Vanishing American Air Superiority


Senior Member
Aug 28, 2009
The debate over the F-22 Raptor has been carried out at the customary level of simplemindedness we've become used to when Congress handles military questions. Since the early '60s, the favored method of killing a military program has been to come up with an argument easily expressed in a sound bite and stick with it. This time, the sound bite was, "Why do we need two fighter planes, anyway?"

The answer is even simpler: We need two fighters because need two fighters. The historical record clearly reveals this: Every air campaign carried out with two distinct and particularly formulated fighter designs has been a success, and every attempt to do otherwise has resulted in disaster.

U.S. Air Force doctrine on fighter procurement is known as the high/low mix. The "high" component consists of a dedicated air-superiority fighter, utilizing the latest aeronautical technology, fitted with state-of the-art electronics, and carrying the most advanced air-to-air weapons. These aircraft have one mission -- to kill enemy airplanes. This is the paramount goal of a fighter force. Without it, nothing else can be accomplished. That being the case, the high-end fighter is the more expensive and complex part of the mix. They are rare assets, to be utilized accordingly.

The "low" end is encompassed by the swing-role fighter, more commonly known as the fighter-bomber. Though designed and built with slightly less technical sophistication than the air-superiority models, these aircraft fill a much wider role. They carry out interdiction missions using bombs and rockets, provide ground-support for troops, and at the same time can acquit themselves adequately in the air-to-air role if enemy fighters show up. As such, they can supplement and reinforce the air-superiority aircraft if massive air battles develop. The swing-role fighter is cheaper and more easily and quickly constructed than its haughtier brother, so there tend to be larger numbers of them.

The high-low mix was pioneered during WWII. Both the British and the U.S. stumbled onto the concept without quite realizing what they were doing. In the years before the war's outbreak, the British embarked on a crash program to build eight-gun fighters for the defense of the home islands. The premier model was the Supermarine Spitfire, one of the legendary combat aircraft of the 20th century. But the Spitfire was supplemented by the lesser-known but still capable Hawker Hurricane. The Hurricane could take on the primary German fighter, the Messerschmidt Bf -109, only with difficulty, so an ad hoc strategy developed during the Battle of Britain (August 12-September 15, 1940) in which Spitfires attacked the fighter escorts while the Hurricanes hit the slower bombers. This strategy worked well enough to force the Luftwaffe to abandon daylight raids in September 1940, denying Hermann Goering the appellation of "Tamer of Britain."

As the war went on and Spitfires appeared in more substantial numbers, the Hurricane took on the fighter-bomber role. A dedicated ground-attack version, the Hurribomber, with increased bomb load and heavy wing cannon, began operating against Rommel's Afrika Korps in 1942. Hurribombers served throughout the war North Africa, Italy, and Burma.

The U.S. backed into the high-low mix out of desperation. The frontline fighter in 1943 was the Republic P-47, an excellent aircraft with one major drawback: Its combat radius was limited to 300 miles. That meant that it could not escort bombers to Germany and back, leaving the 8th Air Force's B-17s and B-24s at the mercy of German defenses. By sheer accident, a failing attack plane, the A-35, was mated with the British Merlin engine (the same as used by the Spitfire). The result was a magical airplane -- the P-51 Mustang, a fighter capable of flying deep into Germany and back while at the same time agile enough to outfly most opponents.

As the P-51 arrived in large numbers in the U.K. in early 1944, the P-47 was shifted to the fighter-bomber role. Fitted with wing racks for rockets and bombs, the P-47 flew constant escort over Allied tank spearheads as they moved across northwest Europe into the Reich, demolishing organized armored and artillery resistance. At the same time, the Jug, as the pilots called it, could more than hold its own against enemy fighters. Whenever some sorry remnant of the Luftwaffe attacked P-47 wings (as in Operation Bodenplatte, the Luftwaffe's January 1, 1945 last stand), they often got the worst of it.

