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Vanishing American Air Superiority

Vanishing American Air Superiority

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Published by Abhijeet

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Abhijeet on Mar 04, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The debate over the F-22 Raptor has been carried out at the customary level of simplemindedness we've become used to when Congress handles military questions.Since the early '60s, the favored method of killing a military program has been to comeup with an argument easily expressed in a sound bite and stick with it. This time, thesound bite was, "Why do we need two fighter planes, anyway?"The answer is even simpler: We need two fighters because need two fighters. Thehistorical record clearly reveals this: Every air campaign carried out with two distinct and particularly formulated fighter designs has been a success, and every attempt to dootherwise has resulted in disaster.U.S. Air Force doctrine on fighter procurement is known as the high/low mix. The "high"component consists of a dedicated air-superiority fighter, utilizing the latest aeronauticaltechnology, fitted with state-of the-art electronics, and carrying the most advanced air-to-air weapons. These aircraft have one mission -- to kill enemy airplanes. This is the paramount goal of a fighter force. Without it, nothing else can be accomplished. That being the case, the high-end fighter is the more expensive and complex part of the mix.They are rare assets, to be utilized accordingly.The "low" end is encompassed by the swing-role fighter, more commonly known as thefighter-bomber. Though designed and built with slightly less technical sophistication thanthe air-superiority models, these aircraft fill a much wider role. They carry outinterdiction missions using bombs and rockets, provide ground-support for troops, and atthe same time can acquit themselves adequately in the air-to-air role if enemy fightersshow up. As such, they can supplement and reinforce the air-superiority aircraft if massive air battles develop. The swing-role fighter is cheaper and more easily andquickly constructed than its haughtier brother, so there tend to be larger numbers of them.The high-low mix was pioneered during WWII. Both the British and the U.S. stumbledonto the concept without quite realizing what they were doing. In the years before thewar's outbreak, the British embarked on a crash program to build eight-gun fighters for the defense of the home islands. The premier model was theSupermarine Spitfire, one of the legendary combat aircraft of the 20
century. But the Spitfire was supplemented bythe lesser-known but still capable Hawker Hurricane. The Hurricane could take on the  primary German fighter, theMesserschmidt Bf -109, only with difficulty, so an ad hocstrategy developed during the Battle of Britain (August 12-September 15, 1940) in whichSpitfires attacked the fighter escorts while the Hurricanes hit the slower bombers. Thisstrategy worked well enough to force the Luftwaffe to abandon daylight raids inSeptember 1940, denying Hermann Goering the appellation of "Tamer of Britain."As the war went on and Spitfires appeared in more substantial numbers, the Hurricanetook on the fighter-bomber role. A dedicated ground-attack version, the Hurribomber,with increased bomb load and heavy wing cannon, began operating against Rommel'sAfrika Korps in 1942. Hurribombers served throughout the war North Africa, Italy, andBurma.
The U.S. backed into the high-low mix out of desperation. The frontline fighter in 1943was theRepublic P-47,an excellent aircraft with one major drawback: Its combat radius was limited to 300 miles. That meant that it could not escort bombers to Germany and back, leaving the 8
Air Force's B-17s and B-24s at the mercy of German defenses. Bysheer accident, a failing attack plane, the A-35, was mated with the British Merlin engine(the same as used by the Spitfire). The result was a magical airplane -- the P-51 Mustang,  a fighter capable of flying deep into Germany and back while at the same time agileenough to outfly most opponents.As the P-51 arrived in large numbers in the U.K. in early 1944, the P-47 was shifted tothe fighter-bomber role. Fitted with wing racks for rockets and bombs, the P-47 flewconstant escort over Allied tank spearheads as they moved across northwest Europe intothe Reich, demolishing organized armored and artillery resistance. At the same time, theJug, as the pilots called it, could more than hold its own against enemy fighters.Whenever some sorry remnant of the Luftwaffe attacked P-47 wings (as in OperationBodenplatte, the Luftwaffe's January 1, 1945 last stand), they often got the worst of it.Following the war, the high-low mix was carried on into the jet age. At the outbreak of the Korean War, a superb air-superiority aircraft, theF-86 Sabre, was entering service,while two first-generation fighter jets, the F-80 Shooting Star and the F-84 Thunderjet,covered the fighter-bomber role. As the war settled into an uneasy stalemate in 1951,USAF F-86s established a barcap (barrier combat air patrol) along the Yalu River to prevent