The Air Force tries to save a fighter plane that's never seen combat.

Military analysis.
Feb. 24 2009 7:11 PM

Aerial Combat

The Air Force tries to save a fighter plane that's never seen battle.

(Continued from Page 2)

The Air Force has, in fact, resisted putting AESA radar into very many F-15s, for fear that it might weaken the case for the F-22.

More to the point, quite a few F-22s have been built since those games—187 have been funded. Precisely what are the scenarios that justify building more? This is the question that the Air Force has not answered, at least not publicly.

Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, has a very interesting article in the March 2009 issue of the Atlantic, making the case for buying more F-22s. It's the most sophisticated argument I've read, but even he evades the main issues. He ignores the F-15's AESA radar. He says nothing about the F-35, a lower-cost stealth fighter about to enter production. (It has problems, too, but if someone thinks more stealth planes are needed, the F-35 has about 75 percent of the F-22's capabilities for about half the price.) Finally, in response to one blogger's critique of his article, Bowden admits that, even in a war against a more sophisticated foe, we would still establish aerial dominance "with the current fleet of F-15s backed by a few F-22s"—187 F-22s are "a few"?—but that "we will likely lose more planes and pilots" while doing so. He adds, "While this is academic for you and I, it is not for the men and women in the cockpits of those planes."

Let's examine that last bit of logic (ignoring for a moment the surprising fact that Bowden doesn't know basic grammar). He's saying that if some country develops a large, sophisticated, well-trained air force; and if we go to war with that country; and if air-to-air combat becomes an integral element of that war; then without more F-22s, we'll probably still attain air supremacy but at a cost of more casualties among pilots.

Each of those three ifs is pretty unlikely; multiply them by one another, and the probabilities are remote in the extreme. With all due respect to those pilots (and they deserve a great deal), is the tiny probability of their deaths, in some hypothetical future air duels, worth the tens of billions of dollars it will cost to buy more F-22s now? And in a world of limited resources, is it worth more to spend the money on that contingency than on any number of tangible needs and desires, military or otherwise?


Those are the pertinent questions. The answers seem fairly obvious.

Correction, March 5, 2009: Originally, the piece said Schwartz was the first chief who hasn't been a fighter pilot. Until the mid-1960s, many were bomber pilots. The point is, he's the first Air Force chief whose career doesn't reflect the service's dominant ethos. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article erroneously stated that only two F-117s flew into Iraq on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War; the F-117 was used heavily throughout the 30-day air attacks. (Two F-117s were used the first night of the Panama invasion, a year earlier.) The article also originally stated that an F-117 was shot down in daylight during the Bosnia war; in fact, it was flying at night in the Kosovo war. ( Return to the corrected paragraph.)