Many senior members of the U.S. military, defense officials, members of Congress, and analysts have long-warned of the growing fighter gap facing the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps and its implications for U.S. national security. A fighter gap is essentially a deficit between the services' fighter aircraft inventories and their operational requirements based on emerging and possible air threats to U.S. security.
At a hearing just last year, defense officials testified projecting a "most-optimistic" deficit of 125 strike fighters for the Department of the Navy, including 69 aircraft for the U.S. Navy and 56 for the Marine Corps. This projected gap, set to peak around 2017, was considered optimistic because it assumed that the service life of F/A-18 Hornets could be extended from 8,000 flight hours to 10,000. The original service life was 6,000 flight hours. At the same hearing, the Air Force was projected to also have a requirement gap of over 800 fighters by 2024.
A Congressional Research Service report in April 2009 unveiled a potentially larger gap, citing a briefing in which the Navy projected that its strike fighter shortfall could grow to 50 aircraft by FY 2010 and 243 by 2018 (129 Navy and 114 Marine Corps fighters).
Yet, at a recent conference hosted by the Air Force Association, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed talk of the fighter gap as "nonsense."
Military Requirements and Current Inventory
The U.S. achieves and maintains air superiority and supremacy with fighters from the Air Force, the Navy's aircraft carriers, and the Marines' carrier-based and land-based air wings. Typically, a fighter force is superior to any potential opponent if it has at least the following three elements:
- Technically superior aircraft, including flight performance (speed, range, and maneuverability), avionics (sensors, navigation systems, computers, sensor fusion, data displays, communications, electronic support measures), and armament.
- Numerical sufficiency.
- Exceptionally trained pilots and crews and an adequate pool of replacements and well-trained new pilots.
The modern battlefield demands that multi-mission combat aircraft perform air-to-air combat; air-to-ground strike missions with precision-guided bombs and autonomous cruise missiles; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Fifth-generation fighters are also highly effective in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency operations. In addition to carrying large payloads and operating over vast areas, such as Afghanistan, fifth-generation fighters can better coordinate attacks against insurgent forces by sharing the same tactical picture through data links and tracking moving ground targets with their active electronically scanned array radar. Using sensor fusion capability to integrate targeting information from their own sensors and other sources into a single tactical picture, the F-22 and F-35 can more accurately identify and target enemy forces. This also helps to reduce casualties from friendly fire and collateral damage.
To fully assess the implications of the widening U.S. fighter gap, Congress must consider the future capabilities of states that may potentially challenge U.S. fighter aircraft in the coming decades as fifth-generation fighters become the mainstay of the future force and legacy aircraft retire. These capabilities include foreign advanced attack aircraft, jammers, infrared search and tracking sensors, ultra long-range missiles, surface-to-air missiles, radar detection, anti-stealth technologies, and electronic warfare.
Twenty years after the Cold War, new regional military powers and former peer competitors are expanding their military capabilities. Regional powers, such as China and possibly Iran, are acquiring Russian air superiority and multirole fighters based on the Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker family. Closer to home, Venezuela is aggressively expanding its air force.
Russia and China
Russia is fielding the Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, which is based on the Su-27 Flanker and can carry supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles and short-range air-to-air missiles for self-defense. The Russian Air Force plans to field 58 by 2015 and 300 by 2022. The Russian Air Force also has a requirement of about 300 Sukhoi PAK FA fifth-generation fighters. However, Russia appears to be planning for a production run of 500 to 600, which most likely includes planned exports. Russia also appears to be in the early stages of developing a sixth-generation fighter.
China has ordered an estimated 76 Su-30MKK Flanker-Gs and can produce an additional 250 under license, including at least 100 "knock-down kits." It has also received at least 24 Su-30MK2 naval strike fighters. If China modernizes its 171 Su-27SK/UBs to the Su-27SKM standard and assembles another 105 Su-27SKMs under license, it will have roughly 626 multirole fighters available for air superiority missions. This would place China in the same league as the U.S., which has 522 F-15A/B/C/Ds, 217 F-15Es and a planned fleet of 187 F-22s. China is also developing a stealth fifth-generation fighter, variously identified the J-X. It may also benefit from information allegedly stolen on the "design and electronics systems" of the F-35 Lightning II.
Future of the U.S. Fighter Force
The President's proposed FY 2010 budget would diminish U.S. fighter capability. The President has proposed reducing acquisitions of fifth-generation fighters and limiting their upgrades. If Congress complies, the U.S. will risk falling behind internationally and in the technological race for air power. Congress and the President would do well to remember how France, despite having pioneered the use of military aircraft, tanks, and motor transport in World War I, had fallen behind Germany by the beginning of World War II.
Large production runs of air superiority fourth-plus-generation fighters equipped with fifth-generation technology, such as the Su-35BM in Russia and China, could put the U.S. Air Force with its fewer numbers of F-22s and an aging F-15C fleet at a serious disadvantage. History and the ongoing technological arms race suggest that it would be dangerous for the U.S. to assume that the F-22 will have no equal and thus have a decisive advantage over any other fighter aircraft for the next 20 years.
The President's 2010 defense budget request would eliminate one of the two remaining fifth-generation fighter production lines. This would severely limit the options available to Congress if it wants to restart production at some later date. The cost to the taxpayer would also be much higher than if production continues. Finally, the nation would permanently lose many highly skilled aerospace designers and engineers if they are laid off.
Specifically, the U.S. should:
Purchase additional F-22s in 2010. Russia's state-run military industrial base is focusing on producing advanced fifth-generation fighters with some nearly sixth-generation capabilities. Given the U.S. military's global commitments, the 187 F-22s will likely operate in the different theaters, all but ensuring that they will be outnumbered in any potential engagement. Congress should appropriate funds to buy at least the full initial order of 286 F-22s to ensure air superiority over the next two decades, beginning with a purchase of 20 F-22s in FY 2010.
Encourage sales of F-22 allied variant to Japan and Australia. It would provide U.S. allies with the most advanced fighter on the market, increase their interoperability with U.S. forces, reinforce America's hedging strategy in the Pacific, and keep the production line open while reducing the unit cost.
Research viability of building a strike variant of F-22. The FB-22 has a greater bomb load capacity than the F-35, could replace the F-15E, and carry out many missions currently performed by the B-1 and B-2 strategic bombers. The FB-22 could also then become a platform to introduce operational sixth-generation fighter technology. Congress should direct a Pentagon study on the viability of pursuing the FB-22 this year.
Immediately begin research and development of a sixth-generation fighter. Sixth-generation technologies may include a flying wing with morphic wings that deflect and minimize its radar signature and a visual stealth structure that would use micro cameras to take on the appearance of the sky and the ground to make it invisible.
Congress needs to examine carefully whether the planned numbers of new and modernized fighters in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps inventories will meet service and operational requirements. Careful scrutiny is required given the reported structural problems caused by the stress of combat operations, the current and planned numbers of fifth-generation fighters, and the scheduled phase out of legacy fighters. In the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review process, Congress and the Pentagon should carefully examine the inherent capabilities and qualities of each model of fighter to verify that it can fulfill these requirements and defeat the technological challenges that may be posed by future challengers. Congress must ensure that the U.S. military maintains both its technological edge and adequate numbers of aircraft to maintain U.S. air superiority well into the 21st century.