Tactical Fighter Development: We Have Debated Long Enough

April 1, 1981
“Quality in our tactical fighter force is of greater importance than quantity. Of course, we would like both, but if we must choose, our choice is quality.”

Gen. William Momyer, then Commander of Tactical Air Command, made that observation more than ten years ago. When recently asked about his views now, he soundly responded, “…the same!”

Certainly the argument over whether numbers or capability is more important—or what is commonly referred to as “quality vs. quantity”—has been controversial.

During the past several years, extensive analyses, trade-off studies, and force-mix evaluations have been conducted by a variety of groups to help in deciding how many and what kinds of aircraft, avionics systems, and weapons are required to modernize the tactical fighter force. Not surprisingly, when diverse groups and agencies analyze the same problem, different perspectives, interests, and goals emerge.

The quality school desires to capitalize on the vast US industrial base and to modernize our tactical fighter force by pursuing continued and sustained sophistication of our systems. These advocates point out that over the years our technological superiority has allowed us to design, develop, and deploy highly capable aircraft, violins systems, and weapons that are recognized as superior to those of our adversaries. This school believes that we should continue to rely on technology and capitalize on technological opportunities. They stress that this approach has served us well in the past, not only in terms of military capabilities and hardware, but in civilian applications as well. They point to the advances made in hand calculators, digital watches, and computer chip technology as evidence.

The differing school—quantity—contends that technologically advanced systems are too expensive and cannot be procured in sufficient numbers to meet the threat. This group doubts whether such complex systems could be flown and maintained at high enough readiness rates to support wartime requirements. As a result, this school advocates a modernization strategy of larger numbers of aircraft at the expense of capable avionics and weapons. They firmly believe that only less capable systems can provide high sortie rates because simplicity makes them inherently more reliable, maintainable, and, in the long run, more available.

“Quality vs. Quantity,” “Complex vs. Simple,” “Expensive vs. Cheap”—all of these shorthand terms have been used to characterize this debate. But, as is often the case when using shorthand to describe Complex issues, the terms can be inadequate, incomplete, and possibly inaccurate.

The overriding issues are: What types of systems, in what quantities, with what capabilities, and in what time frame will give our tactical fighter force the best chance to successfully execute the missions and tasks directed by the National Command Authorities? To answer these issues one needs to understand what our fighter force is required to do, against what threat and at what level of intensity.

Worldwide Mission Requirements

Tactical fighter forces are tasked to conduct operations worldwide. These operations include both conventional and nuclear employment in NATO Europe or Korea, augmentation of those forces assigned to defending the North American continent against bomber attack, and a myriad of air operations in other areas of the world where our national interests might be threatened. These areas include locations where some US forces, bases, and logistical support might exist, to areas where little or no en-route or in-place capability may be available.

These considerations are not new demands on our tactical fighter forces, because they have long been required to deploy worldwide. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other events in Southwest Asia have more clearly revealed the challenges and difficulties associated with planning for tactical operations in these areas. These challenges include getting forces into these areas quickly and basing, employing, supporting, and sustaining them if they become engaged in combat.

The expected threat in these worldwide locations is large, diverse, sophisticated, and gaining in capability daily. During the decade of the Seventies, for example, the Soviets have been aggressively developing and producing large numbers of tactical aircraft with improved systems. Today, they produce a new tactical aircraft every six or seven hours, or about 1300 a year. Many of these are highly sophisticated, like the MiG-23 Flogger and MiG-25 Foxbat.

If we were to produce aircraft at the same rate, we could reequip our entire active tactical fighter force every eighteen months. Last year alone, the Soviets outspent us by $50 billion in defense-related efforts—an amount larger than the total Air Force budget. Obviously, these large and sustained efforts have allowed them to maintain their large numerical superiority over our forces. But equally troubling is that large expenditures period have placed them in a position to overcome the qualitative advantage previously enjoyed by our forces.

In sharp contrast to the past, Soviet fighters today are characterized by extended range, improved maneuverability, and sophisticated avionics, and weapons. For the air-to-air arena, advanced air-superiority fighters are being developed with expanded operational envelopes and improved air-to-air radar and missile capabilities. These developments are expected to lead to the deployment if a new long-range aircraft with a look-down/shoot-down capability in this decade.

For the air-to-surface arena, the Soviets are pursuing offensive systems to support their modern, highly mechanized, and mobile ground forces in carrying out Soviet doctrine—a doctrine that demands that forces be able to operate twenty-four hours a day, in all types of environmental and geographical conditions. They are equipping their direct air support aircraft with laser rangefinders and compatible missiles and bombs to support a rapidly advancing ground force. The Soviets are also building and deploying large numbers of Hind (Mi-24) and Hip (Mi-8) helicopters, not only to provide support for ground troops but to make available more fixed-wing aircraft for interdiction missions against NATO bases, nuclear storage areas, and C3 facilities. Other improvements are being made in surface-to-air defense systems and electronic warfare capabilities, which all contribute to the Soviet drive to gain at least qualitative equivalence with us.

