In Defense of Fighters

July 1, 2002

The fighter force is under attack. Big price tags for new acquisition plus the claim that the demand for fighters is based on old requirements have spawned doubts about the current and future role of fighters in air and space power.

Earlier this year, for example, the New York Times pointed out in an editorial that the Air Force “remains committed to the F-22,” then referred to the Raptor as “a short-range tactical fighter designed for Cold War dogfights.” The newspaper suggested that “Air Force dollars should go to unmanned reconnaissance and attack craft like the Predator, long-range bombers, and the troop transport planes that are in chronic short supply.”

Another defense critic, Lawrence J. Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues the Pentagon should be spending money on “true” transformational systems such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that were used so successfully in Afghanistan.

More significant were reports in May that a draft of the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal 2004 and beyond called for re-evaluating the F-22 program. Specifically, it called for a study of the impact of buying only 180 new F-22 air dominance fighters, rather than the planned fleet of 339. The other future Air Force air combat system, the F-35 strike fighter, faces a similar review.

The idea that the fighter is on its way out reflects a misunderstanding of the basic operational requirements of joint warfare–and of the fighter’s long history of carrying forward innovative new developments in air warfare.

Magnets for Criticism

Fighters and bombers have been magnets for criticism and controversy all through the history of war in the air and never more so than when the bill for enhanced capability comes due. A few months before Pearl Harbor, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold famously confessed, “Frankly, fighters have been allowed to drift into the doldrums.” As a result, the US entered World War II with second-rate fighters on the front lines.

In Vietnam, US airmen paid the price for lack of emphasis on fighter development, as powerful but unwieldy F-105s and F-4s were shot down by surface-to-air missiles and agile MiG-21s flown by experienced North Vietnamese pilots.

It hasn’t been all that long since the United States was forced to learn these stark lessons about military airpower. Even so, the issue of whether to buy first-rate fighters is back.

Today, the case against the fighters bounces from budget worries to technology debates. Among the numerous allegations are claims that fighters lack key performance requirements, such as range; that they are overbuilt to Soviet threat standards that no longer matter; or that other air vehicle systems will soon be able to take over the work of air dominance.

Running through it all is the charge that fighter modernization plans favor gold-plated aircraft built to meet the kinds of specifications that thrill fighter pilots and aerospace engineers but exceed joint requirements.

Most damaging are doubts about whether so-called “short-range fighters” truly qualify as prospects for the transformation team. With transformation atop the list of defense priorities, most attention focuses on precision weapons, the potential of UAVs, long-range bombers, and future space systems.

Scratch the surface of the fighter debate and one of the first problems to arise is the widespread perception that a mafia of fighter pilots is willing to sacrifice other systems and even transformational capabilities to preserve their single-seat cockpits and silk scarves. According to this line of thinking, the passion for afterburners and nine-G turns biases Air Force generals in favor of funding for fighters and against systems that threaten to do some of the work of fighters.

In the Air Force, pilots–especially fighter pilots–dominate the ranks of three- and four-star generals. Since 1982, all Air Force Chiefs of Staff have been fighter pilots. Fighter pilots of Tactical Air Command appeared to win the battle of the Air Force’s post-Cold War reorganization when Strategic Air Command was disbanded in 1992 and the new Air Combat Command, emblazoned with the old TAC patch and commanded by a senior fighter pilot, Gen. John Michael Loh, was stood up at TAC’s headquarters at Langley AFB, Va. Through the defense drawdown of the 1990s, USAF’s force structure was expressed in terms of “fighter wing equivalents.”

The Fighter Surge

In truth, fighter pilots started to dominate Air Force leadership when fighters came to dominate the force structure. In the 1970s, technology development feeding on the lessons of Vietnam produced the F-15 as a true air superiority fighter. A competition to build an innovative, lightweight fighter led to the design of the F-16. Fresh emphasis on conventional warfare and cooperation with the Army through AirLand Battle helped push a major buildup in fighters in the 1980s.

