Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority

03.03.09

Categorie: Air |

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I hate Pentagonese. You know, that creole of technical jargon, PC NewSpeak and corporate blah-blah that passes for King’s English in the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s Pentagonese that gave us terms like “warfighter,” “Effects-Based Operations” and “maritime domain,” when “soldier,” “strategic bombing” and “ocean” worked just fine.

A favorite term in Pentagonese is “system.” In over-caffeinated early-morning hours, some Potomac types even talk about “systems of systems,” which is really just a tidy way of avoiding those pesky particulars where weapons programs succeed or fail.

But in one case, the particulars have come to dominate a debate, at the expense of truth and reason. When officers, assistant secretaries of defense, industry officials and reporters talk about “air superiority,” they almost always talk about only the particulars — that is, specific models of fighter jet — while ignoring the system. We do this at our peril, for air superiority, more than most military functions, truly is a complex system where no single component works alone.

And that’s mostly lost in the debate over whether to build more than the currently-funded 187 F-22 Raptors, and how many of the follow-on F-35 Lightnings we need. Those airplanes are just parts of the Air Force’s air-superiority system, and arguably not even the most important parts. I would argue that our myopic focus on fighter jets in recent years has allowed the overall system to decay. In planning for the future, we need to re-frame the F-22/F-35 discussion in the context of maintaining the Air Force’s air-superiority system, rather than maintaining particular fighter fleets.

Consider all the aspects of air superiority you rarely hear about in public debate:

* Maintenance of airplanes, weapons, airfields and ground equipment

* Training of pilots, ground staff and air controllers

* Command and control, whether airborne or ground-based

* Weapons, including guns and ammo and air-to-air missiles

* Electronic warfare for passive reconnaissance and jamming enemy systems

* Aerial refueling for extending the range of fighters and support planes

Without all these things, an F-22 is just a $140-million lawn ornament. Allowing any of the above to decay reduces the F-22′s effectiveness. Improving any of the above makes the F-22 better at its job. The best air-superiority systems balance these different factors inside the boundaries of affordability.

For instance, which of these is better:

* An air-superiority system comprising, say, 381 F-22s with 60-percent readiness, two pilots per plane, no electronic jamming and very aged tankers, or

* A system, costing roughly the same, but comprising 187 F-22s plus 200 brand-new F-15E+s, with a combined 75-percent readiness, three pilots per plane, a new jamming plane and the first installments on a robust fleet of new tankers?

I’d take the latter, or even cut the overall 380-strong air-superiority fighter force by a quarter in order to further boost readiness, pilot training and electronic warfare. But the U.S. Air Force seems to prefer the former, pushing to buy as many “fifth-generation” fighters as possible, while abandoning electronic warfare and repeatedly failing to procure new tankers.

The Navy, by contrast, agrees with me. In the late 1990s, the sea service realized that it could not afford large, diverse fleets of stealth fighters without gutting the rest of its air-superiority system. So it opted to buy the evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, F/A-18E/F fighter, while investing heavily in sensor upgrades (via electronically scanned radars) and electronic warfare (in the form of EA-18G Growlers). The result is a Navy fighter fleet that is now overall healthier and in many ways more capable than the Air Force’s, and a Navy air-superiority system that is more balanced than the Air Force’s and probably more reliable and effective in wartime.

(Photo: Navy)

Related:
More fighter-jet hyperventilating
Growler Chomps on Raptor
A U.S. Navy F-22? Don’t Hold Your Breath
Nearly 100,000 Jobs Depend on the F-22? Not Really
Only 60 More Raptors? Everybody Panic!
Russian Super-Fighter Not So Scary
In 2014, the F-35 Might Cost More than the F-22
600 F-22s? Hilarious
F-35 jumps the shark
Raptors in Japan
New Russian fighter to challenge F-35
The amazing shrinking air force

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20 Responses to “Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority”

  1. Scathsealgaire says:

    System of Systems? SOS.
    Yup the pentagon is in trouble alright.

  2. Matt S says:

    Nice article. I wish the USAF would be more practical and advocate functionality rather than just being slaves to politicians who have jobs at stake in their states. They need to come up with some solution. if it has to be 183 F-22s and a couple hundred F-15E’s then they will have to make it work.

  3. Aaron says:

    Yet another reason to eliminate the airforce. Return tactical forces including close air support(a-10) and tactical bombing (F-15/16/18/35/etal) and move those to the army.
    Take air superiority (same list) and long range strike (strategic strike) and move those to the navy.
    Maybe rename them Tactical Forces and Strategic Forces respectively.
    As for the future forces- consider 350-580 F-22′s and drop the proposed purchase of 2300 f-35′s buy down to a couple hundred mostly the b version.

  4. J. says:

    See, you need to be better edjucated on Pentagonese. What you’re describing as an air-superiority system is a “family of systems” that provides air dominance capability, that is, a series of independent programs that work together to provide a capability. The FCS program is a “family of systems.” A “system of systems” is when you have a single acquisition program that requires several discrete sub-systems that do not work independently, for instance, an artillery cannon requires a resupply vehicle and a fire direction center. See? It’s simple.

  5. D says:

    The Navy and the Air Force take a “theologically” different view of airpower, which leads them to different decisions on the value of LO airframes amid the universe of required capabilities. The Navy views air superiority as a transient condition, to be gained for the purposes of a relatively quick strike. “Burn a hole in the sky,” as they say. This, I think, has led the Navy to favor the role of jamming much more strongly than the Air Force, and has led to less focus (although no zero focus) on low observability. The Navy has also been concerned about the task of maintaining a “hangar queen” built of exotic materials on a carrier, with limited space and a salt water environment.

    For the Air Force, they view air superiority (“air dominance”) as a condition to be seized and maintained on a permanent basis, to enable total freedom of movement for purposes of strike, ISR, and mobility operations.

    I suspect the decision, frankly, will come down to the politics: The Obama administration will not request further F-22s, but will insert money for activities related to F-22s (line shut down, milcon, configuration standardization, etc.). This will give the administration the ability to say it is making hard choices and bowing to the demands of a revised defense strategy. But it will do this in the full knowledge that the Congress is likely to reprogram the money to keep the line active. Everybody wins.

  6. [...] War Is Boring When officers, assistant secretaries of defense, industry officials and reporters talk about “air superiority,” they almost always talk about only the particulars — that is, specific models of fighter jet — while ignoring the system. [...]

  7. Steve W says:

    Lurking behind all these debates are the oncoming tsunami of swarms.

    Air superiority by networked autonomous meat-based systems is achieved daily by flocks of geese, swarms of locusts, clouds of bacteria, etc. If a few geese can drop an airliner, how well could a replenished swarm of geesebots bottle up an air wing? The point is to start thinking in “meta-ecological” terms, and looking for biomimetic concepts. A thousaand networked drones will kill a piloted fighter assault.

  8. Matt S. says:

    “As for the future forces- consider 350-580 F-22’s and drop the proposed purchase of 2300 f-35’s buy down to a couple hundred mostly the b version. ”

    Can you imagine the mutiny that would result from only buying the B version? What about all the foreign customers? I’m not saying i necessarily disagree with the force structure you’re proposing but the money lost in foreign sales would be huge. That said the B version of th F-35 is the most important. Without it, the USMC, RB, italian Navy, Spanish Navy, Possibly RAN would not have VSTOL aircraft for their carriers.

  9. RPB says:

    Hahahaha

    A new F-15E costs $80-100 million. I’d rather have the F-22s with their significant ELINT, penetration and air combat capabilities and new tankers. Take 100 F-22s plus new tankers and increase readiness.

    Recall that we are in a near depression. Though I do not believe stimulus packages work in practive, nor does this latest package constitute what can be described as a “stimulus package,” building more F-22s can be used as a form of stimulus. There is no contest when its F-22 vs. any other plane. Why give enemies a chance with F-15s?

  10. [...] March 8, 2009 in stupid procurement David Axe: For instance, which of these is better: [...]

  11. [...] A couple weeks ago I argued that in the national debate over air superiority, we’ve been too focused on specific models of fighter jets and how many of them we should buy, when the overall air-superiority system includes much more than just fighter jets. Training, in particular, is often overlooked. [...]

  12. [...] If air power is a function of complex families of systems, in which you must have adequate numbers of fighters without short-changing pilot training, weapons and supporting aircraft, then Super Hornets and Silent Eagles are arguably better than F-22s and F-35s, for they can be bought in large numbers that still afford us funds for all these other systems. [...]

  13. [...] Related: Boeing Unveils New “Stealthy” F-15 Getting the Most from Your New F-22 F-22s to Darfur? Not so Fast … Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority More fighter-jet hyperventilating Growler Chomps on Raptor A U.S. Navy F-22? Don’t Hold Your Breath Nearly 100,000 Jobs Depend on the F-22? Not Really Only 60 More Raptors? Everybody Panic! Russian Super-Fighter Not So Scary In 2014, the F-35 Might Cost More than the F-22 600 F-22s? Hilarious F-35 jumps the shark Raptors in Japan New Russian fighter to challenge F-35 The amazing shrinking air force No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  14. [...] Related: Analysts: Buy Fighters, or Die Boeing Unveils New “Stealthy” F-15 Getting the Most from Your New F-22 F-22s to Darfur? Not so Fast … Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority More fighter-jet hyperventilating Growler Chomps on Raptor A U.S. Navy F-22? Don’t Hold Your Breath Nearly 100,000 Jobs Depend on the F-22? Not Really Only 60 More Raptors? Everybody Panic! Russian Super-Fighter Not So Scary In 2014, the F-35 Might Cost More than the F-22 600 F-22s? Hilarious F-35 jumps the shark Raptors in Japan New Russian fighter to challenge F-35 The amazing shrinking air force 6 Comments so far Leave a comment [...]

