Boston Globe (F-22 Dog Fight) — McCain Video — The American Industrial Base On The Brink — America’s Two Air Forces

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor aircraft, participating in Northern Edge 2009, executes a supersonic flyby over the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) while the ship is under way in the Gulf of Alaska June 22, 2009. Stennis was participating in Northern Edge 2009, a joint exercise which focuses on detecting and tracking units at sea, in the air and on land. (U.S. Navy photo by Sonar Technician 1st Class Ronald Dejarnett)



A dog fight Obama seems bound to lose

By Bryan Bender  Globe Staff / July 12, 2009 (Emphasis mine)

WASHINGTON – From the economic recovery plan to healthcare reform and creating clean-energy jobs, Representative Paul Hodes has been among President Obama’s staunchest supporters in Congress.

But when it comes to the administration’s proposal to end production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet to save billions of dollars over the next decade, the New Hampshire Democrat is drawing the line: Hodes has joined other members of the president’s own party to insist the Air Force buy more of the planes despite fierce objections from the Pentagon and even the threat of a presidential veto.

Hodes’s view on the F-22, shared by other usually stalwart Obama supporters such as Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, signifies the extent to which one of the president’s priorities – paring down costly weapons systems – is at risk of flaming out on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties are scrambling to protect jobs back home.

Hodes’s district includes Nashua, where an estimated 1,400 workers at BAE Systems help build the jet’s electronic combat systems – one of many facilities in 44 states where jet components are manufactured.

Thousands of jobs are dependent on it,’’ said Mark Bergman, Hodes’s spokesman, explaining his boss’s position.

The ultimate fate of the F-22, however, has wider implications for defense spending, according to military specialists and congressional specialists. If the plane continues to be produced, they predict, other weapon systems that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has recommended cutting back could be revived as lawmakers are emboldened to push for their own pet projects.

“If Gates and Obama can’t sustain the veto, the defense budget is a ham sandwich and will be carved up,’’ said Winslow Wheeler, a former GOP defense aide who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “We are talking about a political system that watches these things very closely. Any perceived weakness only begets more weakness.’’

Obama still has some influential lawmakers in his corner, including Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. When the full Senate takes up the defense bill this week, McCain plans to lead an effort to reverse the decision in committee that would add $1.7 billion for 12 additional F-22s next year.

“I strongly support Secretary Gates’s position that procurement of additional F-22s beyond 187 aircraft is unnecessary and should not be done,’’ McCain told the Globe in a statement.

One defense analyst estimates that $65 billion has been spent on the F-22 program to date; the price tag for each of the stealth fighters, designed during the Cold War for the next generation of air-to-air combat, is about $200 million.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, has already voted in favor of adding nearly $400 million to purchase parts for at least seven additional F-22s. The two chambers will have to ultimately come up with a common bill.

The proposal not to build the final batch of 60 F-22s is at the center of Gates’s effort to scale back some costly weapon systems and free up resources for new capabilities such as intelligence-gathering tools to confront less conventional enemies, such as those in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When he rolled out his budget plan in April, Gates urged members of Congress to resist the temptation to fight for some of these programs solely on the grounds that they employ their constituents.

He called on lawmakers “to critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements’’ – a reference to the longtime practice by lawmakers of funding pet projects whether they are justified or not.

On Gates’s advice, the White House appears poised to fight for its position on the F-22. In a tersely worded memo to House lawmakers on June 24, the White House said that “if the final bill presented to the president contains this provision, the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto.’’

The president’s party holds significant majorities in both chambers, but party loyalty only goes so far when it comes to defense contracts.

It is unclear whether Obama can garner enough votes to make a veto stand, according to a number of close observers. If a two-thirds’ majority in both chambers backs the F-22, he will be forced to buy them.

The signs aren’t good. So far, the House leadership has refused to even consider three proposed amendments to remove the F-22 funding from the defense bill.

And Kennedy, perhaps the president’s biggest ally on Capitol Hill, has been a longtime advocate of the fighter plane. Late last month he used his vote on the Senate Armed Services Committee to support the F-22 funding. He also voted to finance other projects that have an economic impact in the Bay State but that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need.

He hopes that someday the Massachusetts Air National Guard will be able to replace their F-15 jets with the F-22, his office said in a statement.

But in a letter in support of continuing the program sent to then-President-elect Obama in January, Kennedy and dozens of other senators cited the economic impact of terminating the program, including more than 1,000 suppliers nationwide and at least 25,000 jobs. The project’s prime contractor is Lockheed Martin…

“I can confirm that the senator’s position [in favor of more F-22s] has not changed,’’ said Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jodi Seth.

Obama is facing opposition from Democrats across the region. Representative Carol Shea-Porter, from New Hampshire, also supports building more F-22s, according to her spokeswoman, Jamie Radice, as does Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

For his part, Kennedy’s break with the president’s defense spending priorities goes beyond just the F-22.

He voted in favor of buying nine more F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets for the Navy than the administration requested and providing more than $600 million that the Air Force didn’t ask for to build an alternative engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – another provision that the White House warns could prompt a veto.

