Is American Air Power on the Verge of Collapse?
The Australian think-tank, Air Power Australia (APA), has released another in their series of techno-strategy papers, this time analysing the advancements in Russian-built Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) (http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-02.html), and what it means in global strategic terms for the Americans. The APA report is direct and unequivocal – Russian radar and missiles have improved to the point where the US fleet of F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s, as well as the planned Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), are not capable of surviving against these systems and unless the Americans build another four hundred-plus F-22s, they will lose the strategic advantage they have held since the end of the Cold War.
The result will be nations such as China, Iran and Venezuela thumbing their noses at the Americans, knowing that no President will commit to using force in the knowledge that hundreds of jets and pilots would be lost.
The paper comes a month after APA savaged the JSF (http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2009-01.html). APA’s Dr. Carlo Kopp, who completed his PhD in radar engineering, simulated the radar signature of the F-35 and showed exactly how vulnerable it will be to the Russian radar systems and missiles that have emerged since the specification for the JSF was drafted over a decade ago. Lockheed-Martin has not publicly disputed Kopp’s findings yet.
The APA IADS study confirms, in tedious detail, what many of us have suspected or known for some time and what U.S. Air Force generals said repeatedly before being forcefully muzzled by the Bush Administration. That is the simple fact that the globalised economy has given Russian radar and missile designers the technology to close the gap with the US and EU designers in most areas which matter. The Russians have used this technology to digitize many Cold War missile and radar designs, and vastly improve post-Cold War designs. The new S-400 has no equivalent in the West, having outstripped and outgrown the Patriot.
The Russians obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how the Americans busted the Iraqi IADS in 1991 and the Serbian IADS in 1999. Like chess players, they looked at what the Americans used, where they were going, and figured out how to checkmate the mighty US Air Force.
Russian industry is now building and marketing short-range missile systems specifically built to shoot down American HARM anti-radar missiles and cruise missiles. They are also putting electronic countermeasures and decoys on their radars to prevent missiles and smart bombs from hitting them. Further, the Russians are currently testing a 400 km range missile, the 40N6, so they can shoot down or drive off American jamming aircraft like the Prowler, Growler and Compass Call. These same missiles can be used to keep the Rivet Joint and AWACS electronic reconnaissance systems out of useful range.
In strategic terms, the Americans are now in real trouble. China is fielding around 500 Russian Flankers and the latest Russian IADS. Iran is fielding the SA-20, and already has the SA-5, upgraded Chinese SA-2s and, some people claim, the HQ-9s – cloned SA-20s. Further, the US aerial tanker fleet is 40-years-old, and the fighter fleet was mostly built twenty-five years ago – many of the F-15s are now older than the pilots flying them. Iraq and Afghanistan have bankrupted the U.S. defence budget and now Wall Street has bankrupted the U.S. economy.
The only modern and credible fighter the Americans have is the F-22, and it is the only way they can recapitalise their collapsing fighter fleet in the next decade, with an aircraft which can actually survive the first day of an air war. The F-35 is not an F-22 and can never become an F-22. The F-35 is, first and foremost, an export fighter program.
We should not mislead ourselves about the seriousness of this matter. Leading American analyst Dr. Richard Hallion, in a recent interview commented: “Today, if NATO wanted to establish an air exclusion zone over Georgia, it could not do so with any aircraft other than the 5th Generation F-22 Raptor...”.
Who is most to blame for American air power now teetering on the edge of collapse?
Clearly it has been the Bush Administration, who considered the EU fighter industry a more important enemy to kill than exported Russian Sukhoi fighters and Almaz SAM systems. Rather than sticking with the conservative US Air Force plan for 700+ F-22s, they chopped the number down to 180 aircraft. Why? To force every American service and every American ally to buy into the F-35 monopoly.
Where does this leave us Europeans? We have, since the start of the Cold War, depended on the Americans to provide the fighter top cover, the SAM suppression and the standoff radar jamming none of us were prepared to fund. We, much like the Americans, overindulged in the peace dividend and downsized several times over.
The mighty collective NATO air forces are now a pale shadow of what they were in 1989.
If the Obama Administration decides to follow the Bush Administration policy to terminate F-22 production, the strategic consequences will be just as grave for America’s NATO allies as they will be for America.