As the Trump administration's budget plans come into sharper focus, it is increasingly clear that the Pentagon will not be getting enough money to recover from the depressed investment levels of the Obama years. Trump's proposed defense spending level for next year is only 3% above what Obama planned, and there is no guarantee that Congress will repeal budget caps precluding robust investment in new weapons. With readiness for near-term conflict the military's top priority, America's arsenal will continue to age.
Against that backdrop, the Air Force has decided to push ahead on an oddly ill-timed initiative to experiment with using light fighters against low-end threats like ISIS. The Air Force doesn't have any light fighters today, so developing such a plane would require squeezing another new program into an already over-subscribed modernization agenda. That agenda currently includes plans to field a new high-end fighter, a new bomber, a new tanker, a new radar plane and a new trainer. And that's before we even get to its plans for space.
The basic idea behind the light fighter, also known as a light-attack plane, is that a lot of money would be saved if propeller-driven planes could be used in place of jets when fighting enemies with no air forces or air defenses. This concept first surfaced during the Iraq war, and keeps bubbling up as the service struggles to make ends meet in a rapidly shrinking and aging fighter force. One of the original authors of the concept, Michael Pietrucha, described it this way in a January essay for online journal War on the Rocks:
Enthusiasm for this idea apparently faded in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but then was rekindled once Congress imposed budget caps in 2012, and so the concept was dusted off with almost no changes. The problem is that the world has changed markedly since light fighters were first conceived. Russia has turned hostile in Europe, China is claiming bases in the Western Pacific hundreds of miles from home, and client states in the Middle East are being armed by Moscow and Beijing with integrated air defenses.
This is not a promising environment in which to operate a combat aircraft that depends on "permissive airspace," meaning skies in which U.S. aviators are unchallenged because their adversaries are so ill-equipped. There may still be a few places today where enemies are so primitive they can't do anything about U.S. planes flying overhead, but what about after 2020, when the new light fighter will actually become operational? Can military planners count on any country's airspace being safe enough for such a plane?
Syria presents a good test case, since taking down ISIS necessarily requires conducting air operations there. The government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad receives military aid from Russia and Iran, both of which are capable of supplying air defenses. So while ISIS may lack sophisticated air defenses, sending vulnerable U.S. combat planes into the fog of war that is current-day Syria could be very dangerous. The same would be true of any other war zone where prospective adversaries can deploy even one battery of surface-to-air missiles.
Thus, the head of the Air Force's Air Combat Command is right when he says permissive airspace doesn't exist anymore. At least, you can't plan on it. What you can count on is that near-peer adversaries like Russia and China will increasingly challenge the ability of any U.S. aircraft to penetrate airspace they are defending, such as the two-thirds of Poland within Russia's air-defense perimeter. The only U.S. planes likely to survive there in the future are the Air Force's stealthy F-22 and F-35, which are invisible to Russian radar.
That is the real danger that U.S. air power faces going forward, and it is being exacerbated by the chronic shortage of funding available to the Air Force for buying stealthy fighters. The original plan for the F-35 -- the F-22 has long since ceased production -- envisioned buying the single-engine fighter at much higher rates than are currently occurring. So squeezing the Air Force's investment budget even more by adding a new plane that supposedly saves money but can't survive in contested airspace makes little sense. (Disclosure: the F-35 is produced by Lockheed Martin, which contributes to my think tank and is a consulting client).
The most inexplicable part of this plan is that the Air Force already has an abundance of assets for performing "close air support" of ground troops, the main mission of the proposed light fighter. It has invested heavily in smart bombs and tactical communications since 9-11, so that close air support can now be accomplished by all of its bombers, all of its fighters, the lower-flying but highly survivable A-10 Thunderbolt II, and even drones. In other words, close air support is the least risky, most heavily resourced combat mission the Air Force has.
So instead of focusing on yesterday's threats with technology that looks eerily reminiscent of how it fought World War Two, the Air Force ought to be thinking more clearly about a future in which even rag-tag insurgents will have shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Wasting money on low-end fighters while the joint force is rapidly losing its edge against the high-end threats that endanger peace in Europe and the Pacific is a foolish detour from common sense and a misuse of scarce resources.