Engines for both the F/A-18 and the F-35 are built by General Electric’s aviation division in Lynn. In total, the Super Hornet program supports 102 companies across Massachusetts and employs more than 3,800 people, according to a briefing prepared for congressional staff by Boeing, the main contractor.

But many watchdog groups fear that such reversals in Gates’s budget plan – especially on the F-22 – will jeopardize the integrity of the entire Pentagon reform plan in the years to come, including the recommendations of a defense strategy review to be completed by the end of the year

“Obama either has to veto the whole bill or accept a significant legislative defeat,’’ he said. “He raised the symbolic value; if he loses, he loses big.’’

Mr. McCain said the rationale for keeping a weapon system should never be about job creation, but about defending the nation.  Mr. McCain had a different answer when he was running for president…

I disagree Mr. McCain, weapon system acquisition should be about securing America’s industrial base.

The American Aircraft Industrial Base On the Brink

Lt Col David R. King, PhD, USAF* (Emphasis mine)

Today’s fighter pilots are the modern equivalent of medieval knights. We consider them products of their societies and dependent upon those societies. That is, the warrior class of knights emerged from a feudal system based on land grants required to support them, as well as their horses and squires (just as fighter pilots have their aircraft and crew chiefs). Not self-sufficient, the knight received support from complex relationships involving serfs, merchants, craftsmen, and religion. The fighter pilot receives support from an even more complex system of taxation and budgeting that enables billion-dollar research and development, together with production programs. Just as a knight depended upon a blacksmith for his weapons and armor, so does the fighter pilot rely upon the capability of the supporting industrial base.

America’s armed forces in general and aircraft in particular draw their strength from the underlying industrial base. The United States owes its status as an undisputed world power to sustained investments made during the Cold War. Continued military strength will depend upon the health of the defense industrial base since developing, producing, and fielding major weapon systems can take over a decade. Unfortunately, short-term budget decisions imperil the long-term viability of that base. The decision in 2004 to cut $10.5 billion of the funding for the F-22 Raptor, thus terminating production early, represents a situation whereby current fiscal constraints discount future needs.1 The latest Quadrennial Defense Review, however, reviewed and partially reversed such reductions to F-22 funding.

When considering the current situation, one must remember the past because airpower’s achievements tend to overshadow its imperfections.2 Due to shortsightedness, the United States, despite having pioneered manned flight in 1903, found that by World War I its industrial base lagged that of other nations—a condition which lasted through World War II. In World War I, American pilots used foreign aircraft—the US Curtiss JN-4 Jenny never saw combat. Further, American tactical aircraft were inferior to both Japanese and German fighters at the beginning of World War II, and US fighter technology trailed its German counterpart through the end of the war.3 Indeed, Japan’s Zero flew farther and faster than any plane in the US arsenal as World War II began.4 To produce successful aircraft designs, the United States looked to other nations for help. For example, the North American P-51 Mustang, one of the premiere US aircraft in the war, used a British engine manufactured by Rolls-Royce.5 We see this dependence reflected in the decision by Lockheed Martin, recently selected to provide helicopters for the US president, to use a design by AgustaWestland, a British-Italian joint venture.6 History shows that a country must invest significant time and funds to restore a competitive aircraft industrial base.7

Capabilities of the Industrial Base

An industrial base represents a system of capabilities required to create, produce, operate, and support a commodity. One can view industrial capability as a pyramid whose base is the repairing of technology and whose apex is the generation of new technology and designs (fig. 1). The ability to manufacture and adapt technology falls between these two capabilities; as the capabilities progress, they become scarcer and more ephemeral. Although one can consider these capabilities a continuum, substantial gaps occur between their different levels. For example, one discovers significant distinctions between knowing how to repair or manufacture an aircraft and knowing how to create an integrated aircraft design. Both capabilities, however, remain essential to an industrial base.

king1Figure 1. Capabilities of the industrial base. (Adapted from David R. King and Mark L. Nowack, “The Impact of Government Policy on Technology Transfer: An Aircraft Industry Case Study,” Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 20, no. 4 [2003]: 305.)

Moreover, not all product technology within an industry is equally demanding. In the aircraft business, for instance, fighters require materials, avionics, engines, and systems integration that push the limits of design and manufacturing knowledge. Notably, government funding to develop engines for fighter aircraft often yields advances that subsequently find their way into commercial engines.8 This significant transfer of experience highlights how industrial capability relies upon learning that transforms knowledge into a sense of order that guides future actions. Maintaining each level of this capability requires continued experience to sustain necessary skills.

A healthy industrial base must have prolonged investment to maintain adequate diversity and thereby enable innovation and workforce renewal. Variety encourages competitiveness in an environment of changing technology, just as multiple firms facilitate efficient operations and adaptation. Additionally, industry needs a workforce large enough so that older, experienced workers train their eventual replacements. A recent decline in the number of firms and experienced workers suggests that the health of the American aircraft industry is deteriorating.