Brig. Gen. R. Michael Worden, author of the book The Rise of the Fighter Generals, notes that Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird in the early 1970s pushed for “youth” in the military leadership ranks. The Air Force responded in part by giving early promotions to younger fighter wing commanders, with the result being that they “were young enough to compete in greater proportion for the higher flag officer ranks before reaching mandatory retirement at 35 years of service.” Later, disproportionate growth in numbers of fighters put more and more fighter pilots in the rated pipeline for senior jobs.

The cliché of fighter pilots protecting their interests got new life when UAVs began to make serious strides in capability and usefulness.

“Not long ago, an Air Force F-15 pilot had to be persuaded to forgo a rated pilot’s job to fly–I guess that’s still the correct word–an unmanned Predator aircraft from a location far from the field of battle,” said Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense in recent congressional testimony. He went on to praise the Air Force leadership for “working hard to encourage this pilot and others to think of piloting UAVs as a major mission and to become trailblazers in defining new concepts of operations.”

The implication was that neither fighters nor fighter pilots were naturally well-suited to transformation. Yet the history of air operations attests to the place of fighters in the front rank of innovation and transformation.

Technological superiority is the fighter’s first and foremost contribution. In air warfare, the ability to survive, complete the mission, and control the airspace determines the success of the air campaign. Spads, P-51s, F-4s, F-15s, and F-22s have all had the same goal: Combine performance and tactics to outgun anything else in the air and then pivot off that dominance to conduct devastating ground attack operations.

Fighters past and present share basic aerodynamic attributes that explain why fighters remain on the front lines, generation after generation. While individual specifications vary, every fighter is designed with power and maneuverability in mind. These and other physical attributes shared by all fighters represent the attempt to achieve state-of-the-art aerodynamics and deliver the maximum in air combat capability.

Consequently, fighters have often been the first to take breakthrough technology into combat. Cockpit radar, jet engines, and pods for self-designated laser-guided bombs all went to war first on fighters. The term “fighter” is decades old, but today’s fighters bear no more resemblance to the World War II era than a Ferrari does to a Model T.

Precision and Stealth

Fighters were at the core of the precision and stealth revolutions of the 1990s. The wave of transformation that led to the stunning results of the Gulf War depended on fighters and fighter-bombers as the engines of change. In the Gulf War, for the first time, American forces won air superiority quickly and efficiently. The F-15 led the dogfight results and suffered no losses. The F-117 stealth fighter dissected the difficult Iraqi defenses while the F-111 fighter-bomber turned its precision capabilities to the unforeseen task of destroying Iraqi tanks half-buried in sand.

Fighters succeeded in the Gulf War because their greater survivability–whether in the form of air combat maneuvering or stealth–gave them the widest range of potential action in the battlespace and because they had the latest technology for precision attack. Aircraft originally designed for more limited missions–for example, the F-4G “Wild Weasels”–proved capable of employing new weapons and tactics. Versatility, sheer numbers, and the higher chances of mission success made fighters the tool with which air commanders accomplished the broadest and deepest range of tasks.

Following the Gulf War, the fighter force as a whole received targeting and weapons upgrades that extended the benefit of precision throughout the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Navy made its F-14 Tomcat into a precision-capable “Bombcat.” In 1995, just four years after the Gulf War, fighters carried out Operation Deliberate Force, the two-week air campaign against Bosnian Serb targets. By 1999, it was the fighters that drew most of the assignment for time-critical targeting in Operation Allied Force. A case in point was the F-15E, modified in the mid-1990s so the pilot could receive video images of a target while he is en route. The B-2 stealth bomber was the only aircraft able to drop the all-weather Joint Direct Attack Munition in 1999. By the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, however, Navy F/A-18s and F-14s and other Air Force aircraft all employed JDAM to great effect.

