There was some irony in the House Appropriations Committee's canceling production funding last week for the Air Force's next generation fighter -- the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor. The action came only weeks after America's military forces proved -- for the third time since 1990 -- that exploiting dominant aerospace power is the irreplaceable keystone of our post-Cold War strategy for successful quick-response crisis intervention.
No issue has been more misunderstood than the F-22. The plane links radar-evading stealth with the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds and to exploit and display data from various sources to better inform the pilot about threats and opportunities.
Critics charge that it is unnecessary. They see it as a relic of Cold War thinking, a plane that is too expensive and too complex for the kind of foes America is likely to fight. Instead, they argue, American pilots should make do with a modified airplane still on the drawing boards (the proposed Joint Strike Fighter, intended primarily for ground attack), or upgrade the existing F-15 and F-16, both already more than 25 years old.
Right now a range of advanced fighter designs are flying around the world -- for example, the newer Sukhoi Flankers, the Eurofighter, the Gripen and the Rafale -- that already fly as well or better than the finest contemporary American fighter, the non-stealthy F-15. Complementing these are a slew of advanced surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles that further erode the traditional qualitative advantage the United States has enjoyed over potential foes.
Control of the air is at the heart of the F-22 debate. It reflects a difference between those who believe mere air superiority is sufficient and those who believe one must have air supremacy, even air dominance. The differences are not unimportant. Mere superiority keeps one in the fight but rarely guarantees victory. One who recognized this was Dwight Eisenhower; in 1944, while scanning the vast supplies and troops stretched across the beaches of Normandy, he told his son, "If I didn't have air supremacy, I wouldn't be here."
Over Korea, American fighter pilots shot down 10 MiGs for every friendly plane lost, and so dominated the air war that U.N. ground forces conducted their operations with essentially no fear of enemy air attacks. But after Korea we took air supremacy for granted, and Vietnam showed the sorry results. Over North Vietnam, American airmen barely had air superiority, with a scant 2 to 1 victory-loss ratio. Shocked, America rebuilt its air strength across all the services to reflect the need to dominate, not merely survive. Today the F-22 is intended to ensure that same kind of dominance into the new millennium.
Many of the same arguments made against the F-22 were made in the 1970s against the F-14, F-15, F-16 and F-18: They were too advanced, too complex, too costly, etc. The wisdom of producing them has since been proven repeatedly over the Middle East and the Balkans.
Seeking air superiority should never be what we choose to live with. Rather, air supremacy should be the minimum we seek, and air dominance our desired goal. Control of the air is fragile and can be lost from a variety of causes, including poor doctrine and tactics, deficient training, poor strategy and rules of engagement. But worst of all, it can be lost through poor aircraft.
It takes more than a decade to develop a fighter, and it is imperative we make the right choice. The hallmarks of a dominant fighter are the ability to evade and minimize detection (stealth), transit threat areas quickly (supercruise) and exploit information warfare (sensor fusion) to react more quickly than one's foes. Only one aircraft contemplated for service today can do that: the F-22.
Critics of the F-22 make much of its cost, but that cost -- rigorously managed and within the historical trends of fighter aircraft development -- buys capabilities that ensure the survival of those who have volunteered to put themselves at risk in their nation's service. The F-22 offers the potential for intimidating opponents so that they do not choose to test our resolve in war.
Failure to procure the F-22 would mark the first time since the Second World War that the United States has consciously chosen to send its soldiers, sailors and airmen into harm's way while knowingly conceding the lead in modern fighter development to a variety of foreign nations that may sell their products on the world's arms market. America needs the F-22, and needs it now.
The writer is the Air Force historian.