Ever since early in the Korean War (1950-53), the United States has enjoyed a massive air superiority over every enemy we've fought.
Those days may be coming to an end.
"The Air Force won't be able to do all its assigned tasks as comprehensively as it once did, and will be aiming for simple sufficiency in areas where it's been accustomed to dominance," Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a recent interview.
Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank, said, "This is akin to the head of the French air force saying in the late 1930s that he was willing to cede air superiority to the Luftwaffe."
Our military air fleet is the oldest it's ever been. Some fighter pilots as well as many bomber and tanker pilots now fly airplanes that were built before they were born.
Age is a problem in a military air fleet not just because airplanes wear out, but because older airplanes are unable to contend with modern air defenses. Only a few of the fighters and bombers we have in service today are expected to be able to penetrate the air defenses Russia and China and Iran are likely to have in the next decade or so.
Warplanes are becoming obsolescent or just falling apart at a more rapid rate than they are being replaced. Of 5,631 aircraft in service in the Air Force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard, 2,231 are fighters or fighter-bombers. The Air Force expects that number to fall to about 1,800 by 2025.
The Air Force thinks that by 2024 it will have 185 fewer fighters than it will require to meet the threats it foresees. In 2008, the Air Force estimated it would be short about 800 fighters. The difference is the Air Force's willingness to accept "moderate" risk, and Pollyanna-meets-Dr. Pangloss assumptions about the purchase of more modern aircraft.
That decline wouldn't be a big deal if older airplanes were being replaced by more capable ones. The F-22 Raptor, for instance, is the finest air-to-air fighter ever built. At Red Flag (the Air Force's air combat exercise) in 2008, the F-22 smoked every other fighter in existence, including Russia's newest, the SU30MKI.
But last year the Obama administration capped purchases of the F-22 at 187. The Air Force originally wanted 750.
The primary reason was money. The "flyaway unit cost" of the Raptor is $150.4 million.
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the controversial decision to stop production of the F-22, he said it could be mitigated by stepping up production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is supposed to replace the F-15E, the F-16 and the A-10 in the ground attack role. Variants of the F-35 are also slated to replace the F/A-18 in the Navy and Marine Corps, and the Harrier jump jet in the Marine Corps.
But the F-35, which is still in development, has run into problems, and its costs are soaring. The current estimate for the flyaway unit cost of the F-35 is $149 million, but that is certain to rise.
In December, Mr. Gates reduced to 361 from 483 the projected F-35 buy through 2015. We can afford to have fewer F-22s than the Air Force thinks we need, Mr. Gates said when he canceled the F-22, because we'll have more F-35s. But now we'll have fewer F-35s too.
Developmental problems are common in high-performance aircraft. There is nothing unusual about what the F-35 is going through. But trouble was virtually guaranteed when the Pentagon tried to build one airplane for so many disparate tasks.
In the 1960s, the worst defense secretary ever, Robert McNamara, ordered the Air Force and Navy to build a common fighter. The result was the TFX, an expensive hangar queen too heavy to fly off an aircraft carrier and too big and sluggish to be an Air Force fighter. (In its FB-111 version, however, the TFX was for many years a crackerjack nuclear bomber, which shows that even big mistakes can be put to productive use by imaginative people.)
Defense procurement needs to be reformed so we get more bang for our buck. But when it comes to defense, there is usually no substitute for more bucks. President Obama has been stingy in the one area where he shouldn't be.
The ultimate solution to the fighter gap may not be a fighter at all. But because of the limitations of space, I must address that in a future column.