Last Tuesday, Lt. General David Deptula — head of the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance section and key architect of the First Gulf War’s air campaign — spoke at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Washington. He warned that the proliferation of “anti-access” weapons like long-range precision missiles and advanced air defense systems (such as new surface-to-air missile systems and fighters comparable to the F-22 Raptor) would mean that the United States’ historical dominance of the air was eroding. In addition, U.S. dominance of space – whether reconnaissance or GPS satellites — would not longer go uncontested. But it’s unclear what the United States military can do to combat or reverse this trend while avoiding the increased militarization of space.
Of Gen. Deptula’s two other main points, his argument about anti-access threats — which deny the Air Force the use of airstrips and other staging areas in a particular theater of combat — is the most credible and worrying. But the anti-access threat undercuts the rationale for systems like the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. These relatively short-ranged fighters need bases close to the zone of conflict from which to operate, and are therefore especially vulnerable to anti-access weapons. Long-range strategic bombers like the B-2 Spirit or B-52 Stratofortress can carry more weapons from bases well outside the range of anti-access weapons. If Deptula is right on this point (and I happen to think he could be), then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ postponement of developing the so-called Next Generation Bomber is a mistake — albeit one that can be corrected.
However, Deptula’s assertion that Russia and China are developing “fifth generation” fighters with “near F-22 performance” that will be produced en masse in the near future warrants skepticism. The most immediate example, the Russian PAK-FA hasn’t yet flown, has been repeatedly delayed in its first flight (it was to have flown last August but didn’t), and no one really knows what it really looks like or what its performance will be.
By comparison, it took the USAF six years to get from the concept YF-22 to the first production-type airframe in 1997, and then another 8 years to get to initial operating capability in 2005. The F-35 had its first production-style airframe flight in 2006, and won’t reach IOC until 2012 according to current projections and plans — about 6 years of projected development to get to an operational aircraft, even with the experience with similar systems on the F-22. Being generous, the PAK-FA is probably looking at at least another 10 years before it enters service with the Russian air force — if ever. By which point the United States will probably be working on whatever will replace both the F-22 and F-35.
At the same time, the Russians continue to invest in upgrades to their highly capable current-generation frontline fighter, the Su-27 Flanker — which indicates Russia probably doesn’t have a whole lot of confidence that the PAK-FA will be coming online anytime soon.
And then there are measures beyond sheer platform performance. Things like pilot skill, tactics and integrated strategy, and especially training — which is extremely important, as it doesn’t matter how sophisticated planes are if your pilots never are able to fly and develop tactics for them — are all areas where the U.S. Air Force is far ahead of potential challengers and competitors. These are all areas where the likes of Hugo Chavez — who has bought advanced Su-27 derivatives — simply cannot compete with the United States. And the Russian air force’s performance in last year’s brief war with Georgia doesn’t paint a positive picture of Moscow’s ability to conduct an integrated air campaign.
Surface-to-air missiles are different animal, and are cheaper and easier to use in isolation from an integrated air strategy than high-performance fighters. Gen. Deptula is right to worry about the threat from the current generation of Russian SAMs, but unless he thinks they can target the F-22 and F-35 — and therefore that the U.S. government has wasted huge sums of money in an effort to make these two planes as stealthy as possible — it seems unlikely the United States will be in danger of losing air dominance as the F-35 begins entering service in quantity over the next decade.
While we should exercise caution about the F-35’s development schedule and acknowledge geopolitical uncertainties, it’s unclear as to who or what the United States will be fighting over the next ten years that will make its current and projected mix of conventional and stealthy aircraft so vulnerable as to erode its current air dominance. According to the Air Force itself, the United States currently has far more F-22s in service (134) than Venezuela does Su-27 derivatives (24). Iran’s top-line fighters are 25 aging MiG-29 Fulcrums, a type repeatedly bested by American pilots since the 1991 Gulf War. Other countries who have bought upgraded Su-27s like China and India are unlikely to become threats in the near future — and in any case, it will be extremely difficult for tactical fighters like the F-22 or F-35 to be involved in an air campaign given the distances from the closest land bases.
Should we be complacent about the state of American air power? No. General Deptula has made some legitimate points about potential vulnerabilities. But he probably underestimates the capabilities of our own systems, tactics, and people while presuming the best about those we might face. The Air Force faces a number of problems: the aging of its current aircraft fleet, difficulties adapting to the irregular war paradigm, and continuing procurement issues. However, these problems aren’t well-served by dire pronouncements about the erosion of U.S. air dominance.