Today’s federal budget is one of constrained resources. But the answer to such challenges is not consolidation of weapons systems.
The U.S. military celebrates the diversity of its force in every area except tactical airpower. The size of our forces makes the U.S. military uniquely capable of having specialized airframes. For example, a B-52 could theoretically assist ground troops during a firefight, known as Close Air Support (CAS), but its primary mission is and should be Strategic Attack. True, the maintenance and supply chain costs for multiple airframes can be a challenge, but fielding a force with feigned breadth and hollow depth is foolish. Forcing these platforms to become ‘Jack of All Trades’ undermines mission effectiveness.
Our aircraft carriers formerly had as many as four different tactical platforms launching from their decks. Today, the F/A-18 Hornet remains the only one. The Hornet is a formidable threat to our adversaries’ aircraft, naval fleets and centers of gravity. However, it becomes a problem when the Navy demands this one aircraft be as proficient as four different airframes. There exists a very finite amount of money and time to develop and maintain proficiencies for two or three distinctly different mission types.
Recall when the F/A-22 Raptor was sold to Congress in the 1990s as Lockheed Martin’s new multi-role, 5th Generation marvel that would perform a new mission: Air Dominance. Once the funding was assured, the Raptor’s designation promptly changed to F-22A – a change to the Attack prefix that the F-15C Eagle community welcomed because it ensured their expertise would remain air-to-air combat.
Their community within the Air Force is recognized as the Jedi Knights of air combat. I remember briefing and debriefing missions with or against Eagles and walking away with many lessons learned to better fly and teach dogfighting. But had the F-22 designation remained as initially conceived, it would have added air-to-ground training to F-15C mission and hollowed out their air-to-air mastery.
The Navy fared differently. The sister service previously boasted a cadre of F-14 Tomcat pilots that rivaled the F-15C Eagle pilots. Now, the Hornet force must divide its resources among air-to-air, air-to-ground and even air refueling missions due to the retirement of the S-2 Viking. But just this week, the commander of Air Combat Command (ACC) in testimony before Congress appears to suggest the multi-role F-35 must focus on Air Superiority – the airframe pledged to replace A-10, AV-8B Harrier, F-16, and F-18. Sadly, the Air Force bought far too few F-22s for their needs, and is now making up for the Raptor shortfall with F-35s.
I fear the Pentagon is beholden to buying the shiny new toy, rather than providing the jets and the people to best support our fellow soldiers and marines. As a possible solution, our national leaders must communicate to our allies that such mission specialization – equipment, maintainers, and operators – is imperative to maintaining our decided advantage against our enemies. Many of our fellow NATO members, for instance, do not spend their pledged percentage of GDP on defense although they depend on and train with these American platforms. Those nations should contribute the shortfall between their actual and required spending directly to the U.S. DoD to offset our country’s investment in these critical mission types.
Designing, funding and fielding an airborne Swiss Army knife is possible. But when the demands on the knife saturate the person wielding it, a swarm of Bowie knives will win the day.
Chris Wiley is an NCPA contributing fellow