africa. Whether these were isolated incidents, separate yet serious operating flaws, or possible cyber attacks remains to be determined, both events underscore the dangers of overreliance on RPVs that cannot survive in contested airspace. (Of course, one could argue it would have been far worse for a manned spy plane to be brought down over Iran.)
Little of this would matter if other nations were not building up their offensive and defensive air capabilities. Russia, for example, took delivery of four more Su-34 advanced fighter-bombers last week, part of a buy expected to reach around 120 planes. This follows on the continued development of Russia’s indigenous fifth-generation fighter, the PAK-50. Meanwhile, China continues designing its own stealth fighter, the J-20, and retires older J-7s and J-8s, while building advanced Su-30 fighters. Perhaps even more threatening is the ongoing deployment of sophisticated integrated air defense systems (IADS) by Russia and China, and less capable, but still dangerous, air defenses by Iran, North Korea, and other nations. On top of all this, the threat to our aircraft carriers is growing due to supersonic cruise missiles, submarines, and early-stage anti-ship ballistic missiles being pursued by China.
Since the United States must operate at great intercontinental distances, the numbers of advanced planes we can put in the air matters a great deal. They must be supported by tankers, which themselves have to be protected. Munitions, fuel, replacement parts, and other supplies must be forwardly located, either on U.S. air bases abroad or on other friendly territory. While our pilots are the world’s best trained, at some point they cannot overcome the tyranny of numbers or the strain of constantly operating far from home territory.
Airpower will remain the bedrock necessity for America’s joint force. From intelligence gathering to global airlift, from strategic bombing to combat air support, U.S. forces will rely even more on just-in-time delivery to ensure operational success. America’s defense planners must make sure that the events of the past few weeks do not herald a shift in the balance of airpower. The alternative would bring about a more dangerous world that will further tax America’s strength and will.
— Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute.