Air power is a relative thing. If your enemies’ air forces are all inferior to yours, it doesn’t matter whether your planes represent the absolute cutting edge of technology. More to the point: there is little chance that any world air force, besides the U.S. Air Force, will develop and build significant numbers of stealthy fighters in coming decades. For that reason, we don’t actually need all 2,000 stealth fighters the Air Force wants. A smaller fleet of stealth fighters, plus modernized older designs, will keep the U.S. Air Force on top for many, many years.
So you can ignore the increasingly alarmist rhetoric coming out of the Beltway military-industrial-media complex, demanding we buy all these expensive stealthy fighters, or lose influence in the world. In the latest manufactured panic, Rebecca Grant, a D.C.-based, for-profit aerospace consultant, tells us we must build more F-22s, or the Russians will kick our asses. “In March 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the defense ministry to add more Sukhoi Su-35s and Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-35s — an upgrade of the MiG-29 Fulcrum — in the interim before Sukhoi’s ‘fifth-generation’ PAK-FA type is developed,” Grant writes, adding that these fighters represent the “developments most likely to interrupt the ability of the United States to carry out missions.”
But the Russians have built only a dozen Su-35s in a decade. The MiG-35 is still only a prototype, and U.S. ally India is the only likely buyer. The PAK-FA, also sponsored by India, remains a paper airplane. Despite repeated promises over years, the PAK-FA program has not yet produced any hardware or firm production orders. The Russian air force overwhelmingly comprises the very same fighters it inherited from the Soviet air force in the early 1990s, including a few hundred Su-27s and a roughly equal number of MiG-29s. The MiG-29s are so decrepit that Russia recently grounded the entire fleet following a crash.
Even with anticipated deep cuts, the U.S. Air Force will possess more than a thousand new stealth fighters in a decade’s time. The best Russia can hope for in that time-frame is to buy a handful of Su-35s and MiG-35s. Same goes for all other potential challengers to U.S. air power. Most rival nations buy their fighters by the dozen, where we buy them by the hundreds. The only nation that matches us in fighter quantity is China, but China’s fighters remain a full generation behind ours in technology.
With such a huge margin of superiority, likely to last for decades, the U.S. Air Force can afford to relax its long-term requirement for an all-stealth fighter force. A fleet of a thousand F-22s and F-35s will beat all comers. And for missions over North America or in counter-insurgency campaigns, modernized F-15s and F-16s will more than suffice.
Update #1: Another reason why the Russians are not a threat: they’re running out of people.
Update #2: The U.S. Air National Guard agrees that F-15s and F-16s might be adequate for domestic missions.
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