Tactical Fighter Requirements

To counter this sophisticated threat we need tactical forces that can meet the conditions of battle at the tempo required and then be able to sustain that tempo. The keys to sustainment are sufficient trained personnel, spare parts, and equipment to ensure we can fix aircraft when they break. The F-15, for example, is a quality system with highly capable avionics and weapons and has been a frequent target for those opposed to sophistication. But rhetoric aside, the facts show that the F-15 has demonstrated repeatedly in operational exercises, surges, and deployments that when proper support is available, high sortie rates can be generated to support both peacetime readiness requirements and wartime rates.

The F-15’s reliability and maintainability speak well for sophisticated, quality systems. In the area of reliability, the F-15 avionics mean-time-between-failure is almost 100 percent better than the F-4E’s. As for maintainability, only about one-fifth of the maintenance downtime is due to sophisticated systems, while the remaining four-fifths is for systems and subsystems considered common to all aircraft. This type of experience clearly tells us that we can develop, and in fact have in the field, quality systems that are sophisticated but also reliable and maintainable.

Modernizing the Force

We know what kinds of forces and systems are required if we are to successfully confront a numerically superior, highly capable adversary on a sophisticated battlefield—we know that requires quality systems. And if some people want to equate quality with sophistication, that’s fine, because sophistication is a relative term. In this case, relative to the enemy we face and the mission to be accomplished. During the Korean War, some people considered the F-86 too sophisticated when compared with some of the aircraft it was to replace. But it certainly was not too sophisticated when compared with the MiG-15 that it had to find, engage, and defeat over the Korean peninsula. The same parallel can be drawn with the F-15. Compared with the F-4 it may be more sophisticated, but not when viewed against the MiG-23 Flogger or MiG-2S Foxbat that it must outfly and outfight.

What we should do is put a moratorium on the debating and, instead, direct our attention to accelerating the development and procurement of quality aircraft, avionics, and weapon systems.

Our forces need quality systems to be able to conduct air operations anywhere and anytime—operations that include providing close air support for our outnumbered ground forces in Western Europe, conducting interdiction missions deep into enemy territory, or gaining and maintaining air superiority over the battlefield.

Only by developing and fielding quality systems will our forces be able to operate across the spectrum of geographical and environmental conditions that exist worldwide—systems with capabilities that allow them to exploit the unique opportunities for success that exist at night and in adverse weather conditions. For it is under these conditions of darkness and weather (conditions that prevail more than seventeen hours out of a typical twenty-four-hour winter day in Central Europe) that effectiveness is reduced, defenses are degraded, and many forces are being rearmed and repaired. The side that can best exploit these conditions will have the distinct advantage. The Soviets are working hard in this area, and we cannot allow them this sanctuary.

In the near term, we need to upgrade our current fighters by building into the F-16 the sophisticated equipment necessary to increase its usefulness and expand its operating window. At the same time, we need to maintain the option to enhance the air-to-surface attack capability of the F-15.

And we must start now on our next generation fighter. The Soviets have averaged a new fighter prototype every year for the past twenty years. Many of these prototypes have resulted in the deployment of new and improved capabilities. In contrast, the US Air Force has not flown a new fighter design since the YF-16 and YF-17 in 1974. We should start to prototype and demonstrate advancing technologies, not just because the Soviets do but because it allows us to maintain the technological development necessary to respond quickly to a change in threat or mission requirements. It can also shorten the time necessary to get new systems into production. The F-16XL is an example of what could be tested next year.

The point is, if we are to retain our qualitative edge, we need to do what we do best—and that’s developing and fielding technologically advanced systems.

However, we have limited resources to devote to these tasks. During the past decade, fundamental changes have taken place in the American and world economies that have eroded the purchasing power of our defense dollars. We have seen rising inflation and labor rates, shortages of skilled laborers, increasing dependency on foreign fuels and raw materials, lengthening acquisition cycles, and growing competition for the world’s markets and supplies. It is within this context that we must decide how best to build a quality force in sufficient numbers to successfully accomplish our required missions.

As a point of departure, we have long maintained that additional resources were needed for national defense. The American people have confirmed their support for a strong defense and are prepared to support it with increased funding. The exact amount of this additional funding has not been determined. But what is significant is that the discussion is now focused on how much more is needed, rather than whether there will be more. Naturally, these additional resources will not all go for tactical forces. But once we determine that amount for tactical force modernization, the analyses, studies, and force mix evaluations can then go forward with alternatives to provide our needed quality fighter force.

In the final analysis, the “Q vs. Q” argument is similar to the gun argument. One can study pistol designs and do cost benefit analysis of short vs. long barrels, small vs. large caliber, or single vs. multiple shot. But all of this analysis is rendered irrelevant if the enemy is shooting at you with a Gatling gun. The point is: You need weapon systems that can compete against the threat and compete in the environment in which the enemy chooses to fight.

Those who argue against quality systems are prone to rely too heavily on economic analysis. The economic aspects must be considered, but the most important consideration has to be what is required to be successful in combat.

Maj. Gen. Robert D. Russ is Director of Operational Requirements in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Research, Development, and Acquisition, Hq. USAF. He was commissioned through the AFROTC program at Washington State University and, after pilot training, flew F-84F, F-100, F-101, and F-4C fighters in air defense, attack, and reconnaissance roles. He commanded the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C., then served at Hq., Tactical Air Command before assuming his present position in November 1979. He is a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours.