Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Limits To US Military Superiority - 1

It is often said that we live in the age of American supremacy, not any longer because of the economic or financial power of the US, but because of its superior military capabilities.

I will discuss the limits to this superiority in a number of posts. Here I start with the US Air Force.

The US Air Force is the world’s dominant source of air and space power. As of September 30, 2005 the USAF had 5986 Aircraft in Service. Of these 4273 are active duty, 1313 Air National Guard and 400 reserve command.

An Ageing Fleet

How to preserve and extend that dominance is the question that keeps the high officials in Pentagon worry. Procure advanced new aircraft and modernize the existing ones to maintain its current dominance of air, space, and cyberspace while operating with outdated technologies.

Average of active duty USAF fleet is 23 years, the oldest inventory USAF has operated since 1947. The oldest is B-52, with average age of 44.[1] Up to 2012 the USAF will procure 612 aircraft but even then the average is of the fleet is expected to be around 28 years.

The Air Force is operating the oldest aircraft fleet in the service’s history, mainly due to procurement reductions in 1990s and “freedom” operations since S-11.

In fact, if the Air Force were called upon to fly all of its aircraft today, one-third would not be able to carry out their missions.[2]

But, the USAF has been trying hard to divest itself of old aircraft, such as F-117s, B-52s, KC-135Es, C-130E/Hs, C-5As, and U-2s. Of the 1033 aircraft slated for divestiture during the FY2006-2011 Future Years Defense Program, 347 had been blocked by legislative restrictions. More than a hundred of these aircraft have limited military utility because they have flight restrictions placed upon them due to structural and safety of flight issues. Dollars spent sustaining these aircraft in the operational inventory are therefore not available for acquisition of new aircraft or upgrades to more-useful legacy systems.[3]

Does the Size Matter?

Relying on a smaller force has sparked skepticism and debate inside and outside the Pentagon, with many critics stating that size does matter. That kind of skepticism also exists whether air dominance (in the way currently pursued by the Pentagon) really necessary, relevant and vitally important.

Advocates of air dominance make the case that increasingly capable high-tech air threats in the form of advanced new Russian aircraft and air defense systems in the hands of potential rivals such as China and Iran demand continued introduction into service of more effective air platforms like the expensive F-22A and the problem-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.[4]

Size does matter if it is functional, can perform well, has no logistical obstacles or constraints, and has no major or vital weaknesses.

Limits to Wishes versus Facts and Fiction

Air Force Association believes that the USAF need goes well beyond the bomber fleet and hence acquisition of new fighter aircraft should be given extreme importance. Note that new aircraft slated for procurement include the stealthy F-22A air superiority fighter and F-35 multi role fighter to replace older F-15s, F-16s, and F-117s. (see F-22A: A DoD Gadget and its Budget). Meanwhile, over the next six years the Army will purchase 800 new aircraft and modernize 200 airframes.

But during its role in winning “the global war on terror”, “preserving freedom” and promoting peace and security” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Air Force has shifted from attacking large formations of forces to counterinsurgency raids, providing surveillance and security of roads used by truck convoys, and spotting roadside bombs.

How is that then compatible with the needs, realities, wishes and with future expectations?

Limits to Technology

Jet Fighters such as F-15 and the Russian MiG-29 were designed in the 1970s for air-to-air combat, but this has become almost as rare as ship-to-ship actions. Future aircraft may be designed with visual stealth technology to make them almost invisible even in daylight.

Tankers, combat aircraft, long range bombers, surveillance and electronic warfare are vital assets that few other nations have both in number and in technical sophistication. Add to this the satellites in orbit. The US has as much as the rest of the world combined.

In addition to that, the USAF is attempting to set out its role for the future by expanding operational boundaries into near space and space by has aggressively pursuing projects like the laser-based Transformational Communication Satellite System and Space Based Radar.[5]

But this advantage and superiority is weakening due to GPS, more and more countries owning satellites, widespreading high-resolution satellites photos via Internet, and increasing private satellite industry.

The paradox of our age is that modern technology is both the great separator and the great equalizer in military affairs.[6] Surface-to-air missiles is a real threat and that is why a variety of missile defense is worked on.

In fact, a 40 $ AK-47 can become a grave danger to million dollar technology. In Operation Allied Force in the Balkans in 1999, Serbian gunners used fairly rudimentary systems to bring down an F-16 and even a stealthy F-117.

The superiority of USAF rests upon a technological base which requires enormous quantities of oil, almost 60% of DoD’s oil consumption.

To be continued….

[1] 2006 USAF Almanac.
[2] The Air Force Association’s 2007 Statement of Policy adopted by AFA’s National Convention on September 24, 2006 in Washington DC, Air Force Magazine, December 2006, Vol. 89, No. 12, pp. 76-81.
[3] The Air Force Association’s 2007 Statement of Policy adopted by AFA’s National Convention on September 24, 2006 in Washington DC, Air Force Magazine, December 2006, Vol. 89, No. 12, pp. 76-81.
[4] Now called the Lightning II for specific US service.
[5] Jane’s World Air Forces: United States Air Force, 25 October 2006.
[6] Max Boot, “The Paradox of Military Technology,” The New Atlantis, Fall 2006, pp. 13-31.


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