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.
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