communistMiG-15sflown variously by Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots from attacking U.N. forces. Not a single successful incursion was made bycommunist air forces during the war. In the meantime, F-80s and F-84s continuallyharassed North Korean and Chinese forces.The high-low mix proved itself in both WWII and Korea. But it was abandoned duringthe era of specialization, the 1950s. The "century series" fighters were, excepting the F-100 Super Sabre, the pioneer supersonic fighter. The model was quickly superseded bymore advanced aircraft, designed for certain specific, limited roles, with no attempt tocover either the air-superiority or fighter-bomber mission. The F-101B, the F-102, andthe F-106 were high-speed interceptors, the F-105 a "fighter-bomber" designed to dropnuclear weapons, the F-104 an indescribable and dangerous oddity.Coming into the '60s without a fighter to carry out its basic missions, the USAF wasforced to purchase theF-4 Phantom II, developed on behalf of the enemy service, theU.S. Navy. While an excellent aircraft, the F-4 was in many ways the apotheosis of thefighter-bomber, too heavy and lacking the agility to fill the air-superiority role. This wasdiscovered immediately over Vietnam, where American aircraft were hard put to matchSoviet-supplied MiGs during the early years of the war. It required a suite of improvedair-to-air weapons and a complete overhaul of tactics before U.S. air forces coulddominate the skies in their accustomed manner.Much of those novel tactics were the work of Major John Boyd,a vastly talented and wildly eccentric fighter pilot who in later years was to trigger a revolution in militarystrategy. During the mid-'60s, he was in charge of developing the USAF's new tacticalfighter. This effort followed a fiasco involving theGeneral Dynamics F-111, which might
 be called liberalism's attempt to build a combat aircraft. Though intended as a fighter, the production F-111 was a monster aircraft the size of a medium airliner, and just about asmaneuverable. Though the F-111 eventually found its role as a precision bomber, a largehole remained where the USAF's future fighter aircraft was supposed to be. Boyd's jobwas to fill that hole.At first, it appeared that Boyd would be presiding over F-111: The Sequel. GeneralDynamics sent him a proposal for a plane weighing no less than 60,000 lbs. Boyd sent it back outlining exactly what he expected: half the weight, powered by engines that hadn'teven reached the test stage yet, and with electronics and weapons systems that nobodycould quite comprehend. It was a sure formula for failure in other hands, but everything broke the Mad Major's way, with advanced engines and avionics becoming available at just the right moment. The result was the F-15 Eagle. But Boyd was not quite satisfied. He was perfectly aware of the benefits of the high-lowmix, and on his own, without permission from anyone, began development of thenecessary "low"-end aircraft. Working out the design parameters to match a series of "Energy Maneuverability" curves he had formulated (in large part from reinterpreting theaircraft as a thermodynamic system), Boyd coaxed several aircraft companies to produce prototypes to compete in a flyoff. Unusually, both prototypes were successful. One became the Navy's standard fighter, the F/A-18 Hornet. The other became theF-16 Falcon (though most pilots call it the "Viper").Together, the F-15 and F-16 stand as the most effective fighter team on record. The F-15compiled a kill ratio of 105 kills to zero losses. While the F-16's record was only half that, it more than effectively filled the swing role as the primary high-speed attack aircraft in theaters including Serbia and Iraq. Neither aircraft ever suffered a loss in air-to-air combat.It would appear that the high-low thesis is as well established as any military conceptever gets. All the same, we're in the process of dumping it in pursuit of false economy.To the battle cry of "who needs two fighters anyway!" the U.S. is dropping the high endof the equation -- theF-22 Raptor -- in the mistaken conviction that the low end -- the F- 35 Lightning II-- can cover all the bases.The F-22 is the most effective air-superiority weapon ever devised -- the sole currentoperational example of the fifth-generation fighter. With its full stealth, supersonic cruisecapability, and electronics that make the Starship
look like a birchbark canoe,it is utterly unmatched as a fighter aircraft. Its kill/loss ratio is estimated at 100 to 1 and is probably much higher.The F-35 is a good little airplane, well-fitted for the swing role. It possesses partialstealthing ("forward stealthing," which prevents an enemy from knowing it's coming), performance matching most operational fighters, and a good electronics suite. It hasseveral minor failings -- among them limited a internal weapons carriage, renderingunderwing carriage necessary (thus negating most of its stealth advantages), along withan inability to fire its air-to-air weapons at maximum speed. All the same, when matchedagainst current fighter designs, it would probably come out on top.

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