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End of the Airpower Age?

September 21, 2009

You might have read this by Greg Grant at DoDBuzz-U.S. Air Dominance Eroding:

The U.S. military’s historic dominance of the skies, unchallenged since around spring 1943, is increasingly at risk because of the proliferation of advanced technologies and a buildup of potential adversary arsenals, according to Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula…Emphasizing the increasing capabilities of “anti-access weapons,” such as long range precision missiles, Deptula said pilots in future wars will not operate in the “permissive” threat environments of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…

Without functioning ground bases, aircraft cannot operate; the Air Force is investing heavily in shorter ranged tactical aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, along with a host of older F-15 and F-16. Overseas bases from which these aircraft operate are now threatened by increasingly accurate ballistic missiles in Chinese, Russian, Iranian and North Korean arsenals, Deptula said…Enemies will use cyber attacks to target U.S. command and control networks and satellite relays, the smooth functioning of which the military is now completely dependant.

Part of this problem stems from building planes which take decades to place into service, while technical progress waits for no one. It is also a natural development, as the guided missile, since World War 2 in contention with manned air, is finally gaining ground thanks mainly to the micro-chip. The very need for incredibly expensive stealth to make planes invisible to SAM radar was a hint to us that the military airpower, which commanded so much awe and fear, and was the foundation of American world power like the Navy was for Great Britain, finally had met its match. Back in 2006, yours truly warned of this in an editorial titled “The Decline and Fall of Airpower“:

Modern air strategists look on America’s fleet of stealth fighters and bombers, like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as the future of aerial combat. In fact, because of excessive costs in the hundreds of millions for each plane, as well as decade’s long development periods, it is likely this generation is the last of America’s long infatuation with manned combat aircraft.

The achievements of airpower have often astounded its critics, as well as disenchanted its advocates…As modern planes increase in cost and complexity, so have their numbers dwindled considerably…Very soon, the control of airpower may return to the ground forces, where it was born. Unmanned planes will perform close air support in the land battle as well as long-range strike and its traditional role of aerial surveillance. The new planes will be easier to design and build, plus much cheaper for mass production, at least until future airpower generals decide they need UAVs which are bigger, faster, and ever more costly.

It could be that the UAVs are as vulnerable if not more so than the manned fighter bomber. If so, they will still be vital in low threat, COIN conflicts we most often fight, and also for long range patrol over the oceans, where there is less of a missile threat. This will happen not because they are better than traditional aircraft, just cheaper, easier to build, and practical. They will even be joined by older types such as helicopters and troops transports of which there are no robot substitutes as of yet. Proof that manned air won’t be completely dead.

But the real power will belong to the SAMs, which will displace the air defense fighter, and mobile missiles performing air superiority roles. The IRBMs, and ICBMs have already displaced the manned bomber in strategic missions, and now with precision warheads will take over the tactic role that we currently use the world’s most expensive planes like the B-1 and B-2s for. Way back in 2004 we penned this:

The age of sleek jet fighters is at an end, even as they reach their peak of performance. Nations now prefer to hide behind massive batteries of surface to air missiles, which too are coming of age. If a US patriot missile can destroy the ejected warheads of elusive battlefield missiles, what chance will a heavy jet fighter have? American and British warplanes are now utilized almost exclusively as “carriers” for guided missiles, bombs, and in the future, UAV’s. Already AWACS planes control the air war as mobile airborne command posts. How easy it will be to replace the bombers and jet fighters in a future war with cruise missiles and UAV’s armed with guided munitions.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe K. permalink
    September 23, 2009 9:11 am

    I sense a bunch of people here willing to throw morality to the curb.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 23, 2009 6:32 am

    Des-Well said! They are ways of getting around “total air superiorty”.

  3. DesScorp permalink
    September 22, 2009 10:28 pm

    I think in a way that we are at the end of the “airpower age”. Not because airpower will be less valuable, but because the proliferation of new technologies will simply hammer home an idea that some have known for many years: airpower, while extremely important, has been overhyped, and has its limits.

