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New Congress, New President and Future Air Power Risks for the U.S.

November 19, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Congress, the current President and the President-elect have been misinformed about the importance of the F-22. The capability of the U.S. to secure air dominance in future conflicts is being put at risk by senior Pentagon officials that don’t possess the skill-sets necessary to make long range plans for the U.S. air power road map.

F/A-22A Raptor #91-4005 flies a training mission over California. [U.S. Air Force photo]

The problem started at the end of the Cold War when the United States Air Force (USAF) slowed down and then eventually stopped procurement of fighter aircraft. New-build F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft have always been available for purchase. However, it was former USAF boss General Merrill McPeak who started the ball rolling for stealth-only fighter procurement by stating that there was no point in buying any more “aluminum” fighters.

This set in motion a behavior with follow-on USAF bosses where few and then no new- build F-15 and F-16s would be wired into USAF budgets. There were some years where Congress forced a few F-15 Strike Eagles down USAF’s throat in order to keep the production line open. What the USAF has today is a seriously geriatric fighter force where F-16s are starting to see their 7000th flight hour of service and F-15s having been grounded and flight restricted because of age. It is getting worse at a faster rate.

Recently USAF announced that it wanted to retire more fighter aircraft out of desperation of having no money to pay for sustaining them. Successive USAF leadership has put one of the most powerful military services on the planet into the sorry state that it is today and now Congress and the President will have to find a way to clean it up. This is surprising when one considers all of the taxpayer money shoveled into top “War Colleges” for senior USAF leaders so that they can manage and lead the service to success. Instead they have run it into the ground.

The fact is this: New build F-15s and F-16s can contribute significant combat power to current and future AEF’s. AEF stands for Air Expeditionary Force. This is the procedure USAF uses to compose deployment packages for various contingencies based on a cycle of time that runs through USAF units. It is one of the success stories in USAF planning and has done the service well for slotting in the right kind of manpower and equipment into a war/police-action deployment and having other follow-on deployments getting prepared in the locker room and on to the batting cage. USAF F-22 procurement plans are wired into this AEF structure. Or they were until the recent firing of the top USAF leaders some months back.

A stealth fighter is needed in the U.S. inventory. Fortunately the USAF already has a mature and powerful F-22 to conduct precision strikes in high threat air defense environments and to sweep enemy aircraft from the sky. This aircraft has no peer for the foreseeable future. Even if it wasn’t a stealth aircraft it has world-beating speed and altitude performance. Other stealth aircraft past and in development can’t make this claim. The F-22 is in production and has significant sensor and weapon growth-room upgrades. These upgrades were part of the original design and the only reason they were not put in was to meet original price targets. The F-22 upgrade cycle is highly useful and doable.

Once enemy aircraft, long range/high altitude surface-to-air-missile (SAM) sites, other targets such as high-profile command and control nodes or weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites are destroyed in the first nights of an air campaign, a stealth fighter isn’t needed much for the rest of the war. Conventional aircraft with inexpensive near all weather precision guided munitions (PGMs) can do the rest of the work. Remaining threats like low and medium altitude SAM sites, anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and trashfire, can’t reach high enough or long enough to hurt aircraft dropping PGMs. “I can bomb you, but you can’t touch me.”

The USAF isn’t just fighters. It runs a significant air-to-air refueling tanker fleet and massive airlift resources that are the key to winning any war once air domination is established. Yet large portions of airlift and tankers are in need of replacement. While the USAF needs the F-22 to establish air domination, don’t expect the rest of the U.S. military to be effective if the airlift and tanker fleet isn’t healthy. As it is now, most of the 1950’s vintage tanker fleet is only one catastrophic failure away from being grounded. One event like that could cripple U.S. fighting power for an unknown period of time.

The USAF also has to recapitalize many of it’s surveillance intelligence and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. Included in all of this is a seriously deficient USAF space satellite program that is grossly underfunded. And there is more.There are dreams of a new long range bomber for the USAF. With the former Secretary of the USAF stating last year that the last time he traded fighters for bombers (talking about the USAF as a whole not him) they ended up with twenty-some B-2 bombers. How a new expensive long range bomber will be paid for with all the current arterial bleeding is anyone’s guess. Most likely it won’t happen. There are just too many other things to pay for.

