A few years ago a US Air Force pilot bragged that since 1943 no American ground soldier has had to fight under enemy air superiority. Strong fighter squadrons equipped with state of the art aircraft flown by well-trained pilots have long been a unique US strength. Ever since the end of World War Two no enemy has been able to dispute US air supremacy over the battlefield. The US Air Force has occasionally been challenged over the enemy homeland, as it was in the early days of the Korean and Vietnam wars, but in the end the US dominated the skies over their capital cites, Pyongyang and Hanoi.
Until recently the US commitment to making sure that the Air Force was the best in the world has been unmistakeable. In 2002, the 71st Fighter Squadron was equipped with 24 F-15Cs, which, before the F-22A, was America's premier air superiority fighter. The 71st was one of three squadrons of the elite 1st Fighter Wing based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Even after the post Cold War reductions, the Defense Department deliberately chose too keep this Fighter wing at full strength and fully trained.Then, in September of this year, the 71st Fighter Squadron was disbanded. This leaves the 1st Fighter wing with just two weak squadrons of F-22As. For any administration to put our critical US advantage in air superiority fighters at risk is an act of extreme recklessness.
Now the top leaders at the Pentagon are beginning to wonder if they have not been a bit hasty in their drive to shut down the production of the F-22A air superiority fighter. They recently gave orders to preserve the tool needed to build the aircraft and to make an extraordinary video record of the skills and methods used by the man and women who actually work on the assembly line -- a sign that the administration may realize that they will need to restart F-22A production at some future point.
If the White House and the Defense Department choose to do so, they will have plenty of political cover. The original decision to cut F-22A production was made by George W. Bush's Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and has been supported over the years by Senator John Mac Cain (R Arizona) -- so the decision to cancel the aircraft can be easily presented as a bipartisan mistake. Everyone involved in saving the F-22A is acutely aware that they will be saving tens of thousands of jobs. They will also find that keeping the production line going will send a message of renewed strength and determination to America's adversaries overseas. Making this move now instead of waiting for a dangerous foreign crisis to erupt would be in stark contrast to President Jimmy Carter's dismal final years in office. In 1979-1980 the hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed Carter into announcing a major increase in the Defense budget. By then it was far too late for him to change the perception of wimpiness that he had projected during the first part of his term.
In its time the F-15 was an awesome flying and fighting machine with an outstanding combat record in the hands of mostly American and Israeli pilots, Yet it was designed more than 40 years ago. It has been updated with better electronics, engines and weapons, but it remains the same basic aircraft it was when it was first deployed, as the F-15A ,in 1975.
The Air Force planned to replace the F-15C with the F-22A, a superior aircraft whose capabilities are only now being understood. The F-22A is the first true air-to-air stealth fighter, and one of the very few planes ever that can fly supersonically without rapidly running out of fuel. Most importantly, it is one of the very few planes in the US arsenal that can be counted on to survive attacks by the latest generation of Surface-to-Air-Missiles. In the hands of well-trained pilots, it should be able to dominate the skies in the same way as the F-15.
The key to the F-15's success was not only that it was a superior aircraft, but also that it was available in adequate numbers. Its replacement, the F-22, no matter how good a fighter, cannot succeed if it is purchased in minimal numbers. According to current plans, only 187 F-22As are being built. These may be the best fighters in the world, but they cannot be in two places at the same time.
The Air Force originally wanted more and 700 F-22As, but during the budget fights of the early years of the Bush administration the number was cut to fewer than 400 -- just barely enough to create 10 strong squadrons, one for each of the 10 Air Expeditionary Forces, and extras for training, maintenance and reserves. In 2005, however, this was cut by OMB to just 180.
The dramatic reduction in US air superiority forces was challenged by the Air Force's leaders. In 2008, fed up with their constant lobbying for more F-22As Secretary of Defense Bob Gates fired both Michael Wynne the Secretary of the Air Force, and General Michael Mosley the Air Force Chief of Staff. The rest of the Air Force leadership got the message and quieted down.
Meanwhile, Secretary Gates and his team promised that the Ar Force would soon receive the new F-35A previously known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF program, begun by Bill Clinton's first Defense Secretary, Les Aspin was supposed to be the ultimate affordable aircraft; versions of it are planned for the Marines and the Navy, as well as for many of our NATO allies, Israel and others.Like many complex programs with an international component, however, the price has gone up dramatically, and the the first operational units will not be available until at least 2016. Another problem that will undoubtedly add to the overall cost of the program is that many nations which had planned to buy a large number of F-35s in various versions are now cutting back. The UK, for example, has just announced a major cut in their plans to buy F-35, and it appears that Italy may follow suit.
Given the delays in F-35 development and production, a decision to continue building F-22As would not only make sense, but would send a strong signal that the US is determined to keep its ability to establish air superiority over just about any battlefield on the planet. The sooner the decision is made, the less it will cost to restart production of those F-22 components whose production has already stopped: the more aircraft built ,the lower the cost per plane.
There is a story that a few weeks after D Day, when General Eisenhower was visiting the beachhead with his son, who had just graduated from West Point, the young lieutenant turned to his father and said "Without air superiority you'd never have been able to do this." His father replied "Hell, without air superiority we wouldn't be here." Years later it is still true: without air superiority, American victory is not possible.