Saturday, March 12, 2005

Quadrennial Defense Review

There's been a lot of blogging on the DoD's Quadrennial Defense Review. Air Force Voices (which is a great blog, by the should check it out) has been focusing on the F(/A)-22 and its effect on the future of the Air Force. A commenter named Wild Bill, a retired F-15 maintainer, also has some good thoughts. Wretchard over at the Belmont Club has an excellent post up about the effect of the QDR as a whole on American defense policy.

That said, time for my two cents. It seems to me that this a situation of extremes, with Rumsfeld and the QDR caught in the middle. One one hand, you have the media that are all over the F/A-22, who see no need for its existence and think it is utterly pointless, given the current state of affairs with the GWOT. Then you have those in the media who think that Rumsfeld is being risky and fool-hardy in his quest to transform the military into a 21st Century fighting force. On top of that, you have some in the Air Force brass who don't appear to be concerned with either viewpoint; they just want to make sure they get their cash cow. And for good reason; as Wild Bill stated in his comment, a lot of things have been sacrificed for the F/A-22: the EF-111 and F-4G both were retired early, leaving the Air Force (and the entire military) without a strike escort jamming aircraft, to say nothing of the loss in SEAD capability; countless upgrades for the F-15 family (both C and E models) have been shelved indefinitely, putting the avionics and structure of these airframes further and further behind their adversaries; half of the -135 fleet needs new engines, as they are 40+ years old, and did I mention that a large number of C-130s have been grounded due to metal fatigue in the wings?

In short, the Air Force has sacrificed a lot of mundane, essential capabilities for the Raptor. As of now, the Air Force is still pushing for more than one combat wing of Raptors, using the logic that anything less would be pointless because the Wing would be unable to keep up a reasonable op-tempo. To me, this appears to be an example of cutting off the nose to spite the face. The Air Force is going to try and keep its planned multi-wing F/A-22 fleet, yet will continue to suffer a degredation in its essential air to ground capability as the Echos and Block 60 Falcons fall further behind as their upgrades are put off, to say nothing of the fact that the Air Force has consistently tried to prematurely retire the A-10 despite it being one of the most effective CAS aircraft in the inventory. Then there's the tanker situation. The USAF's tanker fleet is one of the most, if not THE most, essential assets it has. Tankers are force multipliers that enable long range strikes, extended CAPs, and most importantly, more time on station for CAS aircraft. As I stated above, KC-135s, which make up a sizeable amount of the USAF's tanker fleet, are ancient. While some have been re-engined, many haven't, and even those that have been re-engined are still a 40 year old airframe. All of these things are issues that the Air Force needs to spend money on.

All that having been said, I still feel the F/A-22 is an essential part of the USAF's future. The fact of the matter is that the F-15C, while a great air to air combat aircraft, is no longer the best in the world. The Air Force cannot afford to give up total air domination. Yes, we are currently fighting the GWOT, which, right now at least, appears to require little use of air to air combat. But in the wings lurks China, a threat with a large, well equipped air force. If we give up the edge we have traditionally maintained in air to air combat, we will be forced to fight the next war (after the GWOT) with an out of date fighter force...and there will be casualties; casualties much higher than the American people have experienced in a long time. Sending pilots in 30+ year old F-15s and F-35s with pedestrian performance against the latest in Russian Flankers is something the people of this country should not, and will not stand for.

So, where does this leave the USAF? My solution would be to procure the equivalent of one wing of F/A-22s, plus spares/attrition and training aircraft. This force will be sufficient for any small stealthy deep strike missions that are too deep for the F-35, too risky for a non-stealthy aircraft, and too small to risk a B-2 on, and should also be sufficient for maintaining air superiority in a traditional war. Take the money saved on the lesser force of F/A-22s and use it to extensively upgrade our F-15E fleet in order to maintain a powerful strike force outside of strategic bombers and to help alleviate the tanker crisis (yes, I know that more money will need to be invested in this situation outside of that saved from the F/A-22 buy, but every little bit helps.)

Anyway, like Wretchard said, this is going to be a very exiciting time; hopefully he is right when he says that the QDR will result in the "transformation of the United States into the foremost revolutionary force of our age."