Insurgents Offer Tough Air Critique

Tough love remains one of those concepts our society embraces mostly in the negative. It's just, well, too tough. The following commentary certainly constitutes a fine example of tough love, coming from two of the country's more distinguished military and airpower analysts. Essentially, Robert Dilger and Pierre Sprey argue that the country should scrap plans for the F-35 and F-22 and build what they call "austerely-designed and affordable aircraft tailored to missions that actually win wars..."

Tough love remains one of those concepts our society embraces mostly in the negative. It’s just, well, too tough. The following commentary certainly constitutes a fine example of tough love, coming from two of the country’s more distinguished military and airpower analysts. Essentially, Robert Dilger and Pierre Sprey argue that the country should scrap plans for the F-35 and F-22 and build what they call “austerely-designed and affordable aircraft tailored to missions that actually win wars…” The fleet would include: a new close air support plane to replace the A-10; a “forward controller spotter plane;” a “small, affordable dirt-strip airlifter;” and a “super-maneuverable new air-to-air dogfighter with all–passive electronics.”

Dilger and Sprey argue that their approach would give the country 10,000 highly adaptable planes wiithin current budgetary constraints, compared to what they say is the unsupportable approach of fielding a fleet of roughly 2,000 very expensive planes. Can you hear the Air Force groaning? The full piece follows:

Their title: “Reversing the Decay of American Air Power”

Today the U.S. Air Force is spending about $10 billion above its Cold War average. Curiously, this amount buys us an Air Force smaller, more antiquated, and more combat-irrelevant than at any time since the 1930s.

Thirteen of our fifteen major aircraft types began development 30 to 60 years ago. Even our newest type, the F-22, entered design 25 years ago– and is too expensive to risk in our current wars. The few aging fighters the USAF has committed to these wars have helped enemy recruiting more than they have eased our troops’ burdens.

Adding money to our present way of buying aircraft has consistently accelerated the aging and the combat irrelevance of the fleet. Escaping this death spiral takes a painstaking, brutally honest look at how we’ve spent our air power money and what it bought us in combat results. We tackle that job in detail in Chapter 7 of “America’s Defense Meltdown”.

The lessons learned are clear and damning. In the 1920s, the Army Air Corps’ leaders espoused a new theory, advocated in 1921 by Italian airpower theologian Giulio Douhet: massive strategic bombardment of enemy civilians will lead to quick, crushing victories without the need for armies. In pursuit of that untested notion, our Air Force leaders spent 80% of their World War II European theater warplane budgets buying bombers (60,000 of them) and 20% buying fighters. The results were in inverse proportion to the costs.

The campaigns against eight of the nine bomber target categories examined by the prestigious United States Strategic Bombing Survey clearly failed to shorten the war or decrease casualties. The survey found “…city attacks by the RAF (and U.S.) prior to August 1944 did not substantially affect the course of German war production…” Not only were the dollar costs of bombing enormous (thereby displacing far more effective weapons), the human costs were unanticipated and appalling. US and British bomber aircrew casualties were well over 145,000, ten times the fighter casualties.

Contrary to the bomber generals’ long-repeated claims (“…300 bombers can effectively attack any German target and return without excessive or uneconomical losses”) unescorted bombers failed to get through. By August 1943, disastrous losses to German fighters forced us to suspend bomber raids deep into Germany for five months–until January 1944 when the first P-51 long range escort fighters (procured over the strong objections of the Air Force bureaucracy) became available in theater.

In contrast, the 20% spent on fighters paid off handsomely. In early 1944, 8th Air Force’s 1100 P-51s quickly established air superiority over Germany, a crucial pre-requisite for the D-Day landings. Before, during and after D-Day, General “Pete” Quesada’s 1,200 rugged P-47s unleashed his pioneering battlefield interdiction and close support tactics over the Normandy beach head area to save the day by keeping the 23 German reinforcing divisions from pushing the Allies back into the sea. Because of the constant, ubiquitous P-47 strafing, those divisions arrived shattered and as much as 6 weeks late.

A month later, those same P-47s facilitated the crucial St. Lo breakout from the Normandy quagmire–and then flew the continuous close support patrols on Third Army’s right flank that helped make possible Patton’s spectacular plunge across France, 600 miles in two weeks. Within four years after the war, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and his predecessors had relegated to the bone yard all but 265 of the 16,000 P-47s produced. He slashed the overall fighter force to less than 1,000, then stripped Gen. Quesada’s Tactical Air Command of all its aircraft and thereby drove the Air Force’s greatest close support innovator and combat leader into retirement. Nevertheless, the Air Force found the money to maintain 550 active heavy bombers, pay for an additional 400 B-29s, start producing 400 ridiculously expensive B-36s, and fund R&D for the all-jet B-47 and the much pricier B-52–all in the name of nuclear bombardment.

The decimation of fighters following the war proved a disaster when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. A small U.S. Army task force was being overwhelmed by the North Korean onslaught. The troops had an immediate and desperate need for close support. The Air Force instead rushed in a force of 90 B-29s with a Douhet-style plan to force instant surrender by firebombing five North Korean cities. Under duress from General MacArthur, the B-29s were diverted to supporting the Army; delivering 13 hopelessly inadequate so-called “close support” sorties per day—albeit at an average of 3 miles distance from our troops.

The bomber generals persisted: over the next years, every North Korean city of any size was duly firebombed. Of the 150 B-29 bombers assigned, 107 were lost. Once again, city bombing had little military effect–nor did it bring the enemy to the peace table. But our beleaguered infantrymen paid in blood for this appalling lack of close support: in their crucial first two-and-a-half months, the grunts suffered over 12,000 ground casualties.

Early in the Korean conflict, the Air Force assigned a token 150 P-51s to provide ground support. Predictably, the liquid-cooled P-51s suffered excessive losses since even small caliber or shrapnel holes in their radiators or cooling jackets were inevitably fatal. As a result, the theater air commander requested an emergency deployment of a mere squadron of active-duty P-47s because they were the Air Force’s most rugged, effective and survivable close support plane. Gen. Vandenberg denied the request.

In contrast, the Marines and the Navy provided first-rate close support with their highly effective and survivable World War II-vintage prop-driven fighters, the F-4U Corsair and the A-1 Skyraider (that served so admirably again in Vietnam). Army troops had high praise for the quality of their close support, greatly preferring it to the untimely, unresponsive Air Force support.

The most dramatic and important close support effort of the war saved the fighting retreat of the 1st Marine Division and the Army’s Regimental Combat Team 31, trapped by seven Chinese divisions at the Chosin Reservoir in the winter of 1951. Four Marine squadrons of Corsairs and a Navy A-1 squadron flew continuous strafing missions, hundreds per day, against the encircling Chinese onslaught. The Americans escaped the trap, albeit with heavy losses. The infantry and the five prop squadrons crippled three Chinese divisions and severely mauled the remaining four, inflicting an estimated 37,500 casualties.

U.S. air superiority over North Korea was not threatened until China entered the war in November, 1951 with 500 MiG-15s based in Manchuria. The high performing MiGs caused the Air Force to rush in 90 new F-86s of comparable dogfight performance–the number was so puny because only 11 per month had been funded. Nevertheless, the better-trained American F-86 pilots soon exacted a 10:1 exchange ratio in dogfights and quickly defeated the Chinese attempt to control the air near the Manchurian border.

The Chinese, with Soviet aid, continued to build up towards 1,300 MiGs; the Air Force responded by doling out 60 more F-86s. Despite being so outnumbered, the 150 F-86s easily outfought the 1,300 MiGs, even after the entry of Russian pilots.

The Korean War had tripled the Air Force’s budget, but the lion’s share of that windfall was diverted away from needs of the theater into nuclear bombers and nuclear bomber interceptors for Europe, all of them unusable in Korean combat. By 1960 the Air Force had shrunk the active tactical fighters down to about 1,000. Yet, in the same 1950 to 1960 period, the bomber generals found plenty of money to build 3,000 extremely expensive nuclear jet bombers and all-weather interceptors.

By the time the Vietnam War heated up in 1964, the Air Force had not a single tactical fighter in production. Scraping together their on-hand “fighters”, the Air Force deployed 270 aging, nuclear-wired F-100C/Ds and 110 sluggish F-105 single engine nuclear bombers. Both proved highly vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and MiGs; 243 F-100s and 397 F-105s were lost.

Soon the Air Force was forced by Secretary McNamara to start replacing their rapidly attriting combat fleet with the only alternative in active production, the Navy’s F-4 nuclear-bomber interceptor. Hastily converted to the bomber role, the F-4 fleet eventually grew to 285 aircraft in-theater and suffered almost equally high loss rates: 445 were lost by the war’s end.

Six years of bombing North Vietnam with fighter-bombers–with losses exceeding a thousand aircraft–failed to bring the enemy to the negotiating table and failed to prevent the North from supplying the war in the South. A last-gasp effort by the heavy bomber advocates sent 724 B-52 sorties to pound Hanoi; 15 were promptly lost (nine times the fighter loss rate) with no bending of the enemy’s will.

In contrast, the Air Force provided a token close support effort in the South (only about 100 sorties per day in 1965), assigned through an astonishingly cumbersome control system and using mostly unsuitable high speed jets. Slow response (circa 40 minutes average); inadequate loiter time and poor accuracy led to unimpressive results. In addition, “friendly fire” complaints from the troops were a common problem.

The only close support standouts were the 55 prop-driven A-1s (forced on the Air Force by Secretary McNamara). The army troops were uniformly grateful for the A-1’s 4 to 5 hour loiter time, the pinpoint accuracy and lethality of its 20mm cannons, and the 5 to 10 gun attacks available on each sortie. Accuracy was better than 20 feet. Friendly fire tragedies were almost unheard of. The A-1s even had remarkable success in night close support. Strafing under the illumination of simple flares, they saved scores of remote Special Forces camps about to be overrun under cover of darkness by massive Viet Cong assaults.

Soon after the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force received an unasked-for bonanza: sizable production runs of three new fighters, all designed in the late ’60s over the strong opposition of the mainstream Air Force: the 40,000 pound air-to-air F-15 instead of the 80,000 pound swing-wing fighter bomber the Air Force really wanted; the 20,000 pound super-agile air-to-air F-16 which the bomber generals promptly saddled with a bombing mission and 3 tons of added weight; and the devastatingly effective and survivable close support A-10, a plane the Air Force’s bomber advocates tried to scuttle every year that it was in production.

Thirty years later, these three unwanted aircraft now constitute 90% of the combat force –and completely dominate the Air Force’s air-to-air and air-to-ground effectiveness.

For the 1991 Gulf War, Air Force planners devised and launched yet another Douhet-style 39-day bombardment campaign to precede the ground assault, predicting that the enemy was likely to surrender in six days. The bombing of Baghdad, centerpiece of the strategic bombing campaign, ended precipitously on the 20th day with a typical targeting blunder: 2 F-117s bombed an abandoned command bunker that had been converted into a civilian bomb shelter, killing 300 women and children–the world witnessed the gore and mayhem on the evening news.

Militarily, the 20 days of Baghdad bombing had little effect on the Iraqi army in Kuwait. Likewise, the cancellation of the bombing made no noticeable difference. The real stars of the air war–132 A-10s and 12 forward controller OA-10s–were brought into the war only because General Schwarzkopf overrode the strong objections of the Air Force’s planners. Twelve days into the war, two A-10s and an AC-130 destroyed the spearhead of a large Iraqi armored task force invading Saudi Arabia to capture the town of Khafji. Each A-10 had enough 30 mm rounds onboard for 20 attack passes and put them to good use. Over the next two days, hundreds of A-10 sorties per day (plus other aircraft) mauled the remainder of the Iraqi force. The Iraqi Army never again ventured from its defensive positions.

A few days later, deep in the Western Desert, two A-10s, called in by a ground forward controller, annihilated 20 Scud missile launchers preparing to bombard Israel. Overall, the 132 A-10s flew the highest sortie rate in the theater and, based on fleet-wide pilot claims, accounted for more tactical targets destroyed than the Coalition’s entire remaining force of 2000 high speed fighters and bombers.

The Air Force’s air commander, Lt. Gen. Horner, an opponent of deploying A-10s, summed it up: “I take back all the bad things I’ve said about the A-10s. I love them. They are saving our asses.”

To reward this outstanding achievement, the Air Force mothballed half the A-10 fleet within a year. That ostensible cost saving measure coincided with the Air Force’s generous funding of the huge cost overruns being incurred by the B-1, the B-2 and the hyper-inflating F-22.

In Kosovo, the USAF provided about 340 out of a NATO total of 720 combat aircraft intended to bomb President Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs into submission within two days. After 78 days, the strategic bombardment ended, not because the Serbs capitulated to the bombing, but because the Russians intervened and NATO offered terms better than the ones Serbia had proposed (and we had rejected) before the bombing started. Under Air Force leadership, the NATO bombers attacked the same old “strategic” targets: bridges, factories, power plants, telecommunications, missile batteries, so-called high value targets, etc.

Many targeting blunders (including bombing the Chinese embassy) and 38,000 sorties later, Serbian officials on the ground found that, despite Air Force claims of crippling damage, we had shut down only 3 out of 80 missile batteries, destroyed 14 armored vehicles (against claims of 120 tanks), and inflicted 387 military casualties (versus 5,000 to 10,000 claimed.)

In summary, over the last 60 years of combat, our Air Force has, at higher and higher cost, demonstrated less and less effect on the outcome of each succeeding war. The root causes are equally clear: first, the blind insistence on procuring and planning for little besides the failed strategic bombardment mission; and second, the ingrained development incentives that reward increasing unit cost and complexity without regard to the effect on actual combat effectiveness and force size. If the new Administration follows the “business as usual” pattern, the sequence of events and outcomes is easy to project.

First, the Secretary of Defense will be presented with the usual, impossibly expensive Air Force “wish list.” Today’s wish list amounts to 3,000 planes and $1 trillion in R&D plus procurement over the next 20 years, according to our detailed cost calculations. The Secretary will then haggle this down, with plenty of under-the-table pork-motivated advice from the Congress, to roughly current spending levels, about $12 billion per year.

This will pay for no more than about 50 aircraft a year (or, over the next 20 years, $.25 trillion and about 1,000 new planes.) So “business as usual” leads us, 20 years hence, to a force of about half the size of today’s 4,000 aircraft and 5 to 10 years older than today’s average 20 year age, a force that leaves America with no air option other than bombing the enemy’s heartland and civilians.

Our nation’s defenses–not to mention the lives of those who defend us—urgently depend on a fresh approach. A good start would be to replace the Air Force’s wish list with an effectiveness-based set of austerely-designed and affordable aircraft tailored to missions that actually win wars–for example, the following set of four designs:

* A new close support aircraft smaller, more survivable, and more lethal than the A-10, one that is affordable in vastly larger numbers. (The Air Force plans to use small numbers of the unmaneuverable, highly vulnerable and ineffective F-35, at $150 million each, for this mission.)

* A forward controller spotter plane dramatically more survivable, longer-loitering and far lower cost in than a helicopter, able to land next to the tents of the supported troops. (The Air Force suffers from the delusion that close support can be called in using drones, satellites, and other “high tech” sensors, contrary to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

* A small, affordable dirt strip airlifter to meet the real emergency needs of beleaguered battalions in the boonies. (The Air Force always short-changes this in-the-mud prop mission in favor of large jet transports.)

* A super-maneuverable new air-to-air dogfighter with all–passive electronics, far smaller with far higher maneuvering performance than the best of the F-16s and thus able to outfight the F-22 or any other advanced fighter in the world. (Emitting no radio/radar signals whatsoever, this new fighter will obsolete the F-22’s electronics, defeat any enemy fighter’s passive warning/identification-friend-or-foe system, and render useless the enemy’s radar-homing missiles which rely on seeking our fighter radars.)

These four aircraft are eminently practical designs, each based on existing engines and requiring no technological breakthroughs. We have done the necessary conceptual design work to establish the size, performance and cost of each–and we have priced out the effectiveness-based program that acquires all four of these planes.

This effectiveness-based program delivers, not 2,000 antiquated, bombing-oriented relics, but a balanced force of 10,000 all-new fighters, airlifters, tankers, close support and forward controller aircraft—all within the current spending levels of $.25 trillion over 20 years. Such a force could actually deliver–right at the outset of any future conflict–devastating close support for the troops, guaranteed by crushing air superiority. And that would be a first in US air history.

The authors:

Col. Robert Dilger (USAF, ret.), an F-4 fighter tactician in Vietnam (187 missions) and then chief air-to-air instructor at the Fighter Weapons School, became A-10 Armament Director in charge of the 30mm cannon, the massive 30mm ammo war reserve production program (reducing its costs by a factor of 8), and the pioneering live fire effectiveness tests of the 30mm against loaded Soviet tanks in formation.

Pierre Sprey, an OSD weapons analyst and engineer, together with Cols. John Boyd and Everest Riccioni, started and then brought the F-16 to fruition by dint of five years of bureaucratic guerilla warfare. He also led the technical side of the A-10’s conceptual design team and, as part of the Fighter Mafia, helped implement the program in spite of implacable AF opposition.