In keeping with the transformation tradition of the fighter, the F-22 incorporates all-aspect stealth and advanced avionics in an advanced fighter design. The combination makes the F-22 the most survivable aircraft ever to fly and will give it superior ability to conduct air-to-air or ground-attack missions.

Still, the chorus of doubt about the future of the fighter has grown stronger since the mid-1990s. Critics point to several shortcomings thought to inhibit the utility of fighters.

The Range Issue

Heading the list is range–or the supposed lack of it. Geographic access to the battlespace in major regional conflicts emerged as a possible Achilles’ heel for the fighter force. The worry has been that either military attacks by the enemy or political constraints from friends could deprive US fighters of bases from which to launch operations. A 1993 Rand study observed that the “greater the combat range of an aircraft, the more likely it is to find a suitable beddown base in any theater.”

As the US drifted away from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf allies, the question of access loomed even larger. Raids such as Operation Desert Strike in 1996 and Operation Desert Fox in 1998 raised new dilemmas with allies reluctant to grant use of in-theater bases for new offensive strikes. USAF heavy bombers, Navy aircraft carriers, and long land-based fighter missions helped take up the slack.

Critical claims about fighter range deserve far closer scrutiny than they have so far received. It is axiomatic that no combat aircraft can ever have too much range. The new fighter designs make this abundantly clear. The Navy F/A-18E/F multirole Super Hornet was designed with about 25 percent more range than extant Navy fighters. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will more than double the unrefueled combat radius of the fighters that it replaces. The F-22 will triple the combat radius of current fighters.

However, actual combat radius depends on a whole host of variables, ranging from altitude to the amount of ordnance carried and the attack profile.

Today, virtually no combat missions take place without air refueling. In Operation Allied Force, the crowding of in-theater bases compelled Air Force F-15Es to fly seven-hour missions from RAF Lakenheath in England to targets in the former Yugoslavia, but their missions were successful. Moreover, even bombers need prestrike and poststrike refueling. B-2s leaving the target area over Serbia were thirsty for fuel until they met their tankers in the Mediterranean.

The debate about the combat utility of fighters boils down to a narrow band of scenarios where basing concerns and extreme inland ranges stretch out the combat radius and relatively light air defenses take attrition out of the equation. Afghanistan after the first few days was just such a scenario.

Operation Enduring Freedom presented a serious access challenge. In-theater bases were few and not particularly close to the action. Land-based and carrier-based strike fighters had to use multiple air refuelings from Air Force tankers to get enough range. The extreme distance to the target area limited the fighters’ time on station.

Bombers operating from Diego Garcia faced no such constraints, loitering for hours at a stretch to provide on-call air strikes. The success of the bombers–which accounted for more than 70 percent of all of the ordnance dropped during the war–led some to question whether fighters would ever be needed again. “Restart the B-52 assembly line,” sneered Ralph Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and pundit. “We don’t need extravagantly priced dogfighting machines.”

The focus on range left out the other side of the coin of anti-access scenarios: air defenses.

Fighter Territory

Hostile airspace is fighter territory. With the exception of the stealthy B-2, bombers require significant standoff ranges to strike targets in heavily defended airspace. In Enduring Freedom, the air defenses–rudimentary as they were–had to be defanged first or even the Vietnam-era MiG-21s possessed by the Taliban could have been a lethal threat to the bombers. The B-1s and B-52s loitered safely over Afghanistan only after it was cleared of air defense threats by carrier-based fighter and B-2 strikes. Even so, fighters were always in the area when bombers operated.

In the Balkans in 1999, long-endurance on-call air support operations with the bombers would not have been possible with the roving Serbian SA-6s on the loose. In those situations, it falls to fighters such as the F-16CJ to perform hunt-and-kill missions of lethal suppression of enemy air defenses. Many potential hotspots in the war on terrorism include stiff air defenses. It will be up to the fighters, perhaps assisted by the B-2 and Tomahawk cruise missiles, to take them down.