Assessing Capabilities of the Industrial Base

We must be the great arsenal of democracy.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The accomplishments of today’s US aircraft industrial base have their origins in investments made during and following World War II. Subsequent declines in the number of aircraft programs pursued by the US government have had a profound impact on both the number of firms and workers in the air and space industry. During the 1940s and 1950s, 40 different jet-fighter designs by nine different defense firms took flight.9 Consequently, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps procured more fighter and attack aircraft in six years (1951–56) than in the following 34 years (1957–90).10 To put this in perspective, consider that between 1958 and 1979 the United States and its allies took delivery of a total of 5,195 F-4 Phantom IIs, but between 1990 and 2004, industry produced only 572 fighter aircraft for the Air Force.11

The decline in aircraft production has contributed to industry consolidation because smaller procurement quantities and fewer aircraft programs can sustain only a few firms. Since 1990 the aircraft industry has seen significant consolidation (fig. 2), resulting in lower variety, which may adversely affect technological innovation.12 Innovation does not occur in isolation, and available knowledge that frames the definition and solution of problems constrains the behavior of firms.13 Thus, insufficient diversity results in a less resilient industry. Meanwhile, policy makers may expect continued innovation without realizing that recent success stems from a more robust industrial base than currently exists.

king2Figure 2. Consolidation of aircraft manufacturers. (From Security Data Corporation Merger Database, 2004.)

One would realistically expect lower levels of innovation from an industrial base with less diversity and correspondingly less competition over ideas and designs. Improved technology that permits fewer, more capable aircraft to replace older aircraft leads to industry consolidation, which coincides with a decline in the number of aircraft designs.14 For example, the integrated avionics and supercruise engines of the F-22 Raptor allow it to cover two to three times the area of the F-15 Eagle, thus obviating the need for a one-for-one replacement.

Lockheed Martin won the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter contracts—probably the last US manned-aircraft development programs for at least a decade.15 Those two designs will replace the F-15, F-16, F-117, and A‑10 but in significantly lower numbers. Fewer aircraft and improved reliability further decrease demand by reducing requirements for spares and repairs, compounding the difficulty faced by remaining firms. These businesses typically count on cash flows from their support of existing aircraft to help finance research and development that adapts and generates the new technology they need to remain competitive.

Interrelationships among prime aircraft contractors can further heighten concerns about future innovation (fig. 3). The partnering between dominant firms that typifies most recent aircraft programs can have the effect of displacing lower-level suppliers but lowers costs in the short term. For example, BAE, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, California, perform work for both the F-22 assembled at Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia, and the F-35 assembled at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, resulting in an estimated 1 to 3 percent decrease in each aircraft’s flyaway cost. However, this practice of reducing costs by sharing subcontractors and components on major subsystems may hinder long-term innovation because supporting fewer firms with available procurement dollars limits variety in the industrial base.


Figure 3. Interrelationships among aircraft manufacturing firms. (Adapted from John Birkler et al., Competition and Innovation in the U.S. Fixed-Wing Military Aircraft Industry [Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2003], 31.)

Development of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) by Boeing and Northrop Grumman seeks to limit risks from concentrating current manned-aircraft development and production with Lockheed Martin, yet Northrop Grumman still teams with Lockheed Martin. Over the next 10 years, the market for unmanned aircraft is expected to experience increased competition from new entrants as that market’s value grows to exceed $10 billion.16 If this projection proves true, the demand for unmanned aerial vehicles may help revitalize the aircraft industry with increased demand, participating firms, and competition. However, since World War II, no new firms have entered manned-aircraft production, and the early termination of the F‑22 increases the cost of and risk associated with the F-35 program.

Inadequate Workforce Renewal

Consolidation in the aircraft industry corresponds to a decline in the total number of workers employed (fig. 4). The availability of a skilled workforce represents a genuine concern about maintaining a viable aircraft industrial base since a steady reduction in employment limits workforce renewal. Production of fighter aircraft, a demanding industrial capability, relies largely on an experienced workforce.17 Sustaining a viable industrial base requires enough work to maintain and renew such a workforce.


Figure 4. Total employment in the air and space industry. (From “Total and Production Worker Employment in the Aerospace Industry,” Aerospace Industries Association, 25 July 2005,

The shrinking number of aircraft programs has also had an adverse effect on workforce experience (fig. 5). Sustaining the labor pool of skilled workers may prove difficult if no one replaces them as they retire. For example, machinists producing the F-22 in Marietta have over 20 years of experience but an average age of 54.18 Although this workforce focuses for the most part on manufacturing, suppliers in over 40 states contribute to the design and manufacture of parts assembled in Marietta. Much of the work performed by these suppliers requires advanced manufacturing techniques to produce assembly components. Structure designs intended to make assembly easier, for instance, have further complicated the already challenging task of machining titanium.19 However, the age of the manufacturing workforce in Marietta mirrors that of the design engineers working on the F-22 and other aircraft programs. Because the rapidly decreasing experience levels of air and space workers apply equally to manufacturing and engineering personnel, they should be a source of concern.


Figure 5. Aircraft programs and workforce experience. (From Mark A. Lorell and Hugh P. Levaux, The Cutting Edge: A Half Century of U.S. Fighter Aircraft R&D [Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1998], 17, 95, 131, 166–99.)

The cessation of F-22 production also stops the training of another generation of workers needed for future programs. The fact that the F-35 will use Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Palmdale and Fort Worth, which will no longer produce the F-22, raises concerns about sustaining an experienced aircraft-industry workforce in these locations. For example, the production gap between F-22 and F-35 aircraft in the current budget jeopardizes the crucial “art” of designing and manufacturing stealthy materials and parts in Lockheed Martin’s Palmdale plant. Moreover, the F-22 and F-35 programs share several suppliers, thus increasing the risk of losing experienced workers in additional facilities. Termination of F-22 production before F-35 production matures will translate into higher costs for the latter program—at the same time the Air Force begins to rely more heavily on the F‑35.

The problem of aging aircraft reinforces our need for the aircraft industry and its workforce. No doubt a “procurement holiday” during the 1990s contributed to the increased age of today’s operational fighters. Because of obsolescence and structural limitations, the Air Force seeks an average age of 12.5 years for those aircraft. Currently, fighters have an average age of approximately 16 years—projected to grow to 25 years by 2012. The age of these aircraft is important because they typically have a service life of 8,000 hours, and experience shows that the costs of operating and supporting them increase as they approach that limit (fig. 6). Clearly, we need to replace current fighter aircraft.


Figure 6. Current age of Air Force fighter aircraft and flight hours. (From PowerPoint chart [Washington, DC: Air Force Studies and Analysis, 2005].)

Maintaining the current force structure for Air Force fighters will probably require production of approximately 120 aircraft per year, starting now; unfortunately, we currently have neither the budget nor production capacity to manufacture that many. Continuing the production of F-22s until F-35s are fielded and their production processes mature would solve this -problem—and help maintain needed industrial capability. Due to their advanced capability, 381 F‑22 aircraft could replace over 500 legacy aircraft; procurement of those Raptors would allow the Air Force to meet projected requirements at lower cost with acceptable risk.20 However, current F-22 program funding will procure approximately 180 aircraft and extend production one year but at a lower production rate. Although the reduced rate will increase costs, one can view the higher price as the cost of insurance to maintain active aircraft production in an uncertain world.

The transition from F-22 to F-35 production needs managing to keep aircraft production open and to control the risk and cost of the F-35 program. Although the F-22 entered full production in March 2005 and established initial operational capability (IOC) in December 2005, the F-35A—the Air Force’s conventional takeoff-and-landing variant—will probably not reach IOC until 2013. It is imperative to maintain production of advanced aircraft to meet the requirements of national defense. Recapitalization of America’s arsenal of fighter aircraft has come at a time when available funding puts the aircraft industrial base at risk of failing to meet immediate and future needs.


A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. —Dwight D. Eisenhower

Industrial capability changes gradually, yet people base performance and capacity expectations on recent experience. Successes in Operations Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom validate the need for air and space power. However, accomplishments in these operations relied largely on an industrial base that no longer exists due to consolidation of the defense industry and a reduction in its workforce. When a condition, such as industrial capability, deteriorates slowly, perceptions gradually shift so that several years or decades may pass before people perceive significant changes in the baseline. Because the American aircraft industry has declined by many measures, available capability may not meet projected needs.

Some individuals argue that information-age warfare, brought about by advances in information technology, will reduce the importance of industrial capacity.21 After all, the feudal system ended when changing technology and the rise of nationalism replaced knights with mass armies. Although American society is moving its focus from manufacturing to information, this shift belies the fact that people did not stop eating when the economy switched from agriculture to manufacturing. In fact, the ability to concentrate on manufacturing required modern, more efficient agriculture. Today, increased productivity allows a single farmer to feed over 100 people. Similarly, leveraging information-age capabilities calls for a modern and efficient industrial base. We must ask ourselves whether we are making investments—analogous to those we made in agriculture—to ensure that needed aircraft design and manufacturing capability exist. When it comes to the American aircraft industry, we have reason to doubt whether current investment levels will maintain that capability.


1. David A. Fulghum and Amy Butler, “Foreboding,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 24 July 2005, 31.

2. Benjamin S. Lambeth, “NATO’s Air War for Kosovo,” in The Transformation of American Air Power (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 181–232.

3. R. McLarren, “Air Power Strength Starts in the Laboratory,” Aviation Week, 28 February 1949, 39.

4. Jeff Shear, The Keys to the Kingdom: The FS-X Deal and the Selling of America’s Future to Japan (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 13–14.

5. “North American P-51 Mustang,” Aviation History Online Museum, 2002, http://www.aviation–

6. Marvin Leibstone, “Marine One,” Military Technology 29, no. 3 (March 2005): 25–27.

7. David R. King and Mark L. Nowack, “The Impact of Government Policy on Technology Transfer: An Aircraft Industry Case Study,” Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 20, no. 4 (2003): 305.

8. Steven W. Popper, Caroline S. Wagner, and Eric V. Larson, New Forces at Work: Industry Views Critical Technologies (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1998), 68.

9. Mark A. Lorell and Hugh P. Levaux, The Cutting Edge: A Half Century of U.S. Fighter Aircraft R&D (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1998), 17, 166–99.

10. Michael D. Rich, Evolution of the U.S. Defense Industry (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1990), 10.

11. “Phantoms Phabulous 40th,” Boeing,; and spreadsheet (Washington, DC: Air Force Studies and Analysis, 2005).

12. Richard A. Goodman and Michael W. Lawless, Technology and Strategy: Conceptual Models and Diagnostics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 35.

13. Franco Malerba, “Sectoral Systems of Innovation and Production,” Research Policy 31, no. 2 (February 2002): 247–64.

14. Lt Col John D. Driessnack and Maj David R. King, PhD, “An Initial Look at Technology and Institutions on Defense Industry Consolidation,” Acquisition Review Journal 1, no. 1 (January–April 2004): 66,

15. Ibid., 70.

16. Nick Johnson, “UAV Market Expected to Total $10.6 Billion over Next Decade,” Aerospace Daily 208, no. 20 (28 October 2003): 1.

17. King and Nowack, “Impact of Government Policy,” 305.

18. Dave Hirschman, “Making It: Lockheed Workers Shoot for Perfection in Getting F/A-22 Raptors Ready to Roar,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 19 October 2003, 1Q.

19. Robert B. Aronson, “Manufacturing the F/A-22,” Manufacturing Engineering 134, no. 3 (March 2005): 107–19.

20. Briefing, Lt Col John A. Dargan, subject: F/A-22 Strategic Communication Messages, 25 July 2005,

21. Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-war: Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1993), 64.

*The author is the director of F-22 programs in the Air Force Program Executive Office, F-22, Washington, DC.

Published: 1 June 2009
Air & Space Power JournalSummer 2009

sum09covaAmerica’s Two Air Forces

Lt Col Robert Spalding, USAF* (Emphasis mine)

Although America needs two air forces, it is buying neither. Lately the US Air Force has been caught aloft in uncertain skies and has lost its way. Its message certainly does not resonate with the civilian leadership or Congress.1 Even Airmen have started to doubt their worth to the nation. The service has answered with a Madison Avenue–styled ad campaign, engaging everyone in furious debate.

A better method may involve trying to under­stand what is precipitating the doubt and then composing a rebuttal—if indeed the Air Force is important to the future health and prosperity of our nation. I believe that it is, and I think I understand people’s confusion regarding airpower. By trying to do all things well, the Air Force has lost sight of what it was created to do best.

This article focuses narrowly on conventional combat airpower, mentioning neither space nor cyberspace. Incorporating the variables associated with each of those functions would complicate the airpower analysis. Nor does it discuss nuclear operations since they differ from conventional combat airpower and thus would require an independent analysis. I also exclude strategic airlift, tanker support, and special operations. Just as no one disputes that special operations are part of the combat air forces, so would no one question the requirement for a special-operations component within the Air Force.

One might argue that the US military already has too many combat air forces. Given the fact that each of the other services (Army, Navy, and Marine Corps) has one, it might seem that having an independent air force amounts to overkill.2 However, those other services’ air forces have not been able to meet all of the nation’s airpower requirements—witness the Air Force’s heavy involvement in seven continuous years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This fact, coupled with the Air Force’s simultaneous maintenance of worldwide strategic commitments, demonstrates why we need an independent air force.

One solution to the nation’s dilemma that instantly comes to mind entails merely increasing the capability of the air forces already resident in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Indeed, the Army has argued strenuously for just this option.3 On the surface, this seems a tantalizingly easy solution; however, many factors absent from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demand an independent air force. In the end, soldiers are adept on land, airmen are adept in the sky, and the nation will be better served by an autonomous air force fully engaged in the irregular fight than by a larger air component within the ground forces.

Some individuals believe that the nature of warfare has changed forever. Thomas Barnett, for example, argues that the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of conflict among peoples, not nations.4 Others agree that we need to better prepare for irregular war and accept more risk when confronting potential peer competitors.5 During any war, however, it is natural to think that the character of the present struggle reflects that of future wars.

Can a lone superpower afford to dismiss the threat of a peer competitor, even if it seems a remote possibility? Can an independent air force that merely augments combat capabilities already present in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps and that provides support in the form of airlift as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance be expected to defend against this possibility?

Assuming that we cannot dismiss threats from peer competitors, let us look at a superpower’s requirement for an independent air force. Can we field a single air force that can meet any contingency on a spectrum bounded by the peer competitor at one end and the urban guerrilla at the other? What type of aircraft should form the core of that air force?