Following the war, the high-low mix was carried on into the jet age. At the outbreak of the Korean War, a superb air-superiority aircraft, the F-86 Sabre, was entering service, while two first-generation fighter jets, the F-80 Shooting Star and the F-84 Thunderjet, covered the fighter-bomber role. As the war settled into an uneasy stalemate in 1951, USAF F-86s established a barcap (barrier combat air patrol) along the Yalu River to prevent communist MiG-15s flown variously by Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots from attacking U.N. forces. Not a single successful incursion was made by communist air forces during the war. In the meantime, F-80s and F-84s continually harassed North Korean and Chinese forces.

The high-low mix proved itself in both WWII and Korea. But it was abandoned during the era of specialization, the 1950s. The "century series" fighters were, excepting the F-100 Super Sabre, the pioneer supersonic fighter. The model was quickly superseded by more advanced aircraft, designed for certain specific, limited roles, with no attempt to cover either the air-superiority or fighter-bomber mission. The F-101B, the F-102, and the F-106 were high-speed interceptors, the F-105 a "fighter-bomber" designed to drop nuclear weapons, the F-104 an indescribable and dangerous oddity.

Coming into the '60s without a fighter to carry out its basic missions, the USAF was forced to purchase the F-4 Phantom II, developed on behalf of the enemy service, the U.S. Navy. While an excellent aircraft, the F-4 was in many ways the apotheosis of the fighter-bomber, too heavy and lacking the agility to fill the air-superiority role. This was discovered immediately over Vietnam, where American aircraft were hard put to match Soviet-supplied MiGs during the early years of the war. It required a suite of improved air-to-air weapons and a complete overhaul of tactics before U.S. air forces could dominate the skies in their accustomed manner.

Much of those novel tactics were the work of Major John Boyd, a vastly talented and wildly eccentric fighter pilot who in later years was to trigger a revolution in military strategy. During the mid-'60s, he was in charge of developing the USAF's new tactical fighter. This effort followed a fiasco involving the General Dynamics F-111, which might be called liberalism's attempt to build a combat aircraft. Though intended as a fighter, the production F-111 was a monster aircraft the size of a medium airliner, and just about as maneuverable. Though the F-111 eventually found its role as a precision bomber, a large hole remained where the USAF's future fighter aircraft was supposed to be. Boyd's job was to fill that hole.

At first, it appeared that Boyd would be presiding over F-111: The Sequel. General Dynamics sent him a proposal for a plane weighing no less than 60,000 lbs. Boyd sent it back outlining exactly what he expected: half the weight, powered by engines that hadn't even reached the test stage yet, and with electronics and weapons systems that nobody could quite comprehend. It was a sure formula for failure in other hands, but everything broke the Mad Major's way, with advanced engines and avionics becoming available at just the right moment. The result was the F-15 Eagle.

But Boyd was not quite satisfied. He was perfectly aware of the benefits of the high-low mix, and on his own, without permission from anyone, began development of the necessary "low"-end aircraft. Working out the design parameters to match a series of "Energy Maneuverability" curves he had formulated (in large part from reinterpreting the aircraft as a thermodynamic system), Boyd coaxed several aircraft companies to produce prototypes to compete in a flyoff. Unusually, both prototypes were successful. One became the Navy's standard fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet. The other became the F-16 Falcon (though most pilots call it the "Viper").

Together, the F-15 and F-16 stand as the most effective fighter team on record. The F-15 compiled a kill ratio of 105 kills to zero losses. While the F-16's record was only half that, it more than effectively filled the swing role as the primary high-speed attack aircraft in theaters including Serbia and Iraq. Neither aircraft ever suffered a loss in air-to-air combat.

It would appear that the high-low thesis is as well established as any military concept ever gets. All the same, we're in the process of dumping it in pursuit of false economy. To the battle cry of "who needs two fighters anyway!" the U.S. is dropping the high end of the equation -- the F-22 Raptor -- in the mistaken conviction that the low end -- the F-35 Lightning II -- can cover all the bases.

The F-22 is the most effective air-superiority weapon ever devised -- the sole current operational example of the fifth-generation fighter. With its full stealth, supersonic cruise capability, and electronics that make the Starship Enterprise look like a birchbark canoe, it is utterly unmatched as a fighter aircraft. Its kill/loss ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 and is probably much higher.

