Nobody doubts that planes resembling World War II-vintage Thunderbolts are cheaper to operate than modern jet fighters. The reason armed forces around the world turned to jets two generations ago was because every aspect of their operational performance is superior to that of turboprops. If the Air Force had come up with the idea of using warmed-over Thunderbolts to fight rag-tag jihadists before 9-11, it might have looked smart. Now it just looks out of touch with reality. Here are five reasons why.
When the Army and Air Force split to become separate military services after World War Two, the Air Force got almost all of the fixed-wing aircraft, and the Army got almost all of the helicopters. Today, 70 years later, the U.S. Army is the biggest operator of helicopters in the world, and every facet of its approach to conducting land warfare is shaped by the availability of vertical-lift assets.
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.
Things have not gone well for the Pentagon's much-criticized acquisition system since the 9-11 attacks. The military got a lot more money for new weapons than anyone could have predicted when the new millennium began, but tens of billions of dollars were squandered on programs that either were canceled or delayed by controversy.
When Barack Obama became president eight years ago, the Air Force had an elegant plan for replacing its Cold War fighters that would preserve America's global air dominance through mid-century. It would buy a "high-low" mix of agile F-22 air superiority fighters and less costly but highly versatile F-35 fighters. Both planes would be stealthy, meaning invisible to radar, with the F-22 sweeping the skies of potential adversaries and the F-35 striking surface targets, suppressing enemy air defenses, and collecting intelligence.
The two fighters were supposed to operate together using secure data links in a one-two punch that no adversary could resist. But the Obama administration almost immediately began unraveling this plan in the mistaken belief that Russia was now a friend and future enemies would look like Al Qaeda. In other words, they would lack air forces or air defenses. So F-22 production was terminated at barely half of the Air Force's minimum requirement, and F-35 development was restructured four times, increasing costs and delaying deliveries.
Along the way, the Air Force's elegant vision of what it needed for the future became increasingly confused. One year it would say it needed to get away from operating small fleets of specialized aircraft, and the next year it would propose buying more specialized aircraft in small lots. It repeatedly reversed itself on which planes needed to be kept in inventory and which needed to be retired as its thinking about future air power wandered all over the map. Eventually, it came up with a vision whose authors tried to avoid even using terms like "fighter" and "bomber."
That cloudy vision of tomorrow has now been inherited by the Trump defense team. With congressionally-mandated budget caps likely to be lifted in the near future and the new administration still getting up to speed, some of the half-baked ideas the vision advances could find their way into the defense budget, to the lasting detriment of U.S. national security. I'll talk about two of them here -- a light fighter designed to operate in undefended air space, and a super-stealthy fighter designed to escort bombers deep in the Russian or Chinese interior.
The light fighter concept is supposed to reduce the cost of maintaining conventional fighter fleets by fielding a much less capable plane that can be operated in "permissive" air space -- in other words, air space where enemies are pretty much defenseless against U.S. planes. Its main role would be to conduct close air support of friendly forces on the ground, which requires careful coordination with those forces since the targets being attacked are nearby. The new fighter would be useless in air combat, but cheap to operate in attacking ground targets.
This idea should be dead on arrival in the Trump administration, because it was conceived as a response to the threats and budget constraints of the Obama years. By the time it gets fielded ten or more years hence, there probably won't be undefended air space anywhere that U.S. forces are operating -- even rag-tag insurgents will have shoulder-fired missiles and drones that threaten the lightly-equipped U.S. planes. So the plane will be useless, unless it gets dolled up with additional capabilities that increase its cost.
Close air support in permissive air space is one of the least challenging combat missions the Air Force performs. In addition to high-end jets like the F-15E and F-16C that can perform the mission, it has the A-10 Thunderbolt II that was designed for close air support and the AC-130J gunship. And that's before we even get to other joint assets suited to the mission like the Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet multi-role fighter and the Army's AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Where the Air Force has a challenge is near-peer threats, which is why F-35 is being bought.
Of course, all of these planes cost more to operate per flight hour than the hypothetical light fighter -- or at least, that's what the PowerPoint slides claim. But does the concept really make budgetary sense? The service would have to spend money developing and fielding a new plane at a time when it says it is strapped for funds. That will take the better part of a decade even if it modifies an off-the-shelf airframe, and it will be many more years before the lower operating cost covers the price of development and starts generating savings.
That might never happen, given how threats are evolving. But the budget will take a much bigger hit from another bone-headed idea the service has come up with for carrying out the most demanding missions again near-peer adversaries like Russia and China. That is called "penetrating counterair," and involves developing a tactical aircraft stealthier than F-22 or F-35 that can support the B-21 bomber in strikes against heavily defended targets deep inside Russia and China. This would require very long range and very high speed to work.
Superficially, the penetrating counterair concept sounds like the role P-51 Mustangs took on in supporting B-17 bombers over Germany during World War Two. But the ranges involved in attacking targets in places like Western China would be far greater, especially when you consider the time required to hunt down missile launchers that are mobile, concealed, or deceptively based.
Even in an era of Trumpian budgetary largesse for the military, this concept sounds unworkable. The penetrating counterair plane -- let's call it a fighter -- would need to have twice the speed of the bomber to defeat enemy air defenses (Mach 1.5 versus 0.8) and it would have to be both super stealthy and super agile. Initially the Air Force plans to buy only 50 or so, but it would still have to go through all the usual steps of designing, developing and testing the plane, meaning each one would be likely to cost the better part of a billion dollars.
And that's just the beginning, because Air Force internal plans indicate it doesn't just need penetrating counterair to support bomber missions, it also needs penetrating reconnaissance and penetrating jamming capabilities. So in order for its 100 next-generation bombers to accomplish a problematic mission in the midst of an East-West war, the Air Force doesn't just want the new bomber, it wants a whole family of aircraft along with the network required to coordinate operations. We're probably talking hundreds of billions of dollars here.
Chances are that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will get the briefing on this outlandish plan, and tell the Air Force to forget it. Unlike in the case of the new bomber, most of the technologies associated with penetrating counterair are immature, making their cost and development schedule impossible to predict. The Air Force needs to set aside its fantastic ideas about the future and get focused on replacing the Cold War fighter fleet with more survivable planes. That's what will deter aggression in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific.