Jewish World Review July 7, 2004 / 18 Tamuz, 5764

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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American defense technology slipping? | In a joint exercise in February, U.S. Air Force pilots flying our current top of the line fighter, the F-15C, got their lunches eaten by Indian air force pilots flying new, and not so new, Russian jets.

The Air Force won't disclose exactly how the mock engagements came out, but Gen. Hal Hornburg, head of Air Combat Command, said after the exercise: "We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we once thought we were."

Part of the reason for the strong Indian performance could be superior training, the Air Force acknowledged. But the main reason, they said, is that the F-15C, first fielded in 1979, is showing its age.

"We've taken the F-15 about as far as we can, and now it is time to move on to the next generation," said Col. Mike Snodgrass, commander of the USAF fighters that took part in exercise Cope India.

The next generation is the F-22 Raptor, which will complete testing this year. The Air Force has a "minimum requirement" for 381 F-22s, at an estimated cost of $72 billion. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plan to spend $200 billion on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which won't be fielded before 2007.

It's critics acknowledge that the F-22 is far and away the finest aircraft of its type ever built. But one thing that happened in the war in Afghanistan, and one thing that didn't have some military experts doubting the Air Force needs the F-22 and the F-35 in anything approaching the quantities it is seeking.

What happened is that thanks to the phenomenal accuracy of satellite-guided bombs, the venerable B-52 bomber could provide close air support to ground troops from high in the sky. Bombers are now superior to fighters in providing close air support, because they can carry a larger amount and a greater variety of ordnance, and can stay on station longer.

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What didn't happen was Air Force fighters playing more than a token role in the Afghan war. There were no air bases close enough to Afghanistan from which they could operate.

The difficulty in obtaining foreign basing rights, and an aging tanker fleet mean there are many possible contingencies in which Air Force fighters could not make a timely response, said retired Air Force Col. John Warden, who planned the air campaign in the first Gulf War.

In addition, Warden said, overseas air bases have to be protected from terrorist attacks, and are lucrative targets for surface to surface missiles.

"It's not clear that there are countries out there salivating to take on the U.S. Air Force in air-to-air combat," said retired Army Col. Andrew Krepinovich, who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. "If we were to face a more conventional enemy, what would make sense for them is to invest in missile forces. That's what you see countries like North Korea and Iran doing."

The F-22 was born crippled, thanks to the extraordinary length of time it takes to get new weapons from the drawing board to the field, Warden said. "I got a briefing on the F-22 prototype when I was at Bitburg (AFB in Germany) in 1986," Warden said. I told (the contractors) that it sounded like a swell airplane, but they shouldn't base it here, because Bitburg wouldn't be open long once a war (with the Soviet Union) started. They should base it in England."

"They said they couldn't, because one of the specifications for the F-22 was that it fit into a NATO-generation shelter. And if it were small enough to fit into a NATO shelter, it wouldn't have enough range to strike targets in Eastern Europe if it were based in England."

The Air Force should restrict the F-22 buy to about 100 aircraft, cancel its version of the F-35, and challenge the aerospace industry to develop, in five years or so, a hypersonic bomber that could strike targets anywhere in the world from bases in the U.S.

"Why go out and buy an airplane that is significantly behind the technology that's available?" Warden asked. "Nobody has challenged the aerospace industry for a long time."

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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