The F-35 is a good little airplane, well-fitted for the swing role. It possesses partial stealthing ("forward stealthing," which prevents an enemy from knowing it's coming), performance matching most operational fighters, and a good electronics suite. It has several minor failings -- among them limited a internal weapons carriage, rendering underwing carriage necessary (thus negating most of its stealth advantages), along with an inability to fire its air-to-air weapons at maximum speed. All the same, when matched against current fighter designs, it would probably come out on top.

But the problem is that the F-35 will not be facing current designs. Technical superiority in all fields -- and in the military more than any other -- is the most ephemeral of assets. Even as the F-22 debate winds down, Sukhoi, Russia's premier aircraft company, is preparing to produce its own fifth-generation fighter, the PAK-FA. Fast, stealthy, and with state-of-the-art electronics, the PAK-FA is known as the "Raptor killer." It will probably have even better luck with the F-35. As for China, persistent rumors have been circulating concerning tests of a new fifth-generation fighter. (Interestingly, the Chinese have adapted the high-low mix for their own fighter force even as the U.S. seems about to abandon it.)

In a fifth-generation fighter environment, current tactics utilizing long-range detection by AWACS planes, which then hand off interception to individual fighters, will no longer be feasible. You can't play that game with stealth aircraft. We will instead return to the tactics of WWII and Korea, where opposing aircraft elements hunted each other across the wide blue sky and whoever had the best eyesight struck first. In that tactical environment, piloting skill and numbers will make all the difference.

Production of the F-22 has been capped at 187. That's it as of next September, and there won't be any more. Furthermore, rule of thumb has it that at least a third of all high-performance aircraft are at any given time laid up for maintenance or refitting, which leaves us with approximately 120 F-22s ready for action at any given time. The Russians and Chinese, on the other hand, have a slaphappy habit of making more weapons than they actually need. Suppose, if things get hot, our 120 planes are facing five hundred, a thousand, or even more fifth-generation enemy fighters? (China today fields roughly 2,000 fighter aircraft.) What happens then?

We know what happens then because we've been through it before. When WWII began in the Pacific, the Japanese possessed a world-class air-superiority fighter in the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. American forces attempted to challenge the Zero with a variety of low-end, often obsolete aircraft such as the F-4F Wildcat, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-40 Warhawk. (And that says nothing the pathetic Brewster F-2A Buffalo, which didn't even belong in the same historical epoch as the Zero.) The result was a savage, year-long battering ended only by a complete revision of tactics. It wasn't until 1943 that a crash program involving direct flyoffs against a captured Zero resulted in the F-6F Hellcat, which outmatched the Zero in all factors and at last turned the tide in our favor.

Similarly, the Soviets, with the help of the British labor government that sold them the rights to the Rolls-Royce Nene engine and the Rosenberg spy ring who helpfully provided swept-wing wind tunnel data, made a dramatic technological leap in the late '40s with the MiG-15. Over Korea, USAF pilots were forced to contend with an enemy aircraft that was as fast as theirs and more maneuverable at altitude. Only superior U.S. training kept communist air forces at bay until, almost by accident, the new model F-86E Sabre, fitted with hydraulic controls, at last overcame the MiG advantage and handed air superiority to U.N. forces.

We'll be facing such a situation again, and sooner than we'd like. One of these days, over the Taiwan Straits or Central Asia, we will learn that eternal air superiority is not guaranteed to the United States as some kind of codicil to Manifest Destiny. American air forces will inevitably suffer a whipping unlike any they've endured in decades, and American troops and sailors will have to learn how to operate in conditions where we lack air superiority, something unheard of since 1943. (Heads up, Ralph Peters!)

One of the major failings of American politics involves its short-time horizon. American voters and politicians simply cannot grasp that actions taken today can have consequences years and decades down the line, and that, in a majority of cases, there will be no second chances. Barack Obama has proven to have far more limited foresight than even the average American pol. The F-22 cancellation is a clear example of this. There will be plenty more to come.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker, and will be editor of the forthcoming Military Thinker.

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