Dead Man Flying

Regardless of how much the Air Force has to shrink, it can’t do the air superiority mission with just fourth-generation fighters, no matter how “efficient” they may look on paper, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said on June 17. During an AFA-sponsored Air Force breakfast event, Welsh acknowledged that USAF will field a “mix” of fourth-generation F-15s and F-16s as well as fifth-generation fighters like F-22s and F-35s “years into our future.” But the F-35 is not negotiable, he said. “When we truncated our F-22 buy, we ended up with a force that can’t provide air superiority in more than one area at a time,” he acknowledged. The F-35 “is going to be part of the air superiority equation whether it was intended to be, originally, or not.” Competitors with fifth-gen fighters will field them not in 15 to 20 years, but “five to 10 years from now,” Welsh said, and if the US doesn’t have a credible fifth-gen force to counter them in a “high end fight” it will be “in trouble.” There’s “nothing else that can do” what the F-35 can, he said. “Out there where people fight and die, for real, if a fourth-generation aircraft meets a fifth-generation aircraft, the fourth-generation aircraft may be more efficient, but it’s also dead.”