Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Observing the Air Force Air Superiority Discussion

Mark Bowden has an interesting piece up on The Atlantic regarding the future of U.S. Air Dominance. For those who may not know, Mark Bowden is the author of Black Hawk Down. While there are plenty of points one can focus on in this article, this strikes me as the meat of the discussion.

Unless the 21st century is the first in human history to somehow transcend geopolitical strife, our military will face severe tests in the coming years. The United States will be expected to take the lead in any showdown against a sophisticated air force. So it is worth examining the nature of air-to-air combat today, and the possible consequences of not building a full fleet of F-22s.
This is where the discussion begins and ends with me, but it seems everyone else wants to focus on other, much less relevant points made in the article. I was completely unimpressed by the comments of Matt Duss, linked by both Matthew Yglesais and Robert Farley. Matt's entire argument is the rather intellectually idiotic position that the political and industrial propaganda regarding the F-22 is what makes the F-22 program bad. Only in the absence of any strategic analysis does that argument make sense.

If an honest PR policy is a prerequisite for a good defense program, in Matt Duss's world there would be no military at all, none, because every major defense program I've ever seen discussed has pretty terrible PR. Of course most of the discussions about the F-22 are full of bullshit; the program has been a political hot potato for years. Show me a single political issue that isn't full of bullshit from both sides of the argument please. You can't, it doesn't exist, so perhaps simply the presence of bullshit isn't a very good measurement for determining the value of politicized discussions like the future of U.S. Air Superiority.

The question that everyone should be asking in any F-22 discussion is how the U.S. intends to maintain air superiority in the future? If we don't intend to maintain air superiority with the F-22, then how do we intend to maintain our advantage? Are there nations that can threaten the air superiority capabilities of the United States? The answer to that last question is absolutely yes, which leads us right back to the question of how.

Normally in a discussion like this I would look to the US Air Force to give an opinion. They don't, the US Air Force actually links The Atlantic article from their blog and did not give an opinion. That is rather embarrassing for the Air Force. What is the point of an Air Force social media strategy that doesn't engage a large, visible social media discussion about the Air Force?

The Air Force has passed up a real opportunity to link to some of the big blogs on the internet in a discussion about them, and to change the discussion away from a specific topic of means and talk about the more important subject of ends and ways of air superiority strategy. Internet discussions in social media want to talk about technology in a void; absent the strategic questions that lead to the development of technologies in the first place. By putting the discussion back on course towards a meaningful discussion regarding Air Superiority, the official Air Force Blog could have engaged in this discussion from a position of authority, but has punted instead, resulting in a missed opportunity. Matt Duss, Matthew Yglesais, and Robert Farley are all very smart people, and would have welcomed the insights from the Air Force in this discussion. Like I said, this is a missed opportunity.

I have no idea how many F-22s the Air Force needs, but I admit to being concerned about the state of air superiority looking into the future. This problem is specific to the US Air Force, because I don't believe the US Navy is going to be able to provide air superiority for itself too much longer into the future against peer competitors, for a several reasons.

First, the Navy appears intent on building more F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as a bridge towards the Joint Strike Fighter. While the Super Hornet is an excellent attack aircraft, it is not a great interceptor. When your interceptor is average, it puts additional emphasis on the pilots to overcome any limitations of technology to be successful.

Second, I don't have much confidence the US Navy is going to be as capable in the future, even with the F-35C naval version of the Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force tanker program is stalled, the Air Force doesn't have a realistic EW aircraft program right now, and every sign points to a reduction in the total number of aircraft carriers available to the Navy to fly from. Alternative ideas of using VSTOL F-35s is equally crazy, because not only will that result in fewer fighters, but the F-35B VSTOL version shorter range and less payload than the F-35C version.

Third, unmanned technology cannot do air superiority. We are several decades from unmanned interceptors in either the Air Force or the Navy, although much closer for unmanned technology standards for other aviation roles. I don't know much about flying, but I do know a hell of a lot about AI, and we are nowhere close to having an AI that can perform all of the decisions necessary for autonomous intercept on an aircraft. Intercept will be a human endeavor requiring a man in the loop for the next several decades, so we better put our men in the best possible aircraft.

I don't know if Matt Duss, Matthew Yglesais, or Robert Farley are actually looking for solutions or simply railing against the propaganda being fed into the discussion, but those who are very serious about the discussion I encourage you to add Worldwide War Pigs to your RSS feed or bookmarks. That blog is loaded with the various positions of the realistic debate between the F-22, F-35, and F-18 SHs and weighs all three in just about every way, a treasure of information and probably the only blog on the internet from an expert's point of view on this very difficult subject. Best of all, Eric takes the position from the Australian point of view and that is really interesting because Australia has expressed interest in the F-22, is involved in the F-35 program, and is buying Super Hornets. In other words, the discussion is strategic and specific to researched perspectives not influenced by US political or US industrial considerations.

In my opinion, unless politicians make it clear to the Navy otherwise, air superiority is a role specific to the US Air Force and something they better take seriously regardless of political and industrial pressures. A clear vision, supported top down from both the President and the SECDEF, would sure be nice because the only thing the F-22 discussion really does is highlight the absence of a clear stated vision for Air Superiority from the Air Force.

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