Something amazing in the history of modern warfare happened in the fall of 2001, which made possible the rapid and (for us) nearly bloodless overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
If the leaders of the Air Force and our political leaders had grasped the significance of what had occurred, we might not now be facing the loss of the massive air superiority we have enjoyed in every conflict since the early days of the Korean War (1950-53).
I noted in an earlier column that our warplanes are aging badly; that a "fighter gap" is emerging, and that the chief of staff said the Air Force is willing to settle for "simple sufficiency in areas where it's been accustomed to dominance."
The primary reason for the fighter gap is that modern fighters -- the F-22 and F-35 -- cost an awful lot more than the F-15s, F-16s and A-10s they're supposed to replace, and neither Congress nor the president have been willing to spend the money required to keep the fighter force from shrinking substantially.
I also hinted in that column the solution to the fighter gap might not be a fighter at all. That's because I learned the lesson of the fall of the Taliban.
That lesson is that bombers, armed with precision guided weapons and assisted in targeting by Special Forces teams, were able to provide accurate, timely, close air support to friendly forces on the ground, a truly revolutionary development.
In fact, the bombers -- chiefly B-52s -- had two advantages over the fighters the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps customarily use for close air support.
The first was loiter time. Because of their greater fuel capacity, bombers could stay in the vicinity where ground forces might need them much longer than the typical fighter-bomber could.
The second is that because of their greater size, bombers could carry a larger number and a greater variety of ground attack weapons than a fighter could.
In Afghanistan bombers had a third and decisive advantage. They could get to the battlefield, whereas the Air Force had no fighter bases within range.
Afghanistan was a "benign" environment. Our bombers could remain high in the sky, knowing full well the Taliban had no weapons that could reach them. This wouldn't be so if we had to fight China or Russia, or even Iran -- if Russia delivers to Iran the S-300 surface to air missiles it's promised to sell them. By 2020, the only bomber we have that is likely to be able to penetrate their defenses is the B-2 Spirit, of which we have exactly 20.
But this is true also of every fighter we currently have except the F-22 Raptor. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will have stealth properties, too, but it's still in development, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cut back substantially on the planned F-35 buy because of production problems and soaring costs.
There are some ground attack missions for which only a nimble fighter like the F-22 will do. But -- thanks to precision guided standoff munitions -- for most, a bomber is superior.
Bombers cost a lot more to build than fighters do. In 1997, the flyaway unit cost of the B-2 was $1.16 billion, compared to a projected flyaway unit cost of $149 million for the F-35. But bombers need much less tanker support than fighters do, and little need for overseas bases.
A handful of bombers can attack the same number of targets as a squadron of fighter-bombers. Since personnel costs are the largest and fastest growing of defense costs, this means bombers can deliver substantially more bang for the buck.
Bombers have operational advantages, too. Because they can be based chiefly in the United States, they're easier to protect when they're on the ground. And, as we saw in Afghanistan, bombers can respond quickly to crises emerging in far corners of the world that fighter bombers cannot until overseas bases are established for them.
The mainstay of our bomber force is the B-52. We have 94 in service, despite the fact the B-52 began its service in 1952. The longevity of the B-52 is a testament to the viability of bombers, but it's past time for a replacement.
Actually, two replacements. We need an upgrade to the B-2 which can penetrate sophisticated air defenses, and a much less expensive subsonic bomber which can be used in benign environments like Afghanistan, or after holes have been blown in the enemy's air defenses.
If we were to build new bombers, we'd need far fewer F-35s. But fighters look snazzy and are fun to fly, and the Air Force is run by fighter pilots.