This leads to the F-35 program. If the USAF is willing to kill off large portions of communities listed above, it might be able to afford the F-35 in the numbers it wants. Given the recent economic meltdown and a new DC political change, it is doubtful that USAF will be able to afford the F-35 program unless it wants to slip even more into ruin. The aircraft is years from flying with complete software, real and tested war systems and all of the repair/fix work of early mistake-jets to do while production spools up during a seriously deficient amount of test hours on record. Yet certain people are hyping the system based on no flight testing of a finished ready-to-fight product.

Throughout the DOD, employees civil and military are taught and warned on the issue of conflict of interest. Part of that training is not just avoiding actual conflict of interest, but the appearance of it. It seems that some didn’t get the message. For example, Gordon England, the Assistant Secretary of Defense has been a consistent cheerleader for the F-35. He has also been a barrier to further F-22 procurement. He claims that the F-35 is somehow affordable and has the needed combat prowess for the future of the U.S. military. This message then gets across to John Young, the top Pentagon procurement official, who’s latest language having to do with the F-35 sounds like a Lockmart press release. This erroneous message is then passed to the boss of the U.S. Defense Department Mr. Gates. From this, the message is pushed that the F-35 will solve all the tactical fighter aircraft recapitalization issues with the U.S. military. All of this when the Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle, F-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-22 are proven and in production. The appearance of conflict of interest? Both Mr. England and Mr. Young have strong ties to the Lockheed Martin fighter factory in Fort Worth, Texas where the F-35 is being developed. As DOD employees, this by itself should eliminate them from having any influence with the F-35 program. As it stands now, the Pentagon is lock-step with Lockheed Martin marketing spin to sell the F-35 no matter what.

If the USAF is ever to save it’s fighter force for the long term, production of the F-22 as well as the F-15 and F-16 is a must so as to properly fill out the USAF AEF structure with reliable combat power. Cutting F-22 aircraft production off at around 200 airframes as well as not buying new F-15’s and F-16s will prevent this from happening.

If F-22 production is cancelled soon, the first of these aircraft will have to start retirement some time in the 2020’s. Since there is no aircraft on the drawing board with F-22 performance and the fact that development of such an aircraft can take as much as 20 or more years until reaching military service, an early closing of the F-22 line is too dangerous. The gap and unknown years of what lies ahead is too much to risk. With the U.S. in serious debt, the country can’t afford not to continue F-22 production for some time. The U.S. no longer has the fiscal power to develop some kind of F-22 replacement in the coming years.

Placing all the bets on the yet unproven F-35 is a short-sighted gamble that lacks sound military preparedness to keep the country secure. Senior U.S. Defense leadership is selling the future of air power down the river based on the unfounded claims of superb F-35 performance and value. Some senior DOD employees are giving the appearance of acting like government paid industry lobbyists. For the sake of the nation’s future defense, it should be the job of the new Congress and President to fix these wrongs.

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Additional images:

F-22A Raptor #91-4008, flown by Maj. John Teichert, releases a guided bomb unit-32 1,000-pound joint direct attack munitions at supersonic speed for the first time near California's Panamint Mountain range. Major Teichert is a test pilot assigned to the 411th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. [U.S. Air Force photo by Darin Russell]

Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald (left), a weapons load crew chief, checks his technical orders after loading two joint direct attack munitions onto an F/A-22 Raptor. The sergeant and the Raptors, from the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., deployed here at Hill aFB to take part in exercise Combat Hammer. The jets have a twofold goal: complete a deployment and to generate a combat-effective sortie rate away while deployed. [U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers]

An F/A-22 Raptor flown by Maj. David Thole breaks away after completing a training mission June 23 with an F-16 Fighting Falcon flown by Maj. Alex Grynkewich. Major Thole is assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, and Major Grynkewich is from the 53rd Test and Evaluation Group. [U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald]