The Looming Air Superiority Train Wreck
America is on track to lose air supremacy in contingencies involving near-peer air combat. Even as soon as next year, achieving air superiority in a war with China within a politically and operationally effective time frame might be doubtful. In a 2025 war, American aircraft losses are expected to be severe. In a 2030 war, the U.S. Air Force, after assessing currently funded improvement programs, now expects to no longer be able to win the air superiority battle.
This downward progression in U.S. airpower has been matched in terminology. After the Cold War, the buzzword was “air dominance.” In the last decade, “air supremacy” became more common and covered situations when the opposing air force was rendered ineffective. Today, the objective is “air superiority,” when the air threat is manageable at certain times and places. In the words the Air Force uses, we can see the service’s way of thinking about projecting airpower has changed from a period when own aircraft losses were unimaginable to one in which losses would hopefully be limited to an acceptable level. And 15 years hence, meeting even this low bar will be doubtful.
This downward spiral matters. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes observes: “Air superiority is the most important thing the Air Force provides for the joint force in the tactical environment.” If an air force can’t get you air superiority where and when it is needed, there may not a compelling argument for even having an air force. Gaining air superiority is an air force’s raison d’etre, and providing air superiority enables many other air, maritime, and land warfighting missions.
Even more importantly, air superiority is an important plank in conventional deterrence. Without it, adventurism by Russia, China, Iran, and others becomes much more practical. The cost-benefit ratio for revisionist states starts to change toward assertiveness and aggression, even if potential adversaries can never be completely sure of the relative military balance until combat is joined.
The U.S. Air Force has lately realized that its ability to gain future air superiority is declining, as evidenced by its recently released Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan. Somewhat startlingly, the plan observes that: “The Air Force’s projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities.” To address this significant operational deficiency, the as yet-unfunded plan recommends a near-term, broadly based, multi-domain improvement program that acquires better technology quickly and in large numbers. Of course, in publicly releasing such plans there are always multiple objectives including supporting force modernization, garnering public support, informing Congress, reassuring allies, and deterring potential adversaries. Even so, this specific unclassified version of the plan seems ambitious in three specific areas.
First, the Air Superiority Flight Plan advances conflicting objectives. Instead of pursuing a direct replacement for the F-22 air superiority fighter, the plan proposes a family of capabilities. This family would include quickly fielding a new, affordable penetrating counter-air capability that eschewed revolutionary next-generation technology to meet a 2030 deadline that is, after all, less than two presidents away. Meeting this timeline seems to limit options to an evolutionary development of a current aircraft, either the F-35 or F-22.
What might this penetrating counter-air platform look like? The F-35 is the obvious choice as it is already in low-rate production, but there are some concerns. The aircraft is small, heavy, and already densely packed with electronics. Thermal management has proven difficult, which makes adding new capabilities without significant changes to internal plumbing problematic. Furthermore, the aircraft’s design means fuel consumption is already high, adversely impacting range. Additional modifications may exacerbate this by adding weight. Some suggest fitting the aircraft with a new engine for range and payload improvements, but given the limited space available, this might require a major redesign. Moreover, meeting the Air Superiority Plan would mean moving the F-35 design away from its primary air-to-ground focus. History suggests turning “bombers” into “fighters” is hard.
The F-35 program’s long delays seem to demonstrate the general technical difficulty in evolving the aircraft’s design. It’s already taken almost ten years from the F-35’s first flight to reach today’s limited air-to-ground focussed initial operational capability. Several more years will pass before the aircraft has the full capabilities originally sought. Evolving the F-35 design to the degree envisaged in the Air Superiority Plan in time to reach a 2030 full operational capability deadline seems doubtful.
In contrast with the F-35, the F-22 would need to be bought back into production to serve as the underlying platform for the penetrating counter-air capability. The F-22 has been in service for a decade and is currently undergoing modernization and reliability improvements. The F-22 is twin-engined and considerably larger than the F-35. This means the F-22 has more thrust and space available to accommodate ongoing upgrades. The F-22, for example, can cruise supersonically and carry twice as many air-to-air missiles internally as the F-35. This much higher overall performance undergirds U.S. Air Force claims that two F-22s have a similar operational performance to eight F-35s.
This Air Force “two equals eight” claim illustrates the magnitude of the task if the aim is to upgrade the F-35 to meet the Air Superiority Plan’s objectives. This plan considers the current F-22 capabilities inadequate past 2030 while the Air Force more broadly believes an individual F-22 is noticeably superior to an individual F-35. This implies that an evolved F-35 would first need to be bought up to the level of an F-22’s capabilities and then extended beyond that to meet the Air Superiority Plan requirements. Making the F-35 four times better at air superiority than it is now seems a big enough task without then seeking to move well beyond. Starting the evolutionary process from the F-22 as it stands now seems inherently a much more practical path.
In considering this, there is a rejoinder that mass has a quality all of its own. Greater numbers might compensate for qualitative shortcomings. The Air Superiority Plan however does not consider numbers alone can solve the emerging problems. Simply building more F-35s is not offered as a solution; capability improvements are needed as well. An evolved F-35 though would have less commonality with the existing Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy F-35 variants, potentially adversely impacting their production and support costs, and development plans. Given this, developing an evolved F-35 might need agreement from the other services.
This is not to say that evolving the F-22 would be easy, only that it appears simpler and quicker than doing the same for the F-35, and it would arguably result in a more robust and operationally effective platform. The cost, greater magnitude of the task, and demonstrated difficulties in F-35 development all suggest that an evolved F-22 may well be the lower cost alternative, even after factoring in production restart costs.
Secondly, such thinking raises the question of whether either the evolution of either the F-35 or F-22 is actually affordable. Answering this hinges upon where air superiority ranks against other joint force priorities. In high-end conventional warfare it is hard to argue there is any other capability more important. We must wonder, then, why hundreds of F-35s are being procured when this leads to the U.S. Air Force becoming “not capable of fighting and winning against…potential adversary capabilities.” The F-35 is also useful in lesser wars, but there it competes with lower cost drones or A-10s. Money actually appears not to be the decisive issue. There is apparently sufficient money at hand to buy a large fighter aircraft fleet that will not fix the Air Force’s identified air superiority deficiencies.
Lastly, the issue of allies has been neglected. The Air Force’s realization of its declining air superiority capabilities places America’s allies in an invidious position. With doubts now about whether the U.S. Air Force can be relied upon to win future near-peer air battles, American allies may need to reconsider their force structure plans and alliance relationships. This later aspect might be especially prominent if worries over revisionist state adventurism materialize.
An option for the allies might be to delay buying the current F-35 configuration aircraft until the U.S. Air Force’s intentions concerning new air superiority systems are clearer. At that time, allies might then be able to buy into a long-term robust air superiority solution, perhaps some element of a systems of systems that might include evolved F-22s or F-35s (if they were allowed access to these). This approach would perhaps allow them to remain operationally useful American allies past 2030 when at the moment it seems their value sharply diminishes.
The issue of future air superiority is a tough one, but impacts the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war. With a lot at stake and time running out, there needs to be some deep thinking and quick, decisive action. On technical, cost, and schedule grounds, an evolved F-22 seems the most practical option to address the looming air superiority train wreck.
Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. A former RAAF senior officer, he has extensive defence experience, including in the Pentagon, and a doctorate in grand strategy.
Image: U.S. Air Force