  4. September 22, 2009 3:51 pm

    Love this post….very well argued. I’m a little scared of an over reliance on technology as implied by the future of UAVs, but at least they’re still small, relatively simple, and cheap. I wonder why the USAF doesn’t parcel a smidget of their budget to build more A-10s? They could get a heck of a lot of them for that smidget, make industry happy with more orders, and make congress happy with more jobs. They’re very useful for COIN, or other “low” conflicts. The FIST team gives the A-10 a Gold Star.

  5. Joe permalink
    September 22, 2009 1:28 pm

    I may not be a Lt. General, but from the quoted portion: “Enemies will use cyber attacks to target U.S. command and control networks and satellite relays, the smooth functioning of which the military is now completely dependant.”

    Isn’t that pretty much a duh-huh moment? Aren’t most advanced militaries dependent upon the smooth functioning of…? And don’t most enemies eventually attempt to adapt to your “game” if they have the resources/ability to do so? It’s the nature of the “game” we play, I would think you could say.

    And, from the link, the Lt. General says, “Russia and China are both developing “fifth generation” fighters that will be widely exported at prices that will undercut the F-35 price tag. Both nations will thus acquire “near F-22 performance… while attempting to proliferate the [aircraft] to perhaps near F-35 like quantities,” he said. “We may be facing a fighter threat capability in quantities we’ve never experienced before.”

    Regardless if anyone here accepts the veracity of that, if the Lt. General truly believes it, isn’t he therefore scarily stating that the U.S. should produce and acquire more F-22 Raptors?

    And finally, when the Lt. General states, “…pilots in future wars will not operate in the “permissive” threat environments of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…”

    Then what will we need to meet that non-permissive threat environment head-on? His words argue against the UCAV as a frontline tool of war but do not detract one iota against it as a major asset to use one air control has been established. Will the F-35 (designed to be the ‘low’ in the hi-low mix with the F-22 and eventually set up to be our sole air frame) be flexible enough to fulfill all of the roles you can envision in a dynamic future air war?

    I say it’s not too late to add in upgraded variants of airframes we know and love, and whose costs can be predicted with some accuracy. Stealth is one tool in the chest, but should it be the only one we focus on?

  6. Mrs. Davis permalink
    September 22, 2009 8:52 am

    I’d wait till the end of the next war to declare airpower descenent. UAVs are yet to demonstrate their capability.

  7. Joe K. permalink
    September 21, 2009 9:32 pm

    Um, yeah, bunch of stuff in there I can’t really accept (at least not the way they present it).

    As far as I’ve known, isn’t the use of long-range ballistic missiles a sort of “last resort” option? How could you have two nations with building tensions and nothing between heated negotiations and the press of the launch button? At least with aircraft they can be ordered both to fly towards an enemy nation and they can be called back without delivering their payloads. And with the time it takes for planes to make it to their attack points, there would still be time to recall them whereas that time would be much shorter with missiles.

    And how could a network of mobile SAM batteries really replace air defense fighter craft? That more-or-less sounds like in order to provide an effective and adequate shield of protection you’d have to station those batteries very close to major cities and close enough to provide large-scale defense. And seeing as how there are countermeasures against SAMs used on aircraft I would imagine missile technology would have to get to the level of 100% foolproof to be able to kick out the fighter for air defense.

    If a country really had such an effective SAM screen how practical would using even UAVs as attacking aircraft be anyways?

  8. September 21, 2009 9:32 pm

    An excellent post on a topic that deserves more scrutiny.

    For everyone’s info, Fabius Maximus also looks at this issue in his latest post. His post is at

    I also commented on the DoD article last week in my blog. If anyone is interested my comments can be found at

  9. elgatoso permalink
    September 21, 2009 8:59 pm

    the real power will belong to the directed energy weapons.(THEL,ABL,etc or their successors)


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