Thursday, November 08, 2007

Welcoming the Hollow Force

Here is yet another news article on the Air Force's rapidly aging and antiquated aerial armada, titled "Aging planes, lost jobs worrisome for generals". It is no secret now that America's tanker force which enables our global reach, along with our C-130 cargo planes, essential for our boots on the ground overseas, and the bulk of our mighty long-range bomber force was conceived, bought, and built in the Eisenhower and Kennedy era.

It seems the high costs of modern jet fighters and bombers are forcing on us an increasingly smaller air fleet, even though we are surrounded by constant threats to our security, and a defense budget which is bigger than ever. The Navy, Marines, and Army are experiencing the same difficulties with tanks, warships, and helicopters. In the near future, unless there is a drastic change in the way we procure new weapons, we will likely possess a military smaller in size than some Third World countries.

Our current weapons woes stem from several factors: Congress refusing to allow retirement of obsolete planes to keep numbers high (and bases open). Generals who put off ordering new aircraft, preferring to refit older planes decade after decade (as in the A-10 attack planes, probably our hardest working combat jet.) The main culprit, though, is the immense expense and long gestation periods needed for modern aircraft. An oft-used example is the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, whose extended life span I'll detail here:

  1. 1981-USAF identifies requirement for an Advanced Tactical Fighter to eventually replace the F-15 Eagle.
  2. 1984-Advanced Tactical Fighter Statement of Operational Need issued.
  3. 1985-First funds approved by Congress.
  4. 1986-Two teams, Northrop/McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics are selected to build prototypes.
  5. 1990-Flyoffs conducted by the YF-23 and YF-22 prototype fighters.
  6. 1991-F-22 selected as the future USAF Advanced Tactical Fighter.
  7. 1999-Air Force awards contract to build six F-22 Raptor production-representative test vehicles.
  8. 2001-Assembly of the first operational F-22 Raptor fighter.
  9. 2005-The F-22A Raptor achieved Initial Operational Capability.
  10. 2006-US Air Force Declares F-22A Raptor "Mission Capable".
An astounding 25 years from planning to "mission capable"! Sadly, this isn't the lone example of decades long waiting periods for our pilots, sailors, and troops to receive new weapons. Others include the infamous CV-22 Osprey tiltroter plane, design of which also began in 1981, and is only now entering service. Also, a desperately needed replacement for the F-16 fighter, a plane "conceived in the 1960's", won't be deployed until around 2011 or later.

Fortunately, where technology seems to be forcing obsolescence on traditional fighters, bombers, and cargo planes, it may also provide the answer to our shrinking aircraft inventories. New unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are finding increasing popularity among soldiers and pilots and have even been tested on submarines. Some are approaching the cost of jet fighters, about $40 million for new combat UAVs, but smaller ones which can fit in a Marine's backpack run only a few hundred thousand dollars.

They might be likened to the first rag-tag biplanes that created air warfare in World War 1. Like the first planes, the UAVs initially were used for aerial reconnaissance, then moved on to attack missions, as we see now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the pioneer dog fighters and their machines of wire and canvas, the unmanned vehicles are mere curiosities compared to superfighters like the Raptor, or our invisible B-2 bombers, but are increasingly complementing and will likely surpass these archaic and unaffordable dinosaurs, if history is any judge. The same can be said of other weapons of warfare:

  • The attack submarine may outlive surface warships which have been struggling to deal with its menace for most of the last century, as it often duplicates most missions of the vulnerable carriers and destroyers.
  • Cheaper and easier to build wheeled vehicles, Strykers and MRAPs, are already displacing the tank in the Middle East Conflict.
  • Highly effective precision bombs have already enabled a few planes and ships to do the work once needed of many, and even smarter bombs should allow us to do away with many of our Industrial Age notions of warfare.

So don't pine too much when you see our giant aerial fleet retired from extreme age, or our surface navy wither and all but disappear, or the last Main Battle Tank sold for a curiosity to some museum. We are not necessarily seeing the demise of American military power, but the harsh growing pains of a new revolution.