  15. [...] Related: Congressional Budget Office’s Plans to Save the Air Force Air Force Turns a Corner Gates Budgetpalooza: Air Force Loses Altitude The Day U.S. Air Power Was Saved from Itself F-22s versus Russia’s Rusting, Ramshackle Air Force Analysts: Buy Fighters, or Die Boeing Unveils New “Stealthy” F-15 Getting the Most from Your New F-22 Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority Air Force “going out of business” No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  16. [...] The Emerging U.S. Counter-Insurgency Air Force U.S. Air Force’s Failure of Imagination Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority 0 Comments No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack [...]

  17. [...] Next” The Emerging U.S. Counter-Insurgency Air Force U.S. Air Force’s Failure of Imagination Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority What’s Wrong with the F-22? Gates Budgetpalooza: Air Force Loses Altitude The Day U.S. Air Power [...]

  18. LEG says:

    1. Ask any Eagle Driver (you sure can’t tell’em much…) and if they are not required by national security to lie to your face, they will tell you that an F-15 with CFT performs like a cement truck on skates.

    2. It doesn’t intuitively make sense to hold open a line for fighter manufacture solely to ensure ‘better operational synergy’ in a fleet with more types requiring more diverse spares. There must be a deliberate decision to build down one capability and build up another, with a transition threshold of a X-risk.

    3. In 1991, for a couple days, we went downtown with a couple ‘Gorilla Packages’ of mixed F-16s (A/C.25/C.30) with Pratt and GE engines. The older, largely Pratt powered jets, couldn’t keep up. And when the the last ones got there and the jammers went off station and they took it in the teeth. Point Being: having a bad mix of systems can get you nailed to a cross. Either because they don’t work well together due to age. Or because they work under such different operational parameters that they are incompatible, operationally.

    4. The F-22 can drop four bombs from 80nm and shoot four (JDRADM) AAMs at SAM radars or control vans from at least 50. This kind of conceptual change is not -just- about defeating threat air but rather devalidating it by moving the total engagement area out of the region in which sensor overlaps can give the enemy a real shot at forcing the engagement.
    Conversely, EA/EW is about rollback to -allow- penetration and that has a fixed range threshold both under which burnthru is a given. And past which, the inner WEZ is unperturbed. One counter to this (in fighter sized jammer apertures) is the use of AESAs with high peak power. But the cooling requirements are so huge (perhaps twice those of an AESA radar) that if you can’t ‘sneak a technique’ as cyberwarfare algorithm, rapidly past the aperture frontend, you’re still not in a winning situation, even with VLO baseline signatures. So, while jamming can (as a network effect with sacrificial aircraft, deep in the enemy defensive belts) achieve a -general- state of defensive uncertainty, it does not compare to iron on the antenna. Which basically requires a lot of UAVs with optics and radar, sanitizing empty dirt. Or some really lucky SWOs on the ground, looking at road traffic. Asset Saturation = cheap and dirt exchange ratios where the value of the site is greater than the system it is shooting at. Mission Saturation comes from putting the enemy at risk over such a duration from a cheap platform that they cannot assume their primary role shooting at larger ones (because they are emcon’d out of the fight or on the road, displacing from a compromised position).

    5. Better Bullets Beats Better Rifles.
    A dogfight missile runs around a quarter million. A radar missile about half. A decent secure datalink system maybe eight hundred grande, not including any airframe changes. A towed decoy with competent techniques generator about a million five. It is often easier and more effective to upgrade.

    5. Swarming is a good idea. The problem is that it hurts U.S. first. First off, there is a lower end threshold limit to the kinds of performance you want to get. The ADM-160 MALD (aka FIM-160 MALI) gives a 230nm range with about 5 minutes of Mach 1.4 ‘F-22 mimic’ capability. In it’s interceptor version (designed to shoot down cruise missiles, over the horizon) it would be able to lock on after launch. All in a system about 8ft long and 200lbs Half the size of an AIM-54 Phoenix with similar performance capabilities. Throw a bunch of those at the U.S. ISR cluster of UAVs and converted airliners and we be scrood dude.

    OTOH, to get it to kill fighters, you would probably have to scale the airfoils and develop solid bank-to-turn (Have Dash) type flight control laws, all of which would vastly increase the size of the weapon while probably effecting it’s drag and thrust-loading.
    Still, the notion must be seen as throwing out a fighter screen, as much as 200nm ahead of your main attack formations and letting the enemy go wheel in well on a threat that arrived over their baselanes as much as a half hour before they hear the claxon.

    Anyone who can make a target or recce drone on the order of a BQM-34 or a Mirach 100 can theoretically build a class of weapons which combine the best features of SAMs (density @ cost) and Manned Fighter (multipass reattack and perhaps recoverability) in an ultra-cheap UCAV which can, at the very least, push our ISR and Tanking platforms waaaaay off.

    Leaving the enemy able to control his rear areas as a function of sustainable logistics and maneuver against any ground force we care to commit.

  19. [...] Force’s tendency to place all of its eggs in the F-22 basket.  Instead, Axe has advocated a holistic view of aerial warfare.  Rather than a handful of superfighters, there would be a capable force [...]

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