Since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed a transformation of the Air Force that involved dismantling a service that had as its core platform the heavy bomber and creating a new one around the versatile F-16. We are now on the verge of replacing that platform with the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which, despite its modern wizardry, merely improves a similar capability. The Air Force seems intent on having a multirole fighter aircraft as its institutional core.6 Can an independent service with such a core platform meet any contingency on the combat spectrum? I argue that it cannot. In fact, America’s defense requires two air forces, and the aircraft that form each one’s core differ in form, function, and use. Air Force no. 1, the peer-competitor force, is characterized by such terms as strategic capability, deterrence, long range, stealth technology, static precision, high technology, speed, B-2, F-22, and centralized control.7 Air Force no. 2, the irregular-warfare force, is characterized by such terms as tactical capability, persuasion, persistence, stealth effects, dynamic precision, low technology, slowness, A-10, Predator, Reaper, and decentralized control. The following discussion contrasts each air force’s requirements, term by term.

Strategic versus Tactical

Ask some Airmen what “strategic airpower” means, and their answer will be “nukes.”8 Such a connection between the terms strategic airpower and nuclear was a perversion of the original airpower theorists’ ideas about airpower, brought on by necessities of the Cold War. The enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons made up for the inaccuracy of the bomber’s ordnance-delivery system. By the time the Berlin Wall came down, Airmen had forgotten that strategic meant long-range airpower, long before “nukes” came around.

Meaning more than just long range, strategic implies having the capacity to create strategic effects—something that few forces in America’s arsenal can do. Fewer still can do so anywhere on the earth within mere hours. Only one type of aircraft is strategic in this sense: the bomber. To be fair, at any given time, all aircraft can be considered strategic, depending on their current mission. The bomber, however, remains the only aircraft that is strategic at its core.

On the other hand, we can consider any aircraft tactical, even when its mission calls for achieving a strategic objective. Although tactical has sometimes become synonymous with fighter, given today’s technology, any combat aircraft can create tactical effects. Bombers have demonstrated this fact for years over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan. Therefore, an independent air force capable of producing tactical effects is not limited to any specific type of combat aircraft.

Most nations are content to shape their own regional environment, but a superpower must shape the global environment. Airpower theorists such as Gen Billy Mitchell considered the airplane revolutionary because of its ability to create strategic effects. Knowing that officers in a terrestrial service would fail to grasp this concept, he lobbied for an independent air force. If Mitchell’s argument remains valid, a nation that seeks to create strategic effects beyond its regional environment must have such an air force that is strategic at its core. Therefore, any superpower’s independent air force must have the bomber as its core aircraft—the platform characteristic of Air Force no. 1.9

The F-22 is also crucial to Air Force no. 1—but not as our service has sought to use it (as a bomb dropper). We would do better to utilize it as offensive-counterair support to penetrating bombers, as well as defensive counterair for high-value airborne assets. Other F-22 missions might include suppression or destruction of enemy air defenses. Although it drops bombs quite capably, that is not what it was primarily designed to do. We have misused aircraft in past wars—witness our interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War.10 No doubt the F-105 jet could perform that mission, but analysis identified the AC-130 gunship as much more efficient because of its long persistence, heavy payload, and slow speed.

Deter versus Persuade

Deterrence and nuclear capability also became synonymous during the Cold War, but they are distinct ideas. The ability to deter need not mean mutually assured destruction.11 Rather, it can give a tyrant clear indication of our ability to create effects detrimental to his rule. Many times, airpower has done just that: during Operation El Dorado Canyon, when President Reagan sought to deter Libyan leader Mu‘ammar Gadhafi; Operation Desert Fox, when President Clinton sought to deter Saddam Hussein; and Operation Allied Force, when President Clinton sought to deter the Serbians. Each time, the Department of Defense relied heavily on the bomber.

An independent air force must have the core capability of deterrence, yet it must also be able to persuade. It can do so by working in concert with sister services and allies alike. Because a superpower’s financial resources may enable it to procure advanced aircraft and weapons beyond the means of its allies, that superpower must develop a range of capabilities suitable to any level of conflict, allowing it to provide those countries more affordable equipment and training. This interaction also establishes goodwill that lessens the risk of conflict. Typically, a developing nation’s main combat platform is a cheap tactical aircraft. Thus, if a superpower requires an independent air force capable of persuasion, that air force must field such an aircraft.

Long Range versus Persistence

Useful strategic aircraft must have good range among their key traits; indeed, one would have difficulty deterring a distant enemy with aircraft not made to cross oceans. Range becomes more important than speed or stealth during attempts to deter. Obviously, speed or stealth may allow entrance to the enemy’s domain, but that foe has nothing to worry about if aircraft cannot reach his region. Air Force no. 2 requires persistence rather than long range. Larger aircraft with more efficient engines feature both range and persistence.

In our current inventory, only bombers and unmanned aerial vehicles have both of these attributes.12 Close to the fight, we could attain tactical persistence with a lightly armed, propeller-driven aircraft such as an AT-6, a platform less technologically sophisticated than a bomber. An air force capable of providing dedicated support to ground forces during an irregular war could use such an aircraft.

