The asymmetric advantage that the U.S. military possesses ― and that has prevented enemy aircraft attacks on American ground forces since April 15, 1953 ― is eroding.
The U.S. faces a reemergence of great power competition, and although we have maintained air superiority since the Korean War, it has to be fought for and won. Fifth-generation aircraft with stealth capability are required to survive in today’s air defenses, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is the only active fifth-generation fighter production line among friendly nations. It is time to procure what is needed to protect our troops.
Air superiority ensures quicker victories and, perhaps, prevents war in the first place. Parity diminishes detente leading to protracted ground wars with massive casualties on both sides.
Theater commanders have grown accustomed to operating with air superiority. Army, Marine Corps and allied ground forces can concentrate on the battle at hand and do not have to look up when they hear aircraft above. During the Gulf War, allied fighters, tankers, surveillance aircraft and bombers enjoyed freedom of movement in the skies, and coalition forces capitalized with unhindered ground movements while we were able to attack the enemy at will from the air.
We need to remove the presumption that the U.S. will maintain air superiority into the foreseeable future without drastic changes. We are on track to lose this capability within the next 10-15 years. America has rising near-peer competitors, and its outdated fourth-generation aircraft are outclassed ― and in some theaters, outnumbered by its competitors. Given its grave implications, parity is not an acceptable goal in warfare. Russia and China are catching up in fifth-generation fighters and cybersecurity, and they have already surpassed the U.S. in hypersonic missiles and technology.
The Air Force has the oldest, smallest and least-ready force in its 70-year history. It is weary after 27 continuous years of combat operations, dating back to the beginning of the Gulf War. Since 1991’s Gulf War, the Air Force has drawn down from 134 to only 55 fighter squadrons. They need 70 to deter aggressors and, if needed, to win decisively. Including training, tests and backup aircraft, they need approximately 2,100 fighter aircraft.
Losing air superiority is not an option.
We can’t take air superiority for granted because, without control of the skies, all military endeavors are at risk.
Since World War II, no enemy’s major military offensive has been victorious against a military who controlled the skies. No defense has been successful against a military who had air superiority. No nation that maintained control of the air has lost a war. The British averted the German invasion in World War II by winning the Battle of Britain air campaign. Today, the U.S. and allied successes in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Syria have all been underwritten by air superiority ― a required precondition for military victory.
The American people and Congress must decide what kind of Air Force it wants.
We need to rapidly build a fifth-generation fighter capability with true stealth, integrated avionics and a sensor fusion required for survivability against today’s layered and integrated air defenses. As sensor-shooters, F-35s can seamlessly communicate with other fighters, bombers and surveillance sensors as they fly to, in and from the battlespace. Pilots gain the threat and friendly airspace operating picture before getting airborne. When munitions are expended, they can act as mini airborne warning and control systems platforms able to guide legacy aircraft onto targets.
Some suggest we buy additional, new fourth-generation fighters. This is a fool’s bargain. Buying “new old legacy” fighters is no longer cost-effective, as the price per aircraft is roughly the same as an F-35A, while offering far less lethality and survivability.
The Air Force’s procurement of 46 F-35As annually is inadequate to recapitalize F-16 and A-10 fleets. By comparison, during peak production, Air Force F-16s were procured at a rate of 180 aircraft per year. At the current rate, by the time the last F-35As are completed, the oldest Joint Strike Fighters will be nearing the end of their service life or lethality. A respected fighter pilot friend characterized this as “force structure suicide.”
Congress understands that mistake, and thankfully, congressional appropriators boosted this year’s F-35A buy from 46 to 56 in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending act. However, the Air Force should already be procuring 60 to 80 F-35As and ramping up to 110 per year, per its original plan. The latest increase in defense spending is only a short two-year deal and offers no guarantee for the future.
We need the F-35As to operate in the Pacific, Middle East and Europe to thwart our emerging and peer threats. By capitalizing on economies of scale and savings through multiyear procurement contracts, we can deliver even greater affordability and lethality to our airmen and to our allies. Parties on both sides of the negotiation table could save the most money for taxpayers using a block buy and then securing a multiyear contract.
Air superiority 10 years from now must deal simultaneously with air, space and cyberspace domains. Airmen must exploit information, knowledge and decision capabilities, and the Air Force needs to rapidly develop the tools for all three domains. Anything less is unfair to our airmen, our ground war fighters and our taxpayers.
This week marks the 65th year since U.S. ground troops were killed by an enemy aircraft. At the present pace of investment, it is unlikely that our ground forces will be as lucky for the next 65 years.
Keith Zuegel is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and earned a Silver Star in Operation Desert Storm. He is currently the Air Force Association’s senior director of government relations.