Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why the F-35? The crying need to modernize

You might think that it would be obvious that we've been slacking on modernizing our air power for some time.  Certainly there has been innovation, but numbers are down dramatically.

Here's a little "ground truth" from the AEI paper "Mass and Supremacy: A Comprehensive Case for the F-35" that we've been examining this week:
[P]ost–Cold War modernization efforts across the services are moving along at a snail’s pace. While the utility and value of American air power— and the need for it among the services—has never enjoyed as much appreciation as it ought to, invest- ments to maintain the US air-power advantage have slowed dramatically. The first crop of “stealth” air- craft, the small F-117 Nighthawk fleet, has been retired altogether.

Only 21 B-2 bombers of a planned 132 were pur- chased. Similarly, the F-22 program, originally intended to produce 750 jets, was terminated in 2009 with the procurement of only 187 planes. Therefore, the vast majority of the manned aircraft in the US Air Force’s inventory were designed in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
For the most part, we have young pilots flying jets (and technology) older than they are.  We have not done what is necessary to ensure they have the best technology available to them if they are committed to combat.  And it isn't just aircraft.  We're also behind the curve in other areas in other services.  But we're concerned here with our airpower.

And since we're dealing in "ground truth", here's a little more from the paper:
The F-35 was always intended as the largest proj- ect of its era, the “fifth generation” of aircraft and other systems envisioned near the end of the Cold War and immediately after, and is now one of the few remaining opportunities to bring those technologies into use. If the F-35 program is further truncated— indeed, if it is not accelerated and sustained—the United States will essentially have “skipped a generation” of military modernization. This section will show how the F-35 program fits into a larger strategy of military modernization necessary to defeat potential future enemies, how it is uniquely positioned to ensure the continued superiority of American air power, and discuss the importance of maintaining the critical sections of America’s defense industrial base—including the parts of the base associated with the F-35, which would allow America to counter future threats.

There are two important ways in which the F-35 program is critical for the future security of the United States. First, the Lightning II’s capabilities would become the core of emerging US military operational concepts. Beyond the essential functionality that the JSF would provide the US Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy concepts of operation will similarly depend on fielding the F-35 in numbers. Secondly, the many elements of the F-35 project, not just the completed aircraft, but also the many subsys- tems and the tremendous amount of software required, represent an outsized proportion of the US defense industrial base.
Looking at the world today, anyone who thinks we can afford to "skip" a generation of military modernization or scrimp more on fielding adequate numbers of 5th generation jets needs to remove their rose colored glasses.  As explained yesterday, if we falter or waiver in our commitment to the F-35, we can expect our partners and potential partners to do the same.  If that happens, the "core of emerging US military operational concepts" would be rendered incapable of fulfilling its planned role.

Additionally, something the US has worked hard to maintain since WWII will be in jeopardy:
Air Supremacy and American Power. Air power is the signature form of American military power. It is not just that air power is effective on its own; advantages in air power are moreover critical to success in naval and land operations. Air-power theorists have long distinguished between “superiority” (the ability to grab a temporary and local advantage) and “supremacy” (larger-scale and longer-lasting advan- tages that often correlate to a more decisive outcome). 
Anyone who doesn't understand the critical nature of establishing and maintaining air superiority (or preferably, air dominance) over a battlefield doesn't deserve to be included in any discussion of force modernization.   It is a critical component for victory.

By not committing to do what is necessary to modernize our fighter fleet in adequate numbers, we will essentially put that critical component in jeopardy.  No longer will we be able to assume the ability to establish air superiority, much less air dominance, over a battlefield.  As other nations pursue advanced air defense systems and their own 5th generation fighter capabilities, we'll find ourselves behind the proverbial power curve.  And, depending on the crisis, that could mean dead Soldiers and Marines on the ground, killed by enemy aircraft - something we haven't allowed since Korea.

The naysayers and doubters can complain all they wish about the F-35, but like it or not, the key to keeping our dominant role in conflicted air space (as well as low intensity conflicts) rests on the continuing development and deployment  - in numbers - of that (upgradable) aircraft.


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