Stealth Technology versus Stealth Effects

The idea of stealth conjures up images of sophisticated technologies and large defense programs, but this need not be the case. Both air forces must be able to produce stealth effects. Only Air Force no. 1 requires stealth technology to do so because only that air force must penetrate an integrated air defense system (IADS).

Aircraft from Air Force no. 2, on the other hand, can produce stealth effects by loitering high enough so that an irregular foe can neither see nor hear them—a daily occurrence in Iraq and Afghanistan. By understanding the necessity of producing stealth effects, we can save precious defense dollars by fielding simpler aircraft, which could form the backbone of Air Force no. 2.

Static Precision versus Dynamic Precision

A peer competitor will have precious, immobile infrastructure that we can attack and destroy with static-precision weapons accurate against stationary targets. Thus, Air Force no. 1 requires static precision. Irregular war, however, which involves constant motion and takes place among the populace, carries the potential for substantial collateral damage. For this reason, Air Force no. 2 requires dynamic precision weapons of low destructive power that can be controlled throughout their flight.13

High Tech versus Low Tech

For all of the reasons already mentioned, Air Force no. 1—an expensive asset absolutely necessary for a global power such as the United States—must be high tech. Without this “silver bullet,” belligerents would spout their rhetoric more easily. It is no accident that North Korea is keenly aware of a B-2’s arrival in the Pacific theater.

Air Force no. 2, however, which relies on dynamic weapons, synchronized sensors, and constant communication, can get by with low-tech platforms. The aircraft themselves merely need to loiter for a long time, hardly a technical challenge today. Air Force no. 2 doesn’t need high tech, which, in fact, hinders the mission. The less technically complex the aircraft, the easier it is to fix and the less logistical support it requires. Air Force no. 2 must have platforms that can take a daily beating yet rely on little maintenance or fuel to remain airborne. “Silver bullets” are wholly unsuited for this environment.

Fast versus Slow

Until air superiority is established, Air Force no. 1 needs speed. It must enter and leave the dragon’s lair before the dragon notices it has even been there. Speed refers to the capability to penetrate and exit an IADS. Thus, the aircraft must be fast.

Air Force no. 2 needs fast response. This response, however, comes from the speed of communications and the weapons employed. Police forces discovered long ago that they did not need faster cars since radio waves travel faster than any automobile. The same holds true for airpower during an irregular war. As long as Air Force no. 2 remains tied to ground forces, its speed comes from communications and the weapons employed. Thus, the aircraft themselves can be slow.

B-2 and F-22 versus A-10, Predator, and Reaper

Each of these aircraft carries within its design the implicit explanation of the air force to which it belongs: B-2 and F-22 to no. 1, and A-10, Predator, and Reaper to no. 2. Conspicuously absent is the JSF, which does not fit into either because it has neither the range required for Air Force no. 1 nor the persistence required for Air Force no. 2.14

Centralized Control versus Decentralized Control

We once considered centralized control the key doctrinal tenet of airpower, but Airmen are starting to understand that the proper degree of centralization depends on the situation. Centralized control works for Air Force no. 1 engaged in a national- or theater-level fight but not for Air Force no. 2 engaged in a highly localized fight.15 Some people have noted that Army and Marine Corps captains are linchpins to the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq.16 Their services give them broad mission orders and allow them to adjust their approach, based on the locality. Centralized control in irregular warfare prevents the Air Force from similarly capitalizing on the creativity of its young officers.


If budget realities force us to choose between the two air forces, without question, America needs Air Force no. 1, whose core must be the next-generation bomber. We should also buy more F-22s, which we currently do not have in sufficient quantity to provide adequate support for such a force. To pay the costs, the Air Force can either significantly reduce or eliminate the JSF program. More suited to the other services, that aircraft will also find a home with the regional air forces of our allies. Since aircraft required for irregular warfare are relatively inexpensive, we would then be able to afford enough platforms to build Air Force no. 2—specifically, the Predator, Reaper, and a new combat version of the T-6 to replace the aging A-10. Organizationally (assuming we decide to fund no. 2), the Air Force should move that component towards decentralized control for irregular warfare.17 The Air Force’s new doctrine for irregular warfare recognizes this necessity, yet the service remains encumbered by its own legacy.18

If the Air Force does not want to buy Air Force no. 2, it could simply build more bombers. Since those aircraft are suited to both types of conflict, the Air Force would not have to train pilots for both bombers and light tactical aircraft; nevertheless, it could still handle both types of scenarios. Since we can never be sure about the kind of war we will fight, this course of action would give the same flexibility to the war fighter but at less cost to the Air Force in terms of personnel and infrastructure.


1. See Peter Spiegel, “Military Doesn’t Back Soldiers Enough, Gates Says,” Los Angeles Times, 22 April 2008,,1,701682.story.

2. I do not include the Coast Guard here, focusing instead on the combat air forces.

3. Roxana Tiron, “Air Force, Army Clash Again on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” Hill, 30 October 2007,–lobby/air-force-army-clash-again-on-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-2007-10-30.html (accessed 17 April 2008).

