The F-15 Eagle is the Air Force's current all-weather tactical fighter. It entered service in 1974 and is slated to remain in service until 2025. There are some 688 F-15s flying with Air Force and Air National Guard units.
The F-15 is a terrific aircraft but is getting long in the tooth. It has been further strained because of counterterrorism duty demands, and the entire fleet was grounded last week following a crash in
Filling in on routine combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until the F-15 is airborne again is the F-16 Fighting Falcon, another terrific aircraft and the Air Force's current multi-role fighter.
Enter the F-22 Raptor, the heir apparent to the F-15 and F-16 and one bad ass-looking aircraft.
The F-22 uses stealth technology to carry out the Cold War mission for which it was designed -- attacking advanced enemy fighters. But that mission was redundant before it entered service in 2005 and it is coming on line an era when the enemy is low-tech insurgents.
F-22s are being produced at the rate of about 20 a year with about 100 currently in service. The Air Force originally planned to order 750, but congressional caps as a result of concerns over its suitability for modern-day missions and its cost have limited the number to 277, and the Pentagon now says it will buy a total of only 183. This has had the effect of raising the purchase price to a very dear $362 million per copy.
As Ed Morrissey notes at Captain’s Quarters, "Our entire military strategy relies on air supremacy -- and if the F-15 can't deliver that any more, then we have allowed that strategy to slide into obsolescence."
Ed is right up to a point, but behind the times.
While air supremacy remains important since
This in turn begs the question of where – or even whether – the Air Force fits into a post-9/11 world in which strategic bombing is largely passé, incoming enemy fighters are far and few between, and supporting counterinsurgency missions is Job One.
Primarily because of the Army Air Forces' strategic bombing successes during World War II, the Army's air arm became a separate branch in 1947.
Today the Air Force has about 334,000 active-duty personnel, 6,000 manned aircraft and several thousand unmanned combat air vehicles, cruise missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its mindset -- like that of the Bush administration on September 10, 2001 -- is stuck in the past.
Although the Air Force is only 70 percent of the size it was after the First Gulf War, it remains bloated, although a major force reduction is underway that will trim about 40,000 people from its ranks.
Whether concomitant reductions should be made in its aircraft arsenal because of the shift in emphasis to counterinsurgency warfare is another matter.
The Air Force, anxious to justify both its presence and independence in the rapidly changing world of warfare, argues that air power can be an enormous help in almost any counterinsurgency mission. But that is questionable in light of a by-product of its air strikes in
Robert Farley notes in a must-read American Prospect commentary that the Air Force has been successful in carrying out tactical missions but doesn't like them because they have to follow and not lead.
"This has created an odd situation," he writes. "The Air Force is most effective when operating in support of the Army, and least effective when carrying out its own independent campaign. However, the Air Force dislikes ground support."
Farley says that the Air Force's antipathy for ground support has led it to repeatedly try to shed the A-10 Warthog, the most ungainly and one of the slowest aircraft in its inventory, but one that does its job as a close-in attack aircraft extremely well.
"The Army loves the A-10, but because the aircraft contributes neither to the air superiority mission that the Air Force favors nor to the strategic mission that provides its raison d'etre, the Air Force has always been lukewarm toward the aircraft," Farley writes. "Offers on the part of the Army to take over the A-10 have been rejected, however, as this would violate the Key West Agreement," which is the colloquial name given to a 1948 policy paper that delineated the functions of the armed forces.
If strategic bombing won independence for the Air Force, yet strategic bombing cannot win today's wars, Farley asks why the Air Force should retain its independence.It is a good question and one whose time has come.
Farley argues that the Army and Navy can get the Air Force's job done within their present structures:
* Tactical airpower should be ceded to the Army, the result being tighter collaboration between air and ground forces, with some tactical air power elements passing to the Marine Corps.Farley concedes – and I certainly agree – that the Air Force isn't going to disappear anytime soon because it has powerful friends in high places.
* Strategic airpower – conventional and nuclear -- should be ceded to the Navy with its aircraft carriers and submarine-launched cruise missiles.
Nevertheless, he concludes, "The idea of an independent air force was not handed down on
Indeed. It is time to clip the Air Force's wings.
Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week has written a rejoinder to Farley's piece. He author argues that Farley has cherrypicked to make his point — and that it is a point that has been made before. I'm still with Farley.