Tuesday, September 14, 2010


The Air Force Association is hosting its annual conference down at National Harbor, just outside DC, this week. According to Gordon Lubold and Jen DiMascio's daily "Morning Defense" column from POLITICO, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force for ISR LTG David Deptula showed a video during his talk entitled "2010 Threats to Air Supremacy." The main threat identified by the "ominous-voiced narrator" was surface-to-air missiles, but:
Deptula’s video also showed fighters being developed overseas, such as the Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon. “These fighters are being marketed worldwide and could be sold to a future adversary,” the video warned.
And that's exactly right, and an extremely compelling argument for... Well, I'm not sure what it's an argument for. And it's only compelling if you're Bill Gertz. But still.

You know what the world's most capable fifth-gen fighter [pdf] (defined as "state of the art") is? The F-22. You know where it's been developed and built? Hint: not overseas. That's right, it's right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. But what's the world's second-most capable fifth-gen fighter? you might be wondering. That's the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter. Which is, uh, also a U.S. system (co-developed with NATO allies and Australia). There are suggestions that the Chinese and Russians are also developing fifth-gen fighters (the latter potentially in concert with India), but that's pretty much it.

I'm not sure if this is Lubold and DiMascio's error or Deptula's -- though I would assume the former (it's a pretty good bet that the DCS/AF for ISR knows more about fighter aircraft generations and designations than I do) -- but the three aircraft listed in the article are known as "fourth-plus" or "4.5-gen" fighters. (Other 4.5-gen fighters in service for countries relevant to this discussion? How about the F-15E (U.S.), the F-16 Block 60 (U.S.), and the F/A-18E/F (U.S.)?) Which is to say that they're less capable than at least one U.S. system currently in the air, flying missions, and than another one that's soon to enter service, and that they're similarly capable to the three aircraft that make up the bulk of the U.S. fleet.

Other than that, what else do the Gripen (Sweden), the Rafale (France), and the Typhoon (UK/Germany/Italy/Spain) have in common? Well, there's the fact that they're developed and operated by SOME OF THE UNITED STATES' CLOSEST FUCKING ALLIES ON EARTH. The Rafale is French and is only operated by the French. The Typhoon is a European co-production and is currently flown only by the countries of its manufacture, plus Saudi Arabia and Austria. The Swedes, meanwhile, are the really dangerous proliferators of this lot: the Gripen has been sold to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and South Africa, and they're lining up the Thais next! Now I suppose it's possible that one or all of these countries could become a "future adversary," but it doesn't seem likely.

This picking of nits is all sort of silly, though. The U.S. is developing and fielding fifth-gen fighters, and whether or not our close European allies end up selling their less-capable planes to undesirables, there are states out there that will probably seek to close the fighter gap (in both number and technology) with us. Which is really why the video is appropriately titled, leaving aside the poor examples it uses: there will, no doubt, be future threats to U.S. air supremacy. Let's take a look at the Defense Department definition of that term.
air supremacy (DOD) -- That degree of air superiority wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference.
We're unlikely to face threats to U.S. air superiority, though.
air superiority (DOD) -- That degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, maritime, and air forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.
See the difference? Air superiority means the ability to create an environment that's permissive to operations. Air supremacy means the ability to create an environment where operations are completely unchallenged from the air. This is a circumstance that's reasonably unique in history, and one that we shouldn't reasonably expect to continue (though one can obviously understand why the Air Force would strive to maintain its warfighters' edge).

And so we're back where we've been all along: talking about what's reasonable, not just what's possible; that is, what's a requirement versus a desired capability. (The DoD loves to use the term "requirement" for everything it wants, and here's an example of why it's pernicious.) Whether we should expect to spend exorbitant sums on ensuring global air supremacy rather than just air superiority, or whether that money could be more effectively spent on other requirements.

Furthermore, airplanes require bases. That means that if you want to use them in an expeditionary capacity, and you're not talking about launching them off of carriers (which face their own challenges from the development of anti-access weapons), you need partners to give you runways and hanger space. And you need to be able to protect those airfields, too.

What does all of this mean? Well, simple: maybe we need to be having a serious national conversation (ok, that's a bridge too far -- how about just a serious conversation in the security community?) about how much capability is required, how much is desirable, and how much is optimal, then stacking that up against the fiscal realities we're operating under (and here I'm talking about the entire range of military roles and missions, not just air dominance/supremacy/superiority). That purpose isn't served by service rivalry, parochialism, and scare tactics on the part of the unholy alliance between military professional communities/associations and the defense industry.

UPDATE: The incomparable GrEaT SaTaN'S gIrLfRiEnD has some thoughts on the subject (accessible only if you speak Courtney's language).


  1. By the way, from what I hear, it's no understatement to say that the F-22 is dominating at Red Flag exercises. Simply killing an F-22 in a mock dogfight becomes a media sensation.

  2. "about how much capability is required, how much is desirable, and how much is optimal, then stacking that up against the fiscal realities we're operating under..."

    Ahhhhaahahahahaaa! ... oh wait, you're serious? Never gonna happen. Should, but won't. Not in our national security culture (see Bacevich's latest book).