This summer marks the tenth anniversary of a powerful metaphor for the decline of U.S. air power. Air Force Gen. David Deptula was piloting his F-15C fighter (supposedly the best fighter in the world) over Iraq in 1998 when all of the cockpit instruments suddenly went dead. He feared he was going to die, but he managed to fly the crippled plane back to its base, where mechanics discovered that insulation on aged wiring had rotted away and caused a short circuit. Then Deptula discovered he was flying the same F-15C he first flew as a junior officer in the Pacific in 1978.
Ten years later that same plane is still flying in the Pacific, a testament to how easily Pentagon policymakers can lose sight of what really matters when they get distracted by big ideas and the concerns of the moment. Rather than follow through on plans inherited from the Clinton Administration to replace F-15s with the more agile and survivable F-22 Raptor, the Bush Administration decided to embrace military transformation and embark on a global war against terrorists. To free up money for those initiatives, it repeatedly sought to kill the F-22 before the Air Force got the 381 planes it said it needed to sustain force rotations in a prolonged war.
Today, the Pentagon doesn't have a coherent plan for how it will sustain global air dominance over the next 30 years without a sufficient number of F-22s, because it has convinced itself that unconventional warfare is the wave of the future. In other words, it doesn't think U.S. air dominance will be challenged. Not surprisingly, some potential adversaries like Russia see this as an invitation to begin competing again for command of the skies. The next administration needs to step back from all the trendy ideas of the past eight years and focus on some basic facts about military preparedness...
1. Air dominance -- the ability to control airspace -- is the most important capability U.S. forces have. Without it, soldiers and sailors on the surface are constantly in danger from hostile aircraft, and friendly aircraft cannot safely accomplish missions like bombing and airlift.
2. U.S. air dominance is at risk today around the world from new surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down any plane that is not stealthy or shielded from detection by electronic jamming. Additional danger comes from new foreign fighters that match or surpass the F-15.
3. Even without these new threats, the current fleet of cold-war fighters is so old that it cannot be counted on to provide air dominance in the future. Many Air Force fighters operate on flight restriction due to metal fatigue, corrosion and other age-related maladies.
4. The F-22 is the only fighter the U.S. is building that was designed mainly as an air dominance aircraft rather than as a tradeoff of competing roles. It can conduct bombing, intelligence gathering and information warfare, but these do not detract from the air dominance mission.
5. Most of the money required to build 381 F-22s has already been spent, and cannot be recovered -- including $24 billion spent by five administrations to develop the plane. So the real question today is whether warfighters will get a good return on that investment by buying enough planes.