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Warfare Through a Looking Glass Pt. 2

July 17, 2008

Continuing our discussion of the Revolution in Warfare, today we turn to the Air Force. These days the USAF can’t seem to catch a break with charges of poor management concerning nuclear weapons and the leadership’s lack of interest in the “wars we are fighting now”, culminating in the firing of the top leadership by Defense Sec. Gates. The ongoing problems with replacing worn out weaponry is not only the fault of the leadership, however. What airpower in general is currently experiencing might be described as “growing pains” as much as a revolution as they continue to deal with high tech weaponry and seek a place for the new unmanned aerial vehicles which are growing in capability and importance.

The end of the Cold War was a glorious event for the world but perhaps less so for an Air Force which needed to replace a whole generation of weaponry purchased in the aftermath of Vietnam. While the world marveled via live TV during the 1991 Gulf War at the power of precision weapons and America’s new generation of warplanes, like the F-15, F-16, F-14, plus the AV-8 Harrier jump jet, few realized that these wonder planes were already nearing the end of their life-span. The F-15 Eagle first flew in 1972 and was nearly 2 decades old by Operation Desert Storm, as was the Navy’s premier interceptor, the marvelous F-14 Tomcat. The excellent F-16 Falcon conducted its first 90 minute takeoff in 1974 and the advanced Harrier jump jet had been under development since the 1960s.

What the end of the standoff with the Soviets gave us was a decade long “procurement holiday” in the 1990s, with few new aircraft designed or bought. Purchases of the Eagle replacement, the advanced F-22 Raptor was put off into the next century while the older warhorses soldiered on. Who would have imagined that the same planes that dominated the skies of Iraq in 1991 would not only be still in service for the next war but basically the only warplanes available, as the Raptor was still not ready for duty!

Such an occurrence isn’t unprecedented, in which the new war is fought with the weapons of the old (to coin a phrase by Winston Churchill). At the end of the Second World War the British Royal Navy was by far the largest and most experienced fleet in the world, but it was also battle-worn and need of replacements. Its mighty Queen Elizabeth class battleships dated from 1914, while foreign navies like the US and Japan possessed newer craft that had so far seen little or no service. Due to the extremities of war, the Royal Navy had no new battleships under construction, save for 4 giant battlecruisers of the Hood class, with a now discredited lightly armored hull. Both her rivals were building new 16 inch types which were in advanced stages of construction and planning even larger versions.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 probably saved the world from another disastrous war and expensive arms race, but also deprived the war weary British from replacing outdated ships. No new battleship was constructed in Britain for 2 decades, save for the slow though powerful Nelson and Rodney. When war finally came the old Queen Elizabeth’s and less capable Revenge class were forced to perform frontline duty in all theaters through most of the war.

Returning now to airpower, following a decade with no major orders for warplanes, the USAF finds itself desperately playing catch-up in the midst of a new global struggle, the one against radical Islam. We now see the fast jets pushed to the sidelines in favor of slower close support bombers, and new unmanned aerial vehicles. The air generals, at least the ones recently fired, are still focused on traditional platforms such as fighters, bombers, and supporting tankers, all of which are in bad need of replacement except the money just isn’t there. Like it was once said of the Army in the 1970s, the US now faces the likely prospect of a “hollow Air Force”, devoid of adequate numbers of jets to fight a major war.

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