4. See Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004).

5. “We will have no global peer competitor and will remain unmatched in traditional military capability.” The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, March 2005), 5, See also Brian G. Watson, Reshaping the Expeditionary Army to Win Decisively: The Case for Greater Stabilization Capacity in the Modular Force (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, August 2005), http://www.strategic

6. The Quadrennial Defense Review notes that

the Air Force has set a goal of increasing its long-range strike capabilities by 50% and the penetrating component of long-range strike by a factor of five by 2025. Approximately 45% of the future long-range strike force will be unmanned. The capacity for joint air forces to conduct global conventional strikes against time-sensitive targets will also be increased. . . .

[The Department of Defense will] develop a new land-based, penetrating long-range strike capability to be fielded by 2018 while modernizing the current bomber force.

Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 6 February 2006), 46, Yet, the Air Force’s budget submission for fiscal year 2009 does not allocate any money for a new long-range strike aircraft. See Procurement Programs (P-1): Department of Defense Budget, Fiscal Year 2009 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2008),

7. These terms are not meant to be mutually exclusive. For instance, in some cases we will need aspects of Air Force no. 1 in an irregular environment; however, Air Force no. 2 can fulfill most requirements of an irregular conflict. Global Hawk, for example, is useful across the spectrum of conflict.

8. The author did not conduct a survey but nevertheless makes this claim because Air Force officers who reviewed this article assumed that strategic airpower meant nuclear weapons. Though not prima facie evidence of the correctness of this assumption, it does indicate that the association of the two terms is alive and well with at least some Air Force personnel. Perhaps a future study could examine the prevalence of this association within the Air Force.

9. Although some individuals may claim that fighters have become modern-era bombers because they have flown the majority of conventional-bombing missions since the end of the Cold War, this may have been the case because the Air Force has sought to procure ever-increasing numbers of fighters during that period. In this article, the term bomber refers to an aircraft with range and a payload at least equivalent to that of the current B-2, B-1, or B-52.

10. See Col Herman L. Gilster, “The Commando Hunt V Interdiction Campaign: A Case Study in Constrained Optimization,” Air University Review 29, no. 2 (January–February 1978): 21–37, (accessed 8 May 2006).

11. Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 42–54,

12. Some people may disagree, saying that fighters can provide similar persistence with refueling, but one has to question whether this makes sense, given the current high price of fuel. Efficiency becomes even more important during irregular warfare, due to the length of time required to conduct operations.

13. The new terms static precision and dynamic precision clarify the requirements of the two air forces. The former refers to the ability to precisely destroy immobile targets. The latter refers to the ability to destroy mobile targets.

14. See “Developing an Affordable Fighter for the Future,” RAND Research Brief (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997), The JSF may provide some capabilities that the Air Force can leverage, but by buying 1,763 of them, the service is actually building its institution around the multirole fighter because it will fly most conventional combat missions. Such reliance also unduly increases the burden on an already overtaxed tanker force. Not only could bomber or unmanned aircraft, which provide 10 times the range and endurance of the JSF, diminish the tanker workload but also they could carry out the mission from more distant, secure bases that possess a better logistics infrastructure. Finally, because JSF pilots would fill most combat air force (CAF) staff positions, a JSF-centric view would likely develop at the staff level and resonate throughout the CAF. This would culminate in a staff viewpoint myopically focused on what fighter aircraft can do for the war fighter, rather than what the Air Force could do for the war fighter if given the right equipment.

15. “Air Force planners may have to adapt and develop creative C2 [command and control] relationships to facilitate successful mission accomplishment and optimize the tenet of centralized control/decentralized execution. Due to the localized nature of most [irregular warfare] enemies and specifically insurgencies, decentralized execution is vital to the successful integration of airpower.” Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 2-3, Irregular Warfare, 1 June 2007, 66, /AFDD_Page_HTML/Doctrine _Docs/afdd2-3.pdf. This statement may have been a compromise between those who advocate decentralized control in irregular warfare and those who continue to favor centralized control, regardless of the situation. From the author’s own experience in Iraq, permitting local ground commanders to exercise tactical control in irregular warfare can yield synergy because it allows assigned Airmen to become intimately familiar with the “human” terrain not readily visible from the air. To compensate, the Air Force has increased the number of joint terminal attack controllers, but the Airman in the cockpit still must spend precious time becoming oriented to the human terrain once on orbit. Because this orientation is never complete, it is difficult for the Airman to become a thinking (and creative) addition to the team. After all, during a sortie, an airborne Airman must operate in many local environments, each with its own unique and unfamiliar “human” terrain.

16. See Michael Kamber, “Sovereigns of All They’re Assigned, Captains Have Many Missions to Oversee,” New York Times, 21 March 2008, ref=world.

17. Perhaps the Air Force could adapt US Marine Corps doctrine for air support to ground forces.

18. See AFDD 2-3, Irregular Warfare, 66.


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