As recent operations attest, fighters do much more than engage in dogfights. New platforms such as the F-22 and F-35 are designed to play multiple roles and streamline the fighter inventory.

Still, the primary mission of the fighter boils down to air dominance.

Regional air dominance counts. US fighters have flown more than 100,000 sorties for combat air patrols over northern and southern Iraq. When the Iraqi air force started violating the northern no-fly zone, the operation needed more fighters to keep control of the airspace.

A senior defense official said: “I talked to the Turkish general staff; they said they understood, and within a couple of days, it was approved, and we put the fighters in there.” For these regional air dominance missions, only fighters will do. “If Saddam can’t fly up here [north Iraq] and can’t fly down here [south Iraq], that really puts great constraints on his air force as far as their training,” the senior defense official explained. “They can’t operate with the army in the south; they can’t operate with the army in the north.”

Even in low-intensity conflict, air commanders cannot run the campaign without important battlespace management platforms such as the E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS, but fighters need to be available to defend them. “The first thing I want to know is where the F-15s are going to be in case we have to go hide behind them,” said one officer explaining mission planning for an electronic attack aircraft. In every air operation from Desert Storm to Allied Force, fighters manned combat air patrol stations to protect other assets from the threat of attack by even a handful of enemy aircraft.

How Many and How Much

For those who concede fighters have some utility, a second pernicious line of argument is that today’s roster of fighters provide all the air dominance needed–and that stealth is a waste of money. Naval analyst Norman Friedman wrote in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings in May that ongoing technology improvements might make stealth irrelevant and that “the sheer cost of building F-22s might make it impossible to begin a new program.” He went on to say that “after all, the current threat is such that aircraft already in production seem to be quite effective against it.”

Even since the heyday of the Military Reform Caucus in the 1980s, there has been a widespread view that adequate defense of the nation could be had by buying cheaper, less-capable fighters. The myth of the cheap fighter was a staple of the Reforms. The “cheap hawk” school of defense policy carries on that tradition, supporting a strong defense and a robust military, but disdaining any effort to differentiate among so-called “advanced jet aircraft” or to evaluate operational arguments for their joint warfighting roles. By failing to look at these factors, the cheap hawks gloss over the real debate about how fighters contrast or complement each other in joint operations.

Also lost in the price tag argument is the fact that, when war breaks out, the best systems are sent in first. Plans for the coalition air campaign of Desert Storm centered deliberately on the stealthy F-117. The mainstay F-16s, which lacked precision targeting in 1991, filled in the gaps, with missions suited to their more limited capabilities. The one attempt to send F-16s in a large package against a heavily defended target near Baghdad resulted in loss of life and a decision that no target in Iraq was worth the risk–because, of course, the more advanced and survivable F-117 was around to do the job.

Putting the brakes on US fighter modernization is false economy and discards the nation’s key asymmetric advantage. The fighters strengthen US air and space power; new ones are needed to help the US stay ahead of emerging capabilities. Already, advanced Russian SAMs can be found in many countries. They are being marketed to many others.

Ensuring that US aircraft can get into a target area and perform their missions–now and in the future–ultimately comes down to whether the fighters can be tasked to take on the total threat of adversary aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. The F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are specifically designed to unravel integrated air defenses. Standoff cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile augment air dominance–but TLAMs, too, are vulnerable. One TLAM flying a preplanned route was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during the Gulf War.

It is interesting to note that the fighter debate seems to be taking place only in the United States. Worldwide, the market for fighters remains strong and competitive, with many nations choosing to spend their defense dollars on fighters.

In every air campaign, opening the skies for friendly operations is the foundation of all that comes after. Fighters also remain the cornerstone of sovereign air defense. Operation Noble Eagle put fighter patrols over many parts of the United States after Sept. 11. No other type of aircraft could have done that job.

Whether at home or abroad, winning air superiority is the reason fighters will continue to be the aces of air warfare.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research, Inc., in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “The Bekaa Valley War,” appeared in the June 2002 issue.