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U.S. Fighter Gap: Myth or Reality?

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.


Foreign Capabilities


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.


Conclusion


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.

Comments (6)

Will:

Although 5th generation fighters are more effective than similar but older fighters in irregular warfare and counterinsurgency operations, that doesn't make them ideal aircraft for those missions. The Air Force needs a modern supplement to the A-10 fleet, ideally 1 that can be easily adapted to operating off carriers.
The 6th generation fighter will be a UAV. Get used to the idea.

Nico:

I haven't read such fear mongering in a while. First and foremost, war between China, Russia and the US is next to impossible, due to MAD. In addition, this author assumes a lot in order to come to the conclusions that he has made. First, he assumes that Russia can afford or has even the productive capacity to do all it says it can do--note the recent overtures from Russia to buy a French amphibious assault ship and the buying of drones from Israel. Russia can built very advanced fighters, its true, but I doubt that Russia could build them in numbers that are threatening to American interests and that are sustainable with Russia's crumbling military infrastructure. Secondly, China, relative to the US, is inferior in almost every regard; even with all its fighters it has, it is behind technologically, e.g. AWACS/GPS, and in terms of pilot training. Ergo, you can have the best fighter in the world, but if you do not have the requisite IT infrastructure, it doesn't matter as much as it should.

The reality is that the US will face enemies like Iran, North Korea, possibly even Venezuela in the future. These countries may be able to field the SU-30MK or even the PAK FA and could inflict some damage to American forces. However, they simply cannot compete with the US, even with 190 F-22's and the massive IT infrastructure that the US has at its disposal. What the US should do is, instead of investing in the F-22, invest into seriously upgrading the F-15/F-16/F-18 fighters like the Russians have been doing with the Su-27.

Michael Wright:

It seems to me the most not-discussed-topic is the collapse of US manufacturing base. With a strong industrial base (one which everyone can find a job whether it be researchers, engineers, techs, mechanics, managers, clerical, whatever) then if more planes are needed, then build more! i.e. we lose 20 helicopters and a few F-4s in one day during Vietnam War, we just call up the plants and have them deliver more.
F-22 is so expensive, nobody can afford it and US can't collect more revenues because those with lotsa money pay less taxes. If it is so important for future security, it seems corporations will determine some creative ways to reduce cost and produce larger numbers. There was a time when this country output frontline fighters at the rate car companies (all non-US) were outputting SUVs.

chad paddock:

i have to agree we need a replacement for the a-10 and one with carrier capabilities. i feel we should build our fleet of aircaft like in the 70s/80s in which we built a fleet of f14, f15 which at the time very expensive so we built f16 f18 to. once we had control of the air we could use the less expensive units to assist the other. think of the first gulf war without the F16 f18 because we built a few more f14 f15 and operated fewer tactial aircraft. not every aircraft needs stealth capabilities plus the most expensive tech. the a10 is a great aircraft and we need more of them.

jake:

Sure, just order another 100 F22s, I suppose that would require borrowing the money from China, the so-called rival whose capabilities need to be challenged.

Tim Danielson:

Section 8, Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America is clear that the National Defense of the nation is specifically enumerated in the above section. There is no constitutional right on behalf of the US Govt. to tax and spend our money on Welfare, SS, Medicare, Medicaid etc. It is the duty of the US Govt. to secure our national defense through the best weapons of destruction money can buy. That being said we need to make sure we spend the tax payers money wisely. But our fleet of fighter aircraft is the oldest it has ever been in history. This was put on display when an F-15C from St. Louis Air Guard had his forward fuselage tear away from the body of the aircraft. These aircraft are approaching 30 years of life with the cumulative stresses of high G's etc. We need new fighters whether they be F-22's, F/A-18E/F, F-16C's etc. Buy the Best for our Best and Brightest.

"I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity. [To approve the measure] would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded."
-- President Franklin Pierce's 1854 veto of a measure to help the mentally ill.

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